Tuesday, August 17, 2010
A Wondrous Place
Before the sun had begun dissolving the high mist over South Pasadena, before the parrots rose their shrill cries from the sycamore tree near my apartment, and their short flappy wings disturbed the still air like leaves become bird, before the rush of traffic filled the freeway air, I was driving far away to where there are no trees and birds.
I stopped for a few hours in decadent Las Vegas, a buffet at the Bellagio and a stroll among gamblers who believe that whatever they win they can actually spend. I finally stopped the car last evening in Beatty, Nevada, on the far side of Death. The valley between us, if you live in Southern California, is audaciously named and wonderfully accurate in the estimation of this possibileist who believes in rude names and extreme vacations.
Death Valley is the lowest, hottest, driest location in North America, attaining the second-highest temperature ever recorded, 134 degrees on July the 10th in 1913. I am visiting during the hottest month because I visited the coldest place in the lower forty-eight states during its coldest month. To me this seems right. Death Valley is hotter than a Faisalabad, Pakistan summer. But I come here with air conditioning in my motel room, a softie compared to my friends in that sweltering city.
This morning, I was driving from Beatty down into the valley of death before daylight, hoping to be on the sand dunes as the sun rises, to capture the long shadows of early day. I walked a couple of miles from the road out onto the dunes, and in the walking encountered a beetle, slow and unconcerned about my presence here below sea level, as a bear ignored me in the High Sierras a month ago. I crossed the path of a little sidewinder and followed his track in hope of engaging a conversation about phobia. Surely one so feared would give comment on the unfounded ideas that bring us hate. But the snake must have slithered beneath the sand at the thought of another sunrise.
Morning dawned at last, slowly, with a pale yellow dome of light rising silently above the distant cliffs. Finally the sun came up bewilderingly bright, lit the dunes, and the magic began. Crags behind the dunes stood like storm devastated castles. I took way too many pictures; you just have to look and wonder what trickery I must have used to fool you.
No one had walked out onto the dunes this morning and my tracks printed themselves into the sand like the first tracks on the moon. Wind will eventually come and wipe the dunes of my intrusion as surely as waves clear a fish’s splash on the ocean.
I came off the dunes as the temperature rose to near one hundred, stopped in Stovepipe Wells for breakfast. Then I drove the two-mile rough gravel road to the mouth of Mosaic Canyon. My schedule is quite full for these two weeks in the valley of death, at least two canyons, ore peaks, or bike rides or salt flats each day.
The canyon is so narrow that two people could not pass in places, but today I was the only one here. I was thankful to be deep within the planet and not exposed to the sun as the temperature rose. This canyon is an odd place in solar system, this conglomeration of limestone, alluvium, and rocks that got caught in a jumble of erosion. Then after the mud hardened around them and became more rock, a new eroding current came and exposed the old formation as if the hand of a craftsman had placed mosaic tiles on the side of a building.
Deep in the earth, strange rocks, strange plants.