Return to Death Valley
Story and photos by Debi Goodwin

A long-time lover of Death Valley returns to see if the park still has its magic after her life has changed.

hiking in death valley

I get up before dawn so I am on the highway by the time the first light reveals the mountains and the air is still cool, or at least cooler than it will be in a few hours. There are no cars on the road and, on my best days, no cars in the parking lot where I stop. I stare out at shadowy, curving dunes of sand brushed clean by the night winds. Then I walk until I reach the first dune I can climb, mindful of my solitude and of the tracks left by rattlesnakes and kangaroo rats. Like me, they know the heat is coming so they've already buried themselves for the day. For an hour I lose myself traversing the dunes and climbing along high ridges. I might see no one or I might spot someone else climbing along another ridge.

The sun rises slowly, heating my shoulder until I am at the edge of the highest peak, where I can sit and look down at the smaller peaks below me and the mountains in the distance. There, I feel a calmness like none other I feel elsewhere. This is how it always is. This is why the Mesquite Dunes never disappoint me and always make me long to return to Death Valley.

Even though Death Valley is far from my home, I've traveled through the park five times. I often describe Death Valley as my favorite place in the world, not just because of those moments on the dunes but because of the park's stillness and the variety and starkness of its landscape. It is the one place on the planet where I, without any geological training, can see and understand the ancient eruptions of the Earth's creation.

Back to a Favored Destination, but Solo

Although a visit to Death Valley always made me feel happy in the past, I hadn't been back in five years. There's always a danger that when we return to a destination that we love, the magic we felt there will be gone, either because we've changed too much or the place has. But for me, it was more than that: Death Valley had been a destination both my husband and I loved and I didn't know if I could feel the peace I always felt there anymore, now that my husband was dead. The fear that I would only feel sad and cheated there was real. But I had to find out. So I made another trip back.

Sometimes, when we are scared, we sabotage ourselves. It was only as my plane landed in Las Vegas that I realized I hadn't brought my driver's licence with me. Without a car, I couldn't get to Death Valley to climb the dunes and hike the canyons. Fortunately, I'd planned a couple of days in Vegas with friends and had time to arrange for a neighbor at home to courier my licence to me.

Death valley Zabriskie Point

Once I was in the rental car, on the familiar road with its wide-open skies, I felt at home. I passed through the small city of Pahrump, Nevada with all its neon signs for gambling, bars, and gas, then finally into California and the last leg into Death Valley. This was my territory; I could do it alone.

After entering the park, I drove through 20 Mule Canyon Road. The road was used for the wagons pulled by twenty mules that carried borax out of the canyon and is one of the few traces of the human activity that took place in the valley more than a hundred years earlier. It's a winding drive with one terrific drop through yellow soft-stoned hills with alluvial fans. These are evidence of the water that flowed down them and gave them their shapes. Without trees or any change in color, it feels barren and isolated, just one of the reminders the park offers on how fragile the world and life can be.

I stopped next at the popular Zabriskie Point, made somewhat famous by a 1970 movie about young people doing drugs there. But there's no need for drugs to feel awe at Zabriskie Point; a panorama of colorful rock formations, tilted and folded by seismic activity, which lays bare before the viewer. Zabriskie Point had a new meaning for me that day as though the upheavals in the Earth reflected the way my life had been twisted out of shape. But there was such majesty in the upheaval it was impossible to feel anything but appreciation.

Death valley Zabriskie Point

Following a path, I hiked around the side of the point and found a place where I could sit alone. After my travels and Vegas, the absolute silence around me was just the balm I needed. The frenzy I'd felt around my departure from home and stupidity at leaving my license behind melted away in the heat.

Before the sun set that day, I drove by Artists Palette, so named because of the green, purple, and blue colors that fill the rocks thanks to oxidation. From past experience I knew the colors showed best in the afternoon light; so did the number of photographers there that day. I took a picture with just my shadow looming over the wide expanse of rock, a reminder that a solitary existence can be lovely.

Death Valley dunesBack on the road, I came across cars and vans stopped to watch a red coyote that seemed to have no fear of people. Park ranchers soon pulled up to shoo away the crowd that had circled the coyote. It is forbidden to feed the animals in the park, but it was clear that someone had thrown food the coyote's way to get a picture. The annoyed park rangers couldn't figure out who it was.

My last stop of the afternoon was Golden Canyon where I hiked to Cathedral Rock, a stunning high wall of red rock that gets deeper in color as the sun sets. And I remembered how beautiful Death Valley could be.

Bad Design and Badlands

I stayed my first night at the Ranch at Furnace Creek, hoping I'd get one of the rustic cabins we'd stayed in on our first visit to the park in the 1990s. I knew, from subsequent visits, that the interiors had been renovated to look like modern hotel rooms. Nonetheless, I still wanted a cabin I could sit in front of with a cold beer. But the cabins had all been torn down. A board with a drawing of the envisioned red-roofed cabins to come sat in the new, posh check-in building beside a square that had once been a parking lot. The square had been planted with grass and palm trees around a multi-layered fountain that looked decidedly out of place. It seemed someone wanted to bring a bit of Vegas to the resort when all I wanted was the Furnace Creek of the past. Accommodation in the park is pricey enough so I resented paying an added resort fee for little better than an average motel room in an aging block of rooms. All I wanted was to get out in the desert.

