Death Valley is the desert at its deadliest. Geoff Dyer wanders California's prehistoric wonderland, meditating on sex, drugs, and the slow glide of time
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.
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.