16 March 2012

A Real Voyage of Discovery

Awake in the tent, I hear the sound of the wind coming down canyon. It’s not a whistle or the proverbial freight-train sound. It’s more like a whoosh that grows and broadens as it hurls itself from the high mountains, through the canyons, down to the floor of Death Valley below us. Instinctively, I brace for it, clenching my jaws and shoulders, squenching my eyes closed to keep out any wayward sand. And then the gust hits, flattening the tent momentarily before it moves on, beyond our insignificant camp. I hear it, wending its way down the massive alluvial fan below us. And then, from the opposite direction, up canyon, I hear the next gust, gearing up for its passage, and I can feel myself tensing again, apprehensive and exhausted, hoping the tent stakes will maintain their bite in the desert soil, hoping that sleep will come.

Four nights in three different locations, and this scenario plays out each time, varying only slightly in duration and intensity. But Death Valley is worth the lack of sleep.

Like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, Death Valley inspires many inadequate descriptions. It is vast, unforgiving, and incredibly beautiful. There are few trees, and those that would be considered trees in other deserts, like the mesquite, are stubby, desperate-looking bushes here. Everything is exposed, from your inconsequential self to the massive geological features. You cannot come here to hide, but you could certainly become lost.


In the Southwest, we have vistas. In other parts of the United States, lookouts and viewpoints certainly exist. But these are usually places where we can peer out through the trees to catch a view of something quite spectacular framed by more trees. But here, especially in Death Valley, nothing obscures the vista.

I love vistas. I love climbing up just for the thrill of seeing what I can see, to get a sense of my bearings and the lay of the land. I love living high upon a hill with a 180° view, watching weather move in, seeing how the light changes each day between sunrise and sunset, observing the stars and the moon. And I’m a pretty well-traveled person, hiking many trails in the Grand Canyon, traversing Haleakala’s Crater, and visiting dozens of national parks throughout the West. I guess that I was beginning to believe I’d seen it all, as they say, supposing that nothing would ever rival the jaw-dropping, tear-inducing scene that was my first impression of Yosemite Valley. I suppose you might say all these vistas were making me jaded. But Dante’s View of Death Valley surprised me. It gave me a shot of the desert as I’d never seen it.

My eyes were immediately drawn to the bright white of the Badwater Salt Flats, a huge playa, or dry lake bed. It’s the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. And once my eyes have absorbed the void: the whitest-of-whites of the salt flats, I begin to notice the other colors: buff, black, copper, brick red, purple, ash grey to slate grey (and every shade between), oranges, browns, sage green, and Sedona pink. The variety of hues is astonishing. There is no vegetation to obscure any of the rock faces, the sands, the alluvial fans, the badlands, or the mountain ranges stretching far into the distance.

And so for the rest of the trip at least, I attempt not to pre-judge, or to have expectations that are either too low or too high. At more than 5600 feet above the salt flats, the wind whispers to me. This sigh, this undertone contrasts starkly with the undulating gusts of the previous night, but in it, I clearly hear the words of Marcel Proust: The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. It is a gentle voice, a reminder of the beauty exclusive of, and exclusive to us all, merely awaiting discovery. And that maybe, once all is peeled back, revealing the very essence, maybe then we can recognize what is eternal and what endures. And perhaps then, we can begin to understand why.

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