The first time I ever experienced Death Valley, it was the middle of summer, I’d just turned 21 and I was on a roadtrip across the West. My car had no air conditioning and I remember cursing the long hot drive through miles of brown rock, sagebrush, and far-reaching electric towers to get to the park entrance. I drove into the park right before dusk. And as I drove, the light turned from blinding white to rust colored, transforming the same brown rock that lined the highway into shades of red and orange and lighting the hundreds of sage bushes that carpeted the wide desert floor.
After a few miles of hot, fast road, a formation appeared; seemingly rising from beneath the earth as all Death Valley formations do—the gradual rise of bright white smooth sparkling sand and deep carved shadows. They call them the Great Dunes after their record-breaking height and pure grandeur. I stopped the car on the side of the road, pulled a warm plastic bottle of water out from under the seat and began my trek out to the dunes, jogging against the light, growing more in awe as I approached the wind-swept formations, the light now golden, the surface grooved with wind-made ripples and sharp spines at the peak of every sand mountain. It’s no wonder that these dunes are a favorite for photographers all over the world. Starting with the great photographers of the mid-century West—Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams.
I returned to Death Valley several years later, this time later in the year, on New Years Eve, also in celebration of Justin’s birthday. Once again we drove in at dusk and this time the light was more blue than rust. A light wind blew across the dunes the whole time we climbed them, erasing footprints from four-legged animals, birds and humans alike. Once again, I was astounded by the magic of the dunes, the buttery light, the soft pure sand. I took a few frames with my camera.
The next day, we drove again into Death Valley, first stopping at a tiny ghost town called Ryolite. A booming mining metropolis of 5,000 people at the turn of the 20th century –the town is now a ruin of crumbling buildings that frame the wide desert landscape.
Death Valley seems to embody all possible manifestations of the desert. From the dunes to the red rock to the eroded yellow-striped badlands of Zabriskie Point, to the crunchy borax flats that line the floor of the Devils Golf Course, once the home of a now evaporated lake.
Part two of “The Desert in Three Parts.” View the previous post, about Marble Canyon.