I stand at the edge of the vast canyon laid out before me. The various colors of red, orange, greens and browns all delight my senses as I stand quiet, feeling the chill of the early morning breezes.
The ancient sandstone pillars stand silently atop the massive plateau dotted with grey sagebrush. On the thermals soars a raven, circling ever higher in a balancing act of wind and wing.
I stare deep into the deep grandeur of the canyons below and imagine the strength of the river and wind… what marvelous architects.
Again I feel the warmth of the sun and I’m brought back.
The mountains stand steadfast in the distance. Dark purple and grey, climbing high above the desert floor in a majesty all their own.
The songs of the past whisper on the wind, telling stories of hardship and a love of the land… a spiritual connection to the vast night sky full of starts and the brilliant blue of the day. The blazing sun and the parched land yielding only enough to eek out a living. I can hear the cries of the warrior, the yelp of the coyote, the singing of the canyon wren, the rustle of the dry yellow leaves of the mesquite.
My heart sighs, my mind settles and my eyes take in all it sees with gratitude for this new day.
We pulled in late last night, as is our norm with the short days. Since we crossed the time line in Nevada, and lost an hour with DLST, sunset at 4:30, dark is around 5:15-5:30. Of course, fire restrictions are on high alert, so we pretty much retreat to our van after gazing at the sun fire red clouds and the darkening skies of sunset. On our new schedule, that means we have about 4-5 hours to play/drive, before it’s dark.
We come upon the park at about 4 pm. The parking lot that the NFS calls a “campground” (Sunset) reminded me of parking at a drive-in movie. It was all that was available. No fires, dogs on leash, just our kind of place. Not.
The morning comes super early as well and by 6 am it’s full on light outside. By 7 am the big RVs in the “campground” have turned on their generators. The van is pretty well insulated from sound so it’s just a dull roar. We decided to set out early and explore the other campground above us. We drove through last night and checked it out, but it fills everyday by around 2-3:00 pm.
After some Coffee and a quick breakfast we grab our e-bikes and are off to seek out our new home base. The host told us to go up around 11 am to secure a site, so we grabbed our chairs and a backpack and headed up to the campground to find a spot. After riding around for 20-30 minutes, we found a few empty spots, got together and picked one. #71 Home base.
It ended up being a lazy day. Chris was still recovering from some gastric issues (day 3) so our bike ride was about 3 miles too many. We are desperately in need of showers…going on day 4 tomorrow. We rode around to find the “showers” that showed on the maps but they never materialized. I’m guessing tomorrow will be bath day…
Ya know what sucks about National Parks is that they are so “structured”… ok, strict?… in the year of COVID or *rona, that’s people on people. Everybody and their uncle is out in the parks, wilderness, trails and so forth. We all practice social distancing and depending on the state/county, some will wear masks. We are incredibly paranoid about getting this. Maybe we won’t die but what if we have a month in the hospital? That could literally bankrupt so many families and ding us pretty good.
Social distancing in DEATH Valley… I think I read somewhere that like 1.7 million people come to Death Valley every year… Hmmm that means that from late October to early March, which are tolerable temperatures, over 635,000 a month, 21,000 people a day, entering the park in those 4.5 months, from all over the US, the hotspot of the pandemic.
Now to say this doesn’t weigh heavy on our minds everyday we have to use a gas station, toilet, go grocery shopping? Sometimes I find myself in a pure panic and can just envision the germs invading my nostrils. LOL. Then I’m reminded that we are all dying anyway… so live your life as safe as you can but not in fear. Not buying into any herd mentality mind you. More like impermanence.
Day two. Lazy morning. Coffee outside in the sun. Slight breeze blowing and the sound of new campers driving around looking for a camp spot. The low murmur of people talking to one another. Our van has been quite a hit and we continue to get compliments. It’s a conversation starter for sure. Gandaulf has also touched so many hearts. Kids and adults alike. It’s really hard to draw boundaries when people are kind and interested. I really don’t want to be afraid of people but I am.
The parched landscape of Death Valley whispers solitude and isolation. The multi-colored rocks, sand and salt bring to life thousands of years of history. Scattered along the landscape are brilliant green oasis where the brutal force of tech tonic plates grinding together forcing super heated waters to seep to the surface. From this violent beginning comes life in all its magnificence. In the middle of the hottest, driest place on earth, life in its simplest form can survive.
