...to Death Valley and Back
(HAZ wouldn't let me fit the whole title)
The following is the journal I was required to write for my Geography 480C class about our 5 day 4 night fieldtrip to Death Valley National Park. The four nights were spent in a motel in Beatty, Nevada, which is eight miles outside of the national park boundary. I poured a lot of my heart into what I wrote, and in order to do so I had to skimp on the triplogs I posted on HAZ, so I thought I would share my writings about the trip here. It's a bit long, if you have the patience to read the whole thing: thank you and enjoy!
I have decided that Nevada has the least to offer of any state between the Pacific Ocean and the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Don’t get me wrong, it has a beautiful natural landscape, especially compared to what I’ve seen of the Midwest, say Illinois or Missouri. However, compared to any other western state, Nevada seems to be lacking. Perhaps it is because the state is consumed by the incredibly dry Great Basin. There seems to be little variability in Nevada, just bone-dry mountain range followed by bone-dry valley, over and over and over. And then there’s Vegas, plus all the tiny, smoke-ridden casinos in the small, isolated Nevada towns. Casinos are the absolute center of attention in this state. I guess it should come as no surprise: they don’t have anything better to do. I am biased: my heart lies in Arizona and on the Colorado Plateau. I am ignorant: I haven’t been to Washington, Oregon, Wyoming or Montana. Maybe I would see Wyoming the way I see Nevada. Regardless of the lens of distortion through which I see the world, I think it can be agreed that of all the world-famous absolutely classic natural scenes that are directly associated with American West, Nevada has the fewest. Nevada has no Grand Canyon, no Mount Rainier, no Pike’s Peak, no Giant Sequoia, no White Sands, no Delicate Arch, no Grand Tetons, no Crater Lake, no Old Faithful. Not even a Snake River Plain or a glacially carved hanging valley. Lake Mead is manmade. Sedona is the classic red rock landscape, not Red Rock Canyon. Yes Nevada, you’re not bad, but all your neighbors are spectacular.
Beatty is a typical small old mining town in Nevada. The casino seems to be where most of the action takes place. The two or three rustic saloons, the tiny Mexican food restaurant and the mercantile store seem to be the rest of the most happening places in the town. With its origins in the now defunct mining industry, the town now relies on tourism for the majority of its outside income, but is only a bleak lifeline for Beatty. Being the “gateway” to Death Valley, the town has at least four motels where tourism can stay within minutes of the boundary of the National Park. The socio-economic state of the town seems to be low-income, blue collar in nature. Young people do not seem to be plentiful in Beatty.
Everything in Death Valley National Park is on a grand scale. The valley itself is incredibly expansive. The playas on the floor of Death Valley are huge. The mountains that flank the valley are huge. The alluvial fans and bajadas that roll out of the mountains are huge. The extreme lack of vegetation creates wide open spaces and broad views from every spot in the park. The flat, plant-less expanses in the valley bottom give one a false perspective on the valley. Great, great distances seem to be much shorter than they really are. We were fortunate enough to have a beautiful wildflower show, and the Panamint Daisies play the starring role. Telescope Peak, the tallest peak in the Panamint Range, towers over the valley like a watchful parent. From all reaches of valley, Telescope always looms majestically overheard.
Furnace Creek contains the visitor center, a busy, crowded building full of Death Valley merchandise and an informative museum dedicated to the natural and human landscapes within the park. The Furnace Creek Ranch contains an amalgamation of overpriced stores and restaurants, as well as a resort. I bought a map of Death Valley at the Borax Museum, an excellent way to spend thirteen dollars.
The Devil’s Golf Course brings about a variety of emotional responses. A salt playa near Badwater Basin, its jagged landscape is sculptured by the rare torrential downpours than blanket the valley every so often. It’s a unique, stark and beautiful place, but it’s incredibly rugged veneer gives it an eerie undertone. No other name could suit the place better.
