In the Valley of Death: Death Valley National Park

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.

Dante's View. From here you can see mountains that are two hundred miles away.

From Aguereberry Point, almost 7,000 ft above the valley.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

From Augereberry Point

From near Aguereberry Point

Old gold mining operation.

That's my dad.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: Family of three forming a nice triangle.

Photographer at work at Dante's View.

From Dante's View. You can see about one hundred miles down the valley from here. The most distant mountains are about two hundred miles away. The valley itself is over a mile below.

From Aguereberry Point.

From Aguereberry Point.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at dawn.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at dawn.

Photographers at Zabriskie Point.

Near Zabriskie Point.

Badwater, the lowest point in North America (282 ft. below sea level).

Losing Myself in the Desert

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California. My dad, Steven, took this picture. There are two people on the dunes. Can you find them?

*I think the second half of this post is much stronger than the first half.  When I write, I usually start off pretty weak, so why not be honest about that? 🙂

I sit atop a sand dune.  I stare out at the desert and I wonder at its bleakness.  I try to understand it.  I rest my eyes for an hour on one mountain peak.  I stare at a cactus.  I leer at a clump of vegetation that has crowded around a trickling spring.  The desert confuses me.  It envelops me.  It includes me, so that even as I gaze at that mountain and that cactus and those plants around the spring, I stare into myself.  Is that what I love about the desert?  That when I look at it I look at myself?  Do I gain a heightened sense of the universe peering in at itself through my eyes, and do I see myself as the universe does, as something small, fragile, barely existent, some spark that in a moment will fizzle out?  I try to understand the desert, but before long I realize that I’ve embarked on a futile endeavor.  I can’t hold this landscape in my mind.

Death Valley, California. That's my mom.

I love the desert because I lose myself in it.  My soul, my thoughts, my selfish drives, my everything seeps out into the emptiness that surrounds me.  In an enclosed room, let’s say in a prison cell, my self would bump up against the brick walls of the prison.  It would try frantically to slip through the bars and escape into a larger space in which it may roam with greater freedom.

Death Valley--this bench no longer exists.

In a prison cell I would suffocate in my own company.  But the desert disperses me.  It turns me into an insubstantial vapor that is now here, now gone.  I disappear, and with me my pain and my sadness disappear, too.  I’m nothing, and all that remains of me is the lingering residue of a thought, a question, a sigh.

Then the moment slips away.  The desert returns me to myself.  I remember who I am and what I’m doing here.  I leave my perch atop the sand dune and I carry with me the pain, the sadness, the complex mix of emotions that churn inside all of us even in our happiest states.  But I leave with something more, a memory of the sigh, of a moment in which I was both everywhere and nowhere, and everything was all right.

——–

This was something I was going to expand on during my trip to Chile, but it’s fine as it is.  When I wrote it, I was thinking of Death Valley, where from some points you can see mountains two hundred miles in the distance.  And at night, if you park yourself at the southern end of the valley and look north, you’ll see dots of light below the horizon.  They stand still.  You know they can’t be buildings because the desert is empty.  You know they can’t be stars because they lie below the horizon and they don’t twinkle.  They don’t flicker like candles suspended in space.  They shine steadily.  After a moment you see that the dots of light are moving.  They rise and fall with the contours of the now invisible mountains that line the valley.  They sway right, they sway left, as if unsure where to go.  Every right-left motion brings them closer to the valley floor.  They sink deeper into the sea of darkness.  You hear nothing but the sound of your own breathing.  You hold your breath and you hear even that, because there is nothing else, only the mysterious dots winding their way silently through the emptiness.

You realize that the dots are headlights.  They light the way for a lone driver, maybe a family.  They may be thirty miles away from you, but since nothing stands between you and them, they’re as present as a stranger sitting across from you in a café, sipping her coffee, glancing your way in between sips.  Who is she?  Who are they?  And where is everyone going?

Funny: The first half of this post was about losing yourself in the desert.  The second half was about finding yourself, and in some strange way connecting with a distant dot of light that represents a person who will never know you saw her.  Alone, in a prison cell, I would see myself everywhere and I think that eventually it would drive me crazy.  In the desert, also alone, I would see myself nowhere; the landscape would erase me for a moment, and I would become nobody.  But again in the desert, seeing another human being thirty miles away, I would feel my individuality contrasted against the driver of the car.  I would come into focus, and so would she, and I would feel some kind of fellowship with someone I’ll never know.