The color pallet laid out before me in the rocky landscape is soothing to the eye. The earth tone browns, yellows, reds, greens, a whole miriad of colors, blending together. Countless eons of time, layer upon layer, thrust up into the air by forces I can’t even begin to know, but my mind imagines the violent beginnings. Now all that remains are majestic, multicolored mountains, outlined in cobalt blue and wisps of white.
After a day of exploring the depths of the once inland sea -301’ below sea level, we wandered over to the Devils Golf Course. It looks like a frozen river at thaw… huge chunks of salt crack and move. We stood quietly and listened to the metallic ting as the salt moved in the heat. The beauty and starkness boggled my mind and my child just wanted to explore… so we did. Chris one way and I the other.
We drove around and did a few hikes and took lots of pictures. We had lunch on the side of the road and chilled taking in the view. We drove back to the camp site with our jaws dropping view after view.
The sun sets so early these days. I am grateful that it is so warm outside when it is “pitch black”. The campground looks like a small encampment of like minded people. Fires blazing against the inky blackness. People laugh and there’s music drifting on the warm air. The sky peppered with millions of pin pricks of light. The stars are thick and the milky way shows itself against the absolute darkness. I stare off for untold minutes loosing myself in the vast starlit sky. I am one with the universe. My mind mingles with the infinite wisdom and light… I feel minuscule but incredibly voluminous. I return to our little village, as Gandaulf tugs on his leash trying to relieve himself.
4,000 feet Day 4:
We decided to pull up stakes and head up into the foothills in the Death Valley Wilderness area. The breeze is blowing and it’s 15 degrees cooler. There is an abundance of life and even a solitary big old cottonwood in showy yellow. I just want to hug that big ole cottonwood and listen to its stories. At the mouth of a wash dug deep into the desert floor and that tree. The image is burned into my mind in all its ancient glory.
Our camp is quiet, except for the occasional vehicle going up the narrow canyon. The road said 25’ maximum length… I didn’t see it until I was already committed so I crossed my fingers and carried on. It was one of those scary windy 1 1/2 lanes wide. The turns were tight and 40’ meant hogging all of it through the turns. We arrived at Wild Rose Camp and picked a spot over looking the canyon and trees.
We settled in and set up camp. We kinda messed up and went to a camp with not much to do around it. We made the best of it and explored further up the canyon, minus the trailer. The hills up above the valley floor look like they are covered in velvet. The rolling folds accented by the late afternoon sun were a sight to behold. The fact that anything can eek out a living in this bone dry place is amazing in itself. Quite the contrary, this place is teaming with life from wispy grass like plants, sages, to several varieties of hardy trees. Nature has found a balance of life and death in this DEATH Valley.
I step out of the van and feel the soft powdery sand beneath my bare feet. I like the way the coolness poofs between my toes. I open the side door and find my hikers and pull on the socks that are stuffed inside to keep out any little night creatures. I look at the trail map quickly and find my pack, which I prepared the night before.
A cool breeze awakens my sense of smell to the fading sage and the dry dusty air. I look up at the plateau as the sun peeks over. I squint instinctively and shade my eyes with my hand. The trail is laid out perfectly across the desert wash and into the slot canyon. Only a simple hike of 5 miles in and out, the first in the sand of a wash and scrambling around on a slot.
I find my thermal shirt and my hat, look around the van and turn off the lights. It’s me and the desert silence for the next several hours.
I listen as the wind tells its tale of winding through the canyons cool sculpted walls and into the warm light of morning. I acknowledge and plan to follow its path back into the canyon.
The stark contrast of the pinions against the red rock excites my mind and I fall into a stead stride. My plan is to hike about a mile on the Wire Pass to the opening of the first slot canyon, then another mile into Buckskin Gulch trail if there is time. Gets dark at around 6pm so I need to keep track of time.
The low angel of the sun in the mid-fall sky is still quite warm on my back. It accents the fall colors of the desert foliage that has survived another hellishly hot summer. I stop and shoot a picture on my phone and and check the sky before I enter into the wash.
