Death Valley, the majestically desolate national park on the eastern edge of California, is a rain-shadow desert, meaning that nearby mountain ranges drain moisture from incoming weather systems and stop rain from reaching the other side. Eighty miles to the west is the Sierra Nevada range, the highest in the contiguous forty-eight states, rising to fourteen thousand five hundred feet. Close by are the jagged Panamints, which reach eleven thousand feet. Any system that can carry water across those barriers is a freak occurrence. The dryness of the region is compounded by the depression of the valley floor-as low as two hundred and eighty-two feet below sea level. Whatever rain gets in tends to evaporate as it descends to the sunken bottom. In summer, nothing stands in the way of extreme heat. In 1913, a weather observer reported a temperature of a hundred and thirty-four degrees-still the official world record. Some meteorologists doubt that measurement, but even without it Death Valley would remain one of the hottest places on Earth.
The shadow lifted in October of last year, when several storms struck Death Valley National Park, resulting in what the U.S. Geological Survey called a “thousand-year-flood event.” At Scotty’s Castle, a Mission Revival villa that an eccentric millionaire built in the north of the park in the nineteen-twenties, three inches of rain fell in five hours. The deluge tore up roads and carried Dumpsters for miles. In a flashback to the Ice Age, when a lake filled the valley, a shallow body of water covered the basin for several weeks.
Because of the rain, Death Valley experienced what came to be called the Superbloom: cascades of wildflowers across thousands of acres. Park rangers had predicted an exceptional flowering after the October storms, but they were unprepared for the intensity of the public response. The park usually receives about a million visitors each year. In March alone, more than two hundred thousand people came through. No mania in the bizarre history of Death Valley-the prospectors and swindlers of the late nineteenth century; the playboy adventurers and car racers of the Jazz Age; the psychedelic goings on in the sixties and seventies, including a residency by the Manson family-matched the Superbloom invasion.
In early March, when the bloom was at its height, I drove from Los Angeles to Beatty, Nevada, northeast of the park, and checked in at a Motel 6. “This thing with the flowers, it’s crazy,” the man on night duty said. “The town can’t handle it. Restaurants are running out of food, having to get supplies from Pahrump or Vegas.”
Just before sunrise, I drove into the park. As the mountaintops lit up, I thought of Willa Cather’s description of a desert morning: “The world is golden in an instant.” I went through Daylight Pass, and the entire expanse of Death Valley sprang into view: the dark mountains, the white floor, the perpetual mirage of an ancient lake. Snow capped the Panamints. Few places on the planet offer a more dramatic juxtaposition of extremes: the climate ranges from desert to subarctic conditions.
The valley shimmered with myriad points of color, as if Georges Seurat had touched up a Georgia O’Keeffe. The dominant presence was desert gold, a sunflower that blossoms on a long, spindly stem. Notch-leaved phacelia, in colors ranging from blue to lavender, were also common, along with the free-floating white blossoms known as gravel ghosts. Scarlet clusters of paintbrush spattered higher elevations. The flowers were especially thick along the shoulders of the roads, since runoff soaks the ground on either side. They seemed to greet you as you went by, like bystanders cheering a parade-or, perhaps, like protesters silently resisting the incursion of asphalt.
As the day went on, the landscape was overrun by people. They moved through the fields in slow motion, their legs extended at funny angles, their heads bent down. From a distance, they appeared to be playing Twister or performing modern dance. Once I got off the road, I understood why people were contorting themselves. You did not want to step on any of the brave little blooms that were coming up in this unlikely terrain: bone-dry sandy soil, cracked sheets of dried mud, patches of soil on the ledges of cliffs. The desert-five-spot flower looks up at you with a tiny, bright-painted face-purple petals speckled with red. All that color has a practical purpose: to seize the attention of hummingbirds and other pollinators. But it was hard not to see it symbolically, as a defiant assertion of life in the face of death.
