Death Valley: Getting Wondrously Lost in the Desolation [photos]

 Part of the allure of discovering new places for me is putting myself in environments that are utterly strange and hostile to my normal way of life. I think putting myself in the desolation of deserts and other forms of inhospitable landscapes gives me a unique perspective into not only the diversity of our world but a look at a place unaccustomed to a comfortable way of life, or even basic survival. This is my journey into one such region, this is my journey through Death Valley.

            Death Valley is located in Eastern California. It breaks many records, for it is the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level. It is also one of the hottest and driest places on earth. One of the highest surface temperatures ever recorded on earth was recorded there at 134 degrees F. It is surrounded by the Sierra Nevada and Panamint Mountains Ranges that not only block any rainfall that might enter the area but create a pocket that traps warm air.

The place has an other-worldly aesthetic and feel about it as you move through its curiously barren vista. I remember thinking that I might as well be on Mars, as the lack of any substantive plant life was evident and confounding. And yet, in some areas, even there, wildflowers and sporadic shrubs could be seen clinging to life in the midst of the blistering sun.

Driving through the park initially was invigorating. The barren yet richly tinted mudstone and granite hills were sprawled out, slowly crumbling from erosion forming nooks, grooves, and canyons that I was all too eager to traverse. Although stripped bare, these rolling hills still provided a wondrous spectacle as their shapes, textures, and colors were illuminated by the morning sun.

The bare bones of the land lay exposed like a dancing orchestra of sand, mud, and stone. The land, uncluttered by vegetation, had a rawness about it. Broken down to its essentials, its basic elements made the experience with the land all the more enthralling and intimate. I felt a sense of connection as though I was tumbling about the roots of the earth. It seemed so simple and yet even here, surprises lurked around every corner.

As I drove down the main road further down into the valley, I came across a mesmerizing stretch of sand dunes. Like a kid in a giant playground, enthusiasm flooded my body as I had to get out and hike on them! There was a surprising amount of plant life scattered throughout the dunes. Walking up sand dunes will put you in your place. Uphill sand is very unforgiving not only for its heat but the fact that your feet are constantly sinking. You have to work twice as hard to climb a seemingly simple hill.

There are no official trails in the sand dunes so I forged my own path for about a mile before turning back. On top of one of the middle dunes, I sat for a moment and listened to the silence. The lack of sound, save the occasional gentle breeze, made the visual resonance of the landscape all the more palpable. I soaked in the moment, feeling the warmth of my skin as the morning bled into afternoon. I felt my breathing and my heartbeat adding a rhythmic drumming to accompany the beauty around me. I closed my eyes and as my shoulders relaxed, I became lost, enveloped, and suspended by the contradiction of tranquility and hostility that emanated from this place.

Despite the dryness and hotness of the environment, I learned that the sand dunes house many flora and fauna. Sand dunes are naturally excellent at storing water and they provide ample shade underground for many desert creatures so life abounds even here, including coyotes, bobcats, foxes, rats, and snakes. Not much can be seen during the day when the ground is blistering so most desert creatures flourish at night.

As I advanced further down into the valley, I hit its essential basement, the Badwater Basin. At 282 feet below sea level, this basin had further surprises that only further solidified this place as an alien world. Badwater Basin actually has water within it, although not remotely drinkable. Water seeps in from aquifers, often carrying minerals and salts it has collected on its long, underground journey. As the water reaches the surface and evaporates, it leaves behind salt and borax deposits. As I traversed this dangerous salt pan, I noticed pockets of exposed salt and other minerals gleaming white with the help of the afternoon sun.

And even there at Badwater Basin, life finds a way, as aquatic insects and snails thrive there and are found nowhere else on earth. Circular depressions were common among the flats, giving the feel of being on the surface of the moon. What a strangely hypnotic and alluring place I thought as I explored this low terrain.

As I made my way back onto the main road and out of the valley, the sun was beginning to set. Desert sunsets are my favorite. That’s when things really come alive! It’s not just the emergence of desert wildlife, but a whole new palette of colors is revealed to the eye. The overwhelming presence of heat and light by day gives way to soft, muted tones by evening and gives a whole new character to the terrain. I sunk down into the somber ambiance of my environment as I drove out of the valley, fulfilled at the discovery of a curious, new world and the wondrous mirth of an adventure well spent. ❤

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