Sunday, January 8, 2012

Death Valley in Winter: Land of Eternal Thirst

Do not plan long journeys because whatever you believe in you have already seen.  When a thing is everywhere, then the way to find it is not to travel but to love.
    --Saint Augustine (A.D. 354-430), The City of God

Our seeker of treasure goes on yet another quest, drawn by the smell of danger, the enticing allure of the unfamiliar.   She returns home, exhilarated and enriched by her experience, if not a little shaken by a strange, new world.  Then, but of course!  She finds her treasure...strolling with her best friend beside the banks of the Animas River, or perhaps it is tucked between the covers of a book on the shelf in her living room. I believe in Saint Augustine's archetypal advice, so common in fables and fairy tales, and yes, religion.  The Kingdom of God is within you.

And yet, I have indisputably benefited from traveling where nature is manifest in ways that are striking because they are unfamiliar. And so I move from place to place, staying long enough to become sufficiently acquainted with a new landscape to be able to absorb it, but not so familiar I take it for granted. There is that golden moment when I'm just comfortable enough that I can see things as they are. (Consult Joseph Wood Krutch, The Desert Year, 1952, for a treatise on how to see the desert.)

Death Valley has its devotees; they come yearly and stay long.  I didn't like it at first.  The austere, scorched, elemental country didn't resonate with me.  I needed but to wait with the patience of stones.  Landscape forms in the mind. Landscape forms the mind.  On the second day I blurted out loud, "It doesn't have to be pretty to be beautiful."  Beautiful is living well, dreaming well, in a way that sustains and complements life. Seeing is not about something worth looking at but the capability to see.

Death Valley is 140 miles long, 4 to 15 miles wide, 5,264 square miles, the largest National Park in the lower 48. This image was taken from Scotty's Castle Road, in the expansive, northern portion of the park, morning.

On the valley floor, average annual precipitation is 1.86 inches. Deserts by definition have less than ten inches of rain per year.  In July, the hottest month, the mean maximum is 116 degrees, the average minimum, 88.3. Nature responds with a reduction to simplest form.  While it put me off at first, quickly I found a certain joy in pure sparsity.

As I traveled through this land in an effort to be intimate with it, I felt a strangely wonderful sense of its vulnerability, even tenderness. So parched and aflame.  Perhaps this is simply projection.  For if you examine the plants that look half dead you will see that they are half alive, indeed, giving it all they've got!  Were you to suggest a more favorable environment every desiccated live thing and every stoney thing would surely demure, declaring they are most comfortable under current conditions. And, would likely languish in a "better" world. (Adapted from Krutch.) Having reached a state of perfect adaptation, plants will happily bloom and propagate in the spring.  Death Valley, an extension of the Mojave, is a place where power gathers. All the great deserts of the world are expanding their influence. Very well then, a union of vulnerability and strength.

In crispy wintery air, silence is deeper than quiet.  It is as startling and welcome as stumbling upon a well of clear, cold water.  I traveled afar on foot, well beyond voices, or even the buzzing of insects.  I must confess, I was so alone, more alone than desired, I took solace in conversation with rocks. I discovered that canyons breathe and when my mind quieted sufficiently, nature moved inside me, mirroring a similar landscape so that I too could see it, feel it, hear it, know it.  (See Joy Harjo, Secrets From the Center of the World, 1989) While this may seem odd, it is not.  Throughout history people have known the desert to be a wise and worthy healer; its gift to the contemplative is timeless.

Limestone narrows adorn upper Fall Canyon. I squeezed 13.8 miles in this spell-binding drainageway between mid-morning and afternoon, chased out by the clamoring of full-on dark. So little sun sandwiched between great slabs of night. I spoke of danger; it must be undertaken in service to something worthy.  Reaching an 18 foot dryfall, I did a 4th class climb to a ledgy edge 100 feet above the wash and another airy move over the brink to reach this stone passageway that went on for 3/4 mile.

The polished marble of popular and accessible Mosaic Canyon.

Peak seasons are Thanksgiving, my week between Christmas and New Years, and March.  Go in March.  See the bloom.  Enjoy daylight. I was blessed with good weather.  Mornings and evenings were four-layer, down jacket temperatures but days were in the 60's.