Badwater Basin is the lowest point in the western hemisphere. It is defined by a bright white and incredibly expansive salt flat. Being the point that makes Death Valley world famous, Badwater is also over-run by visitors. The walk along the trail out into the playa was described by one of my classmates as “Like a pilgrimage.” It is true, Badwater seems very exotic and even biblical, like I would imagine the area around the Dead Sea. Being springtime, water was very present on the playa, mostly underneath the upper layer of salt. I walked out past most evidence of human existence (footprints) and found a pristine stretch of playa to take pictures. It was a few magical moments looking across the vast salt flats and up into the Funeral Mountains of the Amargosa Range. Definitely an experience of a lifetime, the true essence of Death Valley experienced first-hand. As I walked back the few hundred paces to the main trail, my feet would break through the layer of salt, and a saline solution of almost-evaporated water would be splashed onto the backs of my legs. What a unique experience.
The Artist’s Drive through the Artist’s Palette area is nothing short of amazing, especially in the stunning late afternoon light as it was during our trip. The lack of vegetation allows the paradoxical colors emit their powerful glow straight out of the mountainside. The colors are paradoxical in that they are soothing pastels, yet seem bold and relentless in the low afternoon sun. The winding roller-coaster of a road is a delightful adventure within itself, not even considering the spectacular surrounding scenery.
The Panamint Sand Dunes provided the first experience of my lifetime of hiking on sand dunes. Detracting on the “wilderness experience” were the ever-present footprints from other visitors, but I can’t complain too much because I was making my own! It was still a great experience none the less.
Dante’s View from atop the Black Mountains overlooking Death Valley 5,000 feet above Badwater Basin was simply breathtaking. The perspective of the valley is completely different from the low mountain passes or the playa bottoms. It adds a whole new dimension to the immensity of the landscape within Death Valley National Park.
Perhaps even more breathtaking was the view from Zabriskie Point. The tilted and warped badlands remind me much of home: the Colorado Plateau and its Painted Desert. The brilliant array of colors was magnified by the beautiful late afternoon light. No other scene that I witnessed on the trip was as inspiring as this one.
Not being religious, Easter has really no meaning for me. If there was any Easter-related activity I would prefer, an Easter egg hunt in Death Valley would be at the top of my list. That is exactly what we did for Easter Day 2010. Being ever-so-slightly competitive, I am proud to say that I collected more Easter eggs than any one of my classmates. I consider myself part of an elite club of people that have hunted for Easter eggs on the floor of Death Valley.
Salt Creek is an oasis on the floor of Death Valley. Tell an average American that there is flowing water at the bottom of Death Valley and they will look at you like you are crazy. No, Salt Creek does not flow year round, but it is still quite amazing. Perhaps even more amazing is the survival of the Salt Creek Pupfish. The tiny little boogers somehow have survived thousands of years in the hottest and driest place in the western hemisphere. When the creek dries up in the summer and temperatures flirt with 130 degrees Fahrenheit, the pup fish hold up in the remaining small pools until the winter comes and the small amount of seasonal precipitation sends the creek flowing again. Along with the beautiful wildflowers, we were fortunate to come in the spring when the creek was flowing and the pup fish were out and about.
Yet another oasis in Death Valley is a small riparian zone near Zabriskie Point, fed by three springs call Travertine Springs. Once again our springtime visit proved fruitful as a couple small creeks were pouring out of the ground. The centerpieces of the area are the stout and magnificent palm trees that feed off of the rare water source. This water is precious in Death Valley, a place where the lowest point is called Badwater. Most of the water in Death Valley is saline due to the high evaporation rate, too saline for human consumption. A taste of the water from Travertine Springs is quite fine, not incredible like mountain spring water like I have tasted on the San Francisco Peaks, but definitely not a salty poison.
