Greetings from Death Valley National Park

The North American Desert

  1. Death Valley

“But the desert is a vast world, an oceanic world, as deep in its way and complex and various as the sea.” -Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

After an hour driving over large, pale gravel and uneven road, we reach the floor of The Racetrack in Death Valley National Park shortly after noon, the high sun settling harshly over our white, indoor skin. In the middle of the track, The Grandstand peaks from solid earth like a cork in the mouth of a mighty Pinot Grigio. I shut the door to my ’99 Subaru Impreza Sport and press a large, straw hat down around my head. Jeff and Shane shut their doors, also, and tuck a cigarette into the corner of their mouths. My first impulse is to take my phone from my pocket, hold it at eye level, and take a series of photos—putting the hoard away for later when I can remove the images too alike and pick which are strongest. The criteria determining which images get selected for keeping rests on how the landscape falls on the thirds—a rule any beginning photographer encounters while studying photo composition. In this case, I hold The Grandstand on the left and the long, vast expanse that comprises The Racetrack’s dry lake bed on the right where the cracks fade from visibility as they twist imperceptibly away.

Jeff makes a beeline for The Grandstand, and Shane follows suit. I lag behind, holding my camera and sliding my arms out from my long-sleeved shirt, letting it hang around my neck. A few other cars are parked nearby and a small group of people rest on The Grandstand when we begin our ascent. We don’t acknowledge one another. I put my hand over my eyes and squint toward the other end of the lake bed, trying to see if I can make out any infamous sliding rocks on its surface in the distance, but I see nothing but one or two tufts of sagebrush and the metal glare refracting from a vehicle moving back toward the paved roads an hour down the gravel.

I can’t imagine this place ever holding water. For miles in any direction, no water can be found on this dead and barren land, but we have a cooler in the backseat full of Trader Joe’s water bottles and two whole salmon leftover from last night’s barbeque. I’ve thought about this moment for years. The skin on my shoulders begins to feel tighter when we descend and begin walking back across The Racetrack.

  1. Desert Literature

“We are not all born at once, but by bits. The body first, and the spirit later… Our mothers are racked with the pains of our physical birth; we ourselves suffer the longer pains of our spiritual growth.” -Mary Austin

What I knew about the desert before I moved to California a few years ago came from the road runner and coyote. It came from Bret Harte’s “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and from the tiny dome-shaped desert building in the Indianapolis Zoo. I thought of dunes rolling out from under Jim Morrison’s feet in Wayne’s World and the cracked lake bed where Pumba and Timon roused Simba after he fled Pride Rock. It was a place of death, unrelenting heat, and not a stitch of life aside from spare cacti dotting the landscape. It was a place of exile, of drought, a place to be traveled through to get somewhere greater. It wasn’t a place to find yourself, it was a place to get lost. One semester while working on my undergraduate degree, I took a seminar entitled Desert Literature taught by one of my favorite professors who specialized in ecocriticism. I took the course because this particular professor gifted me with the works of the early settlers— namely, James Fennimore Cooper—a world I had barely been allowed to touch in high school. It wasn’t the desert I was interested in but what I could discover in the act of consuming literature through new lenses.

After reading a field guide on how to survive in the desert, I placed slivers of post-it notes between pages marking photos of creosote, sagebrush, yucca, barrel cactus, and the oceanic cholla cactus. The animals were just as numerous in the chapter on North American Deserts—elf owl, cottontail rabbit, jaguar, Gila monster, and my personal favorite, the sidewinder rattlesnake. In learning the names for those creatures and plants of the desert, I couldn’t put it back into its cage. They were in me. The desert had crept into my conscious and taken shape—the great barren expanse of the desert I carried before had been marred by the creosote, punctured with a careful sewing needle by the cholla, and the bright fabric rose up around me. The sidewinder rattlesnake moves sideways across the hot desert floor, expelling less energy, giving it less contact with the surface. By the naked eye, its figure doesn’t appear to be any different than its kin—narrow tawny body ending in a ringtail pattern. I imagine the mother hunkered down in a burrow with the youth, twisting and turning, showing them how to develop the muscles they need to perform the unique movements that will carry them from their place of birth.

