The desert tells a different story every time one ventures on it

October 1, 2017

The air is cool and fragrant this morning. Mammoth Lakes is a well-known Californian ski area, and the early October snows on the highest peaks may herald the end of the summer in this area. Yesterday's drive through Yosemite was spectacular. The granite rocks and the sequoia forests combined makes one feel very small in a world where everything appears to be giant-sized. I'm looking forward to seeing what today brings, as I continue in a southeasterly direction on Highway 395.

I expect to see mountains on the right side of me as I travel along the 'other' side of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, but am surprised to see that I am surrounded by them. Roads to ski resorts and lakes are enticing me to stray off the highway - just for a little look. But I can't. My accommodation didn't include breakfast, and rather than linger around Mammoth Lakes, I opt to drive to Bishop, a town almost seventy kilometres down the road. 

Bishop, California is the main commercial hub in this region. It had been first established sometime after Fremont's exploration of 1845. The town was named after Samuel Addison Bishop, who had settled in the Owens Valley. Interestingly, towns and natural features were named after the men in Fremont's expedition party, which included Kit Carson, Richard Owens, and Ed Kern. I assume that Carson City, the Owens Lake and Owens Valley, and Kern County had been named in honour of these explorers. Bishop had been a hub for many industries due to its location. The Owens Valley was suitable for raising livestock, thus eliminating the need to drive cattle across the mountains to facilitate the settlers on this side of the mountain range. Between 1905 and 1907, much of the land had been purchased by William Mulholland, the superintendent of the Los Angeles City Water Department. Although promising to set up an irrigation system, the water, instead was redirected to Los Angeles by means of a viaduct, built in 1913. This action caused the Owens River to dry up. The resulting conflict between the Owens Valley and the City of Los Angeles was the inspiration of the 1974 movie, Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson. 

There is no sign of conflict today as I drive into town, park the car, and find a cafe to have breakfast. The day is starting to warm, and whilst this morning's chill had been tempered with the sweet scent of the pine forests, just forty-five minutes is all it takes for a completely different change of scenery. The air is drier, less fragrant, and whilst I am in the valley between mountain ranges the terrain is semi-arid, a product of the water diversion of 110 years ago. No time to dilly-dally; I've still got a long way to travel today.

Leaving Bishop behind me, the heavily-forested mountains give way to bleak rocky peaks, lush, green vegetation is replaced by mesquite, yellow rabbit bush, and Joshua trees.

The road shimmers as I drive south. My car is the only one on the road, and it's been a while since I passed anyone. There is nothing better than the feeling I get when I have the road to myself; the view to myself. I'm not daunted by this solitude; surely loneliness only occurs when one is not comfortable with their own company. Instead I feel like an explorer as the magnificent panorama unfolds in front of me. Perhaps my intrepid forebears, like Henry Kelsey, who travelled from Britain to explore much of Canada's interior three hundred years ago, influence my sense of adventure. Whilst I'll never discover anything new, I hope that I can view my travel through the eyes of the explorer, albeit travelling much more comfortably.

I can slow down now; stop more often, walk away from the car and stand in the sand a short distance from the road, and feel the heat searing through my clothes as I photograph the stark beauty surrounding me. No photo can capture what I am actually seeing. I can only snatch snippets to serve as reminder of the bigger picture. Just past the first Joshua tree I come across, I can see a sign, which tells me that I am now in the hottest, driest region of the United States. Even on this October, day, it is hellishly hot. I have arrived at the Death Valley National Park.

My solitude is broken as I notice several cars have stopped on the side of the road. Most of them have pulled over to the sandy shoulder, whilst others are parked higgledy piggledy across the road. There must be an animal ahead.

I slow down to a crawl and pull over, just in time to see two coyotes saunter across the road toward my car. I wind the window up, lest one of them decides to jump up to the window. Although these are wild animals, I think they have had plenty of contact with humans. Perhaps they are looking for food in this desolate place. I watch them through the window, amused at their antics. When they move away, I can take the opportunity to wind down the window and snap a couple of shots.  

Despite being in one of the hottest deserts in the world, it is not the beige colour one would expect. I stop at Rainbow Canyon, where there is a pull-out on the road. Ahead of me, the sides of the canyon are coloured black, red, and pink, as is the ground beneath my feet. Volcanic action over millions of years, together with lava flows and oxidised sediments, which have mixed with water has produced this beautiful coloured variation in the rock. The further I drive into the National Park, the more interesting the terrain becomes. Shades of pink fade into yellows and greens and black as sand is replaced by gibber plains. I see salt pans in the distance. 

Death Valley has seen its share of boom and bust mining operations, with Borax being the most lucrative of all mines. On October, 31, 1994, Death Valley was included in the National Park Service. 

This may not be my first visit to Death Valley, but I've been lucky to be able to see different features, which I didn't see previously. It is a desolate place, and I can see why it has been used in the past in movies, such as Star Wars. There is a distinct feeling of abandonment and sadness in parts.

I finally reach Furnace Creek, the location of the visitor centre. The thermometer outside the building shows that it is 105 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 40.5 degrees Celsius. It is now late afternoon and the heat is searing, and I still have about one and a half hours to drive before I reach my destination for the night. 

Today's journey from the high altitude of Mammoth Lakes in the mountains to Death Valley, the lowest elevation in the United States has brought me through the most amazing landscapes imaginable, and all comfortably accessible within a few hours. 

TITLE QUOTE: Robert Edison Fulton Jr

ACCOMMODATION: Holiday Inn Express & Suites, 861 South, NV-160, Pahrump, NV 89048, USA

USA NATIONAL PARKS ANNUAL PASS: USD$80

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