After eight years in the Southwest, I at last paid a visit to Death Valley, specifically Death Valley National Park, which straddles the California-Nevada border east of the Sierra Nevada―and is pure Southwest. During a week in January, after a non-stop drive of 13 hours and 760 miles, I arrived at the national park’s Sunset Campground at Furnace Creek, headquarters of the park, where I spent several nights.
No doubt like millions before me, I felt that Death Valley is aptly named. Never have I witnessed on such a grand scale what many of us like to characterize as “desolation.” Stones and sand are everywhere. The predominant tones of the Valley are whites, blacks, browns, and grays. Only the occasional coppers strain for some semblance of chromatic expression. Perhaps this at least partially explains Ansel Adams’s attraction to the place: he is synonymous with iconic black-and-white photography. Meanwhile, never had I been so aware of, and grateful for, the thundering blue of the Valley’s relentlessly empty sky.
Other than the athel pines―grand, shaggy, surprisingly robust amid such furious aridity―of the campground, the Valley I witnessed was treeless.
As I drove along Highway 190 through the park, I realized it was the first time I’d seen a lengthy stretch of major road in the rural Southwest not paralleled on either side by fencing of any kind. This absence of barriers contributed to the land’s feeling of spaciousness. Yet it also underscored its profound emptiness: “Why fence?” it seemed to say. “After all, there’s absolutely nothing here to keep in or out!”
Over five days, I explored merely a speck of the Valley and its environs. On the second day, I loaded all my backpacking gear in the bed of my pickup and drove to Auguereberry Point in the Panamint Mountains, on the west side of the Valley. The point is some 6,300 feet above the Valley floor. Gazing at the Valley and all its raw, grim contents, and knowing its floor averages 80 meters below sea level, I couldn’t help imagining Death Valley as one great drain for the bathtub that was the entire intermountain West, the drain’s trap collecting all of the region’s geologic hair, skin slough, dandruff, lint, and dirt. After discovering and replacing a briefly unnerving flat tire on the truck, I scuttled my plan to camp near the point, snow flurries and unanticipated cold the bases for that decision. I returned to Furnace Creek, where I had the flat repaired.
That night, in windy, dusty gloom, I wandered on foot to the Death Valley National Airport, which was experiencing absolutely no activity other than that of a large spotlighted wooden arrow oscillating on a squeaking axel, presumably indicating wind direction to any aircraft above. I felt like Saint Exupéry at the Port Etienne airport in the western Sahara, preparing for a midnight mail run to “the North.” Then I returned to my tent, opened my journal, and attempted to render the day’s events into words. Throughout the night, needles ripped from the athel trees by the howling wind spattered the tent.
The following day, I headed south in my truck. I explored on foot the lifeless clefts of stone that drain, no doubt with a frequency that bores even the ages, the Black Mountains. “You would do well to avoid that range uncomforted by singing floods,” observed Mary Austin in The Land of Little Rain. “You will find it forsaken of most things but beauty and madness and death and God.”
Then I drove to the edge of the popular Devil’s Golf Course, a flat and furiously rugged landscape of “interbedded salt and water-bearing gravels.” Surely one of the nadirs of Death Valley, it is a malpais impervious to foot travel of man or beast, so lifeless and repellent I doubted even a starving vulture would deign to soar above it; a patch of ground that challenges the convention that a valley is a place of refuge and refinement. Yet it, too, is not without its strange beauty.
The fourth day, I backpacked in the vicinity of Indian Pass Trail in the Funeral Mountains. I walked across a many-gullied plain of rocks, sand, and scattered creosote, a Southwestern slug’s idea of “xeriscaping.” In my journal, I noted what I had witnessed: Cotton Ball Basin, Tucki Mountain, and the Panamint Range, and peaks named Winters, Nevares, Schwaub, and Pyramid―“all gaunt, wrinkled, starving, and barren.” That night, camped on a hillock below Indian Pass upon the most comfortable stones I could find, the darkness was challenged only by the light of the stars and the occasional car in the distance. Wind moaned around the external frame of my tent, drummed against the tent’s nylon walls. “Yet,” I wrote, “I like the wind. It is company, a buffer against the loneliness of the landscape.”
The following morning, a raven buzzed my tent as I first peered from its entryway. In this appalling lifelessness, the mere presence of the lone, croaking bird was like an instant Rolling Stones concert. The creature then alighted a quarter-mile away on the crown of a nearby hill. I tried to coax it down into my camp with tossed bits of a Fig Newton. It didn’t take the bait; yet it didn’t leave its post on the hill. When I walked 15 paces from the tent to urinate, it flew from the peak, landed, and began to dine on an apple core I had pitched from my campsite the previous afternoon. At 8:15 A.M., my camp broken and belongings packed, I headed for my truck. As I walked, I felt the light of the rising sun: a cold blade, yet still razor sharp; in a mere two months, while much of America was still shoveling snow, this place would be approaching 90 degrees. Later, in my truck at Death Valley Junction, beneath yet another empty sky, I bid farewell to the Valley of Death.