Welcome to the wild Death Valley territory

Satellite Image of Death ValleySatellite image of Death Valley

Jack 18

An image more down to Earth

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text by Steve Greene

photographs by Jack Freer

Examine a map of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico … you’ll notice an interesting phenomenon. I call it the Baja Rift, a tearing of the land at the western edge of this continent as the sea floor spreads. Baja California is separated from Mexico by the Sea of Cortez, and if you follow an imaginary line northwesterly from that body of water, you’ll pass over the lowly Salton Sea, and eventually end up in a deep and long chasm bordered by the Panamint Range to the west and the Amargosa Range to the east. This sink is the lowest overland extension of the Baja Rift, much of which is below sea level. Its human-given name has proven an emotional curse to this unique and beckoning territory since 1850 …

Death Valley … it has been called a lot of things. Everyone has an opinion … many being unenthusiastic. One thing is clear though … no one can call Death Valley ordinary. There is nothing ordinary here, including the people drawn to it. Some come for a little while. Some come for a lifetime. Regardless of who they are or how long they stay, they come for a reason … because this is a place for the rest of us. A wild place of freedom from a world that we choose to leave behind – at least for a time in our minds.

There is shelter here – a wild place that, because of its alarming reputation, remains a feral retreat from the profound social injustices and brutal atrocities of a sophisticated world gone awry. Cultured society looks upon this vast land as uncivilized and undesirable, a spot of lonely emptiness that scars the map of human progress. The rest of us however, look at this void on the map and see the magnificence and mystery of the land, and realize that, like a tapestry, this diverse land weaves a beauty not understood lest one becomes immersed within it. So we come here and immerse ourselves, free from the hypocrisies of life, and are thankful that the masses choose to remain distant. In our minds, their loss is our gain.

Jack 07The territory in and around Death Valley National Park is as wild as it gets, and due to the ruggedness of the environment here, this Park provides an ambiance of seclusion quite different from its cousins like Yosemite, Teton, or Glacier. Since visitor counts are less here, this wild place truly does offer superb asylum from the rigors of what most people see as indispensable. In addition to the Park’s ninety-six percent wilderness, there are a dozen designated wilderness areas bordering or in close proximity. It’s easy to lose yourself here, both emotionally and physically.

The Death Valley territory is so chock full of history that an area enthusiast can not help but learn of it, and all the primitive earthen backroads in this National Park allow us to readily visit these times of yore in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Roads that once were the major conduits of the era are now the roads not taken by the masses, and are all the more special due to their unpopular status. The adventurous among us can travel these little known byways today and feel as though we are living during a time long ago past. Not much has changed in this land of legend. History is alive and well in the Death Valley backcountry!

As tourist destinations go, Death Valley does not rank among the most prominent or fashionable locales for our culture. Relatively few make the journey to this territory each year. It terrifies most, even though paved roads make travel pretty straightforward for the average motorist. The accurate scope of this land, its geology, and amazing history however, is not fully revealed by traveling the National Park’s relatively limited amount of pavement, and therein lies one of the reasons for popular misinterpretation.

Jack 13Those of us who seek the backcountry found only on earthen pathways not taken by the masses, and who sleep primitively with the land each night, tend to learn considerably more about the region than the majority of tourists in air-conditioned luxury sedans who frequent the fine motel accommodations. Three basic categories may cover it fairly well: 1) those who will never consider a visit, 2) those who will visit the main attractions at least once in luxury, and 3) those who will visit repeatedly all the places that are regarded as inaccessible by the crowds. I undeniably fall into grouping number three. The call of the wild remains strong within.

For a region roughly the size of Connecticut State, ample time allotment is essential, and foreknowledge certainly will assist. A weekend out here will perhaps give the typical visitor a skewed vision of the territory, yet it may be a safe bet that many who make the journey by traditional sedan come to specifically see the most foreboding aspects of this wild country. They likely come to experience all the deathly lore of bygone years, to reinforce in their minds the biased vision that this is a terrible place where humans should only briefly encounter nature at its worst. This world of the Death Valley region has bizarre appeal to a culture whose existence has become soft and easy, where challenges of a life and death level are rarely known. So, folks seek out Death Valley to say they have “been there” and lived to tell about it.

