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Travel Image: Death Valley
Photo: Loic Bernard

Travel Image: Death Valley
Photo: Loic Bernard






Death Valley: Extremes
by Buzz Poole

“This all means something,” my friend confidently said as he raised his hand up out of the water and swept it over the shallow brook’s rippling surface like a game show model displaying prizes. Nigel sat where only minutes before I had sought respite from the heat in the tepid water a couple hundred feet beneath sea level. We were in Death Valley at a shaded rest area in the spring fed oasis of Furnace Creek. My friend was not necessarily referring to the idyllic offering of shade with its water supply burbling by the palm trees and aluminum picnic benches set in the midst of this stunning setting, but in a way it was exactly what he was referring to.

Both of us had needed a break. So we set off from Berkeley early one morning -- myself a bona fide urban junky, no stranger to the woods, however, or to wiping with rocks and leaves for days on end; my friend a photographer who resists snapping shots of people and the only person I have ever met who read Finnegan’s Wake and can offer original thoughts on it, a true man of nature. With a Coleman stove, several gallons of water, a few bottles of red, that’s wine and Mr. Johnnie Walker, a big bag of peanuts, and a couple packs of soba noodles along with the requisite gear for a week long car-camping trek the two of us set out.

Extreme: This emerged as the theme for the trip and although we did not bungee jump or hang-glide I could not fathom a more apt word. The eastern region of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that gives way to the stark expansiveness of Death Valley is extremity in more ways than temperature shifts. With a difference of 14,776 feet between Mt. Whitney, California’s zenith standing stalwartly at 14,494 feet, and the nadir of the lower 48 languidly lurking in the salt flats of Badwater Basin at –282 feet below sea level, extreme conditions are what give the area its character.

In Death Valley we adapted the way of animals and waited daytime out in the shade. Under the sun very little stirs aside from flitting sparrows and desert brush chaffing in the oven heat breeze. The heat overtakes everything. It induces addled conversations. Over the course of our three days there dialogues ranged from emailing consciousness to the anathema of air conditioning and its detrimental nature in an appreciation of the sublimely severe landscape.

“Did you hear that sound? It’s like cracking ice.” I was trying to unscrew my water bottle. We had spent the first night of our trip just above Mono Lake. “Oh you’re getting soft, man. You’ve been in the Bay Area too long,” parried Nigel. His doubt froze overnight, along with our water and veggies and my poor toes. The surprise was not that kind of shock that emerges from being totally unprepared for something. We had both known to pack clothes suitable for temperatures varying from freezing to 100° since the tentative route included high mountain passes, glacial lakes, and craggy desert canyons.

In the frigid sunrise, that glaring steely light still an hour away from generating any warmth, it wasn’t the actual temperature that confounded us but the ease from which we had ascended from the moderate clime of sea level to alpine altitude, along with the knowledge that in a scant few hours we would delve into the desert, a world apart from the pine forests’ glow. We were out in it though. The coarse potpourri of pebbles and stones poking at our ground pads, the dry bloody boogers that rattled out of our noses in the desert, the desiccated strands of hair sere like straw, we were living in these conditions; we embraced them.

If it had been but panoramic snapshots and trite trinkets we were after, we could have stayed at home and downloaded images and ordered memorabilia without missing any messages or sleep. Doesn’t it make sense, especially in light of the casual conditions that deposit us from one scene to another, that when we arrive, we should go out and fully devour it with our senses -- touch it, smell it, feel it, enhance everything we see with more than just our eyes?

The next night we spent in the foothills of the Sierras. Under the night shadow of Mt. Whitney the Alabama Hills (famed location for numerous movies and SUV commercials) hosted our meanderings, providing the ideal temperature: t-shirts at night but when bed time arrived cool enough to scrunch up in the sleeping bag making getting out of it difficult. We crawled through outcroppings, watched the night, drank scotch, and considered history and time, from plate tectonics to Gunga Din and Nissan Pathfinders: the earth, colonialism, capitalism, technology all wrapped-up into a single night under the stars. Absorption. Reaction. Call and response.

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