Such a conceit assumes that there is something inherently deadly about Death Valley. The name was coined by gold-seekers who passed through in 1849 and 1850. They had a difficult time, and as the survivors escaped over the Panamints one of them exclaimed, “Goodbye, Death Valley!” He probably had the Biblical psalm in mind: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Since then, macabre nomenclature has been in vogue: the Black Mountains, the Funeral Mountains, Coffin Canyon, Devil’s Golf Course, Dante’s View. The first overlook on the drive in from Beatty is called Hells Gate. Yet Death Valley is no more lethal than any other stretch of wilderness. On average, there are one or two fatalities a year, mostly from car accidents. Members of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, who have lived in the area for hundreds of years, call the place Timbisha, after a red ochre that their ancestors used as body paint. For them, death became a looming presence only when the first white men arrived.
In Death Valley, life does keep a low profile. Often, it is latent: seeds stay in the soil for years, waiting for a deluge to awaken them. Or it is hidden, as in the isolated pockets of water where desert pupfish-survivors of the Ice Age lakes-dart about. The feminist adventurer Edna Brush Perkins, whose 1922 book “The White Heart of Mojave” is among the best of the many Death Valley travelogues, wrote, “The desert mixes up your ideas about what you call living and dying. You see the dreadful, dead country living in beauty, and feel that the silence pressing around it is alive.”
Some years ago, I succumbed to what Perkins called, not without irony, the “terrible fascination” of Death Valley. I was lured by the spooky clichés; I’d read “Helter Skelter,” which describes how the Manson family ran amok while hiding out at Barker Ranch, in the park’s southwest corner. (Manson was apprehended when members of his gang set fire to a piece of Park Service earthmoving equipment, prompting rangers to investigate.) After a few days in the region, I lost interest in all that. I realized that Death Valley is not so much a desert as a surreally varied mountain region with a desert at its heart. At first sight, the landscape seems fixed and timeless, but you soon sense that there was violent change in the not so distant past. Vistas rearrange themselves kaleidoscopically as pastel-colored geologic formations move in and out of view. Vast slabs of rock descend into the earth at severe angles, like the Titanic making its fatal dive. I took a photograph of a stretch of two-lane highway, with sky, mountains, desert, and asphalt forming a geometric abstraction. The image haunted me, becoming the desktop picture on my computer. I have gone back to Death Valley every so often, and this year I have made a series of visits, trying to better understand its allure.
Almost everything anomalous about the place-its climate, its ecology, its history-is the result of its geology. It belongs to a region known as the Basin and Range, which passes between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. Here the earth’s crust is being pulled apart: in some areas, blocks have been shoved upward, forming mountain outcrops, and in others the blocks have fallen, forming a basin. Hence the vertiginous, two-mile drop from Telescope Peak, the highest of the Panamints, to Badwater Basin, the low point of the valley. Earthquakes are frequent, and in the past few thousand years there has been volcanic activity in Ubehebe Crater, one of the more unearthly features of the park. In geologic time, all this happened just the other day: the Death Valley that we see now did not begin to form until about three million years ago. It has a raw, chaotic look, like an unfinished construction project.
One weekend in April, I rented a Jeep Wrangler and toured the park with Darrel Cowan, a professor of geology at the University of Washington. A weathered, fit seventy-one-year-old, he is a native of Los Angeles, and first saw Death Valley as a child, while on a family vacation. He returned in college, when he took a field trip with a geology class. “I was amazed to realize that I could make a living wandering through this kind of landscape,” he told me. A few years ago, he and his brother bought a small house in Shoshone, California, a pleasant roadside village on the eastern edge of the park. He goes there several times a year, often bringing students with him.
We first drove down the Badwater Road, which winds along the foot of the Black Mountains. At Badwater Basin, we stopped to survey the terrain. Nestled in the rock face high above us was a sign reading ” SEA LEVEL,” in white block lettering reminiscent of the Hollywood sign. “The actual bedrock is much lower,” Cowan told me. “It goes three or four kilometres beneath our feet. There’s layer upon layer of sediment on top.”
