Sharon's Summer

Sharon's Summer
Sharon Chooses High Elevation and High Temperature

Thursday, August 26, 2010


I walked into another canyon today, another mouth gaping open toward the great valley, another alluvial fan like an out-hanging tongue where deposits of river wash slope down and spread like the full skirt of a sitting woman.  But in the mouth of this canyon, I see not the dry rocks of yesterday, but rather some green things, alien to this unvegetated world.

On approach, these are not mirage, but truly green plants.  Could a summertime flow of water be feeding these trees?

Now I hear an unmistakable trickle, and soon a creek appears, water flowing in the hot, dry desert!  And to make the irony complete, I encounter a log crossing, the same kind that gave me so much trouble in the Sierras a few weeks ago.  Sorry, no ripped pants this time. 

And within this creek a strange purple growth, somehow not surprising in a creek that doesn’t belong, a creek that defies the nature of Death Valley

I follow upstream, and chuckle at calling it that, when “upstream” has always meant “up the dry, rocky bed of some past flow of water.”  And here along this creek, the lushest growth of water-loving plants imaginable.  The mesquite and cacti on these dry hills must place their faith in places like this, imagined, but never seen, a beautiful afterlife.

I come to a waterfall with a pool below it and can go upstream no further.  They call it Darwin Falls, and it’s not far from Panamint Springs—a restaurant and hotel on the west side of the valley.  It’s a rough three-mile road getting to the trailhead, and rough scramble up to the falls, but a unique place to visit if you like solitude and a break from dry desolation.

The near-full moon was high in the western sky this morning, two days after its fullness.  It brightened the drive in predawn as it will tomorrow when I drive home.  There, I will feel less aware of my own littleness, which stands out plain here where horizons spread out and roll back into enormous distance.  Here at noontime I have to go inside myself for shade, lacking any trees or even rocks to block the sun.  I could return here, to this place where people are few.  I’d come to smooth out the wrinkles in my mind created by too much civilization.  When I return home, the bright sun will brighten the tall grasses, standing upright where my feet had trodden them flat, and I’ll recover the friends I left there with an alien scent they will be curious about.

A little bit of the Grand Canyon graces the drive back to Beatty, and a lion perches on a hill; they will stay here. 

El Portal Motel in Beatty is as plush and homey as any five-star resort.  It provided for all my needs.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Story Told in Rock

Far behind the arid hill, still drier mountains settle into westward disappearance.  Translucent moon, it seems in morning light, levitates above the hill, a balloon perhaps gone free.

The broad mouth of Fall Canyon opens wide, its bottom filled with rounded stones, alluvium fanned out over the valley of death like spewings of a great river laden with eroded rock.  And water it was that carried the rocks and even cut the canyon and made a place for me to walk.  Perhaps these stones will lie here just a few more million years, be covered with more like them, be compressed and uplifted.  And maybe someday someone will see an eroded side and wonder, will maybe feel my presence here today as one who came to observe them.

It doesn’t matter if a major storm comes only once a hundred years.  Together they move more rock than a thousand bulldozers working a century.  It takes the storms longer, but no matter, because time in on geology’s side.  Time is how it cuts the earth.

Level layers figure nicely into stories of ancient seas, of rivers bringing silt to settle on their bottoms, of uplift along some fault that raises the land a few inches in each of a thousand earthquakes, of later erosion exposing for us to see the layers of an ancient sea.

Here the story takes a sinister turn, where layers bend and fold.  And if we can believe for one more step into lurid past, these layers lay so deep, so long, under so much weight, that they got so hot and partly melted, and then were worked like taffy but not like soup.  Finally they hardened and uplifted like the level ones, but what we are asked to believe is that these too were sediments on some ancient sea.



Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Telescope Peak

On the west side of Death Valley, a range of mountains rises so high that their highest peak is almost exactly the same elevation as Donohue Pass in the High Sierras, the highest point of my solo backpack a few weeks ago.  A major difference is that Donohue Pass rises only a few thousand feet above the adjacent valleys, while Telescope Peak stands more than two miles directly above Badwater.  Its eleven-thousand-foot summit is accessible by trail.  When I stood at Dante’s View on the east side of Death Valley a few days ago and took this picture looking west, the trail became irresistible. 

This mountain is unusual in having two tree lines—one common to all high mountains is a line above which trees cannot grow due to cold and wind, but this mountain has a line at about seven thousand feet below which trees cannot grow due to heat and drought.  Within this slim band, several species survive—limber pine, pinion pine, mountain mahogany, juniper, and bristlecone pine.  They were mostly cut down in the 1880’s to make charcoal in these kilns, for the sole purpose of feeding a mine smelter.  Wagons hauled the charcoal thirty miles to the Modoc Mine where its hot flame extracted silver and lead from rock.  The wood was gone in only three years, and the kilns abandoned, but at least the old Bristlecone pines at the higher elevations escaped the miners.  Great effort and great sacrifice for a small purpose!  Not unlike these escapades of mine in mountains and deserts, except that I leave things mostly as they were

I drove a long dirt road, past the kilns, getting to the trailhead, and stopped a mile short of road’s end to spare the Toyota.  Thus I extended the hike to eight miles each way, and would rise four thousand feet to the summit.

The forest has mostly recovered from the miners, but some of the old stumps record their passing like tombstones.

Above the dense forest, in a sparsely vegetated band where only the hardiest trees live, flowering plants believe it’s springtime.  Here I see tracks of lizards, snakes and deer.  And somewhere there’s a colony of bees. 



