Thursday, March 17, 2016
After a time, we leave the first shock of wildflowers behind and drop all the way to the valley floor. Robin appears speechless as Death Valley’s scale presents itself. The park is 140 miles from top to bottom, primarily stretching between the Panamint and Amargosa ranges with subsequent valleys to the north between the Inyo, Saline, and Last Chance ranges. We will spend days crisscrossing it at high speeds, knowing we’ll see only a fraction at best.
It is strange being back. Death Valley has been the vacation spot of choice for three generations, an annual tradition to flee south from the dregs of the rainy Oregon winter to spend spring break baking in the sun and heat. My mother has albums full of the square, yellow-cast photos from the 70s of her and my aunts in their teens and early 20s. They grew up, my cousins were born, and we all just kept coming to Death Valley, following Grandpa Poppy’s “tried and true” route without exception or deviation.
Visits to Death Valley are strong waypoints throughout my life. Some of my earliest memories are of tearing around Furnace Creek Ranch as a child with my cousins in our bathing suits, mine shiny and red with little sailboats. Or of scrambling up the mesquite trees’ shaggy bark. Of being 10 and exploring abandoned borax mining tunnels and equipment. Of Poppy always seated in his folding lawnchair in the sun, roasting, getting yelled at by Grandma that he was going to burn. Of being 15 and seeing Hale-Bopp Comet’s two tails, one blue, one gold, fanning alien and bright across the sky. Of being 22 and here with a previous partner, barreling down Badwater Road in his white pickup truck listening to Modest Mouse’s new album Good News For People Who Love Bad News, my short cropped hair bound up in a neon pink silk scarf that flapped against my neck in the hot breeze.
Our relationship wouldn’t survive to see Modest Mouse’s next album, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank, but this was my last trip to Death Valley over 10 years ago, and that’s where the bookmark rested until now.
Robin and I set up camp at Panamint Springs then immediately head up the road to see Darwin Falls, one of the few year-round sources of water in Death Valley. It’s named not for the famous Charles but for Dr. Erasmus Darwin Finch, a physician, soldier, questionable poet, and prospector convinced, like so many others, that silver lay buried in Death Valley’s hills. Remember this name, because it will come up again and again.
We take a left onto an unmarked, unpaved road pocked with some lethal potholes and soon find the trailhead, a gravel patch in an unremarkable, dusty wash. Around the first rocky bend the trail darkens as it begins holding water. Soon we are following Darwin Creek on our left–barely a trickle–with a rusted pipe bolted into the canyon wall to our right, the primary water source for the Panamint Springs settlement below. Leaks abound in the ancient pipe, easily recognizable due to the islands of grass, shrubs, and flowers growing in tight bunches within the spray’s reach.
Almost at once, the trickle is a fully-formed creek feeding a proliferation of cottonwood trees, grapevines, ferns, mosses, violets, yellow monkeyflower, and reeds.
These are plants more suited to our stomping grounds in the Columbia Gorge than the Mojave Desert and the contrast between this vein of greenery and the barren, brutal heat waiting just 25 feet in either direction is startling. Just when it can’t get any more surreal, we find the falls.
We are spoiled with waterfalls in Oregon: giant, towering, and deafening. By comparison, Darwin Falls are quite petite, a modest amount of water falling from a modest height into a modest emerald pool, but the sheer surprise and impossibility of this sight in the middle of the desert surpasses the normal measures.
Further upstream–and up a 4×4 only road where our subcompact car is not welcome–is another pool flanked with cottonwood trees and a lone rusted chair called China Garden Spring, inexplicably filled with feral koi fish. I have so many questions about this. Where did they come from? How do they survive the 120+ summer heat? What other surprises does the desert have to reveal?
We stop briefly at camp to load up dinner items then set out to find a cooking spot, a backpacking habit that’s bled into our regular travels. At the top of the western park entrance pass, Robin pulls into the Father Crowley Waypoint where we enjoy views of Rainbow Canyon, the Darwin Plateau, and Panamint Valley beyond. We plop down into the sand and Robin surveys our dinner supplies (andouille sausages, potato salad, and baked beans, the car-camping trifecta Robin calls “The Volcano”), noting that we have apparently forgotten to pack utensils. Undeterred and starving, I MacGyver “spoons” out of the potato salad and bean can lids then pioneer a revolutionary new food item I refer to as the “Volcano Burrito.” Robin is not convinced and looks on in mixed horror and fascination.
The sun goes down as we eat, the desert a brief flash of gold before slipping into shades of cornflower blue, denim, and indigo. Watching the valley below, it strikes me how outside of time Death Valley feels. In its starkness, it has the appearance of being frozen and unchanging, the same as when viewed by my eyes at 6, 10, 15, 22, and now 33. Of course this isn’t true; the desert is always shifting and changing in sometimes volatile ways; Death Valley saw 100-year flooding that nearly destroyed Scottie’s Castle and wiped out several sections of road in 2015. But when the water recedes, the playa dries out again, and the salt flats recrystallize, it’s nearly imperceptible.
The effect feels like a loop, like carbon copies of myself and my family at all ages are still running around in the valley below. That I could wave and smile at the little girl in the red swimming suit while buying an ice cream at the Furnace Creek Store. Or spy a younger Poppy stooping to pick up the dates fallen from the palms in the RV lot, collecting them in his pale blue fisherman’s hat. Or pass the white pickup truck and catch a few notes of the girl in pink scarf singing “Float On.”
They–no, we–are all still here, imprints. And now Robin and I are, too. The next time we return, we might pass ourselves on this plateau, laying in the sandy rock watching the stars appear in the sky so black that it threatens to swallow everything whole.
“When I opened my eyes I saw nothing but the pool of nocturnal sky, for I was lying on my back with out-stretched arms, face to face with that hatchery of stars. Only half awake, still unaware that those depths were sky, having no roof between those depths and me, no branches to screen them, no root to cling to, I was seized with vertigo and felt myself as if flung forth and plunging downward like a diver.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery