It is time to publish another piece of my travel writing course from the University of New Orleans. Enjoy and join me on a journey through Death Valley….
“The hottest place on earth”, as it is advertised everywhere. Lonely Planet says that, and it is even proclaimed on billboards and in newspapers. The talk is about Death Valley. It is one of the most extreme places in the Western Hemisphere and received its name from the early pioneers, who scarcely survived the inexorable climate on their way west. In December 1849, a group of gold seekers was looking for a short cut to the gold fields in California and got lost. They crossed salt fields and impassable terrain, as they found a way through the desert. Standing at the top of the mountain and looking back to the valley that almost killed them, they called it Death Valley.
The terrain is getting flatter and the plants lower and scrubbier. The soil is changing colors from dusty beige to ocher up to different shades of red and purple. Bizarre landscape shapes pass by and we find ourselves in a stereotype of an American countryside. The road flickers in the evening sun and the colors of the surrounding landscape are intermixing with the grey tarmac to an ambiguous scenery of warm tones and shimmering light. It seems as if a ruler has drawn the road until the edge of the mountains, just to let it wind up the last meters of elevation before letting the mountains behind and falling down into the valley.
The landscape and the temperature are overwhelming and give us a culture shock coming from the snowy and cold Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada. We are heading straight into Death Valley, looking for a place to sleep as the night is coming closer and closer. We still have the story of the first pioneers in our minds. Getting lost in this area and wandering around in this temperature trying to get out would be unpromising. Even right now at the beginning of April, it is hot. Thirty-five degrees Celsius, already. That makes it even more important to find a place to stay soon. At the side of the road, the Mesquite Flat Dunes arise. The golden light dances on the curved dunes and reflects the sand in warm, golden nuances. Dark shadows at the base of the dunes play hide and seek with the evening light. The scenery is dipped in a pink light and we have the feeling of being the only persons in the world. But just at this second, huge American caravans make an appearance and after a few more minutes, we reach our place to stay: the campground in Stovepipe Wells.
Our stocks of food are completely depleted and we are almost dying of hunger and a long day on the road. We arrange our tent with a view of the surrounding mountains and the setting sun; an isolated place, just perfect between risky and safe, adventurer and tourist. The ground is smooth and we are accurately paying attention for any signs of rattlesnakes or scorpions. The tent stakes glide deep into the ground. The Swiss flag on the side of the tent radiates a piece of Europe; it is as tiny as can be and without any difficulties can disappear between the huge caravans, hardly recognizable. Bit by bit we unroll our sleeping bags and prepare our place for the night. And finally, we go and get some dinner at the local restaurant. And here they are, stereotypes again: it is called “The Saloon”… even if we are not in the Wild West yet.
With the heat outside, we are not able to eat that much for dinner, so we all ordered “salad bar”. The waitress smirks and brings us our drinks. The salads are delightful and fresh and fulfill our boldest dreams. We try every salad, from potato to Caprese to Ceasar. Am I wrong or are all of the guests laughing at us? Maybe we look a little washed-up, but mmmh…whatever. While eating our third plate, a guy shows up at the end of our table, but we cannot understand a word he was saying and after a while of misunderstanding and embarrassing silence he said “Bye” and walked straight away. What was that? Have we done something wrong or did we fulfill the stereotype of rude Germans? It must be something with us in this restaurant.
We decide to check on him and try to find out what was going on. As it turns out, his name is Kevin and he is on a trip with his brother Chris, and just wanted to say “Hi”, because he recognized us from the campground. We find out why everyone was smiling at us. No one here ever eats just “salad bar” – a side dish – for dinner. It is like we have a sign above our heads which says “Hello I am European”. Okay, so lesson learned.
Kevin and Chris are in Death Valley for stargazing. So they ask us to join them. Excited about the offer, we agree instantly and at 11 p.m. we are leaving the campground with our own car to follow the guys in the desert. Of course we cannot watch the stars in a lighted village, it has to be in the middle of nowhere with no surrounding lights. But wait … what? Is it true that we are following two complete strangers in the middle of the night to the middle of the Death Valley?! Oh my god! As soon as we recognize our greenness, we panic. This is how the story in the news always begins, when they report about three missing German girls. Okay, what do we have to protect ourselves? Mmmh, just deodorant, perfume and a brush. Damn it, three Geographers without any Army knives! Kevin´s car turns to the parking lane. No one is around us and we are not even registered at the National Park Service. Well, so much for that. We park behind them and just in case, stay in the car.
We can hear our heartbeats and wait silently. Knock! Knock! Knock! Kevin appears at the side window. I shriek for a second, but open the window a little bit. He invites us to join him for donuts, while Chris installs his telescope. Cautious and slowly we get out, every second ready to run or attack, as Kevin pulls a big pink box out of the back seat of his car. Donuts! With buttercream and icing in pink and blue or with thick, dark chocolate with crumbles on it! Yah, maybe mass murders do not have baby blue donuts with them, so all concerns are blown away. Chris carries a big, heavy, black bag and brings out a huge telescope. It turns out that this is one that detects the stars by the user typing in their names. It has to be calibrated on one star, but afterwards it has the ability to zoom to all the stars you want to.
No more lights are anywhere near us. It is completely dark, but you just can guess the surrounding mountains. The terrain changes from flat to steep and if we look closely enough we can identify the Mesquite Flat Dunes. The highest dune rises about 100 feet and their curves are glimmering in the moonlight. A weak glow is recognizable at the horizon: Las Vegas; about 100 miles away, but still present in the deepest parts of nature.
The telescope is calibrated. Looking through the tiny little glass, I emerge into an alien world. It is fulfilled with all-embracing darkness. The stars are shimmering like diamonds and the Milky Way lies smooth on something that seems like black velvet. Saturn is the first planet I see. I can see it in every detail. It is a little bit transversal and its rings are clearly visible. It is red with a hint of orange. It seems so near that I can see every little detail on its surface and it appears to be not further away than Las Vegas. We zap through the constellations: Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Orion. Every single component, every single star is in our focus. The breadth captures us and we cannot grasp this new world. The telescope rotates and I have never seen or even heard about this before: Betelgeuse! It is part of the constellation Orion and is one of the largest and most luminous observable stars, just waiting for its supernova. Betelgeuse, the pulsating supergiant that shimmers in every imaginable shade, like a glittery rainbow. Bit by bit it changes its colors and keeps you under its spell.
Just in this moment a wind comes up. It feels like a thousand pinpricks all over my body. Legs, arms, face, every part is peeled with sand. Tiny sand tornadoes start sweeping down the road. It is impossible to gaze at any more stars. We hurry to pack all our stuff and get in the cars. Just after 15 minutes of gazing the stars, the adventure is over.
We are frozen to the narrow and just want to lay down in our perfectly prepared sleeping bags. But as soon as we get into the tent, all pleasant anticipation is gone. All of our sleeping bags are covered with a thin layer of sand. It is on the sleeping bag, in it and even in our clothes that we left in the tent. Looks like we trusted in the wrong things today. The wannabe Swiss tent is far away from the quality of a perfect shelter, while the two guys from San Francisco turned out to just want to share their evening with us.
The sleeping bags are warm and sandy. We lie down and think back to the early pioneers. They must have seen the same stars as we did today. But what was their impression? Did Betelgeuse guide the pioneers their way back home? We close our eyes and escape into a world full of black velvet and diamond-like stars. Betelgeuse illuminates the darkness and pulls us back into its world.