Life in Death Valley, Day 1

Golden Evening Primrose (Camissonia brevipes)
Golden Evening Primrose (Camissonia brevipes)

Golden Evening Primrose (Camissonia brevipes)

At two a.m. my girlfriend, Kyle, and I touch down in Las Vegas.

We flew across a continent to see the natural wonders of Death Valley, and unfortunately Las Vegas is our entryway. After we stumble through the neon-lit terminals and catch the wrong bus, we fall asleep among old cigarette fumes in our hotel. After just five hours, we check out.

We are here because, about once a decade, Death Valley National Park—toeing the California/Nevada border—rejects its name and blooms with life.

The park is known for its heat, which keeps the valley’s wildflowers locked in underground kernels. But every ten years or so, rains meander over the snow-capped peaks and fall to the desert floor. Water is a rare commodity; the plants seize the opportunity to erupt into a menagerie of color before oppressive heat and drought re-take their rightful place.

Desert sunflowers, white tidy-tips, monkey flowers, desert paintbrushes and five-spots. Cotton tops, beaver tails, evening primrose, bristly fiddleneck, freckled milkvetch and notch-leaved phacelia. They blanket the valley floor and mountainsides with bursts of yellow, white, magenta, vermilion and lavender. The colors announce to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds that the flowers need to be pollinated quickly, and the flowers will pay for this favor in nectar.

It is this short, brilliant life that enticed us from across the country and into sin city.

Bigelow's Monkeyflower (Mimulus bigelovii)

Bigelow’s Monkeyflower (Mimulus bigelovii)

As stunning as Las Vegas’ palaces are, more surprising is how quickly they stop. Drive 10 minutes from the strip and the city is as flat as a mid-western suburb. The Trader Joe’s is just down the street from the Wal-Mart. How convenient. Drive 20 minutes and Las Vegas is no-longer a city at all. It is a mountainous rural community of farmers and vacationers. Joshua trees reach across the landscape with muscular green branches that hold virgin-white bouquets. Creosote bushes are a-plenty here too, and give the muted brown desert a neon-green tinge to mirror the city we’d left behind.

bristly fiddleneck (Amsinckia tessellata)

bristly fiddleneck (Amsinckia tessellata)

The strange thing about Death Valley is just how different the outside of the park looks from the inside. Up until the park’s hills the Nevada/California landscape is flat. Yucca. Creosote. Rocks. Dust. Red and purple peaks surround us.

Before we even reached the park, desert trumpets carpeted the roadsides to announce our entrance. At the park entrance we are met with an uncharacteristic chill. The rocks before us are shadowed by saturated clouds. The wind is quick and the light is dim.

Only after we cross the peaks into the heart of the park does Death Valley’s individuality and beauty become apparent. Down at the lowest spot in the Americas, a white river without water twists, unmoving, through the valley—a Nile of pure salt. On mountainsides, reds, yellows and greens kink and coil in geologic contortions.

Approximately 165 million years ago, the crust of North America began to stretch and thin like a rubber band. Unlike a rubber band, though, the earth’s crust is a bit more brittle.

The stretch created diagonal cracks—fissures in the crust. The broken earth slid along these slants which lifted peaks up gradually, only to have them steeply fall into a V-shaped valley on the other side. A series of tectonic, offset triangles. Over time, the sands and rocks of eroded peaks filled the sharp valleys, and blunted them into flat, low basins. From the Sierra Nevada to the Rockies the earth rises and falls, again and again. Basin, range, basin, range. This geologic formation is known, uncreatively, as the basin and range. The lowest and hottest basin is Death Valley.

Death Valley is usually true to its name—mostly lifeless and hot; the hottest place on earth. In 1913, the measurement at Death Valley’s Furnace Creek topped at 56.7º C (134º F).

Scrupulous meteorology aficionados may note that this record was beaten by Al Aziz, Libya in 1922. However, due to some questionable measurement techniques by the Libyan recorders, that temperature was invalidated by the World Meteorological Association in 2012 and Death Valley regained its top spot. Even more scrupulous weather nerds may note that there are also problems with the Death Valley 1913 measurement, but the thermometer at Furnace Creek has measured highs of 53.9º C (129º F) as recently as 2007. To quote the Weather Underground: “These readings are the highest quality [and undisputed] temperatures yet recorded in the world,” which renders the entire controversy moot.

Though perhaps more accurate, these later reports did not come with the same colorful language as the 1913 record. A visitor’s sign quoted a 1913 park ranger who said that birds were “dropping out of the sky” from the heat.

Kyle and I did not experience this.

This became a theme throughout our trip. We experienced violent winds, rain, snow and hail. As Kyle later put it, “the only weather we didn’t experience, was the heat.”

A field of rock and desert sunflowers (Geraea canescens) (photo by Kyle)

A field of rock and desert sunflowers (Geraea canescens) (photo by Kyle)

We park by the side of the road next to some earthen domes labeled “Kit Fox Hills” on our National Geographic map. The flowers grow heartily among the broken rock that is the valley floor. Desert sunflowers are especially numerous, and they quake and shine in the setting sun. At least a mile away from our car we find an old sandy wash protected (somewhat) from the wind. We cook dinner and pitch the tent. We don’t see a kit fox. We don’t hear coyotes, or owls or any other nocturnal signs of life.

There are no stars out, and besides, our dreary eyes lack the stamina to gaze. We’ll try and enjoy them tomorrow.

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