Sunday, April 6, 2008

Them Thar Hills!#4: Chemical Desert

When I wake up in Emeryville, I stay under the blankets as long as I can. In the mountains, I rise with dawn’s first light.

On the morning after we arrived in Lone Pine, California, I spent a couple of hours trying to capture the special light on the Canon before awaking Elizabeth. The town’s back streets seemed populated by wary dogs and horses that grazed in rough little ranchettes on the outskirts.

Around ten, we drove south down 395 for a mile, then turned east on 190, the northwest road into Death Valley National Park. I took photos all along the way, but was too slow on the draw to nail a wandering coyote (canis latrans).(Would this be a post-modern vacation, experienced entirely through a camera lens?)

We drove down the northeast shore of Owens Lake, a body of water once sixty feet deep that nourished Owens Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in California a hundred years ago, before Los Angeles—via visionary William Mulholland—pronounced it theirs. Even now, though, pools of water remain along its impoverished bottom, glistening like forgotten tailings of silver.

The sun rose, the air grew hotter. In the distance, down parched slopes of brush, scattered forest of Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia)
grew widely spaced to keep a frail pact over sparse water supplies, a defiant miracle in a world that looks too impoverished to support anything but scrub. Desert tree still sounds like an oxymoron.

We entered the park and reached Crowley Point around noon, at the top of the first of two long descents to reach Death Valley. Ravens greeted us, seeking handouts, but you don’t ever feed the wild animals, not on purpose. The salt flats of the Saline Valley spread out below looking like sterile ice. The great distances below were unnerving.

Hold out your hand, please, thank you . . . .

Crowley Point was named after Father John Crowley. A plaque christens him “The Padre of the Desert.” Further research tells the story of a Catholic priest who devoted his ministry (and finally sacrificed his life) to raising Owens Valley and Inyo County from the dead after L.A. had sucked its lifeblood away. He helped turn the area into a major tourist destination for outdoor enthusiasts. Maybe he liked the ravens, too.

Stark beauty all around, enough to make me dizzy. But what about the pioneers who first struggled through here in 1849--1850? There’s what we see now and there’s what they saw then. Sure, they were astounded all right: maybe astounded by despair. To them, this land was just one great wall to struggle over after another, rising from hell hot to hell freezing and back down again, almost like Prometheus, but for them the stone rolled down the other side instead. Even after making it through Death Valley to the south, cruel Mojave Desert lay in wait up ahead. Who among them would see beauty in this arid vastness? Who of us now wouldn’t shrink from the car-less journey they made?

After Panamint Springs (a brief white flash of RVs, huddling behind desert trees), we crossed the Saline Valley. On the steep climb up the Panamint Range on other side, we made encouraging noises to the struggling Toyota—if it were a horse or mule, it would’ve stared at us like we were loco before collapsing. We crossed over Towne Pass then down the barren slopes on the other side and stopped at Stovepipe Wells. Death Valley finally sprawled before our eyes. Spring tourists wandered everywhere, but this world is so radical, no one–not me in cowboy khaki, either--looked like they belong here.

The name “Death Valley” sticks for good reason: to this day, tenderfoots, city- and suburb-bred, still occasionally go a-wandering and don’t make it back. Maybe this happens from lack of attention, education or maybe they’d become inured from seeing deserts only on TV sets or movies in air-conditioned rooms (Maybe all desert-set movies should be watched in temperatures of plus-100ºF, no concession stand, either). Their fates hover around my mind. I did learn one useful thing from
watching those westerns, A and B, alike: Don’t screw around out here. In this world, water is the only gold, so carry plenty and keep help close by.

Still, once our awe had simmered a little, it was time to steer the car onto a few shoulders and down some side-roads. Seems we were a bit late for the wild flowers: Only scattered yellow patches of desert sunflowers (Geraea canescens) remained. Outside Stovepipe, past the sand dunes, we wandered apiece through the Devil’s Cornfield, a bleak garden of Arrowweed (Pluchea sericea) plants that struggled up through crusty sand that crumbled under our shoes (apparently this indicates a
shallow water table of about 5 feet).

Some miles on, we turned onto a washboard road. A shuddering couple-mile drive ended at a low little canyon they call Salt Creek. Salt Creek runs year-round through the Death Valley’s furnace heart and so brings life to a rich marsh oasis.

The most visible animal in this narrow-gauge environment is the endangered Salt Creek pupfish (Cyprinodon salinus salinus), a tiny Piscean about half the size of my pinkie. There seemed to be hundreds of them swimming in the clear shallow stream along the mile walkway. I put the Canon to work, taking dozens of photos. (Stop by the house some time. I’ll force you to sit through a slide show of all of them.)

Fascinated, we closely watched the creatures battle through their mating rituals. A thin skin of life in an edgy environment like this is bound to focus you—there’s sure no tin-ass neon around to distract. It’s miraculous how these rare tiny fish are both vulnerable and profoundly tough enough to thrive in this hellscape.

Elizabeth figured out that if she drove a little up on the shoulder, the car wouldn’t shake so much on the way out. Some miles on, riding above the white salt pans stretching below, we made another right into the Harmony Borax Works. Some of you may remember Death Valley Days, a 558-episode TV western once hosted by Ronald Reagan (among others) and sponsored by The Pacific Borax Company. This was one of the mining sites for borax. Though not mined in the valley for years, it’s still a common component in many products. (The orange cliffs in the photo are borax sources.)

The Harmony Borax Works only stayed business for five years in the 1880s. The remote location required them to process the borax for use onsite. The workers were Chinese laborers, exploited for a pittance. Most of them lived onsite, too—like in many “company towns,” the money they earned, they spent at the company store. On that score at least, the company likely wound up losing nothing, which was what the workers got when the works closed down. The huge wagons of borax, dragging a 1,500 gallon water tank, really did require a 20-animal team to ship the finished
product to market (actually 18 mules and two horses). Again, it looks like a grim life, lived by people likely unmoved by nature’s beauty.

A mile on, we came to our last stop: tamed and overbuilt Furnace Creek, Death Valley’s urban center, pop. 31. We checked out the Death Valley Visitor’s Center and learned this: Life only takes hold in areas where sodium makes up no more than 6% of the soil and water. Past 6%, nothing lives. It becomes a true lifeless desert, a chemical desert. Take away Earth’s egg-shell of atmosphere, the whole world would be the Death Valley salt flats.

Badwater, the lowest point in the U.S., lay ahead, but our shadows were long and gas was low. We needed another day we didn’t have. We drove out of the Valley, back to Lone Pine, emerging from the park right at the golden hour: long shadows and clear soft light burnished the land, while up ahead, the blue wall of the Sierras beckoned us yonder.

If it sounds like I didn’t love Death Valley, believe me I did. But it’s the kind of love seen through narrow, wary eyes.


Bill Stankus said...

I haven't been to Death Valley in decades so reading about your travels and such was most interesting.

Once upon a time I hiked in the mountains above DV ... at night there was a lightening storm below us in the valley. That was unforgettable.

Tom Burchfield said...

A "lightning storm below us"? I've never seen that. I'm impressed.

Thanks, Bill!

Bill Stankus said...

Another part of the lightening hike. We were fairly well up the mountain side when we made camp. We didn't use a tent because the sky was spectacular. In the very early morning we heard shuffling sounds and opening our eyes we were looking into the faces of wild burros. These guys were the descendants of animals brought to Death Valley by 19th-century prospectors. After waking us they simply wandered off.

Hugh Lafferty said...

May I ask a favor? I try to enjoy your blog, but every time you post photos of mountains and other high places, it aggravates my acrophobia. Could you be more careful about that in the future?

Thank you.