In the Valley of Death: Death Valley National Park
December 24, 2011 31 Comments
When describing a desolate landscape, it’s always best to start with the names people have applied to it: Death Valley, Badwater, Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Dante’s View, Hell’s Gate, the Devil’s Golf Course. Pictures say something about the surface of the land. Names tell its story and speak to relationships between the place and the people who have lived and died in its environs.
Nothing about Death Valley is hospitable, yet it is one of my favorite places on earth. Scorching hot during the summer, cold and windy during winter, always dry, on a scale that shrinks one to nonexistence—Death Valley neither needs nor asks for an audience, yet people flock to it by the thousands every year. Yosemite and Yellowstone seem vain by comparison. Their waterfalls roar. Their fertile green meadows beckon. These parks speak the language of life. Life courses through Death Valley, too, but the desert makes no show of it. It doesn’t care to do so. Death Valley neither invites nor rejects onlookers. It is content with simply being.
At dawn the sun throws a sliver of orange light on sharp mountain ridges a hundred miles to the west. A sea of black shadows recedes, revealing still more orange ridges, each one closer than the last, so that it’s as if a tsunami of light were rushing across the landscape, pulverizing the last remnants of darkest night until it spills into a valley more than one hundred miles long. The new light settles on undulating sand dunes and blinding white salt pans that sink hundreds of feet below sea level. It’s as if God were leafing through a photo album of creation and happened to turn to the page that includes you.