I was 5 days deep into this strange desert, the most massive National Park in the lower 48.
I sat in my van, shaded from the 98-midday-degrees and grabbed the last cool thing from the cooler, a Sierra Nevada IPA. I was saving it for this very moment, the moment of lowest morale. I clicked the green can open, a 16-ouncer, and let its bubbles dance before gulping it down. The high hit, and I pondered my place. Where was I? What state was this? With no wavelength to the outside world – only dirt roads, open-mouth landscapes and a rare passing truck – reference to place didn’t exist.
I was drawn into Death Valley’s depths and up its mountains by Daniel Arnold’s Salt To Summit. The book chronicled his unsupported walk from Badwater Basin, the lowest spot in the US (-282 feet), to Mt Whitney, the highest spot in the contiguous US (14,505 feet). After finishing his book, I hurried to REI, bought the Death Valley map and rubber-banded it with the others of the places I will go. Like the single green IPA, I need tokens to motivate.
With over 5,000 square miles of land in the park, I easily traveled down three hundred miles of dirt and felt unaccomplished. The carvings in the Valley walls - hieroglyphics and spooky black mine shafts - spoke its human tale. Originally inhabited by the Timbisha Tribe over 1,000 years ago, the 1849 rush for gold chiseled the path for the area’s present. Designated as a National Monument by Hoover in ‘33 and then a National Park in '94, a meager plot was left for the Native Americans. For a green 20-dollar-bill I could freely roam the red land with white guilt.
As the days clicked on, two types of valley travelers surfaced. There were those who needed the been there, done that Death Valley merit badge. Usually on their way to Vegas, these folks hopped up and down highway 190, snapped a picture of the Badwater Basin sign and kept on blazing toward the Strip. Then there were the valley veterans, usually alone, but not really… only leaving spouses and friends for their moment. They shared their valley secrets with me, some of them accumulated over decades of exploration, and they asked for my secrets, but I didn’t have any. I asked what brought them back here when they could be anywhere. All of their answers were pretty much the same… “Because it doesn’t care that I’m here."