DEATH VALLEY, CA (29 December 2019) — I woke up just before sunrise, and the first hints of light turned the clouds a pink-ish red. I decided to try to go down to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes as it was early and perhaps there would not be too many people. Sand dunes are my happy place and I had to make an effort to visit them — even if only briefly — so I drove west as the sun inched up over the edge of the mountains in the east, lighting the still snow-capped peaks of the western Panamint mountains with a bright glow.
There were already people down by the dunes when I arrived. Most of them had probably come out earlier to catch the sunrise over the desert, and they were perched on the higher peaks in the distance. Everyone seemed in tune with the spirit of the desert, peacefully concentrated on the silent beauty of the morning. The light was magical. There seemed to be a struggle between the sun and the clouds, lending a painterly “texture” to the sky.
Greeting the dunes like old friends, I walked along the contours parallel to the sea of crests rather than making a beeline for the distant peaks. I lingered for awhile where the sand filled in the empty spaces between tangled masses of roots forming rounded mounds, the beginning of future dunes. The parched wood twisted and seemingly reached up to the sky in an unanswered prayer for rain. I could see the orb of the sun through the black roots, looking like the eye of god observing his own handiwork with a wink of approval.
Soon the sun was high enough to begin heating up the desert, and finishing my communion with the dunes, I headed back to the Jeep just as the first wave of morning tourists started to arrive.
The day was still young and I picked up the loop through Mustard Canyon near the Harmony Borax Works. I don’t know much about the history of this small canyon, but it is a visually intriguing landscape, with a yellow toned crumbly rock surface devoid of any plant life, and though geologically it belongs to the Miocene Furnace Creek Formation (roughly 15 million years old) it looks distinctively different than the surrounding area.
I still had coyotes on my mind and in the afternoon I joined a “Ranger Talk” on the subject hoping to learn something new. Interestingly, the ranger was not really an expert on coyotes, but used her talk to link the animal with the coyote totem and then connected them both to “Death Valley Scotty” the famous real-life character who introduced much of America to this place back in the early 1900s. One of Scotty’s endeavors involved a train called the “Coyote Express” and the ranger seemed to “free-associate” the word coyote to tell a non-linear story. Her linkage was clever and though I had come to the session to learn more about the animal, I enjoyed the history lesson and the playful interpretation of Scotty, who was something of a con-man, as the Coyote totem “Trickster.”
As an added “bonus” to her Talk, the ranger guided us from a starting point at the Zabriske Point overlook, away from the crowd towards a nearby trail with its own magnificent vista of the badlands below. I made a mental note of the location so that I could come back and explore further in this direction on my own.
After the talk I returned to the Twenty Mule Team Canyon with enough time to do a little bit of exploring in the badlands rather than just going for a “drive through” as I had done yesterday. The complex beauty of desert “badlands” fascinates me, and I could wander in them for days without being bored. The badlands surrounding the Twenty Mule Team Canyon are like a maze of petrified sand dunes endlessly folded back on themselves. I stopped at one of the “pull offs” along the drive and got out to explore on foot, following the path between two “walls” as it turned behind the hills and then led up a ridgeline. There wasn’t really a “trail”, but I could see a faint “path” and it was really the only place one could walk — as if the terrain itself was guiding the journey. It was a strange feeling to be walking deep inside the folds of the earth, disappearing from the “trail” into the landscape itself. The surface of the “walls” felt like crumbly rock or more like a very rough dried and hardened sand compressed together but though it crumbled when you scraped it, it was solid enough to hold the weight of a person or a Jeep — or even twenty mules, I suppose.
As I continued following the contours of the terrain I thought about navigation and how people panic when they feel “lost” in the desert. Here I was meandering around in the badlands, out of sight of the Jeep and the trail, and yet I “knew” exactly where I was in relation to them. This simple confidence gave me the incredible freedom to be able to appreciate a special corner of the desert, to embrace its mysteries without fear. With enough time and water I think it would be possible to walk quite far into the badlands from this point, but I had neither so I started back towards the Jeep when the shadows began to get long.
Finishing the short drive around the canyon I stopped again at the point that the trail climbs to the place where it seems like we are on top of the world. I pulled the Jeep off the trail so others could pass, then got out to make some photos and watch the long shadows fill the canyons again, marking the eternal rhythm of the day.
ABOUT THE EXPEDITION
JoMarie Fecci, of USnomads, sets off on the first holiday roadtrip with the new Jeep, overlanding from New York to the deserts of the southwest. Once out in the desert, it will be time for some scouting and pre-running in preparation for an upcoming adventure. The primary goal of this journey is to get the Jeep pre-positioned in the west, and to assess terrain, logistical concerns and approximate timeframes for future travel.
WHERE WE ARE
There are four deserts that connect across the southwest of the United States — the Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan. The Great Basin Desert is “high desert” which can get cold and see much snow in winter. This desert covers southeast Oregon, a small portion of northeast California, most of west Utah, part of southeast Idaho, and the majority of Nevada – all except the southernmost 150 miles which are within the Mojave Desert. All this land is characterized by long, thin, parallel mountain ridges running north-south, separated by wider valleys, often containing dry lake beds (playas) or salt basins. The few rivers run inwards, with no outlet to the ocean; their waters ultimately either sink below ground or evaporate. The Mojave Desert covers the southernmost 150 miles of Nevada, a tiny area of southwest Utah, lower elevation regions of northwest Arizona (bordering the Colorado River) and most of southeast California. The topography is generally similar to the Great Basin, with isolated mountains and wide, flat plains, but temperatures are hotter, vegetation sparser, and the hills are less numerous. The Sonoran Desert of southwest Arizona and the south-eastern tip of California has perhaps the most archetypal desert scenery in the Southwest, with vast flat plains and abundant cacti, especially the giant saguaro, which occurs most densely in Arizona towards the higher elevation reaches of the desert, between 1,500 and 3,500 feet. The Sonoran desert continues a long way south into Mexico, nearly 500 miles down the east side of the Gulf of California. The Chihuahuan Desert is the second largest in the US, and also extends a long way into Mexico. It covers the southern third of New Mexico, excluding several mountain ranges, and all of far west Texas, west of a line between Del Rio and Monahans. Elevations are generally higher than in the Sonoran Desert (2,000 to 6,000 feet), and precipitation is a little greater, with most rain falling during the summer thunderstorm season. Cacti are still quite numerous but are generally smaller than to the west; instead, the dominant plants are yucca and agave, though even so, as with many other desert regions, large areas have only the ubiquitous creosote bushes and mesquite trees. For more information and a list of interesting places to visit in each desert see the American Southwest website.