Cowan turned to the Panamints, on the far side of the flats. “See that dark-green coloring, below Telescope Peak? That’s high-altitude vegetation-piñon and juniper. The stratigraphy of the rock up there is well known: middle Paleozoic going into Proterozoic. The strange thing is that all those elements”-he turned back to the slope above us-“are missing from the Black Mountains. They should be here, but they aren’t. The provocative theory is that the Panamints used to be on top of the Black Mountains and then moved.” He put his left hand on top of his right and slid it to one side, forming a cleft. “I used to think it was a crazy idea, but I’m liking it more and more.”
We drove across the flats, leaving a plume of dust in our wake. On the other side, we went up the Hanaupah Canyon road, a rocky trail that justified the use of a jeep. In this area, Cowan and a colleague, Paul Bodin, had conducted an experiment designed to test for seismic activity along Death Valley’s faults. They deployed ten seismometers on the east side of the Panamints and monitored data for eighteen months. The devices recorded man-made tremors-the rumbling of off-road vehicles, blasts from mines outside the park-and more than three hundred “microearthquakes.” Indeed, the mountain-moving forces remain active. The Panamints are probably still rising; Death Valley will only get drier and hotter.
The following day, we drove through Titus Canyon, one of the park’s glories. You approach from the Nevada side, over the Grapevine Mountains. You pass a ghost town called Leadfield, where an alleged hundred-million-dollar silver-lead mine created hysteria in the twenties. (The mine was ballyhooed in Jazz Age lingo: “She’s a ‘High Stepping Baby’ and I don’t mean maybe.”) Then comes a two-thousand-foot descent down an increasingly narrow canyon, with tilting towers of rock on all sides. Cowan pointed out multicolored formations that are characteristic of the area: Bonanza King, Carrara, Zabriskie Quartzite. “But see how it’s folded-bent this way and that, turned upside down?” he said, shaking his head. “How did you do that to these thick limestones?”
A Subaru clattered by, risking a flat tire on the rough road. “Stop and look at the rocks!” Cowan mock-shouted.
He became fixated on a striking complex of dark-gray limestone blocks surrounded by whitish calcite, a shattered geometry reminiscent of a Futurist composition. “You can see how these blocks once fit together and then were pulled apart. Sometimes it’s like there was an explosion and all these pieces just blew off. And, over there, these really massive blocks, just floating. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Cowan mentioned a 1941 study by the geologist Levi Noble, who was the first to decipher the roiling processes at work in Death Valley. Noble coined the term “Amargosa chaos” to describe the folding and twisting of rock formations. (The Amargosa is a river that flows from southern Nevada to Badwater Basin, largely underground.) Noble wrote, “The fantastic disorder of the rock masses that form the precipitous mountain ranges bordering Death Valley imparts a quality of strangeness to the scenery that is felt even by the casual visitor.”
“I don’t mean to dis the Grand Canyon,” Cowan said, with a laugh. “But, compared with this, it’s monotonous. There you have all the layers beautifully stacked up, the oldest on the bottom and the youngest on top. It’s the same thing the whole way through. This is dynamic.”
Geologists aren’t the only scientists who see vitality amid the barrenness of Death Valley. Biologists and ecologists go there to study the stubborn persistence of various life-forms, from microbes to mammals. For these researchers, the so-called Superbloom was of no great note; it simply made visible life that is always present. Exobiologists-scientists who theorize about the possibility of extraterrestrial life-have taken particular interest in the place. If you can make it here, it might be said, you can make it almost anywhere.
Generations of tourists have compared Death Valley to Mars. For several years, the park has capitalized on its far-out reputation by hosting an event called MarsFest, in which the public can listen to presentations by members of NASA and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, and by affiliated scientists. This year’s edition, held in April, was renamed the Celestial Centennial, in honor of the centennial of the National Park Service. One of the speakers was the NASA researcher Christopher McKay, who is helping to plan a Martian rover mission in 2020. ( NASA has a history of testing rovers in Death Valley.) Several hundred people turned out for lectures and field trips. At night, amateur astronomers set up telescopes in Furnace Creek, an oasis village where the Park Service has its local headquarters. In a matter of minutes, I caught glimpses of Mercury, four of Jupiter’s moons, the Messier 3 star cluster, and the Whirlpool Galaxy.