Old, old car near an old, old gold mine, Death Valley.

Death Valley. My dad took this one, too.

NOT Death Valley. This is the Grand Staircase Escalante, in Utah. I'm including this picture because of the road.

Also not Death Valley. This is from the Great Sand Dunes National Park, in Colorado. Don't we all want to take our own version of that famous Ansel Adams self-portrait?

Where Memory Counts: Bound for the Deserts, Volcanoes, and Mountains of Northern Chile

I’m going to the deserts of Northern Chile.  I’m bringing with me a small backpack with some clothes, shoes, and a few books to read.  I’m going because I want to take a break from this chaotic world where anyone can access me wherever I am at any time of day, where with a click of a mouse or a tap on a touch screen, I can find out the GDP of Turkmenistan or read about the manias of Charlie Sheen.  I’m leaving this world where memory counts for less and connectivity counts for more.  Who cares to know about the ravages of World War II when you can look them up online?  Why carry around encyclopedias of knowledge in your head when you can turn to the all-knowing hive mind for whatever bit of information you may seek?

In the digital age will the younger generations lose touch with the massive effort and commitment that went into unearthing the information they google, writing the stories they read, and filming the movies they watch on their smart phones as they sit silently with their families at the dinner table?  Will the products of human ingenuity (and stupidity) in general become detached from the monumental efforts that went into forging them?

I worry that the young live in a world in which everything is a finished product, tailored to their wants and delivered to them on demand.  I worry that the connection we once had with the earth, our understanding of the relationship between labor and survival, weakens further as our creations become separated from the long and difficult processes that yielded them: the collaborations, the face-to-face conversations, the brainstorming sessions, the trial and error and repeated failures.

If the young live in a world of finished products, how will they learn to labor toward their own goals?  How will they know that the act of creation costs, draws energy, demands toil; and how will they know that such efforts, in order to be undertaken, must be compensated?  Ideas originate in the mind.  They may benefit from access to the hive, but for them to form in the first place the mind must swell with experiences and information and wisdom, and the connections that emerge from this rich inner-world.

I’m going to Northern Chile because I want to be in a place where memory counts.  The high deserts, the snow-dusted volcanoes that ring them, the Pink Flamingos that wade in shallow turquoise lagoons and stir barely a ripple, the Andes that stretch toward infinity to the north and to the south so that one might imagine that they wrap around the entire planet and hold it together like an unbreakable chain with a million colossal links —the whole scene is a window into the earth’s memory.  It contains knowledge dating back millions of years.  Stories flow out this parched landscape as from the mouth of a planetary Shakespeare.

I want to stand atop one of these mountains and listen to the earth as it tells me its story.  Speak to me, earth, of cataclysms, asteroid impacts, floods, and eruptions.  Tell me of braids of water that flowed into this desert long ago and carved out the wrinkles of its dessicated skin, revealed its many red, yellow and white hues.  Speak to me, earth, of dinosaurs, birds, and squirrel-like mammals that frolicked and died in your hands, and of societies that found sustenance in your soil and beauty in your cracked, age-worn face.

*Note: I should say that overall I think our world is better than it was not that long ago.  We’re more tolerant, etc.  I’m not all apocalyptic.  I just think we’ll have to learn to deal with the world we’re creating, and as always, that will be a challenge and we’ll never quite get it JUST right.

National Parks Cure Melancholy

I don’t have a long, polished post in me for this weekend, so instead of writing something I’m going to share some pictures of national parks.  Over time I would like to profile each park I’ve been to, but for now pictures will suffice.  Whenever I’m sad or just plain grumpy, if I think of the leaping waterfalls of Yosemite, the sublime emptiness of Death Valley, or the convoluted chasms of the Grand Canyon, usually I feel a little better.  I’ll be back next week.  Have a good weekend.

Monument Valley, Navajo Nation (not a national park, but it protects sacred beauty in the same way)

Denali National Park, Mt. McKinley, Alaska

Redwood National Park, California

Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite Falls, Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite National Park, California, looking down Tenaya Canyon from atop Half Dome (taken with a film camera in 2001)

 

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado

Arches National Park, Utah

Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Death Valley National Park, California