The desert survival guide gave us a context for the characters we were to encounter. I shoveled it into my canvas backpack along with a Death Valley hiking guide and a Desert Reader before loading my tent, sleeping bag, and other provisions into the trunk of my car in preparation for my first trip to lowest altitude in the United States. I figured it would be useful if the car broke down and we had to hike our way through the valley. Maybe we would run out of water and need to know how to siphon it from a cactus or bury ourselves in the sand. I had no idea what needed to be done if we were alone, none of us knowing how to escape in the event of a real emergency. The truth is, I didn’t consider that we could be stranded. I put all my granola bars in a paper bag and tucked it behind the backseat. We were in a park, after all. There would be plenty of people wandering by to save us if we needed saving.

In Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, Port proclaims, “the sky here’s very strange. I often have the sensation when I look at it that it’s a solid thing up there, protecting us from what’s behind … [from] nothing, I suppose. Just darkness. Absolute night.” I’d been pressing my thumb hard into the book and stopped to scratch a pen beneath the words. Until I read Port’s interpretation of the desert night sky, I thought of the desert as a place of high sun and low shadows. I took a walk down the alleys at night in West Lafayette, IN often during my undergraduate career and saw Orion splayed out above me, the stars of his shoulders brilliant when the moon had almost closed its eye. What would happen if I panned my own eyes down and saw the cholla and creosote and cold sand in place of old Hondas shoved into gravel driveways? I dropped the butt of my smoldering cigarette onto the concrete and ground my toe into it. What’s behind the fabric of the sky? Is it any different from the gut of a small, Midwestern town? In the desert, I imagined lying under the expanse that Paul Bowles loved so much in the Sahara and accessing the thousands of stars pinned into the darkness.

  1. Desert Tourism

“[A]nother important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.” -Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

There’s no cell phone service in Death Valley. As we descended the western end of the park into the valley, my signal became spotty and, eventually, nonexistent. I opened the settlings and put the phone on airplane mode. The descent was sharp and I had to hold my foot against the brake to keep the car from picking up too much speed. We slid into Stovepipe Wells, one of few places in Death Valley where you could pump gas and buy bundles of wood complete with fire starters and personalized pocketknives, if you could manage to find your name spelled correctly. I pulled the knife with “Jeffery” carved into its flank and showed it to Jeff, “Look, the ‘e’ is in the right place.” He considered it for a moment but said he’d rather get a straw hat to protect his face from the sun and to make him “look like a badass.” He looked like Crocodile Dundee. Shane was also pulling hats off the shelf and placing them on his head, searching for a mirror to see how each suited him. I found a swiveling carrel full of jewelry. There were earrings carved into suns, lizards, and turtles and also hooks holding various stones set into pendants held by a silver chain. I wasn’t sure what kind of stones they were but I pulled a burnt orange one from the hook and clasped it around my neck. It bore rings like a Giant Sequoia stump and was the color of the red Utah canyons. I took it off and held it in my hand while the boys stood in front of me at the register.

We decided we should camp at the Mesquite Spring campground because it was less populated and would be closer to The Racetrack and Scotty’s Castle. It was roughly a 40 minute drive from Stovepipe down Scotty’s Castle Road. We told the woman working in the park booth that we wanted to be around less people but needed a fire pit to cook some salmon Jeff’s dad caught a few days prior. The campgrounds contained bathroom facilities with flushing toilets and a large wash sink and each campsite was outfitted with a picnic table, fire pit with folding grill, and a standing grill. We set up the tents quickly, leaving the rain shields in the tent bags and hauled a pallet of water bottles into each to keep the wind from blowing the tents away. I pulled my shoes off and sunk my feet into the still-warm sand as the sun fell closer to the top of Last Chance Range. “Did you get wood at Stovepipe?” Jeff asked.

“No, I thought one of you grabbed some. I didn’t see any there. Did they have any?” “Probably. F*ck, how are we going to cook this salmon? It’ll go bad after today when the ice melts in the cooler tomorrow.”

