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Travel Image: Death Valley
Photo: Loic Bernard

Travel Image: Death Valley
Photo: Loic Bernard






Death Valley: Extremes (cont.)

This is why we cruised through Death Valley with the windows down. Far from refreshing the heat bristled against our faces; the air wavered like that moment in Star Trek before or after something gets beamed up from the Enterprise. We were in the miniscule minority on this one though; I actually took data. Most people laze through Death Valley hermetically sealed within their vehicles, stopping at one vista point and historical site of interest after another, the air condition primped, photo phonies, dutifully running off rolls of film at designated spots. Many people never leave their cars. They probe the area as if on another planet, taking atmospheric readings, pondering and pointing at the alien creatures outside somehow surviving.

We made contact with a few of the braver scouts. Between the immense walls of shingled gravels and cemented slabs of sienna stone that proclaim geological eras runs Titus Canyon, a small sinewy one-way road that connects with one of the park’s main thoroughfares. Muddling about between patches of shade the shavings and debris from those violent periods erect a prehistoric peace that crunches beneath the feet. Periodic convoys hesitantly passed. A few people breached their seals to ask, with the tones of heroes, if we needed a lift as if we were stranded in some remote nether-region on our last legs. Yes, there is something to be said for the altruistic thought, but even more to be said about the trend of reluctance to get out and actually feel our surroundings.

No better were our heat-pocked thoughts and ideas, vague like faintly smudged clouds evaporating in the heat, synthesized than in Titus Canyon. A sleek SUV motored down the road. Ricocheted off the walls, easy to confuse with the sound of wind before its gust arrived, the vehicle’s rumble got us off to the side of the narrow way. It stopped in front of us. Two dapper young twentysomethings incredulously gaped through the tinted windows, sealed shut of course. Silence returned as the roiled dust behaved like chalk clapped off erasers casting the scene in a faint off-yellow haze. The driver’s window whirred down with an inorganic precision. “Are you guys alright? Can we help? Do you need a ride?” We assured him that we were fine. Hell, the car wasn’t more than a mile away. “Is that a TV?” my pal rhetorically said. “Get any reception out here?” I asked. “Not on these goat roads,” the driver ruefully replied, as if he had already spent a better part of the day searching for even the faintest signal.

Wafted by the air conditioner, I smelled the scent of shampoo from a young woman’s finely coiffed hair. She sat shotgun and caressed a professional looking camera like a loaded gun, ready to take aim and immortalize something in an instant as the car rolled past. “Boy,” Nigel said cautiously as he leaned into the car and suspiciously eyed the interior, “it sure is cold in here.” The driver looked us up and down one more time, nodded and then disappeared behind our reflections lunging off the window in the fiercely bright sun. Shrouded again in a veil of dust we watched the SUV go round the bend, listening to its movement until it became as indistinguishable as that of the wind.

Nigel had planned the trip (it was his car) to coincide with a full moon. The plan had been to watch it arc over the desert. After Titus Canyon and the previous night’s dusty hot imitation of sleep, the two of us nostalgically yearned for the Alabama Hills.

And this returns us to the beginning, of this piece that is, right here near the end. We debated a run to Vegas or a return to the red hills that had pleasured us so. Cooled by the artificial stream the heat gave us but one choice: stay. Rather than hideout the day of the full moon, Nigel and I challenged the sun. We confronted the heat right at noon time, walked smack dab out into the middle of the salt flats, the iridescent white light of death’s first moment, or life’s last, blasting up into our eyes. A small white-piped weather stand shared its shade with us. We watched a frenetic sketch of a spider hopped-up on heat. It pranced about.

In retrospect, both Nigel and myself displayed symptoms of heat stroke. The desert got the better of us. In the oasis shade we decided to stay the night, continue being the desert. Below the valley’s western mountain line, the sun’s vanish conjured the winds, the hottest most ungratifying wind I have ever felt. The sky bruised and the stars were cued. A full moon does not rise until about an hour after sunset. The wind hammered; we waited; nothing else mattered.

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