We awoke this morning at the base of Mount Whitney which towered at 14,605 feet above our sleepy heads. This afternoon we dined on a blanket 100 feet below sea level in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Death Valley evokes a near feeling of dread as images of eggs cooking on a fry pan in the desert wilderness may come to mind. The hottest temperature on the planet was recorded in 1913 at the very spot my son squats at 134 degrees. History has revealed that there haven’t been many that have been able to tame the Valley. When miners in the middle of the 19th and first part of the 20th century began to populate the area borax, silver and gold motivated them but it was not enough to keep them here. Dry and constantly windswept, it’s like a vast, endless, mountainous inferno being stoked by the sun to many.. but not all.
There is beauty…
…and there still is life.
There is life in the wildflowers that bloom every spring in all colors of the rainbow. Right now, the Valley is experiencing a ‘Super Bloom‘, which only happens once a decade. Torrential rain in October has given the boost their little seeds needed in order to put on quite a show for all.
There is life in the rare and endangered Devil’s Hole pupfish that lives in the thick saline springs deep within the valley. They exist in a hot soupy shallow pool below sea level. The rarest fish on the planet, their numbers have dwindled at times, to a mere 36. Thankfully, an unlikely superhero came to the rescue in the form of biologists stationed at Las Vegas casino, Mandelay Bay. These determined scientists took on the responsibility of trying to save the species. They took nine pupfish from the spring and are trying to propagate the species in the Shark Reef at the casino.
There is life in the desert tortoise. Also an endangered species, these tortoises can live up to 80 years. They spend much of their time trying to keep cool under brush and rocks recycling there own urine to hydrate themselves. Although they can live a long life they can be very fragile. It is against the law to handle a desert tortoise because when it gets stressed it “wets himself” which can lead to dehydration and death.
There is also life in the Timbisha Shoshone tribe of Death Valley. They had survived and thrived for centuries spending winters on the desert floor gathering mesquite beans and hunting and summers in the cooler mountains. They were heartbroken when westward expansion brought with it those who would refer to their life sustaining home as Death Valley. Through territorial battles and disease, they have kept their stronghold and still reside in the Valley today working to keep thousand year old traditions alive.
Until as recently as 2013, it would also seem that there was life even in the mysteriously moving rocks of Death Valley. Racetrack Playa, as it is called, is reached by taking a 28 mile rutted, washboard road to a remote dried lakebed. There you will see hundreds of rocks with trails behind them as if they have slithered across the lakebed floor. Scientists have scratched their heads for decades even monitoring individual rocks with GPS devices to no avail. The problem was that conditions had to be just right for the phenomenon to occur. Finally , the mystery was solved when rain, ice and wind revealed their secret plot to deceive.
In December 2013 scientists were finally monitoring the rocks at the right time. Three inches of rain lying on the playa floor had formed a thin sheet of ice overnight in the freezing temperatures. When morning broke the ice began to crack and melt as the wind had picked up sending hundreds of rocks on their journey. Although barely detected by the naked eye, there was movement and it was all caught on film. The mystery had been solved. Scientists were elated mystics were downcast.
Though its difficult for most of us to believe Death Valley is as alive a place as the ocean floor on the Pacific or the rainforests of Brazil, it is alive and flourishing and will remain as it has for millions of years.