WHEN EDWARD WESTON AND HIS COMPANION, Charis Wilson, received A Guggenheim fellowship to take photographs of California and other parts of the West, their "first and most important" consideration was a car. In April 1937, they duly set off for Death Valley in a Ford V-8 sedan. In September, wretched and aching after 11 hours on a plane, we set off, my latter-day Charis and I, in a Ford Mustang convertible. It was something she and I had long dreamed of—driving through California with the sun on our faces, wind in our hair, etc.—but after only an hour, we had to concede defeat. The sun in our faces, etc., was too hot. We stopped and put up the roof, so that our convertible, which a few minutes earlier had shared the spaciousness of the desert sky, took on the cramped and gloomy aspect of the veal crate from which we had so recently exhumed ourselves.
On the way to Death Valley from Baker and the disappointing Mojave Desert, the landscape became gradually stranger; there was a sense not so much of approach as of gathering. The light, muted and powdery in the Mojave, deepened and intensified. It was three in the afternoon; stretched over the horizon were three clouds: desert clocks, measuring the slow glide of time.
We were staying at the Furnace Creek Inn, which until recently was closed from mid-May to mid-October. Now it's open year-round, in spite of the intolerable heat of summer. Because of the intolerable heat of summer, actually. Europeans crave the definitive experience of desertness, and that—especially to those from the affluent, chilly North—means experiencing the devastating heat at its moment of maximum devastation.
In 1913 a temperature of 134 degrees was recorded at Death Valley. For almost a decade it remained the highest reading ever taken anywhere on earth (in 1922, it was nudged into second place by temperatures in the Sahara). But the valley still tops the Western Hemisphere's list of all-time hot—and dry—spots. Every year the temperature reaches 120; every other year it climbs to 125.
It wasn't too hot, though, for the hefty German couple sunbathing by the pool. Charis dived into the sun-scalded water while I cowered in the shade of the wall even though the wall provided no shade. The high-velocity sun penetrated through brick, eliminating all shelter. My own shadow looked less distinct than it should have, as if I were becoming transparent. From the gardens behind could be heard the drip and spray of irrigation and nurture, a thin mist of sound, aquatic in origin. Charis said something about the "fronds of the palm tree," alerting me to the fact that this oasis was a linguistic sanctuary, a place where words like fronds, lush, and verdant could bloom into sudden life after wilting in the parched lexicon of the desert. It was a haven of color, too. Blue as one would expect, the pool was surrounded by deep, vegetative greens. From this refuge of saturated color we looked out at the valley floor, where everything was faded and vast. Perhaps the distinction is not as robust as one might think. Somehow the stop sign out in the road was sharper, darker even, as a result of being faded. Cars dreamed and rippled past, silently, appearing to move very slowly if at all, so that the stop sign seemed less admonition than caption. The immensity of the desert is temporal as well as spatial. Its silence is the consequence of time passing very slowly, seeming to stand still.
Two time zones coexisted, apparently: one, the oasis, where things happened, grew, in the present; the other, the valley, which offered a view from thousands of years ago. It was like looking at stars that are dead by the time you see them (this has been a cliché for years, but millennia will pass before it is perceived as one). Plus, of course, what we were seeing hadn't changed in millennia. Even allowing for a thousand-year lag in perception, I explained to Charis, the view would remain the same.
Charis disputed this, even though it was irrefutable. The fact that I said anything made it profoundly contentious, potentially explosive. The emptiness of the desert, it has often been noted, encourages us to fill it with speculation. Charis and I sought to fill it with quarreling. We shouted, rowed, fought, bickered, and squabbled about anything and everything. The immensity of Death Valley—the immensity that, allegedly, makes one aware of one's own insignificance—bred a fanatical pettiness in us both. Leaving the top off the bottle of sunscreen; folding the map the wrong way; driving too fast or too slow—in the desert any misdemeanor, however slight, elicited a storm of accusation, reproach, and vengeance. It was our way, I suppose, of coming to terms with our surroundings, of humanizing them.
During the rare moments when we weren't quarreling we enjoyed remarking on the heat: "The steering wheel's too hot"; "the ground's too hot"; "the water's too hot to drink." Even the cooler was too hot: the ice had turned to hot water and flooded the trunk. Apparently, the polystyrene had split. Because of the heat?"No," snapped Charis, "because of the way you cram things into the trunk so carelessly." And we were off again, going at it hammer and tongs. It was never too hot to argue, never too hot for us to get even hotter under the collar. After we had cooled down we resumed our disquisitions on the heat.
