The outline of hills under shadow broke an indigo sky. Land that stood in sun was a hundred shades of red. Between, the tan and sandy slopes grew steeper as they fell. Their depths were easier to drop into than climb out of, just like much in life. Walking in, I learned about the land. Walking out, I learned about myself.
West of the Nevada-California line, two-lane Highway 190 hugs the earth in a way that takes a view over great distance to see. Mostly straight and nearly level, it stretches across a valley that could be on the moon but for gravity and the occasional tumbleweed. A dip here, a dodge there, angling upward just enough to bring its miles ahead into view, the road lies like a coachwhip in the sun. It crosses a land whose color palate runs only from khaki to sage. Vacant of man but for the occasional passing car or airplane miles above, the quiet here is surely complete.
The national park announces its sudden presence with large brown signs and official plazas, but the reality of Death Valley extends far beyond. Across featureless floor, over distances impossible to judge, then up sheer mountainsides that promise less hospitality of their own, the relative emptiness commands every view. It’s not empty of course. A wide variety of the toughest plants and animals on the planet do live here, but what of that isn’t well defended is well hidden. The impossibility of reason those in westbound wagons must have felt is easy to read. In some ways those thoughts remain, riding on the wind, though the travelers who thought them are long gone.
A mid-valley prominence, Zabriskie Point overlooks a picturesque stretch of badlands, and a short but challenging walk along its marked trails offers as much of the desert experience as most modern travelers would care to tackle afoot.
These alkali slopes and the minerals they contain bring color to the land. The natural hues are less striking than the neon of nearby Las Vegas, but they decorate a place just as uncaring and far more permanent.
Stepping from the sand back into Detroit-made steel and air conditioning, I was reminded there are some modern conveniences worth keeping.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.