Oh, Death Valley, how I love thee! Let me count the ways…
- You’re silent. I don’t mean quiet – I mean silent. As soon as I’m a mile away from a road, the only thing making noise is me. Maybe there’s a little wind, or birds chirping, or ravens croaking, or a plane tearing overhead on its way to LA. But usually not. The soundtrack tends to be made up of the crunch of my footsteps, the sound of my breathing, the ringing of my pulse in my ears. If I stop and hold my breath (and try to control my heart rate), there’s nothing. Sweet, sweet nothing. You let me control the volume, and I love you for it.
- You’re huge. I get the feeling that I could spend a year within your boundaries, 365 days, and not see everything you have to offer. I’ve now been to the same places multiple times, and they always look different. Sunlight shines from a different angle and illuminates different colors. Sand shifts. Mud melts. Time changes. And you’ve got over 3 million acres. I haven’t even scratched your surface.
- You’re the exact opposite of what I’m used to. I grew up in the northeast, where most winters bring high snowfall and chilly temps (lake effect belt, check), and the other three months of the year bring high humidity, hot days, and lots of rain. Your rainiest month is February, when you get just 0.38 inch of rain. You’re barren, arid, harsh, brutal. Your humidity is so low you greedily take my moisture.
- You shrug off the marks of your human inhabitants. Sure, there’s a mine shaft here, a few ruined timbers there, an attempt at building a rock wall over there. There’s the current road, there’re a few small groupings of buildings at oases like Furnace Creek. But for the most part, you’re startlingly empty. You look the way you’ve always looked for thousands of years. And at every opportunity, you try to erase the surface scratchings of us silly humans with your flash floods and erosion. I get used to the lack of human imprint, and, as soon as I leave you, the sights of regular buildings, mini malls, and telephone poles stab my eyes.
- You’re full of colorful dirt. So many colors of dirt. When I was a kid, my brother and I would dig around our house, looking for colored dirt. Besides the regular old brown and black and sand, we’d find white dirt, red dirt, yellow dirt. It was like we were mining for precious commodities…dirt. My brother became a geologist. I just like to look at colored dirt.
- I can’t hurt you. I recently read the fabulous Sahara Unveiled by William Langewiesche, a serendipitous find at the Carpenteria Friends of the Library Bookstore. Amongst many other interesting things, Langewiesche theorizes about the continuing French fascination with their former African desert colonies — his theory is that the French feel they had overbuilt their own country and ruined its natural appeal, but that the Sahara, as an already ruined place, can’t be destroyed by mere humans. It is already ruined, so they were free to do as they pleased. In my own small way, I feel the same way about you, Death Valley. I know that I need to be careful as I trod across your surface – that I should keep my feet on washes, desert cement (really compacted mud and rocks), or exposed rock, that I shouldn’t step on any plants or plantlets, and that, if walking in an area that is not hard-surfaced, I should try not to walk on a trodden trail or on the top of ridgelines to avoid creating a permanent path. But other than that, I’m free. I can do whatever I want, go wherever I want, walk as far as my legs can carry me. How many places offer that kind of freedom? It’s liberating.