As evening turned to night above the dusty town of Tecopa, a thunderstorm ripped across the floodplains, howling wind whipping sand in exfoliating blasts against the windows of Cynthia’s Hostel, shaking the building – shaking my bed! Lightning struck and I could smell the rain before it came, and when it poured, the delicious scent was intensified as though I could smell the desert’s gratitude for the blessing of rain.
I drove into Death Valley at dawn, weaving between abrupt and curiously sculpted hills of old, dark sand. Triangular formations of pink, brown, vanilla and mauve oozed together and set like different flavours of ice cream, until pushed aside by increasing expanses of stony open desert. Bleached mini-trees, salty plains gleaming, and one long road that faded into the flat distance, curving and dipping to reappear in miniature far ahead, accentuating the magnitude of the vast desert landscape.
I feel my greatest capacity for awe when it’s just me and the planet. When the wild Earth stretches to the horizon, uninterrupted, untrammelled and immense, my heart falls open and is filled with the pure, direct sweetness that says: yes, little human, you are alive, right here, right now. Everything else falls away. There is no thinking to be done, no past or future. I am stilled into presence by the absolute solitude of wilderness.
The twists and turns took me ever further into enormity, past dazzling streaks of salt flats edged by zigzagging indigo mountain shadows. Then, at Badwater Basin, tourism began on a modest scale, with noisy people sauntering out into the heat haze to pose for photos in the lowest place in North America, 85.5 metres below sea level. The temperature began to increase as the sun rose: 32°C by nine o’clock and 37°C by midday. Blood temperature.
It is the hottest place on Earth. In July, the average temperature can be 46°C. Spending days outside in that kind of heat can lead to damage of the internal organs and then death, so the best time for the anti-social to visit Death Valley is in the summer. Even in May, it was too hot to spend much time out of an air-conditioned car for most of the day. I enjoyed the novel sensation of being cooked alive but became dizzy after a while and had to retreat.
At Mesquite sand dunes, I wandered out into the heat towards an unattainable, undulating crest much further away than it appeared. Walking on fine, soft pale sand lumpy with human footprints and crossed by the delicate tyre-tread patterns of scurrying lizards, I saw a grey spider and long, looping grooves in the sand that could only have been carved by snakes. Baked playas where water once stood now offer a cracked floor for incongruous ballroom dancing – if only I’d had a partner. Dipping down between dune hills, the car park disappeared and I had a sense of how terrifying it must have been for those men who, in search of gold, got lost and gave it the name ‘Death Valley’.
It is not really such a valley of death, though, as it hides unexpected biodiversity – almost 1000 native plant species and endemic fish, snails and other aquatic animals that have enabled the Timbisha Shonone people to live here successfully for hundreds of years. They continue to gain great strength from the desert and say that the land is a “valley of life” and a place of healing. As I lay on the warm ground in my tent the following night, aware of a comforting heat gently permeating the blankets below and rising into my body, I felt that to be true.
As I drifted off to sleep in the peaceful dark of remote Wildrose Campground, I was suddenly jolted awake by the screech of a donkey right outside the tent! I looked out but couldn’t see anything except the stars, shining like laser beams through velvet.
In the morning, I packed up early and stopped for breakfast beside the road, surrounded by graceful mountains woolly with small shrubs and gradually lit by the rising sun. I watched the colours change from dark to grey and brown, then bleached lighter as the harshness of the day increased. I sat on my cool-box and ate oats and did a little painting. Nobody came by and I felt quite serene and at peace, in my right place in the middle of nowhere.