Death Valley

redcathedralI was up early, in the car by 7.  It was about 45 minutes to the parking lot for Golden Canyon from the hotel.  I passed maybe 8 cars the entire time.  Slender fingers of mountains stretched along the horizon. Each had a different shade, illustrating their distance from the highway.

I stopped by the visitor center yesterday when I arrived.  The ranger suggested this as a good hike for today – out as far as I wanted and then back – but told me to be off the trail by 10.  I tend to be a little loose with duration and distance, but this was a hard 10.

I did not understand deadly heat before this trip.  On the way here, I looked at the distance between the highway and the nearest mountain, considered how far I might need to walk before I found shade in the event the car broke down, wondered if I could make it.  I looked at how much water remained in the gallon jug on the passenger seat.  I glanced at the thermometer. 105.

Everything shimmers.  It is magic watching something emerge from where, moments before, there had simply been waves of radiating heat.

I continued to Badwater Basin yesterday afternoon.  I walked out onto the salt flat, squinting in the heat.  I was careful to not go much further than other people.  I might have gone a couple hundred meters in all.  It felt like a much longer distance.  On the way back to the car, I could feel the skin on the back of my calves burning.  I thought I heard it crackling in the heat.  This was the hottest place I had ever been.

I got out of the car and set out.  It was already 80 degrees and not quite 8 AM.   I clung to the shade, dipping out into the sun as the trail curved and then hugging the sides of the rock.  No discernable vegetation, just rock for miles.  Dust puffed from my boots as I walked.

Color was discernable now.  In the furnace of yesterday’s heat, everything had a bleached-out feel.  Now, I made out red, purple, turquoise, lightly brushed over the rock faces like watercolor.  I could imagine life here, which I had not been able to do earlier.  Although I still saw no sign of animals, it was easier to imagine life existing in these shaded pockets of rock, the cool deep, emerging at twilight.

I approached one rock that, from a distance, appeared to be flat. I began to make out its contours as I got closer.  The sun was just behind it, giving it a bright aura.  The rock was a rich red, and its sides undulated, rippling along its broad face.  It reminded me of an elastic waistband; it reminded me of some embroidery pieces in my family; I thought of my grandmother and how she would like the colors.  Then I started to cry.  This is not surprising.  I am quick to tears, especially in the presence of natural beauty.

I was now at the base of it.  The path split into two.  One side ducked under a pile of fallen debris.  It had a perilous feel.  I was not going that way.  The other ascended up a hill.  I took two steps up.  My feet slid in the rock, a little looser than gravel.  I was already carrying a pack and a gallon of water.  I decided that was as far as I was going.  I looked back up at the rock.  As quickly as it took me to make that decision, the sun had moved and the rock’s color had changed, shifting from a voluminous red to a common brown.  It confirmed my decision to head back.  Soon, I passed a small sign post that I missed on the way up.  Red Cathedral was where I had just come from.  I laughed.  I cry in churches too.

At one point on the way back, I stopped.  Silence.  On the way up, I had paused a couple of times and heard my own breathing and heart beating from exertion.  Now, nothing.  This stillness was broad, stretching, expansive.  And yet, it possessed a vibrating quality, as if there was a steady hum of crickets singing somewhere.

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