Roadtrip! My rallying cry for the better part of half a century, it was never so welcome as this past Monday when we completed our vaccinations and the National Parks started opening their sites. The Coronavirus had kept us home for almost a year. The world was just shutting down as we headed home from Alaska’s dog sleds and Northern Lights eleven long months ago. Now, we were anxious to get back to an open road and a new destination. Almost any destination outside the boundaries of home.
We were looking for an easy drive and safe travel, even as new, more transmissible virus strains arrived, pushing the nightly political harangues aside. Death Valley was a day’s drive and offered the prospect of some bucket list photography—desert dunes and night skies awash with stars a city-boy would never see. As it turned out, we weren’t the only ones itching to get out. Park hotels and campgrounds —opened only a few days earlier–were almost fully booked. Staff and travelers alike seemed clumsy yet, unsure of what could be done in reopening. But, despite mandated social distancing, we could sense an excitement among our fellow road trippers. Bikes, cars, vans: all had a Spring-time sense of renewal. As travelers, we were awakening from a forced hibernation, anxious to stretch in ways too long put away. The Roadtrip was back. Hooray!
The first half of the drive from Los Angeles to Death Valley is, well, boring. Until we turned off the Interstate, the landscape was empty, depressing, a pale beige openness punctuated with trailer parks and detritus left behind by those unconscious of their ugliness. But at Baker, after coffee and a bio-break at the Alien Diner (no kidding), we turned north along an old Spanish trail, now California highway 127.
One Twenty Seven is a two-lane, blue highway, lightly trafficked, at least this February. We found ourselves in no hurry. The sun was bright, allowing colors and textures of roadside mountains, dunes, and salt ponds to reveal themselves. Dark chocolate browns, burnt umber crevices, touches of red mineral coloring, warm grey clay mounds carved by the winds, white salt borders on dried ponds and stream beds. We could see the painter’s subtle brush strokes and palette knife cuts as we made our way from Baker to Shoshone.
Death Valley resembles a valley, an elongated rectangle running vaguely south by southeast between two mountain ranges, the Amorosa Rage on the east beyond which lay Las Vegas and the Great Basin Desert area, and that Palamint Range on the west, beyond which lay Sequoia National Park and California’s Central Valley. But Death Valley, in geological terms is a “graben” not a “valley” because here the low spot was not formed by a river etching its way through the earth’s crust, but rather as an area between tectonic plates where the center is slowly sinking toward the earth’s core. No rush: It has been thus for some 3 million years geologists report. The area between the mountain ranges—the valley floor—is a desert ecology, with rainfall a scant 2.5 inches per year, as the prevailing winds dump most of their moisture on the western facing slopes of the Sierra and other intervening ranges between the Pacific coastline and the Death Valley floor. Beneath the floor, however, there are aquafers and springs, yielding occasional ground water, and abundant salts and minerals in the rocks and in the water. Some of these breach the rock’s surface, giving color and character to the Valley and its rocky “sides,” the edges of the Pacific Plate and the central North American Plate. The sum of all these geological elements gives the entire area its unique and fascinating character and contributed, no doubt, to the creation of the Death Valley National Park, now protecting some 3000 square miles of territory, the western-most desert in the USA.
We entered the park from the southeast, heading west from Shoshone across the southern tip of the Amorosa range and turning north on the Badwater road. Badwater, barely a village, is really an extended salt flat and is the lowest point in North America, over two hundred feet below (current) sea levels. Famously, one looks up from the Badwater Basin on the eastern mountains to see a painted white line way up the mountain marking where sea level would be. It is an awesome stretch.
Looking west from the Badwater road, one sees a broad swash of white stretching across the Valley. It is really a dry riverbed, the bright white light reflected back from salt crystals encrusted on river flora left behind as the water evaporated. Visitors can walk out along the salt covered ground for miles, the flora having been smashed beneath tens of thousands of feet of hiking tourists. I had encountered some similar salt ponds and stream beds on the drive north from Baker and, stepping on the “sea of white,” was surprised to hear a soft crunch and feel my foot sink into the ground an inch or two. The sensation was not that different than being on skis in new powder, an unaccustomed lightness of foot.
We had booked a room at The Ranch, a large motel like property in “The Oasis” at Furnace Creek, California, close to the center of the Death Valley National Park. The Oasis is a bit of hype (the name Fred Harvey “Hotelier” from Grand Canyon and other western sites, comes to mind); it is not an oasis as that term would normally be understood, but an irrigated area, complete with palm trees (not native), consisting of two hotels (the Ranch and the “high end” Inn), and supporting businesses—bars, restaurants, a gas station, etc. No church. Neither a bordello for that matter—it being in California, not Nevada. The rooms were clean—perhaps scrubbed with borax, a product of local fame—utilitarian and unremarkable. They all have an in-wall air conditioner, an uncertain asset in the heat of a Death Valley summer, often the hottest place in North America. But the central location is definitely an asset as it allows guests to branch out on a series of vistas and experience some of the truly remarkable assets of the Park. We were tired from driving, and a thick cloud layer hung over the park, obliterating the sunset, so we headed to our rooms. It was there that the continuing pandemic changed our accustomed travel routine: No restaurant dining—take out and social distancing only. We made do. (What else to do?) We ordered from a limited menu, got several boxes—one salad, two entrees, and a desert—and dished out our own repast on paper plates, picnic style, on the restaurant patio.
