Travels 18: The Call of the Desert: or If I Can’t Stand the Heat, What Am I Doing in Death Valley?

A man who refuses to acknowledge his god is unwise to set foot in the desert.

Count Anteoni  from “The Garden of Allah” (1936)


I think it’s the isolation that attracts me to the austere places on the planet.  I love the North because of the intense bone-crystalizing cold.  The water-logged plants and animals without name or end that populate the Rain Forest astound me.  The endless sea, sky and water separated by a sometimes imaginary line, frightens me yet holds me firm to the experience.  The soaring heights of the Great Mountains of the World, where you could fall from a broken piton and drop for hours and your oxygen starved brain can kill you in mid sentence, thrill me.

These places will slap you hard on the face and make you pay attention to the tenuous nature of life itself.

But, the desert!  The desert is somehow unique.  I believe that the very nature of the emptiness of these places gives a hint that this is the world of gods.

The major religions all had their start in the desert.  Jesus went into the desert to fast for thirty days.  The native populations of the deserts of the world have a complex nature unlike other societies (feel free to argue the point).  Very few places allow you to be so utterly alone with your own soul and heart and brain.  You can talk to yourself without feeling crazy.

So, here I am.  Camped in a place called Furnace Creek.  Which, by the way is -190′ below sea level.  Nearby is the Queer Mountain Wilderness Area.  That would be just a little to the north of the Funeral Mountains.  Just to the south are the Black Mountains.  These surround Badwater Basin.  Just off Badwater Basin is Coffin Creek.  And overlooking the Basin is Dante’s View.

The entire National Park is dotted with ghost towns.  Places like Greenwater and Skidoo.  Towns that boasted opera houses, banks, hotels, saloons beyond count and of course, brothels.  Houses of ill repute run by the likes of tough-as-bark madams.  Does anyone not have the imagination to picture Diamond Tooth Lil getting off the stage-coach and wandering into the local saloon to drink with the men!  Oh, dear me!

I wanted to experience the heat and the emptiness yesterday, so I parked the car and left my wife with the AC running.  I walked 100 paces into the desert and sat.  I pulled out my pocket thermometer.  It read 96 degrees!  Maybe that was my pocket temperature, who knows?  (But I’m not that hot of a stud).

The ground I sat on felt like it never felt a drop of rain.  I closed my eyes.  I saw visions of lonely miners wandering off to their death.  I saw crowds of people, laden with their belongings moving as one toward the west.  They were leaving someplace.  I wondered if there was a Lady Antebellum concert nearby they were avoiding.  But, I knew they were seeking the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  In my mind, I felt like getting up and following them.

I opened my eyes and I got up.  It was too bloody hot out there.  I could see my flesh turn brown before my eyes.  My expensive sunglasses did nothing to dim the glare of the scorching and blinding sun.  The sky was as blue as any I’ve ever seen.

But it was back to the car for me.  Did I have a mystical experience out there?  I don’t know.  I’ll have to think about it while I sip an icy tonic water back at the ’49er Cafe.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.