We ventured to Death Valley National Park this week. I thought that this was the time of year that perhaps the desert was in bloom.
In actuality, what greeted us was vast, desolate,
and mostly dead.
And yet, driving into the Valley at dusk provided me with some of the most spectacular beauty my eyes had ever taken in. There are mountains all around Death Valley - some well over 10,000 feet - and the highway maintains an elevation of 4000 feet for what feels like an eternity after the destination comes into view. The road then plunges deeply downward, taking its traveler to sea level and beyond while the highest peaks, dusted with snow, swallow him in their gaze.
We arrived and walked in silence (oh, the silence of that place) to the isolated ranger station to obtain a permit from a manless machine. On the path we encountered a large, black crow pecking furiously at a bone, alabaster white from endless days under the hot sun. And I thought - how much more of a desert cliché can one experience?
But the Valley is as complex as this desert cliché is simple.
"I didn't really understand what deserts were. I'd taken them to be dry, hot, and sandy places full of snakes, scorpions, and cactuses. They were not that. They were that and also a bunch of other things. They were layered and complex and inexplicable and analogous to nothing." (Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed)
I wish I could capture those complexities. But in the long list of areas in which I fall painfully short, photography is excruciatingly near the top. I try desperately to hold the pictures in my mind's eye, because I know that when I look at the work of my camera (a marvelous device of modern engineering though it may be), disappointment will rule the day.
When we first entered the dunes, I felt an immediate craving for action. A warning sign promised sidewinder rattlesnakes. I looked eagerly (and fearfully) around me, wanting to see this creature's sandy dance.
But there were no creatures. And beyond the few couples that posed for photo ops near the place where sand met gravel, there was only us. The quiet was oppressive at first. Then, as we plunged farther into the seemingly endless dunes, it was telling.
"The silence was tremendous. The absence felt like a weight. This is what I came for, I thought. This is what I got." (Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail)
The animals here are not pretentious, but they are here. They are home. They live in a place where, for much of the year, humans cannot. (Below are bird tracks criss-crossing the dunes, coyote tracks, and my tracks.)
What a glorious place to escape the lively scene at the mall, the hectic pace of holiday traffic, the bright lights of Christmas trees and decorated houses (all of these things immensely beautiful). What an amazing reminder of the vastness and diversity of creation. What a blessing to realize that even the dead places are silently pulsing with life.
How important to know that I am small; smaller than I can appear even in a photo displaying the vastness of a desert. How humbling that shortly after I climb the high dune, my footprints will be blown away and others will be left to wonder, "Has anyone traveled here?"
At the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere (that a person can stand on, anyway), I touched my finger to the ground and brought it to my lips. Salty. Perfectly seasoned. Even in the lowest lows, the most desolate of lands, there can be specks of wonderful. After all, what would the most perfect and beautifully cooked cut of meat taste like without salt? Disappointing.
Death Valley was everything but that.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me." (Psalm 23:4)