"The sun is pitiless," I said.
"Relentless," corrected Charis.
"Basically," said Charis, offering a compromise, "it's every kind of '-less' you can imagine." Perhaps we were delirious from the heat, which was really kicking in. Just when we thought it couldn't get any hotter it managed to surge another hundred degrees. Even when it got cooler at night, it seemed to get hotter. We noticed this when—after hours of heated debate—we drove out onto the salt flats of Badwater at sundown. We stopped the car and played banging techno on the stereo. It was a perverse gesture, I suppose. In silence so profound you could hear the blood pumping round your body, we played music that is synonymous with noise. We loved the silence, but we also wanted to keep it at bay. Or perhaps we were trying to keep at bay the heat, of which the thirsty silence was simply the aural expression.
I was hotter than I'd ever been in my life. It felt even more intense because the evident source of heat, the sun, was nowhere to be seen. We were experiencing pure, sourceless heat, surrounded by the glitter of salt, which looked for all the world like an expanse of volcanic snow. We shut off the music, took off all our clothes, and, acting out a metaphor of Jean Baudrillard's (we'll come back to him shortly), tanned ourselves in the starlight like vampires.
The stars. Something must be said of them, but what's left to say except that they were there, in astronomical numbers?They were all there and we were where we were, in Death Valley, looking up at them, our pleasure undiminished, as far as I could tell, by our ignorance of constellations. Desert and stars are a natural antinomy: something about huge distances and the way the sky lies flat on the earth, so that when you lie down as we almost did, as we would have done were it not for our possibly irrational fear of snakes, the stars cover you in a blanket that is like a dream of light. It felt so alien where we were that it would have come as no surprise to gaze up and see Earth, all green and blue and lovely.
So, how hot was it?So hot you had to bite the air and chew it before taking it into your lungs. For the 350 people who live here—catering, mostly, to the tourists—life is much like that endured in bitterly cold places, in the frozen wastes of the planet. For a portion of the year you stay indoors, setting foot outside only reluctantly, quick as a lizard's tongue. It's a science fiction environment, a glimpse of the world after the ozone layer has been blasted away. In this respect Death Valley is probably as close as you can come to being on another planet while remaining on this one. All the precautions necessary for survival in the open—keeping your head swathed in pseudo-bedouin wraps, liberally applying factor 2 million sunblock—add to the sense of its being an off-world environment. You might as well be on Mars (which, for all I know, is freezing cold). In fall and winter you see quite a few hikers, denizens of clement Earth; in summer you see only car-bound desertonauts, rippling through an alien world in chilly rental craft, decanting here and there for a little extravehicular activity.
Oh, it was hot all right. Dry, too: a water drinker's paradise. You can inhale gallons, and it's sucked out of you invisibly; you seem not to perspire because sweat evaporates the moment it thinks of stepping out of the skin for a breath of fresh air. At Badwater one afternoon, after making what by now had become the routine observation that the water was too hot to drink—"hot as tea" were my exact words—I threw away the remaining inch of liquid in our bottle. It evaporated before hitting the earth. You could see the water falling, and never making it to the ground. A mirage?
Charis, who claimed to know about such things, thought not. A mirage, she explained, occurs when you see things you can't see, things happening beyond the horizon. The heat bends the waves of light or the rays of light or whatever, so you can see beyond the horizon: a glimpse of the psychedelic desert.
IN THIS REGARD DEATH VALLEY HAS an almost canonic reputation as the place to take LSD. French philosopher Michel Foucault dropped acid for the first time in 1975, at Zabriskie Point, in the center of Death Valley, and enjoyed what he later called the greatest experience of his life. "The sky has exploded," he said at the time, "and the stars are raining down upon me. I know this is not true, but it is the Truth." In San Francisco I once met an old hippie who distinguished between different varieties of LSD. The best sort, he said, produced "open-eye hallucinations." That's Death Valley in a nutshell: an open-eye hallucination.
At the airport we'd bought the Rough Guide to California, which describes Death Valley as "monotonous," an observation all the more revealing for being so inaccurate. Death Valley is, of course, the least monotonous place in the world. It's difficult to imagine how an area could accommodate a greater range of landforms and yet retain a unified, harmonious identity. Besides, the light—according to weather, time of day, and season—causes the landscape to be constantly transformed.