Friday, July 17, 2009

As Low as You Can Go

I must admit, I was not entirely wildly enthusiastic when Garry expressed interest in touring Death Valley. But I know that this side trip is on Garry's (very long) bucket list, so I go along for the ride. Somehow, despite the romantic imagery of Death Valley Days on t.v. in the 1950s, I didn't expect this to be a highlight of our trip.

For those who are too young to have grown up with the western television shows of the 50s & 60s, a little background: this was the show that featured the young actor Ronald Reagan. The intro to the show was memorable --

"As the early morning bugle call of the covered wagon trains fades away among the echoes, another true Death Valley Days is presented by the famous Borax family of products- 20 Mule Team Borax and Boraxo. "

Now we begin to understand this legendary sponsorship, as we pass white powder landscape that has to be borax, a highway exit that points to Twenty Mule Team Road, and an industrial processing plant that certainly must be Boraxo.

The very light traffic of the highway dwindles to nothing as we head into Death Valley National Forest. There, we begin an ascent that goes to more than 5,000 feet, over parched ground with little growing besides scrubby shrubs. The name of the valley is no mystery. Today is a good day to experience the true DV: the thermometer climbs to 120 degrees (!) during our 100+ mile trek. It is also a good day to keep the car roof up, and the a/c humming -- which we do. We also make great use of our amply-filled water bottles.

But I have to admit that the views are spectacular, the ride thrilling, and my attitude suitably adjusted. Even as the daylight begins to dim, and the road begins to feel very, very lonely, I am fascinated by nature's artistry, by the thoughts of pluck and determination of early travelers who first crossed this valley in the mid-1800s, and by the quest for the low point of the trail, which is in fact the lowest point not only in the U.S. but in the entire Western Hemisphere. We see believably vivid mirages of lake water in the long-dry lake beds. (Sorry, sons, no ducks here!) At long last, we arrive at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the valley at 282 feet below sea level. The "badwater" that gives the place its name is the water that bubbles up from below the surface, so salty that even the pack animals that helped the early travelers would not drink the water. The small bit of water that we see now is surrounded by salt crisps and occasional small holes in the sand where water continues to boil and bubble. We learn with little surprise that the natural water here is even saltier than the ocean.

Another phenomenon of Badwater Basin: tourists! This is in fact the first time all day that we have encountered tourists in our off-the-beaten-path escapades.

We continue on in the waning light, through terrain created with a heavenly artist's pallette: red, pin, yellow, colored by the iron oxides within; green, purple, tinted by volcanic mineral contents. We stop by the side of the road to collect rocks for Jim's collection, and find some that look strikingly like volcanic rock. We drive through canyons cut into alluvial fans, and marvel at the geologic variety.

Driving out of Death Valley and on into the starry night, we feel a sense of peace in the world. Until, quite suddenly, the dark emptiness that had sparkled only with the starlight at this new moon becomes ablaze with bling. Arising from the distant desert there comes a giant display of lights and flash and color.

Las Vegas ahead!

1 comment:

  1. "Ablaze with bling". Hilarious. Leave it to Las Vegas to spoil something good.