“How could rocks and sand and silence make us so afraid and yet be so wonderful?” –Edna Brush Perkins, The White Heart of Mojave, 1922
Even though I struggle every morning at MIT to wake up at 9 a.m. for class, I woke up without any trouble at exactly 6 a.m. on Sunday morning in the Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort. We had arrived the previous night in a two-hour drive from Clayton Valley at the only hotel in Death Valley, which was set up as a resort with separate residence blocks. Our rooms opened onto a patio with two rocking chairs that overlooked a lush, green courtyard (just as out-of-place in Death Valley as the palm trees) with one solitary tree in the middle. The evening winds were gorgeously pleasant, and while we waited for dinner, I sat on one of the chairs with my legs crossed and just rocked back and forth. One of my fellow sophomore UTFs, Ana, was quietly sitting on the lawn a few doors down. It was one of the most peaceful ten minutes I have spent in a long time.
I forgot to mention yesterday that the reason I can come on this trip despite the fact that I’ve completed the freshman program is that I became a UTF (Undergraduate Teaching Fellow) during the fall. It’s basically an undergrad teaching assistant position, but true to the philosophy of the class we don’t really teach– we’re just there for guidance, questions, and as some like to say, the occasional kick-in-the-rear.
After dinner it was too dark to explore, so a bunch of us decided instead that we would wake up early to see the sunrise, which according to Google, happens in Death Valley at 6:45 a.m. Armed with cameras and the solemnity of the morning, we walked across the road from the premises into a large, open rocky plain surrounded by mountains. Even at 6:45, the sun was still hidden behind the mountains, but at one point I turned around to see the tips of the mountains opposite of the rising sun bathed in a pinkish glow. Over time that stripe of pink spread down though slowly a pinkish glow began to spread vertically on the mountains opposite of the rising sun. Because the day ahead of us was packed with the sites around Death Valley, we couldn’t stay to watch the sun actually peek out from behind the mountains, but I almost feel that the moments before that where it lay hidden but still made its presence known were the calmest, happiest moments– when the air is filled with an expectation of the burst of light to come.
I had 10 minutes until I had to be in the vans– exactly enough time to run to the gift shop general store and buy a shotglass for my travel collection. 🙂 The first one I picked up had an animal skull on it. Each one seemed more dark and gruesome than the first– finally I came to one with a skeleton in hiking boots with cartoonish font: “Death Valley: Hike or Die.” I shuddered involuntarily, and finally settled on a tamer, prettier dark blue one with silver-painted cacti and mountains. Hike or Die. This was right before the visitor’s center where a display told me that Death Valley was “a place of superlatives”: hottest, lowest, driest.
As we drove we began to pass large geological formations called alluvial fans. Eventually we stopped on the side of the road next to a deep canyon. There our professor told us yet another classic story of the place that ended as all stories of hubris do. It turns out that the alluvial fans span about a 400 square mile area, and when it rains up in the mountains, the water washes a lot of the rock debris down with it, flowing and draining in this vast space of land. However, a fancy hotel was built in the path of the water flow, and the owners of the hotel didn’t like that all of this lovely material arrived in front of their doorstep whenever it rained. So they contracted engineers to divert the path of the flow into a space which they created by blowing up rock to form a canyon, in the hopes that the water and rocks would just avoid the hotel altogether. Which it did. However, the space which they had created for the water was only about 40 square miles. So water had ten times less space to drain in, and in one particularly horrible storm, the rocks and water mixture built up so high that it broke through the canyon and flooded over the parking lot in front of Zabriskie Point. It came with so much force that it ripped off the bathroom and people were buried alive in their cars by the crashing rocks. As one of my classmates said, Death Valley is a national park which means that technically, nothing can be taken out or changed in the valley. But when it has to do with the business of fancy hotels, people are all for breaking out the dynamite. Sometimes nature has its own way of settling the score.
Death Valley is the geologist’s dream-come-true. Our next stop was the Ubehebe Crater, which is basically an explosion crater. The crater formed several thousand years ago by rising magma which converted the groundwater to steam. This built up an intense pressure underground until the rock exploded, forming a crater that is a half-mile across and 500 feet deep.
It was impossible by any means to capture the staggering size of the crater on camera, as much as I tried. A few signs near the edge displayed horrifying images of stick figures rolling down the sharp, rocky sides of the crater, though despite that there was a trail leading down to the bottom of the crater. Instead, we hiked around the entire crater, which was by no means an easy hike (the slogan from the morning started coming back to me). But every few minutes I would look up with a slightly new viewpoint, and every time the new visual perspective held me speechless.
Other amazing sights:
Be sure to check out the freshmen blog of the trip!