“If we leave now, we might be able to make it to Stovepipe and back before it gets dark,” I said.

It would take us an hour and a half to make the round trip and gas was precious in a park that charged $5.60 a gallon. It occurred to me when I unpacked the paper Trader Joe’s grocery bags that we had been careless in preparing for this trip. When we returned, Shane couldn’t find the corkscrew he bought before we left Fresno and Jeff’s can-opener couldn’t latch onto the over-sized cans of lentil soup I would be eating for both dinners that weekend. The coals on the grill kept dwindling in the sharp wind and we sipped on red wine, holding our jackets closed with one fist.

If Edward Abbey could see us now he would be shaking his head before he walked off into the distance and disappeared over the edge. Before heading out into the desert, I thought about what kind of experience I wanted to have. For many years, the word “tourist” sat like a sour grape on my tongue. When I went to aquariums, zoos, and even on a trip to Paris one summer with my father, I looked around at all the people taking photos of paintings in museums, fish in tanks, and tigers arched longingly in the shade and thought they were wrong for having that impulse. Who in their right mind would want to look through an album of photos of paintings you could find less-blurry on the internet? What was this urge to capture something with your own hand? Is there shame in being a tourist? Without a doubt, I was a tourist in this land. I wanted it to give me the experience I asked of it and I wanted the pictures to prove it. There was a draw to documenting what I had done. In writing this, I am documenting it and it’s what I went there to do. I thought by going out into Death Valley, I would capture something profound, hold it in my hand, and place tweezers delicately over its wings and turn it over and over.

After dark, Shane and Jeff tore the salmon from the bone and with satisfaction placed the meat into their mouths, dripping with spicy mustard and butter. I dipped my spoon into the pot of lentil soup and quickly grew tired of it after several bites. Part of me was afraid that there were shards of metal floating in its meat from the faulty can-opener we had borrowed from a group of nearby campers. As I looked up at the stars, many were blotted out by the waning moon, almost full. I excused myself to lie down in the tent where I put my headphones on and played Woodkid’s “Conquest of Spaces.” The symphony of instruments behind his ethereal voice complimented the violent wind that shook the tent, blurring the few stars I could see through the screening at the roof. I looked at my phone and saw that it was barely after ten o’clock. The sun had been gone only a couple of hours, and I closed my eyes to let the music further in. Without a doubt, I was a tourist here, in my green tent, listening to music with the lentil soup digesting in my gut where outside of the campground coyotes scrambled through canyons and kangaroo rats scurried under rocks to hide themselves from the moonlight. I imagined hosting a small fire near a fallen mine, dealing out Tarot cards and swallowing peanut butter- laced magic mushrooms, waiting for the shapes of the landscape to bend and peel into new forms, but I zipped my new sleeping bag around my head while the wind beat harder against the flimsy walls of my tent.

  1. Solitude

“Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was.” -Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail

While we drove back from The Racetrack and down the bumpy road toward camp, the gas gauge was at less than a quarter tank. We were two and a half hours from the closest gas station when I said, “I hope we don’t run out of gas.”

Shane responded in a mild panic—“Are you f*cking serious?”

“Yes, completely.”

“See, we have no business being here. People don’t belong in the desert.”

There’s a history of cultures and civilizations traversing the deserts in caravans. When he first said it, I thought his fear was irrational and that humans are perfectly capable of being thrifty in situations such as these, but we weren’t in any situation, at least at present and no real danger had come even remotely close to befalling us. We had a car full of snacks and beverages and every so often, a Jeep, SUV, or motorcycle would pass us on the narrow dirt road. I had no fear for our situation and held fast to the belief that we would make it to the next gas station without any problem. Yet, there’s something true in what he said. Even if we can make it through the desert, do we belong here? Humans have been poking our noses in the furthest corners of the earth for as long as we’ve had instruments to do so. The frontiers yet to be disheveled are the black pit of space above us and the deepest pockets of the sea. Even though we have devised ways of getting closer to those places we don’t belong, is it in our best interest to remove ourselves from entering them?

