When friends suggested going to Death Valley for Christmas I was startled. It was not exactly a warm and fuzzy name. But in the end I agreed to join them for a camping trip in this desert wilderness in south-eastern California.
I was about to discover just how wonderful a desert could be.
It was late afternoon when we arrived following a long drive from Los Angeles. After setting up camp, we started exploring. Within minutes of the campsite we found Zabriskie Point where, over the aeons, the elements had chiselled rocks into dramatic angular formations. With the deep blue desert sky as backdrop, the many hued rocks looked splendid as the sun started setting.
Nearby, a canyon called Artist's Palette let us walk among rocks coloured by minerals. Further south, a steep uphill drive led us to a panoramic view over Badwater, a long shallow water basin between mountains whose snow-clad peaks reflected on the still water. At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater is the lowest point in the Northern Hemisphere. Its undrinkable brackish water supports snails and the endemic Death Valley pupfish.
Two volcanic craters, Ubehebe and Little Hebe, sat a longer drive away. I circumnavigated Ubehebe's crater on a circular trail. At one point both sides of the narrow trail fell sharply and I froze, eventually crawling through that part. Later I saw others face trouble at the same spot. The bowl-shaped crater, covered with grey volcanic soil, descended several hundred feet.
The sand dunes in Mesquite Flats were continuously moulded by shifting winds. The sand made three-dimensional forms with soft edges that curved and twisted creating dramatic photographic opportunities. Nocturnal wildlife, including sidewinder snakes, birds and lizards left their tracks in the sand.
We could stop virtually anywhere in the desert and start hiking. The terrain challenged but never stopped us. The air was so clear that it created telescopic vision making distant points appear closer. One morning I started walking towards a hill that looked ten minutes away. It took me an hour to reach it; along the way I encountered a friendly burro, the wild donkey that roams the desert.
I learned that a desert is not just sand. It is also mountains, rocks, canyons, caverns and even small bodies of water. Life here has adapted to the extreme conditions. For example, seeds of wildflowers stay dormant for decades until it rains. Then, for a short week, the desert becomes awash in colours. Once upon a time Shoshone Indians lived a nomadic life in this valley and the surrounding mountains but today park rangers and staff are the only residents.
But the best part of Death Valley was mental. Exposed to the elements in the wide open desert with few distractions, I was forced to look inward, marvelling at the passage of time, pondering my place in Creation and ultimately sensing an inner peace. I began to see how spiritual a desert could be.
Death Valley is in the Mojave Desert in South-eastern California, famous for being the hottest place on earth. Its name comes from a group of settlers who perished here in 1849 while trying to reach the California gold mines. A National Park was established here by President Clinton.
Since that trip in 1983 I returned to Death Valley many times in winter. It always rejuvenated me.
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