Death Valley, April 2008

Death Valley in the morning, at least in early April, is cool. Enough for a second shirt or jacket. The sun rises up over the Amargosa range and slowly washes the Panamints free of the night, starting with the still snow peaked summits of Telescope Peak as white as the salt flats 11,000 feet below on the valley floor will be at noon. The stone in the Panamints is young, a few million years young and as the young will do, still moving west, pulling the valley floor with it. The far side, along the morning shadow of the Black Mountains, is pulled and stretched for millenia and drops, millimeter down. This morning Badwater is 282 feet and a smidgen below sea level . We can see it on a horizon of salt from where we are scouting for water out along the Westside Road. As the shadows gather eastward the Blacks seem to rise as they began to rise 20 to 10 millions of years ago, lifting what would become the Panamints on their backs until they slid, sliding for millions of years to the west, the west, opening a valley between the two ranges. As it deepened, they both, mother and child, shed themselves down into it. The salty, sandy, gravelly floor of the basin, so flat to our eyes now, actually continues down for thousands of feet before it finds bed-rock. Thousands of feet of mountain tops, backs, shoulders and hips washed like dirt down a driveway. The mountains we see are dwarves of their former selves.

I don’t know why most people go to the desert. I’m not sure why I do, again and again. Few go I think because they are true hermits, the Saints Simeon Stylites or Anthony the Great, Li Po or Han-Shan of religion or foundational longing. Most of those I run across in small hamlets perched on the edges of the Mojave or Death Valley are false hermits, saying they want to get away from it all but really content in the small slighting contact of these skeletal communities. Leave me alone, but not completely they seem to say. Though living more modestly than their urbanized kin they are not, by and large, true ascetics. Minimalists perhaps in aluminum house trailers that will never be trailed, a cactus or two let to colonize the sand and gravel that serves as a front yard, a stone walk across it, a television antenna gripped to a corner, even, these days, an internet connection. I don’t think as I see and talk with them they came for what I am finding.

For me it’s like this: You go into the desert dirty and you come out clean.

You go, the first times, with ideas of heat, of thirst, of salt, sand, dirt and rock. You might imagine a lizard gasping at noon, a vulture or two with longings for carrion. You look it up and read about Shorty Harris and borax mines, birds dropping dead from the shock of the super heated air. You might even read of wildflowers and think of bristles on an old man’s chin.

You go and you hit the high spots: Zabriskie Point, Golden Canyon, Badwater, the Mesquite Dunes. You stop at Furnace Creek and ask for a milkshake or the coldest beer in the universe. You might troll through the general store and drop a picture card through the slot to send a Death Valley postmark to a favorite child. And somewhere in those early hours, if you’re lucky, you realize you’ve stepped into another river of time, a river of huge silences and minor riffles of noise. You understand these are silences not just of sound but of sight.

Going to a desert is like going to many other wildernesses. But more.

We go to get away, to flee the clangor and the noise, the press of obligations, the unstoppable tick of things to be done. Sitting for an hour bay side, or trail walking Mt. Tamalpais will do these things for you. Hiking the Adirondacks, or paddling Lake Champlain, pulling yourself up wilderness trails in the Rockies, sailing on the Chesapeake will do these things. But as I noticed yesterday, the desert takes you away as all these do, and then takes you further. In the desert there are no trees rustling in the wind. There are no stays and shrouds slapping on masts. There are no trails lacing a hillside, showing recent decades of humankind. There are no flights of birds. All this visual “noise” is missing.

Nothing is brought to you. Nothing holds you in familiar places and so, if you don’t flee, anxious and unnerved, you enter a place of utter stillness. If you leave the touristed spots and move a hundred yards away, down a graveled road, or up a dry boned ravine you will find it. You empty yourself, as it were, until there are no remnants of the noise of the world outside, aural or visual. There is only stillness. And into that inner stillness begins to seep the being of the outer stillness.

What was once monochrome gray or brown begins to show itself in stripes and subtleties, of oceans long gone, washing the mountains only God remembers down into the still coastal shallows when Nevada was the far edge of a much smaller place, idling its way up from the equator to where it now sits, waiting for California to come sailing in from the west and dock along its flanks.

What was once completely silent now gives way to the popping and crackling of salt as it grows up and out of the underground seeps and builds its fabulous miniature castles, towers and parapets, corbels and crenels. Where once no birds flew now there are one or two, swallows flaring through the sweet day in mating dance, then gone. A killdeer pipes sharply, then sharply is stilled. What was for a while a desolation shows bands and tufts of green – over there, just back here. In the nearness of time the native folk knew this, band after band finding food and water to sustain some years or more before moving on. I think in this place they did not chatter. Their speech was as spare as the land, as colored as the Artists Palette.

That’s why I come. Why I long to come, I think. Not just for the beauty, unexpected. Not just for the surprise of green trees popping up in the middle of the basin – though that begins to get at it. Not just for the exotic thrill of saying “I was there.”

But for the upending of ideas: that desert is beautiful; that desolation is rich with life. That life continues where life ought not. I come for the sensation of smallness, of transitoriness, of foreverness.

I come to find that shedding the clamor of the news, the every ten minute traffic reports, the every two minutes of ads reveals a richness that is buried beneath all that. Is always the same when I return. Endures and is the foundation.

I look at these quiet places and ask myself, would I like to live here, actually? Would the silence eventually rise up and press against the sociability that lives in us all. Would it drive me mad as stories tell of prairie pioneer women cut off from conversation, shared joys and sorrow? It’s not a choice I have now, wearing the light garment of other choices I have made, so I don’t linger on it. I am satisfied.

Like my earliest girlfriend who discovered, awe struck with Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” that having twenty postcards of it didn’t increase the pleasure. She gave them all away and lived with her remembrance. So I believe I come back to Death Valley, and will often, to empty my well as much as it is possible, to empty into emptiness, to find again the fullness of the silence where the bones of the mountains exude the fragrance of our own brief transit. To become strong out of silence.

Salt Castles
the Devil’s Golf Course
Salt Castles

Cactus Flowers

From Westside Road
Towards the Panamints

Snow on the Peaks
Salt in the Basin

Dan Dusicoe time exposure of Death Valley from the Racetrack