At Badwater Basin that morning, a couple of dozen people-mostly of a type that might be described as Tourists with Autodidact Tendencies-gathered to hear a lecture by Susanne Douglas, a biologist who teaches at East Los Angeles College and has also been associated with NASA. Her specialty is communities of organisms that thrive in conditions that seem extreme from a human standpoint. On trips to Death Valley, Douglas has examined the microbial life that can be found in the flats, where millennia of flooding and evaporation have left an encrustation of salt. Although there is water here-three groups of pools are fed by springs flowing under the Black Mountains-most species cannot handle the high levels of salt and boron.
“In the summer, the ground temperature can approach two hundred degrees,” Douglas said. “But the microbes actually grow better in extreme heat. Some can live without light, and some can live without oxygen. They obtain their energy from minerals.” Each of the three Badwater pools has a unique network of microbes, depending on the minerals that are present in the ground.
Douglas ventured out onto the salt flats with three of her students, stepping off the walkways provided for tourists. A park ranger commented, “She’s pretty much the only person who’s allowed to do that.” She brought back a few samples from the deposits. They were streaked with color: green, orange, purple, and black. The orange, she explained, acts as a sunscreen, protecting the green layer underneath. The bacteria feed on the deposits and alter their chemistry. Gypsum, which can create bulbous, cauliflowerlike forms, transforms into sulfur, and then into a sulfur variant known as rosickyite.
“The rosickyite is what jumps out,” Douglas went on. “Geologically, it should never have been here. You usually find it only at a volcanic pit or a hydrothermal vent. Microbes make it stable.” If such a mineral were to be seen on Mars, it might signal the former presence of microbial life. In her work with NASA, Douglas has tested the Mars rovers’ instruments on Badwater samples, to see how well they detect the biosignatures.
The drying up of Death Valley’s lakes after the last Ice Age killed off almost all aquatic vertebrates except for the pupfish-minnowlike creatures less than two inches long. They persist in Salt Creek, a few miles north of Badwater, and several other pockets of water in the region. As the desert advanced, the pupfish evolved in such a way that they could withstand high salinity and water temperatures exceeding a hundred degrees. When I visited Salt Creek this spring, the breeding season had just begun. The males, like the wildflowers, showed brilliant colors: yellow at the head, iridescent blue at the tail.
Elsewhere, Death Valley shelters potentially endangered organisms. In Lee Flat, an elevated plain in the northwest part of the park, Joshua trees dot the landscape. A few are elderly giants, their thick trunks coated with fibrous matter; many others are striplings, with a few tufts of green atop a short trunk. The tiniest ones resemble pineapples. The biologist James Cornett, who has studied the Lee Flat grove for twenty-one years, sees evidence of a demographic shift. Young trees-“new recruits,” he calls them-are increasing in number. For various reasons, including higher altitude, Lee Flat trees are healthier than the ones in Joshua Tree National Park, to the south, where rising temperatures and drought are depleting the youngsters. Cornett believes that a century from now, if current trends continue, Death Valley’s Joshua trees will be the primary California population.
All living things in Death Valley dwell in the shadow of the human presence. The ultimate threat comes from Las Vegas, a hundred and twenty miles to the southeast. As the biologist Christopher Norment writes, in his 2014 book, “Relicts of a Beautiful Sea: Survival, Extinction, and Conservation in a Desert World,” the Southern Nevada Water Authority has proposed pumping groundwater that feeds into the Death Valley ecosystem. The authority has agreed to “avoid unreasonable adverse effects,” yet no one has defined what those effects might be. Would the extinction of the pupfish be too great a price? Norment thinks so. “We need their beauty and otherness, their delicate and fragile strength,” he writes. “We need the refugee species, the discards that ask for nothing more than the home that each and every one of us desires.”