This briefing and website existso that you might glimpse that there is more to this territory than traditionally meets the unstudied eye. One of my main objectives here on this website, and most certainly in my published journal, is to dispel erroneous notions that the Death Valley territory is a horrible place to visit, although, if that were ever widely accepted, then this magical locale in these western lands might suffer the same fate as the more popular National Parks such as Yellowstone, where long lines of bumper-to-bumper automobiles make the visit far from a unique wilderness experience. What I enjoy in DVNP is the extreme solitude that is easily found nearly anywhere out here, and that is precisely due to the nature of the terrain and the fear that grips the run of the mill person when contemplating a visit.

Jack 10You may well have already personally experienced the beauty and serenity to be found in the Death Valley region, and if you are like me, you love visiting websites devoted to the presentation of the Nation’s second-largest National Park (an enormous 3.4 million acres). There is no other place quite like it, and for those of us with backcountry exploration vehicles, a spirit of adventure, and a need to really get away from the crowds, there are over 1300 miles of dirt backcountry roads on which to explore the desert and mountains of the region. If you are new to Death Valley, be prepared for a unique love affair with this land of vast contrasts! As a woman called it in 1927, “The most romantic desert in America.” Of course, it’s so much more than a desert!

What is it about this place that beckons approximately a million people to visit yearly? What is it that keeps some people returning for a lifetime? Are there things not readily apparent to the casual observer? Can it all be experienced from the few paved roads that exist within its boundaries? Why do the Timbisha Shoshone people, who trace their roots back to valley inhabitants of 10,000 years ago, call it the Valley of Life? Why did the United States Government establish it as a National Monument in 1933, and a National Park in 1994? Why did miners flock to the area for nearly a century? Is it the rugged snowcapped mountains, the parched alkaline lake flats, the springtime carpets of colorful wildflowers? Is it the history of wild-west characters, the unmatched solitude, the deafening quiet? Is it the varied recreational activities, the clean air, the need to challenge nature on an extreme level? Is it the majestic vistas, the secret and secluded hikes, the need to explore old mining roads? Or is it the friendly and helpful Park staff, the modern facilities, and the ease of visiting in contemporary times?

Well, it’s all those things and more … many of which cannot be successfully translated into the written or spoken word! Although I attempt to briefly portray the region here in a nutshell, only visiting in person will drive the point home. No gorgeous photograph or eloquent sentence will do justice to this geological wonderland of eastern California and western Nevada. There is only one way to comprehend what brings people here, and it’s not going to happen while we sit glued to our computers :) Even though Death Valley clearly isn’t for everyone, to people who love desert and rugged mountain environments there are few equals in the terrestrial neighborhood (or extraterrestrial for that matter).

Jack 12Probably the most obvious initial reason for the Park’s popularity is the distinctive geological composition that resides within its boundaries. Badwater, the lowest walkable terra-firma in northern America, is to be found here, at 282 feet below sea level, and it sits below Telescope Peak, which is 11,331 feet higher! Not far to the west, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, is Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states, at 14,494 feet. To the east of Badwater is Dante’s View, at 5,475 elevation. And surrounding this low Earthly piece of ground is an immense expanse of land that was buried under several feet of salt when an ancient lake finally evaporated roughly 2,000 years ago. The popular name for this phenomenon is Devil’s Golf Course.

Another great place to contemplate how the natural world functions is at the mysterious Racetrack Playa. It is an old lake bed that occasionally becomes unbelievably wet and slick during the winter months, and then strange things happen! Large rocks weighing several hundred pounds move across it, leaving deep gouges in the normally-hardpacked surface. According to all accounts, no one has ever seen a rock move, but when you walk out the half-mile onto the lake bed when it is dry to view this mystery up close, the obvious lack of other marks on the ground indicate that wind and water must surely play the leading roles. And only an occasional military fighter jet buzzing the lake will break the powerful feeling of solitude. Another marvel is Ubehebe Crater, a massive hole in the ground about half a mile across, caused by magma superheating confined underground water that could only expand by shooting tons of earth into the sky roughly 6,000 years ago.

