Wednesday, March 31, 2010


The first thing anyone notices (or at least the first thing I always notice) about Death Valley is its unapologetic inhospitality. You drive over the rise of the highway from Beatty, Nevada and a vast, cracked valley of barren land stretches out before you, and you cannot help but think of empty hands extended. Of cupped palms dry of water. Of stark denial.

Photo courtesy of Death Valley NP

If you've read up on the valley, you next think of the doomed Manley wagon train who gave the valley its name in 1849, and you can imagine the depth of their despair at this first glimpse of everything they did not want to find.

But then you look again.

And as you explore the park, you find creases in the cracked land. You find hot springs, and sand dunes, and washes twisting up canyon walls. You stand looking out over the desolate valley, and suddenly, you can see the way the sun sets the Paramint Mountains to shades of amber, then rose. You notice the ribbons of color in the boulders framing your hikes. You listen to the silence.

These gifts of the park are subtle, and--I won't lie--subtle isn't usually my 'thing'. But I think that’s why I like Death Valley so much (well, that and the weather). It isn’t like Yosemite, with its Half Dome that universally impresses. It’s not like Yellowstone, with its gushing parlor games. There’s not one feature of the huge park (biggest in size in the continental U.S.) which I can honestly say draws a consistent 'wow'. To appreciate Death Valley, you have to be observant. You have to be still. You have to look closely.

We began our first full day in the national park hiking up Golden Canyon and continuing on past Manley Peak to Zabriskie Point.

Manley Peak 

The three mile trek includes some pretty arduous climbs, but the first mile is a gentle affair twisting up a washed out road through the canyon. It’s shaded, and pretty, and if you time your hike right, the morning sun casts the canyon walls to striking shades of gold (hence its name).

Every few yards, a cracked chasm in the rock framing the road leads up the canyon side, and the boys followed each of these paths like dogs on a scent, zig-zagging their way up the wash. Some chasms they could walk into, but others required some scrambling as they climbed up, pulling themselves into the crevice by their arms. Then they could follow its winding path (formed in the soft rock bed by infrequent flash floods) up and up and up, until one of us called them back. They looked like little ants traversing an ant farm.

Calvin, up the trail in front of us.

Higher up, the trail got tough, and the sun blazed down, and Toby struggled with the terrain. I walked with him steadily, holding his hand, until we were directly under the huge rock fortress that is Manley Peak. For a brief moment as we were passing under, its shadow fell over us, and he stopped, staring up. Even he knew that for anything at all to block out the sun in Death Valley--even a massive stone ediface--is rare.

Over the top, there were more hills, up and down and up and down through the rippling borax and salt deposits that make up the land here. I transferred Toby to Charlie's shoulders. The sun was back in full force.

Goofy Toby, trying to look triumphant upon crossing
the Manley Peak pass.

The morning lengthened. Toby found a lizard and stopped to study it for ten minutes. Nate found the entrance to an old opal mine, intrigued as only a ten-year-old boy (and his thirty-something father and uncle) could be by the extensive danger signs planted all around it.

Nate, about halfway from Manley Peak to Zabriskie Point.

Zabriskie Point was hot and windy, but the view was spectacular. We could see all the way to the Badlands to the left and kne that our home for the week--Furnace Creek Ranch--lay somewhere straight out ahead. The sky was a rich blue above us.

“Awesome,” someone said, and then we all stared out over the desert anew, and I was so, so grateful that my family and I, mountain and tree lovers from the pacific northwest, could take this in, uncover all there is on offer, and adjust our definition of beauty to include it.

Me, Calvin (yelling), Toby (eating something), Charlie, Nate

(Then we tried to take a family photo, and only 3/5 of us cooperated, of course.)

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