Henry David Thoreau had Walden Pond. I have Death Valley.
Clearly, I am not in the league of transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson or Thoreau nor do I have the luxury of dwelling in a niche of nature for 2½ years such as Thoreau did although I can count 122 days spent in Death Valley over the course of the past 31 years.
Thoreau, just like John Muir, was on to something. We need to appreciate, observe, and absorb nature to keep an even keel as we spend our time spinning around the sun at a breakneck speed that thanks to forces of nature comes across as lollygagging when in fact the earth spins at a speed up to 1,042 miles per hour while traveling 66,000 mph on its annual journey around the sun.
Within hours after returning from my latest sojourn to a place where at midnight on a mid-July night the air temperature can still hover at 98 degrees while a rare rain in the driest land in North America can end up carving away canyon walls in a matter of minutes, I came across an acquaintance convinced American civilization was a few years away from a complete collapse.
It’s what happens when you’re plugged into a world of 24/7 cable shows that grab viewers through fear and loathing while staying glued to an iPhone that comes with a calendar app that tells you Christmas in the year 10,024 will fall on a Wednesday. Technology gives us all sorts of information and gizmos but much is not practical or useful.
A week ago I made my third trek to Corkscrew Peak in the Grapevine Mountains. As peaks go in Death Valley at 5,804 feet it was less than half the height of others I’ve hiked. What the 7.2-mile round-trip cross-country hike gaining 3,200 feet apart offers is the complete solitude and a rarely obstructed 360-degree vista. You can sit atop the summit for an hour knowing you are the only hiker that opted to tackle the peak that day. All you can hear is the wind. There is no human or car in sight although below you to the west there are roads. But if you hadn’t traveled them before you’d have no clue they were there. There are no fences, no power poles, no buildings, and no signs of civilization save for the obligatory summit registry in a metal container that peaks favored by hikers often have. Below is Death Valley proper — larger than Rhode Island. On Cyber Monday it probably had 1,000 souls, if that, in the entire national park.
Spend an hour scanning the vastness and letting your mind wander and the maladies of the time we call now gets relegated into perhaps a pebble among the tens of millions of rocks your aching feet will have stepped on during the five-hour hike. What you can see has changed little over the past 5,000 years. Going back more and the accumulation of time have sent the Funeral Mountains soaring skyward more than 5,000 feet over a two mile stretch from the base at 200 feet below sea level to the peaks and ridges above. This place was labeled Death Valley by a band of gold seekers in December of 1849 that wanted to avoid the more northern route into California where fate ravaged the Donner Party three years earlier. They ended up still fighting for survival trading upwards of 60 feet of snow for a cold, and bone-dry merciless valley.
But looks can be deceiving. Death Valley teems with life. There are 1,042 species of vegetation, 346 bird species, 51 different species of native mammals, 36 different types of reptiles, six types of fish, and five amphibian species.
By exploring Death Valley you realize the foolishness of drive-by assessments that we all make whether it is of people, catastrophes, tragedies, political arguments, or even what exists within our lives as we go about our day.
Since we are alive we are special. But somehow we believe by simply being gives us the right to be smug. Those stars that litter the skies above Death Valley are the same ones that medieval serfs gazed upon, Roman slaves saw, and creatures we can’t begin to imagine lived under billions of years ago.
We are all in the same ride — earth. It’s just that we have gotten on board and will depart at different times.
My friend worried about the pending demise of the American civilization would likely take no comfort knowing that 110 years ago more than 7,000 people called the Death Valley district home driven to live and work there by the venture capitalists of the day that sought to disrupt the late 19th century economy by bankrolling mining startups in search of gold, silver, copper, borax and more. They blew through investors’ money in such a manner that make Twitter and a host of Silicon Valley startups that have gone bust or have been absorbed that burned through money faster than Imelda Marcos in a shoe store look like spendthrifts in comparison. This forsaken land once had railroad lines including one that had the grandest station of its day just across the border in Nevada that was built in 1906 for $130,000 or the equivalent of $3.8 million in today’s dollars. Rhyolite, just over 17 miles due west of Corkscrew Peak, in its heyday supported three newspapers, boasted a public swimming pool, and a host of enterprises that would seem ludicrous today. It was driven by Charles Schwab — a man who instilled blind loyalty in investors on a scale that would make Elon Musk jealous.
Today most traces of Rhyolite as well as countless other mining “towns” in Death Valley including Skidoo high in the Panamint Mountains guarding the valley’s west flank that at one time was the deadliest place per 1,000 residents in the United States when it came to meeting an untimely death by gun, knife, or hanging have been worn down by nature.
Death Valley had withstood greed, speculation, human stupidity, and more. Yet for those willing to take the time to see how the world works instead of pursuing the next get rich scheme and refrain from being self-indulged in preconceived notions or wallowing in fear you can see a clear picture of how we are — by the measure of time and the bizarre ways our species often goes about socializing, nesting, and interacting with our own — blessed with the innate goodness of humanity that Thoreau came to see once he weighed humanity against the yardstick of the ages as established not by man but by nature.
Rest assured you’re less likely to flip someone off for a perceived slight, waste energy engaging in baiting and vilifying on social media, or overvalue the worthless if you invest the time to weigh your life and civilization against nature.
The world’s not perfect but neither are you or me.
That said the world, you, and me are all pretty amazing.