So I’ve travled all over the US, but I haven’t made it to California… until now.
My college roommate and very good friend, Howard, and I decided to hike around the hinterland of California. Death Valley, Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequioa…
I flew into Las Vegas from Philadelphia; Howard made the flight from Fresno. After organizing ourselves we headed west, and out of Nevada, toward Death Valley. I’d been in deserts before in New Mexico(White Sands National Monument) and in Utah(Moab, Arches National Park), but Death Valley is something else entirely.
It was hot, over 100 degrees, but tolerable. The view from Zabriskie Point was awe inspiring. The first thing I thought of was walking on another planet. I’ve lived in Pennsylvania all my life, so even in the dog days of August in the middle of a drought… the trees at least were green. Here there was no life visible. There were no bugs, no birds. No sounds but the steady, and hot, breeze.
As we hopped back in the car and cranked the AC, I wondered aloud about the people first came this way. They’d headed overland to the paradise they’d been told that California was. They’d already crossed the Great Plains, the Rockies, the high plateau of Utah/Nevada and now they were confronted with this desert waste.
It must have been shattering. Now think about the people who stayed…
We followed the road down to the lowest point in the US, Badwater. 282 feet below sea level. Before us lay a great salt flat. As we stepped out of the car the heat and the gritty, salty wind knocked us back. When it’s hot in the desert people say, “Oh, but it’s a dry heat.” At a certain temperature, it’s just unbearably hot, unconscionably hot, unimaginably hot… so hot that you search for ways to describe it. Like opening an oven and getting that initial wince-inducing blast–no, that’s not hot enough! Take a 40 mph wind, add a 200 degree frying pan beneath your feet, mix in a sandy, salty tear-inducing wind, and finish off with the vision of what a Thanksgiving turkey experiences… we were roasting alive.
We walked away from the crowds of tourists out into the salt flat. (In a side note, the park was full of German tourists which seemed odd. Why come halfway around the globe to wander around in a desert? Isn’t the Sahara far closer to Germany?) This was to become a theme of our trip. Howard and I found the places other people didn’t go. The solitary paths.
And at 122 degrees most people wisely went back to their cars after only a few minutes. We spent almost a half hour out in that heat.
Finally back in the car, we headed for Artist’s Palette, a picturesque drive through the visually stunning geologic area.
It had taken a while, but eventually I found some sign of life in this devil’s anvil. The Desert Holly, so named because of its resemblance to true Holly with its red berries. This one appeared dead and well baked by the August heat, but with the cooler temperatures in winter(high of 65 on average) and a little rain… it’d bounce back. All its energy is stored underground just waiting.
Back in the car we headed for the general store at Furnace Creek. Since everything had to be hauled in prices were exorbitant. Unfortunately we needed gas after the drive from Las Vegas.
The sun was dipping toward the horizon so we headed on to our campsite.
The Wildrose campsite is at 4,100 feet and at the foot of 9,064 Wildrose peak. This part of the park is little traveled. Our goal was to hike Telescope Peak the next day. Little did I know the repercussions of that decision.
The campsite was not much to see, but the mountains around us were spectacular in the dying light.
As we enjoyed the silence and solitude of the mountains, the sun set on the first day of our trip. With a my camera resting on the hood of our rented RAV4 I could capture the splendor of the sun set with a 30 second exposure.
After living in Harrisburg for the last 2 1/2 years, I’d gotten accustomed to a certain amount of noise at night. Car doors, traffic on 2nd Street, the odd siren in the distance. Even back home in the woods above St. Peter’s Village, there were night sounds… birds and crickets. But here in Death Valley there was nothing. The air was still. It was an eerie silence.
After the heat we’d experienced, it was nice to settle into our sleeping bags as the night air cooled to the mid-60s. I awoke several times before I realized the full moon above was so bright it was waking me up. The panoply of stars above were startling after years of living in the city and seeing no stars at night.
Eventually I was able to get to sleep, but Howard woke me up at about 4am. There was something walking, crunch-crunch, outside our tent…
Day 2 next post.