Impressions of Death Valley
Death Valley is unsettling. Eerie. Forbidding. Unforgiving. The otherworldly topography combined with the amount of empty space seems somehow wrong and – more so – unfit for habitation. It’s difficult to describe except to say that it feels unnatural for humans or any other living thing to be there, caught in the heavy layers of stagnant air that are trapped below sea level. During much of our few days there we felt sandwiched between the long, towering mountain ranges, and exposed to the threats of rain clouds and high winds that suddenly move over the peaks. Caught driving back to camp in one of these sudden weather events, we witnessed the wind whipping dust across large swaths of the valley more than 60 miles away. And as we approached the storm, sand danced across the road in front of us, spiraling across the pavement. Adding to the atmosphere were the glowing pinks and yellows of sunset illuminating the storm clouds from behind and reflecting off the plains of salt deposits that are pooled in the lowlands at the base of the mountains. We then watched as the ethereal glow of sunset as diffused through the dust was slowly reduced by the creeping shadows of the Panamint Mountains until darkness eventually covered the valley, punctuated only by an occasional headlight miles away.
Everything here feels vast, bigger, greater too, as if scale has been altered. Distance seems elongated and size out of proportion as you drive through miles of barren lowlands, traveling parallel to the same massive mountain ranges for hours. With only the occasional deviation from the straight line to curve around the badlands that spill onto the valley floor, time too stretches on as you move through unvarying landscape. The unnaturalness and unfamiliarity of the land here has a definite impact, making you feel off-kilter and unsettled. Added to this is the lack of water and vegetation that constantly reminded us that we were intruders in this strange place, totally reliant on that which we brought with us. As Tom put it – and I’m paraphrasing here – there was the constant threat that if something went wrong, we wouldn’t have a second chance to get of the place. The only time we didn’t feel ever-so-slightly insecure were our explorations of the canyons and narrows that cut into the hills: Here, cocooned between rock walls, we felt a subtle relief at being able to orient ourselves with relation to the human-scaled topography.
If Death Valley could be summarized in only one word it might be big. But if I were to choose another, it might be brown. There are actually a surprising range of colors within the park’s pockets of vibrantly-hued badlands, particularly in the hills of Artist’s Drive Loop (which was unfortunately closed due to mudslides) but overall, the valley still seems monochrome and dull. However, most often these vibrant badlands are colored a rich, chocolatey brown, merely the most saturated expression of a bland, earthy palette. This gray-brown-beige color scheme continues unvaried for miles and miles, contributing to the otherworldly and barren feel.
I tend to be very sensitive to environmental changes and have mentioned – albeit in much less detail – the stillness of a forest, the exhilarating space of mountain meadows, and the calm lapping of waves at the shore, but I don’t ever recall being somewhere that was noticeably unsettling. I just felt so insignificant, so exposed to the elements, dwarfed by the lifeless features around me. Death Valley is a truly interesting place and one that I quite enjoyed, but our return to even just normal desert landscape after a few days was quite welcome.