Friday, April 29, 2011

Death Valley III: In which I finally arrive in Death Valley

Roughly half an hour before arriving in the main visitor’s center for Death Valley, just outside the boundaries of the National Park, is a side road off the main highway leading to one of the region’s many ghost towns. Rhyolite was a gold mining town that flickered in and out of existence between 1905-1911, boasting a train station, banks, several newspapers, a hospital, fifty saloons and 3,500 presumably inebriated souls.

Today very little of that is in evidence – there’s a shell of a bank, a fenced off hotel and few other minor buildings, including a house made entirely of bottles (I was going to say inexplicably, but with fifty saloons about, both the building material and the decision making behind choosing it is all too explicable).

Speaking of inexplicability, the most visually arresting element of Rhyolite is not the evocative ruins, but rather the giant pink naked Lego lady Jon and I dubbed “The Cubist Nudist” but is apparently actually called “Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada.” The Cubist Nudist is the most prominent exhibit of the Goldwell Open Air Museum which is pretty much what the name implies: a bunch of art, outside.

As with the ruins of Rhyolite, and Rhhyolite itself, there was no signs, plaques or pamphlets on obvious offer by way of explanation for any of this (other than a “no shooting” sign – one wouldn’t wish to alarm the ghosts, after all), so Jon and snapped our pictures and moved on, not entirely sure that we hadn’t just experienced our first desert hallucination.

We made Death Valley about half an hour later. Our intention had been to camp out in Texas Spring, per the drawling recommendation of Jay Stone, Death Valley Park Ranger, but we were road weary and hungry on arrival, so we simply checked into the Stovepipe Wells Resort for the evening. After a lamb kebab (just like the cowboys would have eaten!) we retired to our private cabin, drank whiskey, and lost money to each other playing poker (and by “each other” I mean “I” lost money to “Jon.”

Our first full day in Death Valley, we intended to explore the park much as our forefathers would have: by car, with the air conditioning on (let’s face it: you have to go back three generations now to find a forefather that didn’t have access to a car).

The important thing to understand about Death Valley is that while today it is a desert of considerable aridity, it used to be an inland sea of considerable humidity. I’m not entirely clear on where the water went, but it did leave a calling card. At the Devil’s Golf Course, the retreating waters left an enormous field of giant lumps of crystallized salt. Walking across them is a risky proposition: the spiky lumps make the less-than-sure-footed pay dearly for missteps. Scrape yourself on one and you instantly learn why the phrase “salt in the wound” is never meant as a positive.

Next we headed to Badwater Springs, which is the lowest spot in North America (being a few hundred feet below sea level). It too is a vast, salt covered plain, but instead of brownish lumps, the eye is confronted with an expanse of brilliant white across the valley, apparently reaching to the Panamint Mountains on the other side.

Jon and I took a stroll out in it, and it was very disorienting. All of our Canadian-honed sensory cues were telling us that we were walking across snow - white flakes, crunching under our feet - except it was hot. Also, we could feel the moisture fleeing our bodies just standing out there.

As the sun continued to climb, we hit a couple of the shorter day-hike suggestions we’d gleaned from the visitor’s center – Natural Bridge Canyon and Golden Canyon. The weird dislocating sensation continued: the canyons looked exactly like a million others I’d seen in cowboy movies on afternoon t.v. It was much the same sensation as when I first visited Paris or New York: you see a place a million times on t.v. or in the movies, and it feels familiar to you, even when you’ve never been there before.

Of course, in those movies no cowboy enters a canyon without getting shot at by some rifle totin’ bandit hiding behind the ledge. That’s what canyons are for, in my mind, so it was rather unnerving strolling up one, given that the entirety of my subconscious could almost feel some black-hatted ne’er do well drawing a bead on my back.

Also, canyons are frickin’ HOT. The temperature that day wasn’t too high, by Death Valley standards, but in Golden Canyon, at around noon, there was no shade anywhere, and the sun was reflecting off the pale yellow rock of the cliffsides in all directions. It was like being in an EZ-Bake oven outfitted with a Krieg light. We decided, fairly early on in our Golden Canyon hike to not do the six mile loop and content ourselves with the less than 2 mile walk up to the Cathedral rock. Sadly, we arrived at those rocks to find that while they resembled a Cathedral in shape, they did not in terms of shelter or shade from the sun.

The last place on our first day’s itinerary were the sand dunes near the northern end of the park. These were fascinating, in that they looked exactly like I’d picture the Sahara or Arabian deserts to look: endless undulating hills of sand. They were a disappointment though, in that there was an information plaque warning that scorpions and rattlesnakes used to the dunes as a place to burrow away from the relentless daytime heat. This wasn’t disappointing the sense that it prevented us from wandering around in the dunes – but it was in the sense that we did not, in fact, see any. This was probably better for our health in the long run, but our inner-ten-year olds were sorely disappointed.

NEXT: The Final Installment – Surprise!