The amazing cobalt blue cloudless sky stretches as far as the eye can see. The painted desert vermilion cliffs soar against the clear sky exuding their colors brilliantly. The ancient earth is exposed in front of me in the rock. I am intrigued by the years of history told in the colors and layers of sand and rock. The geology of time.
Aside from my boots on the sand and small stones and shells, there is only silence. My mind drifts away and my steps become methodical. I am overwhelmed with the magnitude of this isolated place. My mind visualizes the upheaval and twisting of the earth that formed these twisted layers of rock. The violence that lead to such beauty. How perfect.
I am brought back by a raven cawing as it hops along the ledge above my head. I feel a cool breeze blow out of the slot canyon and hear the swish of the raven wings as he takes flight. I look into the darkness until my eyes can adjust then up as the looming canyon closes in. In my minds eye I can see this crack in the plateau above, some 800-900 feet. I suddenly feel very small.
I turn back to the slot of mystical swirling sandstone, dancing and twirling in an intricate choreographers production. The amount of water that occasionally flows through these canyons, the very life force that created this menagerie, is evident in the huge logs jammed 15 feet above my head.
As I continue on the slot opens and closes, as if the walls themselves are alive and breathing. I have to gather myself from an oncoming panic attack when I see a huge choke-stone ahead and I don’t see the floor. I have come to the precipice of the hike and a down climb that is quite a technical climb. I toss my back pack and poles down to the floor 10’ below and inch over the edge on my belly, while my foot searches blindly for purchase. I slip a little further and find a perfectly placed hand hold that allows me to finally find the next rock below my feet. I down climb quickly and take a mental picture for my return trip.
I continue on, entranced by the shafts of light that constantly change the colors from drab to brilliant oranges and deep burgundy reds, adding depth to the deepening darkness. It opens up rooms in the darkness not seen without the lights illumination. Stunning!
An hour later I see the end of the slot. The brilliant sunlight pours in to meet and mingle with the darkness. The canyon shows off one last time as I exit it’s cool chamber and into the soothing heat of the sun. There are huge lakes of deep red sand piled high at the entrance of the canyon junctions. An old gnarled cottonwood eeks out a living in this sandy oasis protected by 1,000 foot walls. A few aspens struggle to secure the sandy bank they call home. Huge cholla cacti stand fuzzy with white spines protecting them from the kangaroo rats living under the canyons undercut banks.
On the far wall is a few panels of Native American pictographs, depicting the struggles and triumphs of raising a family in such a sparse environment. Such simplicity amongst such hardship. The solitude and isolation living in these canyons must afford… such as I am searching for in my own life during this time of viral invasion.
I sit down on a large piece of driftwood perched perfectly on two large rocks. I pull off my socks and sink my feet into the deep cool sand and daydream for a few quiet minutes. In my mind I climbed skillfully to the top of the wall of rock in front of me. I could feel the course rock on my fingertips and the vibration of the universe in the rocks against my body. Again the raven brings me back from my dreaming. I take a sip of cool water and eat a piece of fruit. The sweetness of the fruit soothes my parched throat.
Looking down at my phone I notice the time and pack up and head off to explore Buckskin Gulch. I was hoping the fabled pools of knee high standing pools of water were reserved for the early spring hikers. It’s early November and only about 70 degrees in open air. In the canyon you can take 15-20 degrees off the outside temperature plus the absence of the suns warmth could spell hypothermia. I crossed my fingers and continued on.
This slot canyon is different in many ways from Wire Pass. The rock is much darker, almost charcoal, and it is more vertical. The walls tower much higher and are about 4-5 feet apart. There are weeping walls and plants and trees seemingly growing right out of the rock.
Again the shafts of sunlight light up the eerily looming cliffs ahead. The sandy bottom was littered with huge boulders dislodged from far away cliffs and deposited during a flash floods fury. At times the sand was almost impossible to walk in causing my calves to cramp. The pace was slow and arduous and every now and then one of the boulders became a convenient seat to empty the sand from my boots.
At precisely 4:00 I turned around and headed back to the van arriving just in time to watch the sun sink over the bluff and a lone coyote call.