Erik and I recently returned from a desert vacation that included sailing on Lake Mead at sunset, enjoying the sights, sounds and zaniness of Las Vegas, and experiencing the profound quiet, haunting beauty and splendid isolation of Death Valley National Park in California. It really was like visiting two different planets on the same vacation, and provided us with many contrasts that we are still digesting and reflecting upon. The National Park Service’s Death Valley brochure describes the area as follows:
The raw desert landscape shapes Death Valley’s human story. Like the mesquite tree, some of its people have deep roots, drawing sustenance from hidden sources. Others blow in on the hot winds of get-rich-quick schemes, then out again on scorched dreams, never anchoring themselves to the land.
The Timbisha Shoshone Native Americans have considered this region home for thousands of years, surviving and thriving by adapting to natural rhythms and cycles, and to the inevitable curveballs that nature has thrown their way over time.
A few examples of adaptation include congregating near natural springs, moving to higher elevations during warmer, hotter seasons, and using skinny spearing sticks to stab and deflate chuckwallas (a large lizard native to the region) that had wedged and inflated themselves in crevices, thus turning them into high-protein meals.
The Timbisha Shoshone are certainly not alone in their ability to survive and thrive in such a harsh and unforgiving environment. Remnant populations of desert pupfish, some now critically endangered species, inhabit isolated surface or cave waters throughout the park and region. These pupfish once thrived in a large body of water, Lake Manly, created by melting glaciers and a wetter climate. In a few places, you can still see evidence of the ancient shoreline in Death Valley, when Lake Manly was over 100 miles long and over 600 feet deep, making it larger than Yellowstone or Flathead Lakes are today.
The pupfish is a pretty resourceful critter, managing to persist around permanent water sources often less than one foot deep and in water temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit in summer. Keep in mind, too, that the water’s way saltier here than in the ocean. We stayed resourceful as well throughout our four-day stay, being active mainly in the early morning and later in the evening, seeking shade whenever possible, and going on a higher altitude hike one day when the temperature soared to over 105 at aptly-named Furnace Creek.
Nearly six thousand feet higher, on a trail starting near Dante’s View, we encountered vast vistas ranging from the alkaline salt flats of the valley floor, in places more than 200 feet below sea level, to snow-covered mountains in the Panamint Range. Wildflowers and flowering cacti greeted us on nearly every turn on the trail, as did fast-running lizards, and one large nonpoisonous snake that made me jump a vertical foot or three before I recovered and was able to laugh about it. We were thrilled to encounter clusters of gorgeous orange desert mariposa lilies (Calochortus Kennedyi) on some of the higher ridges, while ravens and a lone red-tailed hawk rode the thermals above.
Nature’s a place, no matter where our feet are, that brings people together, especially in the desert. It’s a place where people experience a more profound connection to life, creation, others and themselves. It reminds us of how adaptable, resourceful and flexible we all have to be to survive and thrive, and of the different niches and roles we play in this game of life on Earth.
Spending time in Death Valley really brought this all home for me in ways that other places have not, maybe because of the tenuousness of life itself here, or that so much of desert life lives close to or just under the surface, out of sight to the hurried or untrained eye. Many mid-19th century Gold Rush bound travelers died in places not far from where Timbisha Shoshone families gathered near permanent springs and sustained their culture. A few managed to survive or be rescued, and rumor has it that one of the luckier travelers shouted out “Goodbye, Death Valley!”, giving the area its well-deserved name.
Not only here, but world wide, the earth has witnessed plenty of human-generated hot winds, get-rich-quick schemes and scorched dreams over time.
No matter where we live or gather, it’s vital to anchor and tether ourselves to the land, to be in partnership and relationship with it, to nourish it and ourselves. To put down some strong, resilient roots, drawing sustenance from hidden sources, and pass on what we learn to folks who want to do the same, and in turn pass that on to future generations.
These are the real riches in life, to know a place, yourself and the ones you love and care about well. By digging deep, even in Death Valley, we find surprising sources of strength and sustenance that show us how to navigate challenges and opportunities in our own lives.