“One day, in the Time When Animals Were People, Coyote came to the valley. The people were small then, so Coyote kept them in a large basket he carried on his back. After a long journey, Coyote grew tired. When he came to a place at the north end of the valley, he set his burden down on the earth. The moment he fell asleep, the people climbed up out of the basket and ran away in all directions. The place where they emerged is called Ubehebe Crater today, and it’s hollow like the shape of a wosa, or basket. After Coyote woke up, he walked up and down the valley naming the places where the people could live. That’s how the Timbisha knew where to find everything they needed.”
This excerpt from Indian Country, God’s Country: Native Americans And The National Parks by Philip Burnham retells the Timbisha Shoshone story of how the indigenous people came to find their home in what we call Death Valley. Burnham’s writing explores the fraught relationships between Native Americans and national parks. He goes on to explain that pioneers came through the same valley and saw it not as a gift but as a death sentence. Their hostile relationship to the land was reflected in the name Death Valley.
Standing above Ubehebe or “Tem-pin-tta- Wo’sah,” (Coyote’s Basket), I was surprised that I was not made uneasy by the site’s explosive origins. The crater was formed by what is called a maar volcano, where magma bubbles up to the earth’s surface, heating the ground water and causing an explosion that leaves a crater behind.
I can understand why this crater would seem like a great place for a heavy basket filled with humankind. There was something welcoming and comforting about the spot. Although we were not carried by a coyote, I did feel like Philip and I were carried to the crater by a certain force. An interesting encounter we had with a raven just moments before entering the crater intensified this feeling.
While eating yet another peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Philip and I sat facing away from the crater. We watched better equipped cars make their way on unpaved roads to a site we were going to have to wait to see: the Racetrack.
Both of us were having a hard time finishing our dry sandwiches in the dry weather. Philip dejectedly showed me two pieces of crust he couldn’t bring himself to eat. I pointed to a raven in the distance, which prompted Philip to throw his scraps out as an offering. The raven quickly flew over to where Philip had thrown the crusts.
After eating the first scrap it jumped up and flapped its wings before taking the next scrap in its beak. We were surprised when it started walking deliberately towards us, while holding the second piece of bread in its mouth. With its head cocked to the side, it was giving us, and particularly Philip, an assessing look. We were close enough to see the raven blink several times as it came closer: a black marble never disappearing, just briefly covered in a gray film.
It almost seemed to be asking us whether we had really intended to give it this food. Or maybe it was trying to gauge our intentions. Who knows what kind of discriminations Ravens have endured? I have heard that Ravens are capable of memorizing people’s faces. When it finally flew away, I whispered to Philip, “the ravens know your face now.”
Watching the raven fly into the crater, we felt we had been given a cue to get moving. Here are some pictures of Philip as we walked into the crater. You can see how steep the descent was, and how much smaller the people already in the crater appeared in the distance.
After hiking (read: sliding) down into the crater, we were met with a stillness that did not exist at the top, where the wind whipped aggressively. Nestled in the valley of the crater, it really did feel like we were in some sort of cradle. Looking up, we could see that our raven had a friend and a nest in the crater. It had probably brought the second piece of bread to share with its mate.
Once at the bottom we were the only ones there. We laid down on the cracked mud and basked in the sun. Feeling restored after our nap, we got up and prepared ourselves to climb out of the Coyote’s Basket.
At some parts it felt more like crawling, but there were beautiful purple and yellow flowers lining the path. There’s no better feeling than pulling yourself up to a great height. Climbing out of the crater felt like a huge accomplishment.
We returned to our campsite for our last night. We watched the sunset and the fighter jets and drank instant coffee out of scalding enamelware.
The next day we packed up camp and made one last stop at Zabriskie’s Point before driving the eight hours home.
Another El Niño storm was rolling, held back from the valley by the rain shadow created by surrounding mountains. As we drove through the changing weather, a lyric from one of Philip’s favorite songs by John K. Samson (“Heart of the Continent“) resonated:
“Inky bruises are punched into the sky by bolts of light and then leak across the body of tonight, while rain and thunder drop and roll, then stop short of a storm, leave the air stuck with this waiting to be born.”
I overheard a man say that all the flowers we saw in Death Valley were the result of one storm on the night of October, 18 2015: thunder, lightning and flash floods. The seeds of life patiently wait for their time, but when given the opportunity, they climb out of Coyote’s Basket and spread through the Valley.
This trip to Death Valley was the perfect way to celebrate turning 25 years old. I cannot recommend trips to national parks enough. I look forward to finishing Burnham’s book to learn more about how national parks can better serve the native people who knew the land before conservation efforts became necessary. Why should we value people any less than landmarks?