A Further Note On Death Valley National Park

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The Timbisha Shoshone elder Pauline Esteves in 1999. In 1933, when Esteves was eight, her tribe’s homeland was declared Death Valley National Monument. PHOTOGRAPH BY LAURA RAUCH / AP

We had already published several posts mentioning one of the earth’s more remarkable deserts. But the spectacle that desert displayed this year brought it back to our attention, for several important reasons. Click here (or on the image above) to go to Alex Ross’s update of the epic article he published on Death Valley recently, which we linked to here:

“In the desert, you see, there is everything and there is nothing,” Balzac wrote. “It is God without mankind.” The sensation of sublime emptiness, of a sacred void, explains the enduring romantic appeal of a place like Death Valley,:which I wrote about in last week’s issue. (You can see more pictures here.) When you enter into such a landscape, the ordinary world recedes to the point of vanishing. You might imagine you have gone back to a time before humanity existed, or to a time after humanity has become extinct. “Immense, unreal, weird!” Zane Grey exclaimed in “Wanderer of the Wasteland,” a 1923 tale of a Death Valley adventure. “How desolate and grand! The far-away, lonely and terrible places of the earth were the most beautiful and elevating.”

When I first drove through Death Valley, in 1999, I remember thinking about what might happen if I got out of the car and walked into oblivion. The social reformer and suffragist Edna Brush Perkins, in her marvellous travelogue “The White Heart of Mojave,” wrote about the romance of wandering in the desert, and, potentially, disappearing into it:

We felt able to take care of ourselves—could there be a more pathetic and blind faith?—and if by some remote mischance we should not be able, it would be only another painful but trifling accident. . . . The point of view is born of the desert herself. When you are there, face to face with the earth and the stars and time day after day, you cannot help feeling that your role, however gallant and precious, is a very small one. This conviction, instead of driving you to despair as it usually does when you have it inside the walls of houses, releases you very unexpectedly from all manner of anxieties. You are frightfully glad to have a role at all in so vast and splendid a drama and want to defend it as well as you can, but you do not trouble much over the outcome because the desert mixes up your ideas about what you call living and dying.

One or two people die in Death Valley National Park each year. These fatalities are often the result of foolishness: people get stuck on roads that are ill-suited to passenger vehicles; they fail to bring adequate amounts of water on hikes; they don’t take the precaution of telling people where they are going. (Daniel Cronkhite’s “Death Valley’s Victims: A Descriptive Chronology, 1849-1980” supplies a macabre catalogue, though it is a slimmer volume than you might expect.) In some cases, park rangers told me, the foolishness seems indistinguishable from a death wish—or, at least, the kind of deliberate carelessness that Perkins describes. The naming of the valley made such incidents more common. You do not go to Death Valley without entertaining, at least for a moment, the idea of never getting out.

The habit of using this majestic wilderness as a stage set for extreme adventures and dark nights of the soul has long irritated the Timbisha Shoshone people, who were living in Death Valley when white people first arrived, in the mid-nineteenth century, and who are still living there now, in much smaller numbers. For indeterminate reasons, their home became, sometime in the late nineteenth century, an end station of Western civilization, a proving ground for apocalyptic fantasy. Such is the shaping power of a name. Without the word “death,” the park becomes an entirely different place.

When I met Pauline Esteves, the elder of the Timbisha tribe, I had the unmistakable sense of being sized up in one glance. “Here comes another one,” her look seemed to say. But she wasn’t dismissive of my love of Death Valley, which I struggled to put into words. She nodded when I said that on my first visit I had expected a desolate, spooky landscape—Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed,” the Manson family, “Star Wars,” and all that—and was shocked to find how gorgeous and varied it was. She talked about how visitors to Timbisha, as the tribe calls it, worry about whether they belong. As long as they respect it, she said, they needn’t worry. Respecting it means being attentive to the life that somehow flourishes there.

The previous day, I had climbed Telescope Peak, the highest mountain in the park. On the way down, I had spent some time in the shadow of an ancient bristlecone pine. “It feels good to sit there,” Esteves told me the next day, as if she had been watching me. “Chemistry is happening to your body. Your blood pressure’s going down, that kind of thing. Other things are happening, too. You see something out of the corner of your eye; you hear something. There’s things out there you don’t even know. You get up too quickly—chemistry is happening again. Your senses are overriding what’s happening in your body.”…

Read the whole note here.

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