Death Valley got its name because early white settlers had no idea how to live in it. The history of non-Native people in the region is, for the most part, a stunning panorama of hubris and stupidity. The definitive treatment of the subject is “Death Valley and the Amargosa: A Land of Illusion,” a 1986 book by Richard E. Lingenfelter, an astrophysicist who moonlights as a historian of the Old West. (His other works include the paper “Is There a Dark Matter Signal in the Galactic Positron Annihilation Radiation?”) The chief illusion was that Death Valley could be mined for gold, silver, and other marketable metals. There were such reserves, but the expense involved in extracting them usually exceeded their value. The dream of wealth was made all the more romantic by tales of death-defying adventure. One early chronicler claimed to have seen white sands strewn with skeletons; another conjured poisonous dust clouds swooping over fields of glittering gems.
The saga began with a wrong turn. In 1849, at the height of the gold rush, a wagon train with as many as a thousand people was making its way from Salt Lake City to Nevada and California. One group, misled by a largely imaginary map, attempted a shortcut through Death Valley. Some of the pioneers escaped alive; others perished. A sizable number, including families, were trapped for weeks in Furnace Creek. Two young men, John Rogers and William Lewis Manly, found a path across the Panamints, then returned with supplies to rescue the party. Manly’s memories of Death Valley were less than fond: “If the waves of the sea could flow in and cover its barren nakedness . . . it would be indeed a blessing, for in it there is naught of good, comfort or satisfaction, but ever in the minds of those who braved its heat and sands, a thought of a horrid Charnel house.” He might have been happy to know that his name is now affixed to Death Valley’s Ice Age lake, which covered the charnel house in waters six hundred feet deep.
Several forty-niners glimpsed precious metal as they dragged themselves over the mountains. One survivor later fashioned a gun sight from a hunk of silver; this engendered the legend of the Gunsight Lode, which prospectors pursued for decades. There was said to be a mountain of purest silver, as well as inexhaustible veins of gold, copper, and lead. Such stories attracted con men by the dozen. Geologists were paid to tout gigantic deposits; stock was sold back East; boomtowns sprang up; the hucksters cashed in. Supreme among them was Walter Scott, after whom Scotty’s Castle was named: he parlayed speculation around a nonexistent mine into national celebrity. One of his publicity schemes was a train that he called the Death Valley Coyote. He rode it from Chicago to Los Angeles at record speed, throwing out ten-dollar bills as he went.
Few people made honest money from Death Valley mines, at least until the borax business came in, at the turn of the twentieth century. The humble chemical, which forms easily in salt flats, has many household uses, notably as a laundry detergent. Initially, teams of mules were used to carry loads of borax out of the valley. You can still buy boxes of 20 Mule Team Borax, although all mines in the park are now closed.
Death Valley became a national monument in the last weeks of the Hoover Administration. In the twilight of power, Hoover seemed drawn to vast, empty spaces: three of the parks he created at that time were deserts. As Hal Rothman and Char Miller note, in the 2013 book “Death Valley National Park: A History,” the notion of a desert park was novel. The classic parks, Yosemite and Yellowstone, matched nineteenth-century ideas of the sublime, their grandiose scenery celebrated by Albert Bierstadt and other landscape painters. In the twentieth century, the epoch of “The Waste Land,” an aesthetic of desolation took hold. Death Valley found its place in artistic lore: Frank Norris’s 1899 novel, “McTeague,” and Erich von Stroheim’s ill-fated 1924 film adaptation, “Greed,” both end with the image of the protagonist handcuffed to a corpse in Badwater Basin. Dozens of movie scenes have given the park a post-apocalyptic or sci-fi tint. R2-D2 meanders down one of its canyons in “Star Wars.”
