top of page

When Life Intervenes

Updated: May 4

Tuesday, 25 Apr 2023, Death Valley NP

Time to get back on the road, to knock off my last two desert parks. For this, I invited my friend Ron - with whom I'd visited three parks last July - along, staying our first three nights with a mutual friend living just outside Death Valley. Unfortunately, health issues arose, and I found myself dealing with another solo tour. At least I had a friend's pad to land at.

Still bummed about losing my travel partner, I headed off to the airport as scheduled. After getting my boarding passes and bag tag at the kiosk, I handed my documents to the lady at the bag drop. She looked at them, then at my ID, and said, "These boarding passes are for Dave Stewart! They aren't your passes!" (As I told Sue later, "You'd think after all my years working at the CIA, I would've learned to keep my forged IDs straight.")

After fighting the legendary Southern California traffic heading north, I appreciated a friendly face waiting to greet me. But though Pat lived only a couple of miles 'as the crow - or maybe vulture? - flies' from Death Valley, to drive there took a good hour in the morning. Along the way I reflected on the last time I visited Death Valley (when it was still a National Monument), over three decades ago. I had joined a camping trip over Thanksgiving weekend, sponsored by the International Chapter of the Sierra Club. Among the other campers, I spent time talking with a man from one of the Soviet republics (the Soviet Union had not yet broken up). I asked him his impression of this barren, inhospitable landscape. He responded succinctly:

"It reminds me of Afghanistan."

Now I returned to the hottest, lowest, driest spot in North America, ready to probe its secrets. Anxious to get out of the car, I aimed for the first pullout, now filling with cars: Zabriskie Point. Named for an early promoter of tourism in the Valley, Z Point featured a wide paved path

leading ¼-mile to a vista overlooking undulating waves of rock,

in varying shades of brown and yellow. Some tourists left the paved path to explore the terrain more closely.

The point served well for reintroducing me to the motif of Death Valley. And there, across the valley and behind another mountain range, a speck of snow-covered peaks mocked us as the valley temps made their way into the 90s.

Only a mile down the road, an oasis with palm trees and a red-roofed ramada

popped into view. Back \when mining waned in the valley, businessmen changed their tack and promoted the area as a tourist haven. This inn at Furnace Creek provided luxury in the desert. Guest could look out from the patio into the desert beyond their doors.

Across the road from the Inn, a mission-style structure housed a garden, with space to spread out and host a picnic lunch.

The profusion of colors in this arid, fiery land stunned me.

As I moved about, I concentrated on experimenting with my new camera, learning its features, trying macro shots and varing the depth of field.

I'd first used it on my January Alaska trip, but relied on automatic settings. For the past few weeks I'd studied the manuals, acquainting myself with its features. Call it my educ-Canon-ation.

Next stop: Furnace Creek Visitor Center, looking for recommendations of the best places to visit. The ranger gave me recommendations for two days' worth of explorations. She also cast doubt on my guess that the haze dimming the distant mountain ridges came from pollution blown up from the LA area. "Some of it, maybe - but it could be dust stirred up by the winds." Those winds were welcome, as they kept the temps in the 90s from feeling that hot.

Badwater - the continent's lowest point at 282' below sea level - earned it's name when a prospector's mule refused to drink from the pond there. That pond lies just below the parking area.

As you stand at the pond, looking back at the road, you can see a sign on the Black Mountains rising sharply from the valley marking the elevation of sea level.

This side of the valley had patches of the salt crystals left behind when the ancient sea evaporated. Up close, it resembled snow - even down to the footprints left by visitors, footprints that would never melt.

On the opposite side - a mile or less away - I could see a thin ribbon of white extending for miles at the base of the Panamint Range. Given a temperature around 95°, I balked at hoofing it over there - but since the wind made it feel less onerous, I changed my mind. The walk over was flat, but heaves in the surface where water bubbled up before disappearing meant I had to watch my footing.

The vast plane of white grew as I got close - looking like a fozen lake. The salt floor was organized in polygonal 'tiles' of variuos sizes, stretching in both directions. A few people wandered onto the salt pan for photos, or to fully experience this bizarre phenomena.

On the way back to Furnace Creek, I detoured onto the Artist's Palette Road.

Here you can walk to vistas into the surrounding hills, where minerals color the soil in a variety of hues. Mother Nature acting like Pablo Picasso.

A few more miles on, the road passed Golden Canyon (which I planned to hike tomorrow). Knowing how history had tagged a few features with names, but left most nameless, I came up with a moniker for the rock layer just south of Golden Canyon: 'My Chocolate Bar Melted.'

With the heat peaking, I headed back to Pat's place to cool off, and to check the photos on which I'd experimented - so I could see if I, indeed, had learned anything. After dinner, I drove another hour back to the park, ready to try my most ambitious experiment - night photography in this International Dark Sky Park. I stopped first at Zabriskie point to catch the sunset.

Even though many people had come out for the same, the sky disappointed.

The sun sunk behind the mountains before the reddest rays arrived, and no clouds served as a heavenly palette on which to paint.

Per the ranger's suggestion, I moved down the road a few miles to set up my Dark Sky photos. It took another half hour or more for the glow to fade

from the heavens and for the stars to peek out, but soon they did.

Finally, dark enough. Set the camera to Manual, fast film, 30-second exposure, stick it on the tripod, aim, shoot ... nothing. The shutter would not release. I changed the settings, gave it a 2-second exposure, changed the self-timer... nothing. After fifteen minutes of frustration, I gave up - not how I wanted to end my day. Remember to call Canon tech support in the morning, have them step me through my incompetence.

25 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page