After experiencing the spectacular view from Zabriskie Point, a return visit for a hike in the badlands was a must. A shuttle hike 2.3 miles in length all down-hill sounded like cake to me. It wasn’t necessarily hard, but harder than my expectation. I consider myself an “experienced hiker” and it forced me to re-evaluate myself. Perhaps “experienced Northern Arizona hiker” would be more accurate. I think the lack of shade is really what made the hike more tiring than my expectations. There are no trees, shrubs, bushes or really any vegetation at all on the badlands, except a few Panamint Daisies. No shade offered by those suckers. At least in Sedona, even when walking down the trail at the brisk pace, one has cliff faces and small trees to break up the direct sunlight. Not on the badlands. It is also deceiving how tiring it can be to walk downhill on a steep grade for a couple miles. A lot of impact is exerted on the human body. As far as the badland landscape is concerned, it is out of this world. It is similar to the badlands of the Painted Desert, yet different. The Death Valley badlands are warped and contorted by tectonic forces, have a different color palette, and lack petrified wood. Yes, I am biased toward home. Death Valley’s badlands are awesome anyway.
Between the California-Nevada border and the town of Beatty, Nevada is the ghost-town of Rhyolite. Once a bustling mining town, the death of the mining industry has reduced the town to ruins. Wooden signs indicate what each building was, such as the Miners Union Hall. The only building still in good condition is the old railroad depot, which is protected by a chain-link fence. Joshua Trees, which are unseen in this area of the Mojave Desert, had been planted in the town. One of the Joshua Trees near the railroad depot was producing some magnificent blooms. Being a photographer of natural landscapes, a walk about Rhyolite challenged my vision as a photographer. I wasn’t super excited to stop at Rhyolite, but it turned out to be one of my favorite stops because of the unique photographic opportunity it provided for me. Photographing people or our ugly “modern landscapes” involving power lines, car-lined streets, parking lots and strip malls what deters me from photographing manmade landscapes. Rhyolite (and Seligman earlier in the trip) gave me a manmade landscape without most of the things I dislike. My Rhyolite photos are some of my favorite from the trip.
Seligman, Arizona is a typical Route 66 tourist trap that we visited early in the trip and I neglected to write about early. Route 66 signs are everywhere, as are classic cars, vintage signage, gift shops and old-timing burger stands. What a great place to take pictures. Like Rhyolite, Seligman afforded me new subjects to photograph, and I am happy with what I produced. I consider myself a creative person, and photography is my primary outlet at this point in my life. In the cycle of creativity, it is easy to get stuck in the habit of not pursuing new ideas and stalling the creative process. The trip to Death Valley has allowed many new opportunities for me to expand me creativity. The opportunities in Seligman and Rhyolite were perhaps the most drastic, but places like the Panamint Dunes, the badlands near Zabriskie Point and the salt flats at Badwater Basin allowed photographic situations that were new to me as well.
Coming away from the Death Valley trip, I have a variety of feelings, thoughts and emotions. The Mojave Desert is a great and beautiful place, but it’s extremely dry climate gives way to an incredibly bare landscape that makes me appreciate the richness of the Sonoran Desert even more. I expressed my feelings on Nevada, which intensifies my love for Arizona (I didn’t know it was possible). It also gets me thinking about arbitrary boundaries: Arizona and Nevada are considered “places” because white people decided to draw lines on the ground. My loyalty to the arbitrary lines in which I was born in raised seems a little silly, but alas, forever may I be bound by it. Going to a place like Death Valley opened my eyes even more to realizing that there are many amazing places within a day’s drive that I have yet to see: Bryce Canyon, Zion, Canyon de Chelly, Big Bend, Yosemite, Capitol Reef, Arches, the list is probably endless. I am a geographer because I have a love for landscape. Seeing it, touching it, smelling it, feeling it. Forget Arizona for the moment. I have an immense love for the landscapes of the American West, and as a geographer, hiker, photographer, naturalist, environmentalist and an overall lover of nature, Death Valley has further inspired my curiosity for the surrounding landscapes that are the source of my person.
I'm standing alone on the cliffs of the world
No one ever tends to me
Sitting alone, covered in rays
Some things are so my mind can breath