Even if its menace is exaggerated, Death Valley can wipe out those who act foolishly. In 1996, a German couple with two children drove a van up a remote canyon in the Panamints, got stuck, set off on foot, and vanished. Thirteen years later, a retired traffic engineer named Tom Mahood, who specializes in tracking desert disappearances and U.F.O.s, uncovered their remains. In 2001, one of Darryl Cowan’s students found scattered bones in Hanaupah Canyon, with jeans and sneakers nearby; they belonged to a tourist who had gone missing months earlier. Last summer, there were two heat-related fatalities. In June, a German motorcyclist succumbed to heat stroke after parking his vehicle and wandering a short distance. In August, a Las Vegas woman died after her car got stuck in sand. Rangers speak of “death by G.P.S.”: people follow bad directions into oblivion, refusing to believe that their devices could lead them astray.
At 3.4 million acres, Death Valley is the largest national park outside of Alaska, yet its annual budget, a little under nine million dollars, is relatively modest. Only eight full-time park police patrol the region, plus a few seasonal hires. Although emergencies arise every week, most of the time police and rangers handle lesser problems: illicit camping, graffiti, unlicensed film projects and car commercials. (“Tested in Death Valley” is a favorite car-ad conceit, going back to a 1916 campaign by the Dodge Brothers.) Inevitably, much of the park goes unsupervised. Rangers tend to take a see-no-evil attitude toward countercultural activity at the hot springs in Saline Valley, which hosts clothing-optional softball games on Presidents’ Day weekend.
For some Park Service people, Death Valley can be a gruelling assignment: high schools and shopping are an hour or more away, and for serious medical needs you have to go to Las Vegas. Others thrive on the solitude. In March, I spent a few hours looking at wildflowers with Dianne Milliard, a ranger who had been dividing her time between Death Valley, in the winter, and McCarthy, Alaska, in the summer. “Everyone says that I live in these extreme places,” she told me. “But for me ‘extreme’ would be Chicago-I can’t imagine living in a place like that. I need more space than most people.”
We drove through Greenwater Valley, once the scene of a short-lived copper-mining craze. Milliard’s radio crackled to life: “Need a ranger to handle what looks to be a commercial photo shoot happening at the entrance to Twenty Mule Team Canyon.” We walked through fields of wildflowers. “Here’s the little purple Death Valley phacelia, always hiding in the bushes,” Milliard said. She took photographs of choice flowers as she walked along; she had been posting pictures on Death Valley’s Facebook page, along with directions to the best viewing spots. “But I don’t give away everything I see,” she told me. “A very fragile area could get trashed if I sent a lot of people there.”
On her days off, Milliard hiked alone or with a colleague in stretches of the park that are overlooked by guidebooks-places she liked to call “nameless canyons.” She told me, “I’m trying to decide where to disappear to this weekend.”
The only sensible way of living in Death Valley is the one adopted by the Timbisha Shoshone people, in the centuries before the Manly cohort blundered through. In the winter months, when temperatures tend to peak in the seventies, the Timbisha lived on the flats, at springs like the one in Furnace Creek. In the summers, they avoided the heat by going into the mountains. They hunted game-bighorn sheep were the largest prize-and gathered pine nuts and mesquite beans. In greener parts of the park, such as Saline Valley, they grew potatoes, squash, corn, wheat, and fruit trees.
Last summer, I went to see Pauline Esteves, the elder of the Timbisha Shoshone. She was born in Furnace Creek in 1924. Her mother, Rosie, came from a family that had long lived near the spring. Her father, Steve, was of Basque descent; he was a stonemason, and helped to build the Furnace Creek Inn, the only high-end lodging in Death Valley. The Park Service didn’t arrive until Esteves was nine, and she can remember the traditional summertime expeditions into the mountains. She now lives alone in a roomy trailer in the Timbisha village, which lies about a mile south of the Park Service visitors’ center. Around thirty-five people occupy a group of adobe homes and trailers, with mesquite trees providing a modicum of shade.
