“Goodbye, Death Valley.”
In 1849, a troupe of rogue settlers departed Utah on a westbound journey to find gold. Upon arriving at the cusp of an arid valley, they decided to cut across, to take a “shortcut” — only to discover that said “shortcut” was a 3-million acre basin devoid of water, shelter and life. They journeyed for months, losing numerous comrades along the way. The remaining sojourners crawled out of the basin horribly deprived, and inadvertently coined the region when they uttered the words above.
Death Valley is a parched valley splayed across Eastern California’s Mojave Desert. It boasts the lowest point of elevation in all of North America, at 282 feet below sea level. It is called the Land of Extremes, and for good reason — summers reach a blistering 120F while nighttime temperatures dip down to 30F. At 11,049 feet from Telescope Peak to -280 feet at Badwater Basin, it boasts an elevation drop-off that is twice that of the Grand Canyon.
Long before white settlers arrived on the scene, the valley was occupied by four Native American tribes, starting with the Nevares Spring People nearly 9,000 years ago. Archaeological records show that the valley had much to offer back then — aquifers fed the lakes and the game was plentiful. By the time the Saratoga Spring People arrived 7,000 years later, however, the region had changed dramatically. Lack of rain dried up the wellsprings. The soil grew parched and lifeless. The granduous mountain ranges became marred and skeletonized. Over millennia, Death Valley earned its status as the hottest, driest climate in North America.
Treading through Death Valley is an arresting experience. The human eye is accustomed to faraway objects appearing small and close objects appearing large. Here, giant pinnacles and rock formations loom in the distance while dwarf shrubs linger in the foreground — an eerie inversion of the status quo. The human eye also uses landmarks as reference points to discern spatial configurations. Here, there are no reference points — only miles of flat land stretching into the hazy abyss. Inevitably, the desert environment challenges core maxims of human cognition, leading to a curious disorientation bordering on insanity.
The desert also has its peculiar ways with sound. Any uttered words seem to fall short and become quickly absorbed by the dense sand. One experiences a beautiful and terrifying silence here in the desert — the kind of silence that amplifies the meandering thoughts in your head, the blood coursing through your veins, the enduring heartbeat. One also becomes acutely aware of distant vibrations, like the flutter of a butterfly wing, the sound of an engine approaching from many miles away. Senses that are routinely dumbed down by the white noise of urban living resurface and flood the cells in your body.
Indeed, Death Valley is a land of contradictions. Hopelessly flat land gives way to rippling mountain ranges and deep rifting scars. Dangerously saline soil gives way to beautifully pigmented mineral deposits. Arresting silence gives way to low frequency murmurs of “booming” sand dunes, the result of synchronized “avalanches” caused by millions of sand particles. While Death Valley is often depicted as a barren dystopia, it serves as a universal backdrop to the multi-millennial narratives that we share as lifeforms on this planet.
Its vacancy depicts our origins. Its deprivation affirms our possibility. Its mystique feeds our soul.
Story & Imagery by Haruka Sakaguchi