“Desert Bloom,” by Alex Ross. The New Yorker, 11/14/2016.
What can be said about a stretch of desert so bleak, it was given the name Death Valley? Plenty, as shown by this New Yorker article. But keep in mind I was never there, not even close, so this account is second-hand. Any stretch of sand I’ve been on had an ocean next to it.
Death Valley, now a national park, is a rain shadow desert. That is, the high Sierra Nevada mountain range and the closer Panamints block all but the most intense rain patterns from reaching it. Rain from the occasional few that do make it, usually evaporates before it reaches the low floor at 282 feet below sea level.
But in October of 2015, conditions were just right to produce several strong storms that resulted in “a thousand-year flood event.” In just one example, three inches of rain fell in five hours at Scotty’s Castle, in the north end of the park.
In the dry desert, seeds lie dormant for years, and the unusual flooding produced a “super bloom” of wild flowers across thousands of acres a few months later. Author Ross joined the 200,000 visitors who drove through the park in March when the blooms were at their peak. (Normally, the park gets a million visitors a year, about that of Longwood Gardens.) The desert valley was named by the gold-seekers passing through in 1849-50, and there are still one or two fatalities per year, only now they are from auto accidents. Rangers speak of death by GPS where visitors refuse to believe modern technology could be wrong.
In 1922, Edna Brush Perkins wrote what is still one of the best travelogues, The White Heart Of Mojave. There, she wrote:
The desert mixes up your ideas about what you call living and dying. You see the dreadful, dead country living in beauty, and feel that the silence pressing around it is alive.
Death Valley formed only 3 million years ago, which is brand new in geologic time, and earthquakes are frequent. The desert was once a lake, and the floor is sedimentary rock 3 to 4 kilometers deep. Below that is the actual bedrock that is still sinking.
The valley was once the home of the Timbisha Shoshone people (who never imagined it as “death”). The Park Service once thought the small encampment of those remaining as a blemish on the purity of the wilderness and did whatever they could to encourage them to leave. Only in the year 2000 did the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act assure them of 314 acres of their ancestral homeland.
With their new recognition, the tribe split into factions. The largest group is pursuing its plans to build—what else?—a casino outside the park.
The clear air creates the dangerous illusion that the distant mountains are lower and closer than they really are. Edna Brush Perkins wrote:
What you judge to be half a mile is usually turns out to be five, and four miles is certainly eighteen.
As I read all of this, I used Google Earth to locate the places, and the street view to see how it actually appears. I often found myself looking at shimmering roads I had only seen in auto advertisements—long, empty ribbons disappearing into the distance, no signs, no gas stations, no fences, no traces that human life was ever there, except for the road.