“To call it Death Valley, that was a very immoral and evil thing,” Esteves said, scrutinizing me through black-framed glasses. “We didn’t even talk about death. We talked about now, and the future. Death is part of life-it’s going to happen. Why talk about it? My elders used to ask, ‘What do these people know about death, anyway? How do you define death?’ They’d go into heavy conversations that I’d listen to. Then they’d wind up making a big joke out of it.” She laughed and rolled her eyes. “All these other names: Funeral Mountains, Devil’s Golf Course, Hells Gate. A writer once brought up the idea of changing the name, and people at the Park Service said that it’s part of the folklore. The folklore! What the heck is that?”
For the most part, the Timbisha evaded the regime of slaughter and enslavement that caused the Native American population of California to drop from about a hundred and fifty thousand, in 1846, to about sixteen thousand, in 1880. The arrival of the National Park Service posed a new challenge: because the Timbisha were never recognized as a tribe, they had no legal standing when Death Valley became public land. From the start, they felt that the rangers were up to no good; in their uniforms, they looked like soldiers. Esteves recalls, “I never saw really harsh things being done to our people, but we kids rebelled against them, because they intimidated us. We did crazy things. Once, we let the air out of the tires of the rangers’ car when they were giving a lecture to the rich folk at the Furnace Creek Inn, probably saying how we eat snakes.”
The Timbisha were right to be suspicious: the Park Service considered their encampment a blemish on the supposed purity of the wilderness. During the Second World War, young men of the tribe joined the armed forces, and often they moved their families out of Death Valley. When an adobe house became unoccupied, a ranger hosed it down until its walls dissolved. The apparent hope was that the tribe would vanish completely, yet the community hung on. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, Esteves became active in the Timbisha’s efforts to win formal recognition and ownership of land. After tortuous negotiations, the tribe was granted three hundred and fourteen acres at Furnace Creek. In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act, and the tribe’s name now appears on Death Valley signage.
Once the Timbisha had regained a parcel of their ancestral home, new problems arose. The tribe split into factions, with Esteves and others at Furnace Creek pitted against a larger group, based in Bishop, at the northern end of Owens Valley. The Bishop group, which has assumed control, is pursuing plans for a casino, to be built outside the park. Those in Furnace Creek favor a museum and an environmentally conscious inn. Barbara Durham, Esteves’s niece, serves as the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, and she maintains a small display of artifacts in the Timbisha office.
While I was talking to Durham, a family of Norwegian tourists stopped by. In the summer months, the park gets a lot of business from Europeans, who relish extreme heat of a kind they may never have encountered. (To New Yorkers, the park feels not unlike the lower level of the West Fourth Street subway station on a hundred-degree day.) After the Norwegians left, Durham said, “The Europeans romanticize us. They’ve seen all kinds of versions of us on TV. But they tend to know more about Native American history than the average U.S. citizen.”
To gaze at the Panamint Range from the valley floor is to experience an old and dangerous illusion: the mountains do not seem nearly as high or as far off as they really are. “Distant objects look stark and near,” Edna Brush Perkins wrote. “What you judge to be half a mile usually turns out to be five, and four miles is certainly eighteen.” In the blinding light of day, the mass of rock flattens into two dimensions, like a cardboard cutout on a comic-opera set. At sunset, the mountains turn an ethereal blue and purple. When you start walking toward them across the salt pan, they do not appear to get any closer. Your feet move, but you make no progress.
I had wondered for years what the view is like from above, and in August I decided to climb Telescope Peak. The hike is a fourteen-mile round trip, and, while it requires no mountaineering abilities, the guidebooks do not lie in calling it strenuous. I drove to Mahogany Flat, a campground just above eight thousand feet, where I spent the night in a tent. Down in the valley, the temperature had hit a hundred and seventeen; up there, it got a bit chilly after dark. I could see no artificial light except, very faintly, the glow of Las Vegas to the east. The night sky blazed so brightly that it was hard to pick out constellations. Sunrise was eerie: a red disk materialized behind mountain haze, and Badwater Basin became visible as a faint white patch.
