back from the valley of the shadow of death

In 1849, the Donner party found themselves trapped in the Sierras by winter. They had been plagued by mistakes and delays on their journey to California, and arrived at the mountains too late to cross through. Snow fell, they took shelter in caves, and cannibalism ensued.

Horrified by this, a group of would-be California settlers decided to take a different route later that year, striking out for the Old Spanish Train, which runs south of the Sierra Madres. They decided to leave the trail in southwest Utah, as to save 500 miles by cutting through what is now eastern California and western Nevada. This made them the first white people to explore Death Valley, and it wasn’t voluntary.

I think I saw the spot today where they gave up hope and burned their wagons in the sand dunes. They made fires so that they could slay and cook their oxen into jerky, and carry that as they walked to civilization. They all made it – save one elderly man – but named the place they’d stayed in for thirty days, Death Valley.

I had a series of nightmares as a teenager about being a settler who took a Wrong Turn like that, in which I’d be walking westward through badlands, through desert, through salt. So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to go to Death Valley to see the wildflowers that have resulted from this year’s torrential SoCal rains. Not that I expected to die of dehydration in a well-patrolled and very popular national park on a weekend in 2005. Just that I was afraid of nightmares. I always want to see my vacations through history, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend a weekend in a part of the country that I always imagined as being hopelessly desolate and inhospitable to the people who would have first settled it. I find it difficult not to stand in a spot and try to imagine how difficult it must have been for the people who first arrived on it – or found themselves lost in it, unable to find anything besides saline streams and salty lakes.

So I’m happy because I was actually surprised by how different Death Valley really is from what I imagined. I’m sure it’s really desolate and lifeless most of the time – but it was beautiful this weekend, covered in thin layers of rare flowers. Rare in time; profuse in space, I should say. There really were fields of gold, where flowers had grown across expanses of broken rock and gravel. There were new flowers growing out of the granite, blooms on cactuses, new sprouts of plants on the sand dunes. There were so many plants growing!

We arrived Saturday, early afternoon, with enough time to look at flowers, to drive in past Badwater, and to go on a short nature hike before dark fell. I went with two friends, one tent, and we ended up camping in “overflow tent areas”, which were really “RV parking” (and sleeping on a parking lot surface is NOT my idea of camping). I have seen so many strange landscapes in the last 48 hours…and every last one of them makes the Texas panhandle, the Great American Desert, look lush by comparison.

So I’ve seen Death Valley, the lowest point in the United States (-282 feet at Badwater). I’ve been to the place where you can cook eggs on rocks, where dehydration still takes down tourists. I’ve been to the most extreme landscape in the Lower 48. And now I’m home, with a hundred photos to upload and post in the next few days, and a lot of dirt embedded in my skin.

Photos to follow, and I should probably write up Friday’s party – in yet another L.A. neighborhood I didn’t know existed (East L.A., a blank in my mental map, is apparently full of rapidly re-gentrifying areas not far from the river) but I’m far too tired and need to be up for work in a few hours. I have succeeded in spending a weekend by the once in a lifetime wildflowers, and I can check that off my list of Things To Do This Spring.

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