Since coming to Death Valley a week ago, I have never felt cold while hiking, but this morning I am cold.  On the long grind up and up, the Valley so far below me it seems like a mirage of white snow, the summit seems to move away as fast as I approach it.

Bristlecone pines thrive above ten thousand feet in the last two miles of the climb.  Some of them are four thousand years old, I’m told.  Their living parts look fresh as newborn pine trees, but their old wood is what’s intriguing.  It swirls with furrowed grain, skin that has born centuries of wind, heat and bitter cold, wood that holds on its surface those forms and crevices that conform the world, having sloughed off any shape that tried to resist the elements and go its own way. 


The summit is just a short way now; I can make it.  Most of the trees have settled for lower elevations, and I feel ready to do the same, but can’t give up now.

From the top I see Badwater eleven thousand feet below.  A circle on the picture shows about where I took those snow-white pictures of the salt a few days ago. 

Far to the west, the Sierra Nevada Mountains rise above Owens Valley. 

As the day warms, I trudge doggedly downward in the sun, which was getting higher and hotter each half mile, and by afternoon it had reached a hundred degrees.  By the time I slogged into my vehicle, the valley was already deepening into shadow.  Is this wonderful pageant of the world the only reward for having climbed to the giddy height of Telescope Peak?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Artist’s Voice

The smart ones go out on the hot floor of Death Valley at day’s end when the sun has lost most of its radiant broil.  During the day they stay slithered under sand, inside burrow, tucked in their air conditioned rooms at the Furnace Creek Resort or in the pool at Stovepipe Wells.  But in late afternoon, they go out to see the dunes in the long artistic shadows of evening.  I see their cars lined up along the roadside some two miles from where I took these pictures, ant-like dots along a path from their colony.  My car is among them.  From my compass, it bears south-by-southeast.  I would use this information if visibility fails.  With the air at 117 degrees, they don’t go far from the cool interiors of their vehicles.  Some have tripods and big lenses which they aim near the highest dunes on which I stand.  Perhaps they see a head at maximum zoom, small with distance, and record the tiny creature far out on a place they consider too hostile for hiking.  “This strong wind could get stronger,” I almost hear them; “We could be blinded by blowing sand.” 

I came to these dunes a few days ago in early morning when the wind was absent and the air much cooler.  No one had walked out here then, and my tracks printed themselves into the sand like first tracks on the moon.  The artist was absent then, and I photographed his work.  But today I met the artist. 

Wind, once theoretical, was forming the dunes before my eyes, and so rapidly that I was surprised to see my tracks disappearing within minutes.  I followed my tracks on returning, until, after the picture above, I could find them no more. I was experiencing the dune artist at work.  So must gentle Einstein have been surprised when his dreams about space and time flashed over Hiroshima.

Sand blows low to the surface as I walk, its grains too heavy for rising more than about three feet.  If it rose much higher its sting could turn blinding.  Where a dune drops off on its leeward side, a storm of swirling sand like the turbulence below a waterfall appears frightening, but I avoid these places.

I move over the loose sand, not with athletic speed, but with casual slowness of one experience, informed—not that I really am, but I move that way.  I see again the big waves left by wind that had blown several days ago and had sculpted the dunes from a constant direction for a long time, the same big waves I saw before as they lay dormant on the dunes.  I see those old waves today, but from another direction come new smaller waves forming in this evening’s wind, gradually eroding away the staid old waves.  A new creative voice rings at odds with old established creation.  It’s the way of breath, creation and voice, I think. 

I hear the artist as he works, softly as if thinking about his next strokes, speaking gentle to my side.  Then, when his purpose seems settled, a loud cry, pressing against me, calling me too into action.  But I only resist his strong suggestion.  I hold my traditional ground, not realizing that all ground, even that which I hold true, is moving.  I am beginning to understand that this artist is in control, and I am part of his creation.  In his words I live and move and have my being.  It might be best if I learn to cooperate.

I keep on climbing the dunes, hoping to ascend the highest one.  But the artist is hard at work at this focal point of his sculpture.  I reach the last ridge connecting the lower dunes to the highest.  To me, it is the south col of Mt. Everest, the final ascent.  I stand wide-legged and leaning toward the artist.  Then when loose sand gives way in a gust, I fall to my knees where his sting meets my cheek in a flurry, and his voice turns my little space within his picture into a garden of tears.  Clearly I can go no further into the life of this intense young artist.  He exceeds my ability to empathize and keep up with his innovative thought.  Still I want to say to him, “Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life.”

Is it by these means that I keep people aware of my existence?  I wonder if I do this for the pleasure of their surprised and uninformed questions or for the lone pleasure of outdoor extremes.  They all seem to find abundantly within their own imaginations enough excitement without coming to places like this.  I can argue that mine are real, but I wonder.

Recently, I leaned toward the makeup mirror to inspect my tools and wondered that eye shadow and lipstick, while interesting, no longer thrill like knobby boots, safari shirt, and an Arab cloth held in place over my head with an elastic sweat band.  Some people see the years growing behind my eyes, the mouse growing a horse’s mane.  Looking past my eyes they might see when love was a slow stately procedure, and now I need this summer increasingly, a yearning like the rising tide about a rock protruding in a calm sea, as definite as a picture in a frame.

The night was still young when I returned to the car, and the gibbous moon was high.  I drove again to Badwater to see what happens on the salt flat in the moonlight.  I found white holes in the hard black dish, upside down and over me.  I took pictures at sixteen seconds and f3.5, and still they are not good.  I welcome suggestions.

Usually this kind of insight comes with hindsight after time has diminished the pain.