by Monica von Behr
It was in 2011, on a research-trip for a documentary, that my husband and I saw Death Valley for the first time. It was love at first glance: the overwhelming space, melting into a bluish infinity, surrounded by far away mountain ranges, vaulted by an enormous unlimited sky. We never had seen any place like this. And the silence! Just the wind swishing over the plains.
Two days earlier we had arrived in Las Vegas – this hyped-up and noisy fake-city. Coming from Europe, for us it was a rather strange and stressful arrival after a twelve hour flight. All this luminous advertising – water games, Palace-Hotels disguised as Roman or Egyptian buildings, music, bars and casinos, people crowding the sidewalks, too many impressions at once driving us crazy. We were happy to leave the next morning, heading towards the Mojave-desert.
I was working on a documentary about the Santa Ana winds and knew that they originate in the Great American Basin – the huge desert-system in the American West, a 200,000 square mile area between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. For the shooting however, I needed a defined and impressive spot which would give me the possibility of producing great pictures. That´s why I chose Death Valley .
Concerning the shooting, a good choice. But this visit had a much deeper impact on my husband and me.
Within the valley we were shrinking, dwarfed by the massive profiles of the landscape. Tiny little beings in this borderless space – without any signs of human presence like orchards, fields, barns, hedges or pasture. It was a fascinating feeling – a sandcorn in the desert, a drop in the ocean, an unimportant part of a much bigger, older entity. None of our activities mattered, no effort was needed, We simply didn´t count.
It is a pleasant feeling I have to admit: the world spins around with or without us. You become humble and awestruck. You slow down.
At the very start of the 20th Century, Mary Hunter Austin wrote, “This is the sense of the desert hills, that there is room enough and time enough.” Time enough – an unfamiliar luxury. We spent a whole day on top of a hill off the beaten track, regarding the deserted landscape, talking once in a while, strolling around a little bit. A member of our family had recently passed away. Spending this day out there in solitude was healing.
There is no comparable spot in Central Europe. Here each square meter has been touched, used, cultivated for thousands of years – except maybe the high mountain peaks. But even the rocky and icy summits have been targets for alpinists for at least 200 years. There is no location where you wouldn´t see houses, paths, fences or other man-made structures.
We came back to Death Valley several times – extending our stay each time from a few days up to two weeks – not very long for such a place, but impossibly long for some friends who couldn´t imagine what we could possibly do there.
We hiked into different canyons and admired the astonishing diversity of rock formations, colors, and surfaces. We marveled at the layers which had been folded, compressed, piled up millions of years ago, each layer witness to a geological event. Colors from pinkish red to green, marble-like white walls next to rust-colored rock debris, dark walls with smaller or larger white stripes, black basaltic rocks next to golden sandstone – no piece of art could compete with this natural beauty!
Polished canyon walls made us aware, that once there was a torrent flowing through. Supposedly there was an abundance of water, where you wouldn´t find a drop today. Millions of years had formed and changed this landscape. A lake arose and vanished again within thousands of years. The sea-floor became an elevated plain and mountain ranges were uplifted.
And again we had the feeling of shrinking. Humankind becomes so insignificant regarding the enormous expanses of time revealed by geology.
The process of moving and changing the Earth´s surface still is going on. We don´t notice it because it´s beyond our capacity of time-experience – except when it happens by catastrophes like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or tsunamis. A million years – the blink of an eye in geological terms. Human beings like us are only temporary guests on this planet.
On our hikes we were confronted on and off with traces of those temporary guests: rusty cans, broken mining structures, deserted cabins. Even this “empty“ or “unspoiled“ area was not at all untouched. It never had been. Petroglyphs attest to the people who lived here, long before any white man or woman set foot on this land. Those people apparently were adapted to the challenging environment.
And then approximately 160 years ago white people seeped in – looking for mineral resources. We saw kilns, holes in the hills or other remains of short lived attempts to snatch the treasures, hidden in the ground. Those traces can be found, as we got to know, even in the remote backcountry. The boom towns or mines often lasted only for few years, but their rusty remains are still there. The exploitative episode left permanent scars somehow.
How do you survive in an arid and relentless region like Death Valley? Which skills are needed to live in this hostile environment: salty water, unbearable heat, very few trees or bushes, strong winds? This nature is not at all nourishing. It´s not rich and generous. This barren nature simply doesn´t care about you, and you have to get that.
Life here becomes frugal, and water is essential for survival. One day we were hiking with too little water – scary. Another day we noticed five young Asians stuck on the wall of Ubehebe Crater. They had tried to climb out neglecting the usual footpath, not equipped either for climbing, or for changing temperatures. It was late afternoon, and it became cold very quickly. Now they couldn´t move either forth nor backward. They were calling for help and terrified … Luckily we met a rescue team from Yosemite National Park in the parking lot. They organized professional help – but it still took several hours, to get the young people out. We felt relieved – but angry with the amateur-climbers as well. How could they dare to use the crater wall as a playground?
This is wilderness. It’s overwhelming and dangerous, and you have to approach it with respect. The problem is: you can easily reach some spots in an air conditioned car, protected against heat, chill, and wind. That´s why some people probably are not aware of the risks of this desert – the lack of water, the quickly changing weather, secludedness, no telephone network, and so on.
One day we were looking into a deep and narrow canyon from above – from the Father Crowley View. It was a sunny day, the canyon filled with shadow, and we watched some raptors gliding along the walls with the wind. Suddenly an awful roaring and a fighter-bomber nosedived suicidally into the canyon. Then a second one followed. We were shocked. It was like in a horror-movie. Out of the blue a sudden attack.
Later on we learned, that huge areas nearby were closed for public, because of military use. What a disturbing contrast: the peaceful stillness and loneliness of the desert interrupted by the uproarious training for a war! It seemed to us, that the empty space – landscape in abundance – which we loved and enjoyed so much, raises and always has raised the desire to make use of it somehow: gold, silver, borax, talc, training spots for military use, or pure excitement.
Our last visit in Death Valley was 2017. We noticed a change. There had been an extraordinary blooming the year before and since then people crowded in. Still we were able to hike into canyons or up to a peak without meeting any other person. Again we could listen to the silence, to the gentle swishing of the wind, smell the aromatic odor of the creosote-bushes.
People have traditionally gone into the wilderness to escape society, culture, or convention. That’s why hermits often choose the desert – to reduce the impact of social life and to expose themselves instead to extraordinary mental and physical experiences. Modern strenuous city-life may provoke this desire nowadays. But on the road we also met groups of racing bikes, and the busses which brought them in. For these people the beauty and remoteness of the valley was a setting for sporting or advertising activities and was used as such.
We had astonishing encounters with desert-lovers of many different kinds – a Dutch scientist, who tried to come back to Death Valley every second year after attending a convention in San Francisco; a barkeeper and his girlfriend; a waitress from Las Vegas, escaping into the desert for a weekend once in a while; and volunteers who offered their services to maintain the Park.
We had become desert-lovers ourselves. It´s a simple life out there: no cinema, no concerts, no museums, and no shopping. You focus on the surrounding landscape – its beauty, stillness, space – and on yourself. And we´ll never forget how our friend Birgitta described it. “It’s the place where the universe kisses the earth.”
Monika von Behr is a film maker living in Bremen Germany. As her essay indicates, she has visited Death Valley National Park a number of times.