A dear friend from Maui came to visit last week. She was craving an adventure so we loaded up the car and hit the road. Death Valley or bust! Maui is gorgeous but not as conducive to road trips as the mainland. It was not planned but we ended up in Death Valley over Earth Day. At first glance this may seem an odd place to celebrate spring and Pachamama. “Death” Valley surrounded by the “Funeral” Mountains and all. And isn’t it just flat, dry nothing? Nay, nay gentle reader! Read on for an eye-opening view of what the desert looks like upon closer inspection.
Death Valley is at the terminal end of the majestic Sierra Mountain range. It is the largest National Park in the lower 48. It holds the record for the hottest air temperature ever recorded on earth at a stunning 134 degrees. Death Valley’s Badwater Basin is the lowest elevation in North America at 282 feet below sea level while a mere 85 miles away is the highest point in the lower 48-Mount Whitney-which rises to 14,505 feet above sea level. It is a place of extremes to be sure. A world away from the gentle shores of Maui or the fog shrouded redwoods of Santa Cruz.
And a long drive away too. After 8 hours in the car, we were ready to get out and stretch our legs, heat or no heat. Our first ramble was up Mosaic Canyon. One of many gorgeous slot canyons that surround the valley.
We set up “camp” at Stovepipe Wells in the only little hotel available. It was too hot to tent camp. After a quick bite, we headed a short way down the road to the Mesquite Sand Dunes where we whipped out a picnic blanket, a cold bottle of chardonnay, and two wine glasses and settled in to watch the colors of the desert change as the sun set. It’s like watching a live painting change before your very eyes. You keep thinking it can’t get any prettier as it changes from dun to gold to pastel pinks and blues and yet it does.
The next morning, Kriss convinced me that we needed to undertake one of the hikes rated as “difficult”. I required a little convincing. I was concerned about the heat and my relative lack of fitness (Kriss is a kick ass athlete). We agreed on Wildrose Peak, the second highest mountain in Death Valley. One of the special things about Death Valley is that the journey really IS as amazing as whatever it is you are going to see or do. You can actually say, “It’s all about the journey” and not be blowing smoke because you took another wrong turn and are stuck in the car with someone who is annoying the crap out of you. So, when, according to the map, you are supposed to turn left off the pavement and take that little dirt road for 26 miles, it’s probably not a mistake. We bumped along, a cloud of dust like a scarf in the breeze behind us. We dropped down, down, down into a canyon, the walls rising a hundred feet above us, the road becoming more and more narrow until pop! We emerged into a second hidden valley we didn’t even know existed. We both exclaimed with astonishment. Shortly thereafter we encountered a rather un-astonished donkey. He tripped down the road with his tiny hooves and long ears bobbing and couldn’t be bothered to even look up as we drove slowly by, snapping his photo like the paparazzi.
As the road climbed, we were relieved to watch the temperature drop 5, 10, 15, 20 degrees. At the trail head it was actually long sleeve weather. Amazing what a little altitude can do. We hiked and chatted and admired the scenery until I had to make a choice between breathing and talking and I like breathing better if you can only choose just one. At the summit we encountered another small group. We congratulated each other, snapped a few photos of the 360 degree views of snow-capped mountains and golden desert and then settled in to our respective lunch spots to eat some slightly smooshed and eagerly awaited peanut butter jelly sandwiches. Well, they would have been peanut butter jelly sandwiches if Krista hadn’t forgotten the jelly. But I digress. Suddenly there was a strange noise. Strange enough and loud enough that both groups, set well apart from one another sat up straight and turned to look. It was coming from between us. It was the sort of noise you hear when you rub your finger around the rim of a crystal glass. Then small rocks and pebbles started to shift and even get tossed a few inches up in the air. A nearby bush quivered, yet the air around us was still at that moment. Kriss and I looked at each other and then to the other group as if someone could explain this strange phenomenon. They looked with confusion at us. Perhaps some mountain-top sprite stirring up trouble? A tiny, invisible tornado that touched down momentarily? It remains a mystery. Pachamama has her ways.
That evening we tossed together a cold salad, gathered a plateful of dolmas,dripping with olive oil, and grabbed a bottle of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, sweating with condensation and headed out to a picnic bench in front of our hotel. It’s a coveted spot once the sun sets as it looks out across the desert and over the mountains. It’s occupants didn’t mind sharing the table. It was a newly married couple about our age and an elderly father. The elderly father was something of a Death Valley expert and was excited to share some of the knowledge gained on his previous 40 some odd trips. He pointed out his car and the license plate even stated proudly, “DT VLLY”. We chatted and shared bottles of wine and watched the mountains change color and the purple of evening slide it’s cloak over the world.
As the first stars began to emerge we discovered the son was an amateur astronomer. He had a powerful pair of binoculars and was eager to share his knowledge of the constellations. We talked about dark matter and light speed and the fact that the night sky we see this very moment may no longer exist, but how we wouldn’t know it for years as it takes that long for the light from those stars to reach us. It made us feel small in a goose-bumpy, exciting kind of way. As the elderly father retired for the night, the son mentioned in a low voice that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer after a lifetime of being a fireman. They were taking time to be with him and do some things that he loved to do. One thing was certain. He loved Death Valley. Pachamama can have that effect on people.
The next day was a scorcher. We headed first to Badwater Basin to say we had stood in the lowest point in the US and to see the starting point for the infamous Badwater Ultramarathon.
As the temperature rose we wanted to go hike the narrows of Titus Canyon. Krista mis-remembered and sent us trucking an hour or more to the wrong end of the canyon. We ended up in Nevada by mistake. But hey, while we were there, we figured we may as well stop in at the ghost town of Rhyolite, because it’s not everyday you end up in Nevada by mistake so you may as well make the most of it.
Rhyolite was a gold mining town that boomed for about 10 years before the mines failed and the people moved away. Now, artists come and use it as a backdrop for their projects and tourists come to see the odd juxtaposition of unrelated art in the desert.
By the time we got to the correct end of Titus Canyon the thermometer was registering 109. We hiked for about 30 minutes before I started to feel dizzy and nauseated. We found a bend in the canyon with shade and sat and cooled our heels and admired a fat little chuckwalla who panted in the sun and then wisely darted into a shady crack in the rock. I commented on the rotund nature of the chuckwalla and wondered if it was pregnant. I’ve since done some further reading and have learned that while the common chuckwalla’s latin name is Sauromalus ater (sounding like a Harry Potter character), the chuckwalla in Death Valley is Sauromalus obesus (he’s just fat).
We retreated to the air conditioned car and opted for a beautiful car ride through Artist’s Drive. Who knew such a palette existed in nature? These are the result of volcanic activity and mineral deposits.
Last but not least we encountered a wooden boardwalk over Salt Creek. We walked out to read the interpretive signs and sure enough, there was an actual creek with actual water running in it and actual fish! The creek is saltier than the ocean (hence the name), but the inhabitants, called pupfish have evolved to live in it. We read that they have to drink or they will become dehydrated. We also learned that we were lucky to see them as they burrow in the mud about now, and hibernate through the ungodly heat of summer. Nature is so amazing.
So, while it’s true Death Valley is a hot and dry place, it is abundant with the wonders of nature. We felt truly blessed to experience its snow-dusted mountains, the golden sand dunes, have scrambled through some of the slick-rock slot canyons, to have climbed a mysterious mountain, watched the stars come out at night, met some of the local flora and fauna, and even to have taken a wrong turn. Death Valley was an ideal place to celebrate Earth Day by being outside and soaking up all that Pachamama had to show us.