The valley itself was formed over an incomprehensibly long time period as two faults approximately 30 miles apart and running roughly parallel in a northwesterly direction, caused the uplifting of the two mountain ranges known today as the Panamint and Amargosa. The depression between the ranges is what we now call Death Valley, but the bedrock of the valley is up to 10,000 feet lower than the ground we walk on at the salt flats! The current surface is an accumulation of earth that has eroded out of the mountains and filled in the sink over the eons of geological change. The magnitude of these things is nearly unimaginable to such finite beings as ourselves, and perhaps that is why we find it all so fascinating.

Jack 09Ancient seas once covered the area many millions of years ago. Fossils of marine animals can be found in the Park, along with sediment left by the waters. Later, Death Valley was the site for large lakes during periodic Ice Ages, evidenced by carved terraces that were caused by wind and wave action. Water flowed down Wingate Wash 75,000 years ago into the valley lowlands, called Lake Manly by geologists today. High water existed around 15,000 years ago. As we drive our BEVs through the valley lowlands, try to imagine this aqueous history! Locations like Shoreline Butte still provide evidence of the ancient waters.

Even today the environmental changes continue nonstop. In our short lifetimes, it seems to remain fairly constant, but evidence presents itself in the form of alluvial fans that can differ in appearance one year to the next as flood waters occasionally rage down canyons to the desert floor. You’ll know the geological processes are still alive if you ever behold a flash flood! In 2005, after unusually heavy rains, people were seen kayaking and canoeing at Badwater. Did I mention that this is a land of diverse contrasts?

Another factor that surely accounts for many people’s need to visit and interact with the area on a personal level is the name itself … Death Valley. What does this moniker bring to our minds? Does it challenge our long-forgotten primordial urges to conquer natural adversity and adapt to inhospitable environments? For many, rising to the challenge of exploring this unusual expanse of ecological diversity, and returning home alive to tell tales of their adventures, must surely be part of the lure. Early wealth-seekers paid high prices for venturing here, often in the form of human life, ergo the valley’s unattractive name, but today we can explore in relative safety. As author Richard Lingenfelter writes in his book, Death Valley & The Amargosa, “Once that awful name had been fixed upon it, Death Valley had become a place in the mind, far beyond geography and history. It had become a mirage not only of limitless wealth but of countless horrors, which had started in whispers around the campfires and in the saloons and which had spread through the Sunday supplements and penny dreadfuls to more reputable works.”

Jack 06The 1800s brought false promises of easy riches, hence young men threw caution to the wind in their haste to fill their pockets with money. In the history of the mining years of Death Valley, one can see reflected the realities of our human world, as we attempt to make our way through life while providing the necessities for survival. A complex microcosm of human existence dramatically played out amid the vast stretches of desert and mountains, facilitated by lustful greed. Also evident is the need for many people to obtain wealth and material goods at the expense of others’ welfare. The sad stories of these “Breyfoglers” (people searching for precious metals, after the namesake who reportedly found a fabulous strike but then lost its location) should serve as a lesson for compassionate people everywhere, showing us what money, power, and greed will do to the human mind. But this short-lived and wild mining history is but a small blip on the screen of time. And while we may find certain behaviors reprehensible, it is now all locked inexorably into the siren’s song of this most desolate of Earthly locales.

The first people of the area, dating back approximately 10,000 years, were not after quick and easy wealth, and therefore made wiser decisions. These early groups of humans took actions based on sustaining life on a day to day basis, so they adapted well to the extremes of the region. The Shoshone and Piutes lived well in the region, moving their camps as nature dictated. They spent the hot summer months in the cool Panamint Mountains, and the cold winter months in the mild valley. By using this life model, these people were able to minimize their shelter requirements, and certainly didn’t need to construct elaborate dwellings as the latter day miners did to survive a less than optimal climate. They are examples of how mutually working for a common goal of the group’s welfare is a recipe for success. As in our safaris, discretion and planning for the common good make the difference between success and failure.

Whatever your reason for coming to Death Valley National Park, it is sure to be a memorable experience, whether it’s your first time or your twentieth. The Timbisha Shoshone people call Death Valley something else … something you’ll understand if you look closely. Welcome to the Valley of Life!

Jack 11Jack 21Jack 20Jack 19Jack 16Jack 15Jack 08Jack 05Jack 04Visit Jack Freer’s landscape photography website by clicking HERE.

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To visit the Wild Death Valley blog page, click HERE.

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