|Every lonely river must go home to the sea|
Every raindrop should return to the sea. It seems the order of the world, like breathing, like blood circulating from heart to lungs to the body and back. But not in the Basin and Range province of the western United States. In this fractured, arid landscape expectations are upended. Grass widow rivers meet inglorious ends in mile-deep salt oubliettes. There is something disturbing about this place, something antithetical to life that is at once repulsive and fascinating.
My first visit to Death Valley left a deep impression. It was an August afternoon. Thunderheads towered overhead, curtains of rain hung from their bellies, evaporating in midair. Water pooled by the roadside. Flash floods deposited debris at will in broad, flat plains, erasing the asphalt delineations of mankind. At Furnace Creek the temperature was 127 degrees, humidity close to one hundred percent.
Toward sunset we headed down toward Badwater, which at the time was little more than a wide spot in the road. We walked out onto the white plain. I reached down and picked up a nugget of earth and touched it to my lips. Pure salt. There is something infernal about soil made of salt. My girlfriend grew anxious and turned back, but I continued. With each step I felt I was leaving home, like an astronaut watching Earth grow smaller and smaller in the black void of space.
I stopped and looked back to where I had started. Heike was a tiny blob in the distance. That’s when the silence hit. No bird calls, no insects buzzing, not a breath of wind; no sound at all. The pressure was almost unbearable, like the weight of water miles beneath the sea, crushing.
It was inevitable that I should return. The otherness of the Basin and Range, epitomized by Death Valley, is compelling. It stirs primordial feelings of dread and fascination that only grow stronger with time. In this visit I do not plan to submerge myself in the depths, but to traverse the highest ground, seeking to survey the territory from above in pursuit of a more comprehensive view.
It has been a long time coming. Climbing friends from my early years talked of hiking Telescope Peak. I thought they were nuts. Why forsake the alpine grandeur of the Sierra for a lesser summit, a walk-up, no less? But what Telescope Peak lacks in absolute height it compensates with vertical rise: over eleven thousand feet from Badwater on the east, and ten thousand feet from Panamint Valley on the west. The relief rivals any peak in North America, except Denali and Rainier.
Mahogany Flat. Four o’clock in the morning. Temperature in the teens. I wake up. The full moon sails overhead. An icy wind blasts out of the north and east.
I am unaccompanied, but not alone. With me is all that I am: past, present, and hopes for the future. My mental backpack is stuffed with odds and ends of research done in the hope that this will inform my experience. Yet as I will soon discover, the day will raise more questions than it answers, and I will be obliged to excavate further before I can begin to say what I have seen.
I have not slept well. An hour after bedding down I was obliged to arise and search for my hat. My head was cold, despite being snuggled into a heavy down bag. The wind buffeted the truck all night. I was grateful for the shelter. Falling asleep, I thought of astronauts. The Apollo crew spent over a week in a space more cramped than this, with the forbidding vacuum of space just inches from their vulnerable bodies. The thought of space travel terrifies me. It is much worse than anything I can imagine in the mountains. No search and rescue can reach you. The implacable laws of orbital mechanics govern your trajectory; you cannot simply turn around when things get dicey. Without diminishing the courage of those early white settlers who abandoned the comforts of the East and Midwest, I feel confident in saying that the first explorers to travel to Mars will far exceed the pioneers’ risk, to say nothing of my own.
It takes far longer to prepare than I expected. I sense a faint lightening of the sky in the east, but maybe it is just wishful thinking. The trail is icy. I move with care. North-facing slopes are blanketed in a thin layer of hard snow. Crampons might be useful, but the boot tracks glowing in the faint blue light of my headlamp provide enough purchase to continue without them.
I am following quite literally in the footsteps of those who have gone before. But the footsteps in the snow are trivial compared to the trail. Considerable thought and effort has gone into this path. People with hand tools labor under the hot sun to maintain its integrity. Even more astounding is the fact that this trail connects to a road, which in turn connects to a fabric of roads and highways that, should I have the time and inclination, would take me to virtually any place in the Western Hemisphere. Though my wife would surely disapprove, I could embark upon a road trip to Patagonia this moment with only the resources in my immediate possession.
The predawn twilight grows. Alanis Morissette screams in my ears. She sounds like the wind. Badwater is off to my left. It will be my companion most of the way. Walking across the south slope of Rogers Peak my quarry is in plain view. In the crystalline air, it appears to be less than a mile away. In reality, it is over three miles, a fact that becomes tediously plain as I begin the long traverse of the ridge joining Rogers, Bennett and Telescope Peaks.
Sunrise. Arcane Meadows. The thermometer reads 15 degrees Fahrenheit. I estimate the wind to be a steady 30 miles per hour, which creates a wind chill of –5 degrees. It is dangerously cold. A mountaineer must carefully balance heat output with loss, a challenge made more difficult by extreme cold, high exertion, and wind. I am dressed in two layers of long underwear, with an extra fleece on top, and wind shell head to toe. My wardrobe is a marvel of materials science.
It is enough when I am moving, and for a few minutes while I rest, but I would not fare well dressed like this if I were to fall down and become injured. That is why I also carry a pair of heavy fleece pants and a down jacket. I would not be comfortable if forced to remain outdoors all night, but I would have a pretty good chance at survival. I regret having left my balaclava in the car. The right side of my face is numb. The moon is setting in the west. The dry shrubs and grass glow orange-brown in the morning light.
It was in a place like this that a young Shoshone man, who would later be known as Panamint George, watched three bedraggled white scouts stagger by. He could have lead them to food and water, but he was afraid. For good reason, it turned out. The aboriginal peoples who inhabited the place they knew as Tomesha (“ground afire”) for thousands of years were rudely turned out of their homes when whites arrived. Only a small band of Timbisha Shoshone remains today, still struggling to adjust to the Western way of life imposed upon them.
