How often do you find yourself compelled to break free? To untether the bounds between yourself and the threads of civilization, if only for a short while. This deep wish, was something that had been repeatedly refrained to me via E, as she grew more and more busy with her new responsibilities at work, alongside endless tasks maintaining a home almost three years in the tending. Even when besieged by an intense bout with the flu, there she was, peering at photographs of her intended destination. A place of often deep isolation, and desolation. A realm often seen as far too inhospitable for life to properly survive. A place who’s very name implies the end of everything we know and hold dear. And yet this place, is in many ways not far at all for both of us; Death Valley National Park.
After a few dozen conversations regarding this hypothetical trip to the badlands, it was quickly becoming apparent that this was to be the single most ambitious trek for some reliable old wheels. Enter E’s 1995 Honda CR-V. Often taking refuge in her garage, and only really used for particular tasks in lieu of Metro and a bicycle, this little four wheeler has granted my buddy over twenty years of dependable transport. A beautiful tin can on wheels, at last called upon for an epic journey. And with only a few precautions taken, there was always a mild curiosity as to how she would handle the four hour journey into the fringe. As it turns out, she was more than up to the task with a full tank, some well filled tires, and a pat of promise. We were rocketing toward our destination with all the resolve of your classic Yesh Productions call of c'est la vie, making it through a few miles of freeway under repair complete with traffic crawl.
We also encountered a number of oddball stops including Barstow, where their visitor’s center is smack in the center of a largely quiet but significant outlet store mall. Further into the desert, we also gazed in bemused, and occasionally melancholic manners at remnants of California’s promise and betrayal with stops such as Baker, which still simmered with an air of real estate gone sour. Many vintage motels, covered in dust as reminders of a time when small business owners saw potential riches as a rest stop, only to become casualties to the advent of freeways and strip malls. Scattered along the path were signs to even more ghost towns. Promise of more of the state’s checkered history along what is among some of the most unforgiving desert land this side of the Mojave. From real estate swindlers to religious charlatans claiming the term ZzyzX, was the last word in the english dictionary miles of abandoned structures, and abandoned mining establishments litter the path toward oblivion. Echoes of lives and loves lost on the boulevard of dreams.
Upon passing Death Valley junction, which in itself featured an aged opera house, and a dozen of other beautifully weathered establishments, functioned as something of a warm reminder of what we would be leaving within a few short miles. Sure, there were some expected sights such as the visitor’s center, I found myself taken aback by what looked to be a resort under construction as well as a mobile home community within the park! Not something I envisioned for sure. These were sights that implied to me a resilience, and in some manners denial of the present surroundings. Having grown up in places where temperatures of 120 tend to happen in the dead of summer, this seemed to be flirting with sun exposed overkill.
And yet, the people still come.
We soon reach the fabled Zabriskie Point, and almost instantly, we are hit by a lingering aura of cultures lost. Amongst almost punishing 70-plus mile per hour winds, the once thriving mining colony now felt like a place where ghosts of the past continued to commiserate about the future they yearned for. Be it money to move their families to America, or to help reshape America by way of countercultural revolution. The winding ascension alone grants an almost monastic majesty to a simple view of endless rock formations into near infinity. In fact, we initially eschewed the well-paved walk upward for a more natural looking rock laden trailhead, which led us into a seemingly endless maze of canyons. At once foreboding, yet strangely inviting, the both of us denied ourselves the expedition as clouds began to rapidly cover the sun. Moments later, we chose to at last venture up the snake path to get a better glimpse of what must have been awe inspiring to Italian auteur, Michael Antonioni.
Spurred on by the realization of diminishing daylight, we soon leapt back into the vehicle, and darted toward Artist’s Palette, where our journey took a turn into the magically surreal. A rocky range composed of colorful giant rock formations borne from great volcanic activity roughly 5 million years ago. A grand rabble of cemented gravel, debris, and playa, the strangely toned array looks not unlike a rocky sculpture attempting to recapture the disorienting funhouse hue scheme of spumoni. Signs nearby let us in on lingering while viewing the formation as the sun continued downward, which allows the eyes to capture new and even more unusual color patterns from the solidified mica. The peak from which we viewed this, in itself was a hard contrasting grey, and littered with smaller broken pieces of volcanic rock, further evidence of a cataclysmic event long ago. I took a few shots of the surrounding area, and it never stopped feeling like a combination of a most violent natural event, and the most psychedelic landscapes this side of a vintage Disney attraction. An eye-befuddling gift from the Miocene era.
But again, we had to carry on with purpose as the clouds above guaranteed a troubling journey out of the park. And with no stars or moon to help guide us, it was time to venture deep into the legendary Badwater Basin; the other planet on Earth. Upon finding the parking spot for the almost mythical dried sea, we stepped out onto the wooden platform, heeded the signs reminding everyone to stay on the path (the basin is a long, mostly dried aquatic environment that is surrounded by tons upon tons of salted, partially watered pockets that must not be disturbed in the hopes of a return) while we wandered deeper and deeper into what would lead to the lowest elevation in North America. This was a void. A true, natural void welcomed us as we venture further and further into what felt like a hike into a netherworld realm where humans are simply never meant to journey lest they had a gift for the serpent that lay at the belly of the sea. Sure, we saw a few families ahead of us. And we even glimpsed a model and photographer, indignantly working off the path. Despite this, there was a wholly unearthly feel the entire near mile walk toward the center. Taking a quick turn back, I could see the parking lot looking like no more than a speck through my glasses. And above, the clouds had enveloped enough of the sunlight, as to be covered in a silken sheet of almost martian pink. We were within the gargantuan maw of a god, and without proper illumination.
For my impressions of this unique landscape in sound form, listen here..
Knowing we had but a few minutes left of sunlight, we made it to the center just in time to see teens and family members running past us, toward the parking lot. Even so, we began to stroll back at a slightly quicker pace than the way we had arrived. More kids running past us. Family members, aware of the situation, reminding me of a village ritual. It was a town that feared the coming of night, and we were walking, unsure whether or not we too should begin to sprint toward the car.
And this is where a pair of young Japanese men came our way, walking toward the sea despite the dying of the sky, “Excuse me. Do you know how to drive from here to Vegas?” We tried to explain that the best way was back the way they came. E, being the kind soul she is offered to show them our homemade paper map. But we had to return to the car to show them. One of the two men, seemed to be more eager to explore the basin than head back with us. And immediately, concern began to form via my face muscles. These two guys were about to go it alone in a deep dry sea, with no real flashlights apparent, and no map to get themselves out of the park. They politely declined our map, and chose to move on. We waved good luck after reminding them to head out the way they came, and continued to the CR-V. Mere yards from the array of cars, the lack of light was now so pronounced, that a simple break light from a departing vehicle, now resembled an intense flame. We were now leaving the lair of the old ones, wondering if anyone left ever made it to Vegas alive.
Needless to say, we took a bit longer than expected to hit the road home. And the ensuing drive out of Death Valley as winds began to pick up, was every bit as disconcerting as I had anticipated. It was so dark along those roads that it felt like being on the inside of a squash ball. Rarely did we ever encounter any other drivers along the way. And five feet beyond the car’s front or back felt like a void, simply waiting to swallow anyone up who dared walk beyond. But it ultimately wasn’t too long before we were welcomed by the lights of the earlier mentioned ghost stops. Strangely warm reminders of the civilization that was ready to welcome us back should we be willing to return.
And return we did.
But still, there is something to be said about stopping by the end of the world. Even if it were for a mere series of whistle stops. The other side certainly has plenty of room for souls who are willing to venture inward.