That remark in the Rough Guide is probably a verbal leftover of an older way of seeing. Different landscapes—mountains, the coast—came to be regarded as beautiful at specific historical moments, and the desert was one of the last topographic categories to be rehabilitated in this way. Up until the end of the 19th century, the desert tended to be perceived as a blank on the map. With few exceptions—most notably Timothy O'Sullivan's 1868 photograph Desert Sand Hills near Sink of Carson, Nevada—early representations of the arid American wilderness tried to make it appear as European, as picturesque, as possible. Even viewed as deserts, the American version disappointed those who had been led to imagine a Saharan expanse of dunes. John C. Van Dyke wondered, in his classic 1901 account, The Desert, what gave rise to the negative renderings. Where earlier writers had seen the erosion of every vestige of the sublime, Van Dyke saw beauty. "The weird solitude, the great silence, the grim desolation, are the very things with which every desert wanderer eventually falls in love," he declared.
When architectural historian Reyner Banham came across The Desert, he deemed it "sensational." Spending much of his own book, Scenes in America Deserta (1982), wondering why the desert moves him so profoundly, Banham finds it hard to advance beyond Van Dyke's suspicion that "immensity, space, magnitude" have a "peculiar beauty of their own."
Just as Banham uses The Desert as a guide, so the influential French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, in America (1986), seeks guidance from Banham. But while Banham updates without going beyond, Baudrillard surpasses all previous writers on the American desert—and on Death Valley in particular: "And the silence is something extraordinary, as though it were itself all ears. It is not the silence of cold, nor of barrenness, nor of an absence of life. It is the silence of the whole of this heat over the mineral expanses that stretch out before us for hundreds of miles . . . A silence internal to the Valley itself, the silence of underwater erosion, below the very waterline of time."
Compared with this, Charis Wilson's evocation of her first impression of the valley—"We might have been on a lost moon world where time and motion had ceased to exist"—is stunningly banal. Still, there is no denying the effect the place had on Weston: "Edward was so shaky with excitement he could hardly set up his camera, and all we could say for some time was, 'My God! It can't be!' "
Death Valley in the flesh, in the rock, never really looks as it does in a Weston photograph. The thing about Death Valley, you see, is that it is in color, not black-and-white. (Not colorful or dreamlike enough, though, for the filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. For the tripped-out orgy scenes in Zabriskie Point he tinted the landscape pink—a superfluous move, as it turns out, since, when it ages, Eastmancolor film invariably takes on a pinkish hue.)
For our part, Charis and I were united by our dislike of photography. Charis's rule is that anyone with a camera in front of his face is not worth talking to. In Death Valley this pretty much meant that we talked to no one, since the principal extravehicular activity is taking photographs. We had a camera, a crappy little thing, but we never used it. Or almost never. If we're being absolutely frank, I took some pervy pictures of Charis, naked, in the Dumont Dunes (just south of Death Valley proper) at exactly the moment that a single-engine plane droned by. Evidently the pilot did not share our disdain for photographers: he returned moments later and tipped his wings in lascivious appreciation.
The Dumont Dunes are a concession to the sea-of-sand ideal of desertness. There are also dunes in Death Valley itself, just north of Stovepipe Wells. I saw them when I first came here in 1989 with a friend from San Francisco, who shot some Super-8 footage of our trip. You might say I starred in an underground—that is to say, never-shown—film, a good deal of which consisted of me rolling down the dunes. This time around, the huge dunes were nowhere to be seen. There were dunes but they were not the David Lean-ish dunes of memory. Sand dunes shift and change all the time; they're the bedouin of landforms, and it's conceivable that the ones I rolled down had wandered off, possibly to Dumont. Or perhaps they had never been as big as I remembered. It's something that could be verified by consulting the footage, the lost footage.
Footage also exists of me at Zabriskie Point. For some reason, possibly just because of the alliterative and metrical similarity, it is linked in my mind with the Zapruder footage. So much so that, reminiscing with Charis, I actually found myself referring to the lost "Zabriskie footage." In it, if I remember rightly, I am seen reading the lookout sign that explains who Zabriskie was. This time around, too, I succeeded in reading only the first couple of lines. Granted, Zabriskie was some fairly important figure in the history of Death Valley, but the facts of his life pale beside the mythical connotations of his name.
The whole point of Death Valley, after all, is that human intervention is anathema to the place. That's why we go there: to see what it feels like never to have existed, not simply as an individual but as a species. The name evokes the aftermath of history, or, more accurately, history never having even begun. All that matters is the geological prehistory (about which I know nothing), which is like a premonition of post-history. Everything, it seemed to me as I stood gazing out at the badlands below Zabriskie Point, peters out or, more accurately, evaporates in Death Valley. I had intended initially to chronicle our adventures in Death Valley but now that seemed inappropriate. Above all, Death Valley represents the evaporation of narrative, of meaning.
We were hiking from Zabriskie Point to Golden Canyon. We'd gone up in the morning, staring into the tremendous glare of the sun, and we were going down in the late afternoon, staring into the even more tremendous sun. Charis thought it foolish, possibly "life-threatening," to attempt this hike when we were already "deranged by heat," but I insisted. And I'm glad I did. The badlands glowed golden; the sky was golden-blue. The trail was perfectly marked, in the sense that it was barely marked. I felt full of energy. I began to think that, if nature had set out to evolve a human being exquisitely adapted to life under this sun-corroded sky, it would have been me with my lack of fat, my long skinny legs, my thorny gait. Charis, who is better suited to the ocean than to the waterless world of Death Valley, was faring less well and soon turned back. I bounded on. My belly was a camel's hump, swollen with gallons of water to keep me cool and fresh beneath the pitiless, relentless, merciless pounding of the tremendous sun. Have I mentioned the heat?It was 120 degrees in the shade—and there was no shade. Not that I cared. I had no need of shade: I still felt pleasingly cool—and it was this sensation of well-being that caused my exultancy to implode. I felt fine, capable of blazing this trail all day, possibly all week, forever if necessary. I felt so fine, given the extremity of the conditions, that something had to be wrong. Perhaps my thermostat was broken. I wished Charis were here, so that we could sit down and quarrel in the nonexistent shade, so that I could blame her for insisting we embark on this suicidal hike. The acid sky blazed overhead. The shelterless landscape seemed like nothing so much as the site of an ongoing sacrifice to the godless sun. Nothing else remained. The undulating rocks, the boiled, eggy badlands, stretched far away.
Where to stay: Built in 1927, the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort (Hwy. 190, 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas; 800/236-7916 or 760/786-2345, fax 760/786-2514) consists of the 66-room inn, as well as a 224-room ranch that's more geared to families. In winter, doubles at the inn start at $230; in summer, $155. Ranch rates start at $94 most of the year.
GEOFF DYER is the author of seven books, including Paris Trance, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence, and But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz.