Into Death Valley (and other adventures)
Several weeks ago, my husband gave me the ultimate gift. Five days of solo travel, to go wherever and do whatever I wanted. He knows me well enough to understand how awesome that is for me – some of my best memories are of setting out alone on the road as a college student, through the wildness of eastern Oregon and the arid lands of southern New Mexico.
Given a ticket to anywhere, I chose the California desert (specifically, Death Valley National Park). The largest national park in the lower 48, Death Valley is truly a land of extremes. It’s considered the hottest place on earth, with a record temperature of 134 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. It’s home to the lowest point in the United States, but also contains snow-capped peaks. I’ve spent my life wondering what this ominously-named place is truly like, and I was finally setting out to see.
I flew in to Las Vegas, the closest major airport to the park, and spent my first night there. With dreams of empty expanses and arid silence on my mind, Vegas felt gaudy and overstimulating. I did find a used music store near the strip, where I searched for a soundtrack to my road trip. In the end I found only one album – Soundgarden’s Superunknown. My trip was diffused with the voice of Chris Cornell shortly before his death.
Driving out of Vegas and into the empty desert late Friday morning gave me that old feeling. It’s a swelling in my chest, the anticipation of discovery and the thrill of the unknown. It felt good to wander again.
Guides to Death Valley stress two safety precautions: keep a full tank of gas, and carry tons of water. I was a good girl and did both, especially since I was breaking the biggest rule of all: don’t hike alone in the desert. The closest gas station to the park was in the town of Amargosa Valley. If there’s an actual town by this name, I didn’t find it. My GPS brought me to two gas stations that sandwiched the highway, with nothing else to see on the flat horizon but sand. The station I pulled into had a pink stucco motel attached to it. When I opened my car door, it practically swung off its hinge, and my hat immediately flew away and rolled through the parking lot. I chased it down, the wind whipping my hair and stinging my eyes. I caught the hat in front of a towering sign that read “Alien Cathouse Brothel”. What I thought was a motel was actually a legal whore house. I tried to imagine life here in a dusty truck stop, everything the color of sand, with this godforsaken wind. It felt like purgatory. I filled my tank and got back on the road.
By the time I made it into Death Valley National Park, it was late afternoon. My first stop was the popular Zabriskie Point, a short hike to an overlook that showcases the badlands. This is where I realize I forgot my Nikon battery. I try not to let the disappointment overwhelm my first taste of the park. I pull out my phone instead and snap pictures of the rolling hills, stained red ochre, yellow, and chocolate brown.
My next stop is the Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. I can see the basin long before I reach it. It’s huge; a giant field between mountains. When I reach the parking area, I notice the towering cliff behind me holds a large white sign, roughly 270 feet up from where I stand. It reads “Sea Level”. The world feels suddenly subterranean, and I turn my back to the cliff and head for the basin.
There’s a boardwalk that reaches a short distance into the expanse. A closer look over the sides of the boardwalk reveals what the basin really is – a field of salt. Somewhere out there is the exact lowest point in the country, at 282 feet below sea level, but I’d need GPS to find it. I walk out for about a mile, until I feel separated from the mundanity of the parking lot. I drift off the flattened path a bit, my feet crunching across the perfect crystalline salt. It forms tiny round pillars, like it bubbled up and froze. It’s pristine and white, and if not for the heat you could imagine it was a field of snow. The sun is setting ahead over the mountains, and I pull out my phone to capture the sight. My phone has died. Again, I swallow my annoyance. I have only my memory now, so I do my best to soak it all in. I feel I’m in a different world.
Heading back to my car, I notice the boardwalk has a side path overlooking shallow pools of water, an odd sight in Death Valley. There are rings of crusty salt at the edges. The sunset reflects oranges and pinks in the pools, transforming them to something even more otherworldly. I don’t want to leave this strange place, but I finally return to my car and begin the hour-long drive to Beatty, NV, where my hotel is. Back to reality, but only for the night.
The next morning it’s easy to get out of bed. Today I’ll set out into the desert in search of Funeral Slot Canyon, a little known gem I read about in a guide book. I retrace my route from last night, heading into the park on a long, straight road that swoops up into the mountains on the horizon.
My first stop is the Furnace Creek Visitors Center. I talk to a young ranger there, to see if he’s heard of Funeral Slot. He has – his face turns serious as he warns me that it’s hard to find. “Stay to the right of the first canyon,” he tells me, “Funeral Slot is behind it”. Armed with this knowledge, I drive to Texas Springs Campground (the starting point) and park. It’s 10:00 am, and the temperature is 82 degrees.
My guide book says to hike out from the back end of the campground until I come across a horse trail, which I can follow for a while. I begin to walk, but soon realize these instructions are deceptively simple. There are trails of footprints heading in every direction, crossing one another, climbing hills, circling back. I don’t know which direction to go, which hills to cross between. I can still see the campground, and I spot a park employee. Unfortunately, he’s never heard of Funeral Slot Canyon. “I do know those are the Funeral Mountains,” he says, pointing to the dark peaks beyond us. He suggests asking the camp host.
When I finally track down the camp host’s tent, nobody is around. It’s almost 11:00 now, and the morning is heating up quickly. I’m losing patience. “Well, what the hell,” I think, “I’ll just start walking.” I set out into the desert, crossing the many footprint trails, leaving my own behind. There are hills and deep culverts where flash floods cut through in the winter. Many times I’m forced to retrace my steps as I realize that the landscape is forcing me too far east.
Sometime later, I cross a trail of horse hoof prints. This must be the horse trail! I laugh out loud in relief, but nobody is around to hear me. I follow the trail, which eventually leads into a dry creek bed. This I follow for another good while … time has lost meaning at this point. I am a drifter, with nowhere to be but exactly where I am.
Eventually the landscape changes again, as the creek bed winds around a huge sandy rock formation. It spills out into an expansive wash. I start resolutely forward, deeper into the desert, confident that I’m heading towards my canyon. The walls begin to climb and close in. I remember the ranger’s advice, but there are no alternate routes ahead of me. There is only this one huge crack in the earth, into which I am disappearing.
The canyon contains three side canyons, all of which I explore to the last detail. These are narrower than the main canyon, and far more dramatic. I climb the sides, rocks slipping under my shoes and echoing ominously as they tumble down to the floor below. I’m like a child, doing things just because. There’s no good reason to climb the steep rock walls. Out here it’s easy to shed decorum and self awareness. I think that if you spend enough time in wild places, the wild starts to seep in.
The main canyon ends too soon, adding to my suspicion that I’m not in Funeral Slot Canyon at all. I don’t mind. Perhaps it’s an unnamed canyon, not marked on a map. I like this idea even better. I begin my return to civilization. A lizard crosses my path, the only living creature I will see on this entire hike. Finding my way back is surprisingly easy – the creek bed, the horse trail, the salt flats far down on the horizon. I reach the campground, imagining that I look like Uma Thurman fresh from her grave in Kill Bill 2, dust rising from my hair as I stumble from the desert. Finally I check my phone, and find that I’d been out there for over 4 hours.
Back on the road, I have a decision to make. Do I drive to Palm Springs, 5 1/2 hours from here, to climb San Jacinto Peak in the morning? Or do I find something closer? San Jacinto may have too much snow. I may not make it to the top. “What the hell”, I think again. I begin my drive.
It takes over an hour of driving south just to leave the park. I stop in Stovepipe Wells to buy treats for my girls – cactus jelly and toy lizard eggs that “hatch”. I pass sand dunes in the distance. I climb mountain passes, signs warning drivers to turn off the AC to avoid overheating. I race back down into the desert, the land flattening out before me as the park falls behind. By the time I reach my lodging, it’s past 10:00.