I saw no one else hiking that day. Evidently, I had the mountain to myself. I like spells of solitude, but this was a bit much. I did not lack for company, though. A black-tailed jackrabbit froze in place. A Panamint chipmunk perched atop a rock, its foxlike ears twitching. Lizards darted across the path. I scanned the far ridges for bighorn sheep, but had no luck.
From afar, these peaks had appeared forbidding and featureless. Up close, they were startlingly green, their slopes covered by trees, bushes, and flowering plants. The fields below had turned an arid brown by April and May, yet at this elevation the bloom was still in progress: I saw purple lupine, scarlet paintbrush, yellow rabbitbrush. Flowers were bunched up against the path, offering a more informal, hey-what’s-up greeting. Under my feet was a geological layer known as the Johnnie Formation: gray, green, and reddish slate. The shards clinked metallically when I stepped on them. This was the result of metamorphic hardening, Darrel Cowan told me later.
Halfway up, the path flattens out and traverses an open, rolling terrain, which has the delightful name Arcane Meadows. Then you enter a pine grove, mostly juniper and piñon. I looked at the piñon cones, knowing that in the fall members of the Timbisha tribe would harvest them on the slopes below. Following an ancient practice that Pauline Esteves teaches the younger generations, they pick cones off the trees with poles, remove the nuts, and roast them. Farther up the slope are bristlecone pines, with sinewy, almost humanoid trunks. They can live for thousands of years.
After four hours, I reached the summit. In a reversal of the illusion on the valley floor, Badwater seemed impossibly distant, much farther than fifteen miles off. A scrim of haze had hidden the peaks of the Sierra Nevada-there were forest fires to the south-but the panorama was staggering all the same. Ridge after ridge, basin after basin, the entire pulled-apart topography of the region came into view. “Each range here is like a warship standing on its own,” John McPhee wrote in “Basin and Range,” his great 1981 book about the geology of the American West. “It is a soundless immensity with mountains in it.”
Next to the summit cairn was a beat-up old ammunition box containing a visitor’s log going back several months. In that time, around a hundred hikers had reached the top, including a college graduate who was celebrating his freedom with a cross-country trip; a mother who was hiking with her kids; and two women who were marking the anniversaries of their cancer diagnoses. I sifted through the comments:
I pray that I leave life’s worries on top of this mountain and come down with a new perspective.
Don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do this, but happy I can did today!
Started up in 1985 + made it to the top today.
Take good care of mother nature please, all of you. You still have her presence here in the US.
It’s all one big mystery.
Hope we make it down the gravel road with my Prius.
Several people remarked on the paradox that Death Valley is full of life. One underscored the message with a sketch of a lizard. I thought again about the misfortune of the name. In recent years, Mt. McKinley, in Alaska, has reverted to its Native name, Denali; perhaps the same thing could eventually happen with Timbisha.
The environmental historian William Cronon, in a 1995 essay entitled “The Trouble with Wilderness,” observes that national parks can have the effect of letting us off the hook: reassured by the sight of seemingly pristine nature, we go back to trampling it in our daily lives. Death Valley is, in a way, the most honest of parks: it offers no such Edenic mirage. The mining craze has left an ineradicable mark, with one escarpment after another clawed by greed. There is also no escaping the force field of the military-industrial complex. Above much of the park is a Special Use Airspace used by the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake and other Department of Defense facilities: the silence of the desert is periodically broken by the noise of jets. From Telescope Peak, it is not hard to imagine a world that has been comprehensively stripped and scoured. You wonder how much more of the planet will begin to look like Mars.
“Today’s people are beginning to see a little differently,” Pauline Esteves told me. “They see climate change, which we brought on ourselves, being so greedy. They see how we’ve destroyed nature, which is good medicine for you. Maybe if they start to call this place Timbisha instead of Death Valley, it will be a step in the right direction.” ♦