Island in the Sky
“Keep your knees bent and remember, french fries to go, pizza to stop,” my instructor was next to me as I was hurtling down the slope. It wasn’t food he was offering, he was talking about the position of my feet. I was skiing for the first time. “Go steady, I’m going to go rescue her,” he said. From the corner of my eye I saw my fellow traveller Maritza about to crash into a giant mound of snow. I tried to turn my fries into a pizza, but I was simply going too fast to stop. Figured I’d give Maritza some company.
It was late February in Nevada and we were having a ski day on Charleston Peak. At 11,916 feet above sea level, Mount Charleston is the highest point in the Mojave Desert. The irony of our geography did not escape me. Spring Mountains, where we were, is the most diverse mountain range in all of Nevada, with its biodiversity categorised into six different life zones. If you were to drive through all the six zones— starting at the Las Vegas Valley all the way to the peak—you’d encounter the same amount of flora and fauna as you’d find driving from Mexico to Canada.
There are over 31 endemic species in the area, and tourists and locals often encounter bobcats, coyotes, grey foxes and mountain lions. There are wild horses, but not true mustangs, and of course, the gold rush-era burros.
The Spring Mountains are what’s called a ‘sky island’. It’s just like an island, but you have the Mojave Desert surrounding a forest, instead of the ocean. The next closest forest is all the way in Arizona, and the isolation gives the area unique biodiversity. I was expecting bears in the back country forests, but turns out, bears aren’t too fond of trudging across the Mojave all the way from Arizona. Mountain lions are the apex predators here.
We stopped by the Spring Mountains Visitor Gateway to catch a glimpse of this island. The land is sacred, and considered family by the indigenous people. The seven Southern Paiute tribes here are known as Nuwuvi—the people—and the Seven Stones Plaza, just behind the visitor’s centre, celebrates their relationship with the place of their creation.
We walked around the seven stones, each representing one of the tribes, and our guide, Amanda, pointed at a handprint in the middle of the exhibit—Mount Charleston. “Every September, we have a pine nut festival where they come out and just celebrate and share stories,” she said. “The Nuwuvi only tell their stories in the winter.”
“Some stories I can share, some I can’t,” she added. “It’s not winter yet.”
Dead or Alive?
The drive to Death Valley is a scene straight out of an old Western. The endless road goes seemingly straight up and down the mountains, the rockscape only broken by a sprinkling of little Joshua trees. Most of Death Valley is in California, but because of its sheer size—it’s the largest national park in the US outside Alaska—even the little corner that sticks into Nevada is the biggest national park in the state. Earlier, it wasn’t very heavily visited but people’s perception of Death Valley has changed with time.
The Timbisha Shoshone are the indigenous people who have always lived here. They believe that a people cannot have a culture without their land. They are a part of the land, and the land a part of them. They exist to protect the land, and this land can heal your body and soul. Their home isn’t dead, it’s alive.
For early European settlers, this land was harsh and barren. They first moved westward chasing the goldfields in the desert, the underground riches ranged from gold to silver, from copper to borax. To them, the valley was hot and dry, the extreme weather lending it its modern-day name. The remnants of their cacophonous endeavours can be found sprinkled through the gold rush-era belts.
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Geological evidence, however, seems to side with the Timbisha Shoshone. A startling, beautiful, wild land, the Death Valley is considered one of the hottest places on the planet. Despite this, the peaks of the mountains are covered in snow through the winter months. About three million years ago, the Earth’s crust ripped the surface and two enormous blocks began to pull apart. The trough between them slowly started filling with salt, gravel and sand, which was washed down the canyon by the Amargosa River to create the flat valley floor.
This valley floor was once the bed of a vast lake, hundreds of feet deep. But the devastating summer heat dried it out over the centuries. The biodiversity that survives in the valley today does so with unrelenting force. Mesquite trees, for instance, survive by digging their roots hundreds of feet underground to find water.
The landscape itself is also in motion with canyons, flash floods, debris, strong winds, rocks, and gravel constantly shifting. In geological time, Death Valley is alive.
This fast changing environment, coupled with an alarming rate of climate change, is pushing much of the region’s biodiversity to the very edge of survival. And those that can’t adapt to contend are slowly disappearing.
Badwater, Good Wine
Death Valley is a place of extremes. I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting salt flats, not in the Rann of Kutch, not in Bolivia, not ever. But what I didn’t expect was to be standing in salt flats at the lowest point in all of North America. Badwater Basin is at an altitude of 282 feet under sea level. During the wet winters, this valley holds a shallow lake, which dries every spring to create the magical saltscape. It’s this combination of high heat and low elevation that plays a dominant role in making Death Valley the hottest place in the US.
If you stand at the top of the Telescope Peak—the highest point within the national park—you can look down two miles straight beneath you. It’s the only place in the country you can do so. For reference, even the Grand Canyon is only a mile down.
You need to have at least a week to even begin exploring just the Nevada part of the park, and the places to see are endless. Not even an hour from Badwater, the landscape changes dramatically yet again and transforms into the vast rolling hills of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. The quintessential desert dunes are surrounded by the towering mountain peaks, painting a dramatic landscape.
There are forces constantly at play at Death Valley. The Ubehebe Crater was created just a few hundred years ago as magma, fire and steam exploded outward to create a giant chasm. Large rocks mysteriously move around the Racetrack, leaving clear tracks with nothing driving them forward. Scientists believe that when it occasionally rains, the water under the rocks freezes and lifts them up a little, and the blowing winds use the ice to push the rocks forward like sails. But the Racetrack’s explanation changes every few years.
We ended our soirée into Death Valley at the Zabriskie Point, watching the finely- sculpted badlands of the Golden Canyon. The eroded rocks changed colours with the setting sun as the shark-finned point cast its shadow down the canyon.
The town of Pahrump awaited us for the night. It is known for two things, I was told. The first, was its fine wine. And the second, well, let’s just say the film the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was not about Texas.
What I was looking forward to, however, was neither of the two. The park is an enormous reservoir of open wilderness, nearly three million acres of it, and human presence is few and far between. The great riches and abundant beauty of the desert have been preserved since our history used to be the future. What is also preserved is the past. Death Valley is one of the last places where the night sky can be seen as clearly as it was when the Europeans had first moved West.
All you need to do is look up.