I thought I might sleep in that next morning, but I’m awake by 6:30 and my mind is buzzing. I climb a mountain today! I eat a big breakfast, carefully pack my backpack, and head towards downtown Palm Springs.
San Jacinto Peak is the second tallest peak in Southern California, and was a favorite of John Muir’s. He’s quoted as saying, “The view from San Jacinto is the most sublime spectacle to be found anywhere on this earth!” There is a trail called Cactus to Clouds that begins in the desert and reaches the peak, but I lack training for the 20 mile roundtrip. I take the second option, which involves riding a rotating ariel tram halfway up the mountain, leaving me with 11 miles of hiking to the peak and back.
The tram ride gives me goosebumps. It sails up the steep mountainside, covering over 2 1/2 miles in ten minutes. The tram swings over several towers, dipping each time and making my stomach drop. The towers are perched precariously along the rocky cliffs, and I try to imagine this thing being built. The thought alone makes me dizzy.
We reach the tram station at the mountain, and I immediately march off toward the ranger cabin to check in. The ranger is young and friendly. He asks me where I’m headed. When I tell him I’m climbing the peak, his smile falls and he looks at my shoes. “There’s still a lot of snow up there.” I quickly reassure him that I’ve packed microspikes. His expression is dubious. He explains that the trail is snow covered and hard to follow, with footprints leading every which way. Without GPS and crampons, he doesn’t feel confident sending me up alone. He tells me to hike to Wellman Divide, the second best view on the mountain, and call it a day. “Does that sound like a plan?” he asks. “Okay,” I say, crestfallen. Before I’m even out the door, I’ve decided to do no such thing. I drove all night to make this climb, and I’ll be damned if I don’t at least try. I feel bad for dismissing his advice – my father was a park ranger, after all. What would he say? I have yet to ask him.
I approach this hike the way I approach every walk in life – impatiently, passing people quickly. I’m not here for a stroll … I’m a goddamn mountaineer. There is snow from the beginning, and I lose the trail often as I follow stray footprints off into the woods. It’s easy to correct my path each time. Before I can believe it, I’ve reached Wellman Divide, where a wooden sign says the peak is only 2.6 miles away. I set off toward the top.
As I climb, the gaps in the snow become shorter and fewer. The day is warm though, and a tiny stream of melt off runs down the trail. It’s easy enough to follow, despite the ranger’s warnings. I slip and fall several times but never hurt myself. I’m wary of stepping near logs or boulders, where my foot could fall through and post hole. Finally I reach a cabin, and I know I’m near the top. Inside are two bunk beds and a log book. I sign my name and quote Thoreau, “All good things are wild and free.”
The climb from here is the most difficult. Steep snow banks slip under my feet, in spite of the microspikes I’ve put on. I use my hands to scramble up, pulling on tree branches and gripping rock. Finally I climb around a corner, and I’m at the top. The trees fall away around me, and the world stretches outward. The view is so enormous that I fight off vertigo, steadying myself against a boulder. It fills me with awe. I sit and take it in, for once not impatient to get on with my journey. At the peak with me is a solitary man, a PCT hiker. After a while, a large and noisy group of hikers crowd the peak, and I head back down the mountain.
My energy is surprisingly high on the descent. By now I’m used to slipping in the snow, and I slide down the steepest banks on the heels of my feet, arms out like I’m surfing. Nothing beats the fulfillment of having reached the mountain top. It’s therapeutic, too – the enormity of it all dwarfs my existence. It humbles, but it also makes my troubles seem insignificant.
I spend the rest of the day relaxing. I wash away the layers of sweat and sunscreen, and then I take myself out to Mexican food. Two veggie enchiladas, a basket of chips, and one huge margarita later, I’m reveling in pure contentment. I walk back to my hotel and lay by the pool. Tomorrow I will drive across the Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park, then reenter the frenzy of Vegas to catch my flight home. I’m ready to return to my family, to be a mom and a wife. But in this moment I’m just a girl in the desert, watching the sun go down and soaking it all in.