Paul Bowles’ character Kit in The Sheltering Sky is transformed by her solitude in the desert when she loses her husband, Port, to disease. By the time she finds her way back to civilization she has undergone a psychological transformation, abandoning the compacts, powders, and perfumes she once held in her carrying case. Is that the difference between the tourist and the traveler? We carry our civilized selves into the wilderness and stay long enough to emerge something new—its wildness enveloping us like a cocoon. Up against Paul Bowles and Edward Abbey, I’ve been nothing but a tourist my whole life yet those experiences I’ve had with the wilderness have undeniably changed the way I view the world. When I’m in a place for too long, I leave it. Whether this is a short-term excursion to the wild of Yosemite or to the layers of desert in Death Valley or packing up what I own and moving somewhere new, I have to get out of my home and be displaced.

For a moment when plans were shifting around and some people were dropping off before we hit the road, I wondered what it would be like to do this trip alone. An entire day passed where I placed myself out in the middle of the desert by myself with a little tent and some notebooks, maybe a deck of cards. Vagabonds need a good deck of cards. I would go on lone excursions to Devils Golf Course and Badwater Basin and to the ghost town Rhyolite in Nevada. At night, I might sleep outside under the stars without a tent—just my sleeping bag—listening to Woodkid, shoveling raw almonds into my mouth. I felt the desert could only change me if I went there alone and remained unhampered by conversation, instead reveling in silence—appreciating that I could exist for hours, perhaps days, without speaking. In the end, I was too worried about what would happen if I really needed some kind of help. Without a lifeline, I could put myself in a trying situation—but weren’t there going to be tourists rolling up and down the park roads? Couldn’t I just stick to those landmarks? Impulsively, I decided to take at least two others with me.

The final day, we took a hike up Titus Canyon. The rock faces leaning over our tiny bodies where we followed the gravel road deeper into its chest. I’d thrown some granola bars in my backpack and a couple bottles of water as well as the hefty hiking guide I’d purchased but didn’t read before we set out. After fifteen minutes, the bag became unbearably heavy and I felt dizzy from the heat and what wine was left coursing in my veins from the night before. Shane took the bag from me and put it on his back and I followed a good distance behind, imaging I was alone. Jeeps and motorcycles passed in intervals of twenty to thirty minutes and we came across packs of other hikers along the way. An hour or so in, we stopped to rest and took out the hiking guide. “The ghost town, it says, is a long day’s hike,” Shane discovered.

“What? I thought it was only two hours,” Jeff stubbed his cigarette out and tucked the butt into his pocket.

“I don’t have enough water or food in that bag for a long day’s hike and we have to get back to Fresno. Plus, I’ve drank a bottle and a half already. I’m not sure we should keep going,” I mused aloud.

We felt defeated. No ghost towns or mines had been explored and we were really hoping to stumble into some and see what artifacts were left behind. It’s as if we became more interested in seeing the human here instead of the natural. I wanted to see the rust of old shacks, tools left astray, markings on the walls. Up against the desert horizon, I wanted to capture a photograph of something historic though the land, itself, was ancient and unyielding. I marked history in this place by the people who had marked it before. As if the presence of someone else long gone would bring me some kind of comfort.

Among the things I remember most about my time in Death Valley is standing at the top of a small hill near our campsite at night and bending down to push my hands beneath the sand. It was loose, cold, and consoling. I picked up handfuls of it and let it run back out again. Again and again, I did this. The wind was calmer this second night and there were fewer fires burning below. The moon was even brighter, now, and I could catch from the corner of my eye kangaroo rats scurrying from rock to bush.

Brandi M. Spaethe

Death Valley National Park

A world of extremes, Death Valley is the nation's driest, hottest and lowest place, but also features mountains over 11,000 feet high that experience below-zero weather and snow, as well as colorful badlands, sand dunes and canyons. Its dramatic mountains, valleys and dunes are world renowned for their complex and diverse geology. The park also contains a wealth of well-preserved archaeological sites and petroglyphs.

State(s): California Nevada,

Established: 1933

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