I was out before sunrise the next morning, savoring the first sips of coffee while looking towards the eastern skyline and watching the few wisps of coral-tinted cirrus clouds turn pink, and then lighten to sparkling white as the sun crested the mountains. The majesty of dawn in the quiet vast emptiness of Death Valley is its own reward. Dwarfed, one is “right-sized” with the Universe.
After a very relaxed to-go breakfast (a “pandemic special,” served to-go whether we were planning to go or not), we drove back down the eastern edge of the Valley floor as the sun’s direct rays illuminated the mountain slopes. We wanted to see Death Valley’s famous Artist’s Palette, a mountain side exposing swatches of color as if Nature’s palette knife left behind daubs of reds, yellows, purples, and greens on a canvas of earth tones. Before artist’s colors came in small tubes from the art store, rocks and dried plants were ground to powders and then mixed with water, egg whites and oils to create suspensions that gave expression to people’s markings, to people’s structures, and eventually to people’s artistic visions including the layers of wash that Leonardo used to create the radiant face of the Mona Lisa and the flowing sash of God in the Sistine Chapel. Here the iron brought reds and pinks, manganese brought purples, mica created shades of greens and sulfur gave us yellows. Walking the hills to see different patterns and shapes reflected from different angles made me reflect on the creative drive of early artisans and the natural vision of contemporary painters. There are mysteries and joy in these Death Valley vistas.
Almost dead center in Death Valley is Mesquite Flats, where eroding sands from northern mountains morph into undulating, wave-like shapes within a dune field bound to place by mountains to the south. Grains of sand move on the winds to reshape the field, but the field itself is homeostatic. Here geologic change happens within a timeframe a man can understand and appreciate time and again, the rhythms of change defined by ripples and shadows. There are no fences, no overlooks. Similarly, there are no trails. If you hike the dunes, your feet sink in and you become part of the dunescape. Even in a pandemic you are free to travel, necessarily always socially distant. Two dunes over, a couple carried snowboards, preparing to carve a path in the waning afternoon light. Seeing them recalled childhood memories of running down the Great Sleeping Bear dunes on Lake Michigan. Returning from my reverie, I walked on, soaking up patterns of light and shadow. The dunes in Death Valley engulf you. Time here is organic. Boundless.
Within the dune field, nocturnal Kangaroo rats and sun-seeking sidewinder rattlesnakes leave signature footprints. Twisting mesquite trees, native here, dot the dunes. Gnarled, horizonal trunks could be the skeletons of Henry Moore sculptures. It is late winter, and the dune field is still speckled with green. Soon enough there will be yellow flowers and mesquite bean pods, a traditional food of the native Timbisha Shoshone. And finally, the unsparing summer heat will burn away all but the heartiest, before the cycle of life begins anew.
When it is dark in Death Valley, it is definitely dark. The park is certified as an International Dark Sky, Gold Tier site. When the moon is new, as it was during our visit, you can barely see your hand in front of your face. But you can see your hand just about any time. What you can only see, what you can only experience in a dark sky environment like Death Valley, is a carpet of billions (with a “b”) of stars, horizon to horizon, lighting the nighttime sky. There are no words to describe this experience. Awesome, inspiring, overwhelming, sensational, transcendent, wonderous, all seem pale, insufficient. As your eyes adjust, points of light distinguish themselves and you might imagine yourself a navigator, traveling to your own north star. The Death Valley night sky is humbling, to be sure, but it is inspiring at the same time. It opens minds, offers an infinite array of frontiers, and sends an empowering energy for a journey you get to define.
Our total time on this Roadtrip was barely 72 hours. And the same issues that ensnarled us when we departed were there to greet us as we returned. But in this short time, in the very broad expanse of minimalist environment, you can let your spirit loose, and scrape away the barnacles that seemed to come with this isolating pandemic. This marvelous place, where tectonic forces are constantly reshaping the world we live in, reshapes its visitors if you stop, look, and listen, if you open up and allow a resetting of your clock and your being to a more universal cadence. Here, in Death Valley, less is more. There is a lot less, and conversely, a lot more.
Saturday evening, after our to-go dinner, as we prepared for our return trip, the power went out, lost in a windstorm. The Ranch had neither candles nor lights for emergencies in the rooms. Again, it was very dark. Packing by feel was a bit of a challenge. Flummoxed, we stepped outside our room and were embraced by the energy of a starry, starry night. A perfect ending in this enchanting space.
Early the next morning, we rolled out in time to meet the dawn at Zabriskie Point. From this crest, we could see the Valley’s full panorama. Experiencing the awakening as light flooded the Valley floor and stretched to reach the Panamint Mountains, we were awed, seeing the salt flats, the dune field and Artist’s Palette as minute parts of a giant, sustaining ecosystem. Having experienced both some of the parts, and the sum of the whole, we felt refreshed and rejuvenated. We took the back roads home, a speck moving within a vast emptiness. About three hours later, we reconnected with our accustomed world, enjoying breakfast (still in a to-go package) on the patio of a local diner on US 395 between Inyo and Kern counties. We arrived home for an early dinner, very well satisfied with this first Roadtrip of the year.