I brushed the annoyance aside; I wasn't going to let anything knock the confidence I knew was returning to me, or my appreciation that the physical attributes of the natural world in the park had not changed.

In the morning before leaving the Furnace Creek area, I drove early to the wide Badlands with its crusty floor of salt from an ancient ocean and, at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point on the continent. I wanted to be there for the sunrise, but the sun has to get above a hill that looms over the badlands and is slow in coming. I was impatient to get going so I decided to leave but not before meeting a trio of women who looked like they'd come straight from clubbing in Vegas to walk the flat land. They were as incongruous as the setting and laughed when I asked to take their picture.

Death valley badlands

I took the road to the other lodging area in the park, Stovepipe Wells. As I passed the Mesquite Sand Dunes, I saw people out hiking when the sun was at its highest. It was November but the sun still shone hot and relentless. I would wait until sunset for my first visit there.

A More Appropriate Stay in the Desert

Stovepipe Wells had mercifully not changed as much as the Ranch at Furnace Creek. The motel looked just as it had on all our visits and the whole small station had the laid-back Western feel I'd loved before. I stopped for lunch at the Saloon, taking a stool at the bar with the other lone diners. You by yourself? the waiter asked. Yeah, I answered as if it was fine, not something to be ashamed of. I've got this, I thought: this new solitary life.

After lunch, I visited spots close to the motel waiting for the sun to dip before walking on the dunes. I hiked one of my favorite canyons where it's possible to stay cool in the shadow of the rock. Mosaic Canyon is perhaps one of the best places in the park to see how water shaped it. The canyon opens with a twisting wall of rock made so colorful and smooth by eons of rushing water that people joke about it being great material for a countertop. Mixed in the walls are rocks of different shapes and sizes which are proof of the force of water.

Death valley mosaic canyon

Finally, it was nearing sunset and I could go to the dunes. A lot of people were still out and the sand was covered in tracks of other walkers who had crisscrossed the dunes all day. Evening at the dunes was never as good as sunrise.

The next day I woke early and, after a coffee to revive me, I headed out. I smiled much of the way to the parking lot, remembering how I had always quietly left the room while my husband still slept to get out before others claimed the dunes. On our last visit in the park together, on the day we had to drive back to Las Vegas for our flight home, my husband woke up to the sounds of me dressing in the dark. What are you doing? he asked. The dunes are calling me, I said. We laughed about the story for years.

Memories of the First Death Valley Traverse

On my latest visit as I ran down a slope, my heels digging in the sand, I realized I felt happy again. It was a strange and intoxicating sensation that caught me off guard. In Death Valley, I felt my loss but didn't feel like a loser. In Death Valley, the memories of my time with my husband were as soft and warm as the fall desert air. It was as though he was with me.

As I sat at the edge of the highest dune, I relived our first visit to the region. It was July and we were driving through California, from San Francisco through the national parks of Yosemite and Death Valley and back to LA and up the coast. We drove into the park from the Panamint Valley, on a ribbon of highway that unfurled in a wide, low, empty bowl with ridges of mountains behind us and ahead of us.

Death valley Zhigway from California

In the high afternoon sun, we ascended a twisty mountainous road with not another car in sight; perhaps we were the only tourists dumb enough to be out in the 120-degree-plus heat. Alone in the barren landscape, we felt as though we were traveling through an alien world until we came to a full stop behind a line of stopped cars. A ranger tapped on our window, told us we'd be sitting for a while, told us a car was on fire up ahead. Keep your engine off, he said. How do we stay cool? we asked. Drink water. Get out of the car now and then. As if the air outside the car was less deadly than inside it.

The dropping sun fell behind a ridge as the ranger signaled us to start our engine. On the way to our destination of Furnace Creek we passed the burnt car, now nothing more than a rusted skeleton, like something from a war zone. Before Instagram and before I had a phone with a camera, I didn't think to take a picture. In the dark, we pulled into the desert resort. As we walked to our cabin, it seemed like someone was pointing a hair dryer at my bare legs.

We saw enough of Death Valley on that summer trip to know we wanted to come again but never in summer. Strange as it may seem, that hot summer night was when I fell in love with the park, with its harsh environment and the sense that only the strong survive there.

Alone this time, I left the park on the road we'd first used to enter it, grateful that such bare-boned beauty could still touch me.

Debi Goodwin is the author of the non-fiction book, Citizens of Nowhere. Her memoir on grief and gardening, A Victory Garden for Trying Times, will be published by Dundurn Press in Canada in September of 2019.

Related Features:
Into the Valley of Life - Chris Epting
Hiking in Teddy Roosevelt's Footsteps in Yosemite - Chris Epting
Mining the Past in Southwest Montana - Tim Leffel
Sedona: Is the Whole Town Built on a Hoax? - Laurie Gough

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