Standing here, you would never guess that the Panamint and Amargosa (Spanish for “bitter water”) Ranges are slowly moving apart, and the chunk of Earth’s crust between them is slowly sinking. The band of would-be gold miners who became stranded here in 1849, and, at least according to legend, coined the name “Death Valley”, were ignorant of that fact. The science of geology was then ignorant of the existence of tectonic plates, which here are slowly ripping apart. That discovery would have to wait until 1912, when the German meteorologist Alfred Wegener first proposed the concept of continental drift. Like any good prophet, he was ridiculed. But eventually his ideas gained acceptance and are today taught as scientific truth.
In geological terms, Death Valley is a graben. The word “graben” is derived from the Old High German graban, and the related Old English grafan, both of which mean “to dig”, and are also the source of our word “grave”. I found this etymology a surprising, yet apt, confluence between the poetic description of nature and the dry jargon of science. Contemporary philosophers give language a leading role in our experience of reality. Martin Heidegger even went so far as to declare that, “Language is the house of Being.” I confess I do not fully comprehend Heidegger’s assertion, but who could travel to a graben named “Death Valley”, in which is found places like “Furnace Creek” and “Badwater”, without having their perceptions colored by such appellations?
Approaching the saddle between Bennett and Telescope Peaks I find Ephedra. It is a curious-looking, broom-like plant commonly called Mormon Tea. It may have earned its name because immigrant Mormons, banned by the strictures of their faith from drinking tea or coffee, brewed a drink from its stems. It is also possible that the name derives from Jack Mormon, a regular at Katie’s Place in Elko, Nevada in the nineteenth century. Ephedra tea was used by white settlers as a treatment for syphilis and other venereal diseases. It was commonly served in the waiting rooms of whorehouses.
I pause to drink some water before starting up the steep final ridge. Alas, I have neglected to protect the tube leading from my hydration sack. It is frozen solid. I could unpack the contents of my pack to drink directly from the bladder, but it is too cold and windy, and does not seem worth the hassle. I settle for some energy gel.
The trail becomes increasingly hard to follow in the drifting snow. Soon it disappears altogether. I follow the previous line of footsteps where I can, but even this is lost beneath the sculpted spindrift. The surface varies from step to step. Sometimes hard ice, sometimes deep powder. Breakable crust is the worst. I carry both crampons and snowshoes, but conditions are so inconsistent that either would be more of a hindrance than a help.
I pass a twisted Bristlecone Pine marked with a stainless steel tag the size of a silver dollar. This unexpected artifact is a symbol of the pervasive effect of the resource management philosophy holding sway in American government institutions. The ID tags help land managers and scientists understand the ancient trees and make informed decisions (at least to the extent that politics do not co-opt their judgment) concerning their future. Although I appreciate the intention behind it, it seems oddly out of place. The mysterious force of life animating this tree has been pushed aside in favor of cataloging and statistical analysis. At least by those we charge with their care.
I am too focused on my task to spend long contemplating the deeper significance of this tree. Indeed, even if I were not held to a strict timetable it is unlikely that I would plop myself down and meditate on this magnificent being. As attractive an ideal is this would be, the cold, the wind, and the distance from food and shelter all militate against it. Perhaps I could manage it if I were to return under milder conditions. But then it is likely that I would be forced to share my space with numerous other hikers, and the solitude upon which such intimacy depends would be shattered.
After a laborious slog through knee-deep snow I arrive at the summit ridge. The trail is clear again. Within minutes I stand atop the mountain. It is easy to see how the peak earned its name. As W.T. Henderson observed back in 1860, one can see over 100 miles in all directions. The mighty High Sierra are but one of innumerable great ranges marching into the distance. The White Mountains, Inyo Mountains and Amargosa Range are the nearest. Beyond them my knowledge of geography fails.
Searles Lake and the small town of Trona are visible to the south. There IMC Global continues a mining operation that began with John Searles’ discovery of borax there in 1862. The town is named for the mineral trona, which in turn is derived from an Arabic word for the related mineral natron. The ancient Egyptians used natron for, among other things, the mummification of corpses. Through language once again, the theme of death returns.
Each year the 700 or so workers employed at IMC’s Searles Lake operation mine nearly two million tons of inorganic chemicals, including soda ash, sodium sulfate and boron. I find it difficult to connect the rusty industrial complex to everyday items such as glassware, paper, soap and even food, yet the connection is there, for substances mined at Searles Lake are used either directly or indirectly in production of all of these and more. The Searles Lake operation is yet another monument to mankind’s view of the Earth as nothing more than a standing reserve of raw materials, valued only for the benefits they can provide the human economy.
I am not opposed to use of natural resources. It is the callous attitude toward creation that I find objectionable. To the eye that looks with a will to see, there is something miraculous to be found in every detail of our world, both the human and what we might call the “natural”. Everywhere the work of the “other” is manifest. We might call it God, or deny that there is a God—it hardly seems to matter—, but something has brought this magnificent universe into being. It seems only right to accord it honor and respect.
The wind has miraculously slowed to a whisper. I am able to eat, take pictures, and just soak in the view in relative comfort. I soon forego any effort to identify peaks and ranges, or contemplate scientific or historical matters. I become quiet. This is no moment of grand transcendental significance. In fact, it seems almost dull. Yet in retrospect it is patent that I and whatever (or whoever) that lies on the other side of that imaginary and ever-shifting boundary that defines self, have lost some of the distinction that separates us. Fortunately, what is so lost is gone forever: I am changed. The man who arrived here ten hours ago no longer exists. A new man walks away, and carries the search ever onward.