Evening sun pierces a path of light through the cloudscape to illumine the Grapevine Mountains.

Light convolution wins me over.

Knowing nothing, upon arrival I checked in at the Visitor Center, a temporary tin box, and asked for a spectacular hike.  The ranger recognized a kindred soul and sent me up Corkscrew Peak armed with a pathetically inaccurate map with the route hand sketched between 30 and 180 degrees off.  So useless, so worse than nothing. This was a time I would have welcomed a human sighting but alas, no one. I wandered around in the open desert for a couple of miles, followed an intuition, and lucked on fragments of a use trail up a high-angle jittery jumbly crumbly razor-sharp rocky ridge to the top of this striking and challenging mountain. Go there.

I returned to the Visitor Center, greeted by a young woman who admitted she never hikes.  She recommended a favored loop and I took it.  After all, it was January 1, 2012.  The park went from high season to low overnight so "popular" meant I saw four people all day.  Visitors cluster on trails because it reduces risk.  There are ridiculously few in this gargantuan park. However, the country is open and there are no restrictions on foot travel.  One could consume a life exploring routes in Death Valley.

Side canyon of Golden, New Year's morning.

The trail up Golden wound just beneath Manly Beacon and up to Zabriskie Point in the Black Mountains.

There are several campgrounds in the Furnace Creek area.  Mine had 106 sites so close together I heard intimate whispers of the couple ensconced in a tent ten feet from my table.  I over-heard the earnest discussion of three couples across the thin blacktop strip.  Bonus. I enjoyed their fire as if it was my own. They partied 3.5 hours after I crawled into the back of my truck at 6:30. Who can blame them? Kids raced the circuit on bikes, solar panels amped RV appliances and iPods, lanterns adorned aluminum tables, campfires abounded, a couple who rode dirt bikes in the day read to each other at night. Nine friends from China huddled around a picnic table, laughing, eating, happy, so happy, such courage. Orion rose above the Porterville, CA middle school marching band. By 5:15 a.m. people padded by my open truck to the bathroom, dogs barked, babies cried, wood got chopped, car doors slammed, engines warmed and drove away.

I adore campgrounds in America. This one had such good ambiance. I felt 100% safe.  I wonder if my little camp looked a bit forlorn.  There is only one of me.  I have no fire, not even a lantern to write by, just my tiny headlamp.  My operation couldn't get any simpler.

On New Year's Eve I poured a few ounces of red wine into a paper cup and walked up and down the rows, people watching and greeting, perfectly contented. Campfires kept watch as I slept.  A welcome cheer resounded as 2012 commenced.

My white Tacoma, bike leaning against it, in the foreground at Texas Creek Campground.

All road riders reading, Death Valley is the bicyclist's heaven.  There are 100 plus miles of empty roads with buttery smooth pavement.  Great fortune--the man in the campsite next to mine was there to ride.  We did a 58 mile, 5,000' climb to Daylight Pass.  After my new friend returned home to South Lake Tahoe, I rode up to Dantes View which at 5,705', is 5,987' above the valley floor.  How is this possible? From the viewpoint Badwater is 282' below sea level, the lowest land elevation in the Western Hemisphere.  Across the Valley, Telescope Peak is 11,049' above. Basin and Range.

Seven hundred miles from Durango, I had to go home.  I was out of chocolate.  A few ounces away from being out of wine.  I'd eaten all my food and burned my little stove's fuel. I stopped at the store in Furnace Creek and paid $2.14 for a tiny coffee.  "Really, it's not too much to pay for a cup of happiness," I told the till keeper.

On my way to Death Valley, I stopped for the night in Boulder City, NV.  Venus was just east of the Moon (look closely).  By the time I headed home Jupiter had taken her place--significant movement in the night sky over so brief a time.  The Valley?  It is pausing, restoring in chilly stillness.  I will return when it blooms, and when it sears and when it cools.  How many visits will transpire before I could possibly take this landscape for granted?  I reflected all the way home, grasping for words to explain my emotional response to Death Valley. It is at once a sigh and excited anticipation.  A feeling of love.  Everything that matters is here and all that will continue to matter and be treasured in the coming millennia will still be here.