Friday, March 18, 2016
The air is already warm, a strange sensation that starts cool against the skin but flares warm at the end of the breeze. The game today will be to hike very early while it’s still a tolerable temperature, then hide in the air conditioned car sightseeing through the worst of the heat. We pull out of the Panamint Springs campground well before dawn, tires crunching on gravel as we pass sleepy campers sluffing back to their tents from the bathroom, flannel pajama pants billowing in the rapidly warming air.
We pull into the Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch parking lot, one of the first few cars. To the left, the Golden Canyon Trail is rapidly swallowed by the sheer walls on either side. To the right, the Gower Gulch Trail stretches flat into the distance, side-hilling just outside the rock walls, the valley’s open expanse stretching away to the right.
The guidebook suggests doing the loop clockwise, but when seeing the few other early risers ambling towards the Golden Canyon entrance, we adjust our gaiters and set off towards Gower Gulch instead. I’m a rebel, Dottie.
After a few miles, the trail angles sharply to the left. With a minor scramble up a short dry fall, we enter Gower Gulch proper. Sound reverberates off of the walls with whispers coming out too loud, kicked gravel elevating to boulders. As the “trail” winds up the gulch, every corner reveals a new rock color and texture and we feel like kids with the playground all to ourselves.
Death Valley recently saw rain and the violent effects of flash floods are evident with muddy high water marks running several feet up the walls. In some spots lucky enough to be shielded from the sun for most of the day, the earth is still moist to the touch with giant cracks like broken china and the delicious smell of damp clay.
As we gain a little elevation, we find the sun at last (or, perhaps, the sun finds us). The shift in air temperature as we leave the last patch of shade behind is startling and we are clammy with sweat by the time we reach the halfway point near the Zabriskie Point trail junction. Clambering up to the high point on the trail, the Badlands spread out around us, barren, golden, and bleached in the sun. The fluted Red Cathedral Walls rise in the distance, a stark contrast in color blazing in the already sharp morning light.
Tiny tourists lined up like ants peer down from the Zabriskie Point parking lot far above. I feel like we’re aliens in a Martian zoo.
We take a break in a shady patch at the base of Manley Beacon and I develop a visceral, voracious craving for ice cream. I see it everywhere now, and the askew, tilted hills below us appear as Neapolitan with amber vanilla, dusty chocolate, and ruddy strawberry mounds. Further away, the rock texture is Pecan Caramel Ripple. I’m hot and ice cream is all I can think about.
As we round into Golden Canyon for the home stretch back to the car, the throngs have caught up. There are no less than two dozen people in sight for the remainder of the jaunt back to trailhead and we easily pass a couple hundred within a mile or so. One wonderful woman is joyfully captivated with the landscape and can’t stop taking pictures.
“The sky is so blue, I don’t have to Photoshop it!” she enthuses.
Arriving back to the parking lot, we encounter a vastly different scene. Cars are everywhere: in the ditch, lined down the road, and overflowing along the main highway’s shoulder. Yet more are still pulling in as we swing back onto the highway, the temperature reaching the high 90s before it’s even hit noon.
Robin and I spend the afternoon in the luxury of our car’s air conditioning, turning down any and all side roads to see what there is to see. We visit Devil’s Golfcourse, Badwater and the salt flats, and cruise further south to see if we can find remnants of the super bloom. The early unseasonably warm weather has toasted the flowers early, so we know we missed their apex by just a few days. But perhaps there are still pockets to be found.
Whipping around a corner, it’s a sudden sea of yellow: fields and fields of densely packed — and blooming! — Desert Gold. What is different about this one microclimate, we don’t know, but Robin and I are giddy with our own little jackpot and spend a long while taking the same photo over and over again.
In another two days, this will all be gone, the plants withering and dissolving back into the parched desert ground. There the seeds will wait for 10 years or more before another perfectly timed and measured volume of rain arrives, waking them up for an appearance flaunting equal parts beauty and tenacity. As a 20-something I visited Death Valley’s last super bloom in 2005, and how odd it is now to survey the ocean of bobbing golden heads and realize that many of these flowers haven’t been here since I was. Such old friends, indeed.
On the way back to camp, we take a drive through the Artist’s Palette, an unreal-looking pile of rock at the top of an alluvial fan, each more unlikely in color than the last due to the varying oxidized mineral content they contain.
Iron shows as red, pink, and yellow. Manganese produces the violets, while decomposed mica appears as green.
I contest this latter part, certain the Park Service just says that to dissuade visitors from clambering up what is obviously a large mound of mint chocolate chip ice cream.
We end up at Zabriskie Point for sunset with about 100 of our closest friends. Many people have set up lawn chairs, with one group of senior citizens enjoying a full cocktail hour, toasting each other with comically large plastic margarita glasses.
The group quiets down as the sun slips behind the Panamint Mountains with an understated flaxen glow and, exhausted, Robin and I point ourselves back toward camp.