The salty air from the beach and San Francisco’s perma-fog make my backyard a utopia for tenacious ivy and rust. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“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?
If you know Philip, then you know that he wants to be friends with all the animals — especially those that are difficult to catch, like lizards. His ability to wrangle lizards has earned the praise of naturalists and frightened indoor dwellers alike.
Death Valley presented Philip with a unique opportunity to encounter new lizard species. While walking through Titus Canyon, one of Death Valley’s largest canyons, Philip befriended three lizards — and by befriended, I mean mercilessly stalked.
While a walk through Death Valley’s largest canyon is worth the trip in and of itself, Philip and I needed a little more convincing that our midday hike through Titus Canyon would yield a return on our sweat investment.
I had read on the National Park Service website that there were petroglyphs in this canyon. Meanwhile, an illustrated Chuckwalla lizard on the Death Valley map had caught Philip’s attention.
It wasn’t until we admitted that we were searching for these things aloud to each other that they manifested around the next bend. My eye caught a white etching on a nearby rock face, while Philip saw the slightest movement out of the corner of his eye.
I have not verified the authenticity of this petroglyph, but from what I could tell, it was clearly etched into the stone. It appears to depict a bighorn sheep, which are endemic to the area, and a crescent moon.
When I turned around to show Philip, the photo below illustrates what I saw: Philip carefully crouching at the mouth of this rock, engaged in a staring contest with a lizard hiding in the furthermost corner of this boulder. It was a Chuckwalla!
I like how Philip’s hat balances on the boulder here. For a closer look at the lizard from Philip’s point of view, here is a picture Philip posted to Instagram:
Later we would encounter what Philip believed to be a Desert Spiny Lizard. Here you can see Philip trying to act natural, while only succeeding in completely freaking this lizard out. This was as close as he got. I have edited the photo to make the location of this well camouflaged animal more clear.
While Philip was engaged in lizard standoffs, I was keeping an eye out for new wildflowers:
I don’t have a positive ID for the tiny white flowers I found, but they may have been Scented Cryptantha (Cryptantha utahensis). We also saw more purple Notch-Leaf Phacelia (Phacelia crenulata) and white Desert-Star (Monoptilon bellioides). And when there weren’t flowers, there were rocks. Luckily, even rocks without petroglyphs are still interesting to me.
Thanks to me keeping an eye out for wildflowers, I was able to see a flash of bright turquoise that turned out to be a kind of Skink lizard. Philip tried over and over again to catch this little guy in his hands, but he was just too quick.
Just as I was ready to give up hope, Philip was able to secure it against a rock that he picked up. With his own little piece of the desert to cling to, this lizard let us have a closer look. You can see some yellow Golden Evening-Primrose (Camissonia brevipes) in this first shot of the lizard.
We deemed our short jaunt into the canyon a success. Our next adventure that day would not allow us to so passively achieve our goals.
To read more about our Death Valley adventures, stay tuned for more blog posts and read:
Driving eight hours through the night to be in Death Valley at sunrise on my birthday was a decision Philip and I made without hesitation.
By the time Philip was ready to hand off driving to me at about 4 am, we had entered into the kind of landscape you would associate with a road trip through the desert. A two lane road with an ever-stretching yellow line pulled us forward over dips and through sharp turns.
With the moon nowhere to be found, we could only see as far as the headlights on Philip’s car (named Clyde) could reach. In our delirious state, we could have been on another planet for all we knew.
The only thing bringing us back to reality was the local Spanish language radio station 95.1 — the lone frequency emerging from comprehensive static. Its Mexican polka music was the best soundtrack for our excitement and confusion.
At night, the refineries and factories of Trona were lit up like golden honeycombs. As we left this small industrial community and started winding through craggy rocks, Philip insisted we pull over to take a look around.
The way the cold air whipped around us, we could tell we were standing on a ledge overlooking a valley. Just how far down, we couldn’t tell. The feeling of being exposed was overwhelming.
Despite how much I would have loved to stay and look up at more stars than I had ever seen in my life, my instinct to seek shelter was stronger. I rushed back into the car and turned my seat warmer on.
During our return trip in daylight I would discover that a somber cross marked the same spot we had pulled off on the road. My sense of foreboding was not merely in my imagination.
Not long after, we encountered road construction and signs indicating “end paved road.” Following a zippy Camry, we were not so brave on this washboard, taking it below 5 miles per hour at times.
We had no idea how long the road, or lack thereof, would continue. So we bumped along for what seemed like hours. Even when we were back on paved road, space and time did not make any more sense.
We would think we were following the tail lights of a car in front of us, when it would turn out to be an approaching road sign. Surreal lights in the distance beckoned from unexpected angles and made us feel like we were driving in circles.
Philip and I tried not to think about the X-Files for the first time in our relationship.
As we pulled into Death Valley and past the Stove Pipe Wells camping ground, it was a relief to know we were around people once more, but there was not time to stop as we raced the sunrise.
Our goal was to find a patch of flowers to sit in as we watched the sun come up. The only problem was that we still couldn’t see what the landscape around us had in store. As flowers started popping up in Clyde’s headlights along the side of the road, we cheered.
We hadn’t wanted to acknowledge the possibility that the flowers could’ve been gone by the time we arrived, but now that we saw them, we could justify the arduous trip.
Keeping in mind reports of where flowers had been sighted in lower elevations, we kept going blindly into the valley until we thought we had found a decent patch. I got out and began taking blurry pictures of a flower on the roadside.
I was so absorbed in this task that I took me a moment to respond to Philip’s whistle. Looking behind me, I saw a hillside covered in yellow flowers, waving to us in the breeze: without knowing it, we had hit the jackpot!
To come so far and be rewarded with such a show of flowers was incredible.
The yellow flowers dotting this hill are known as “Desert Gold” or Geraea canescens, but closer inspection revealed a range of other beautiful species. Purple Caltha-Leaf Phacelia (Phacelia calthifolia) and Purplemat (Nama demissum) provided an excellent contrast as complimentary colors to the prevailing yellow.
I realized that I needed to start putting my hand in the picture for scale, since so many of these flowers were unimaginably small. I’m glad I didn’t start with the Caltha-Leaf Phacelia though, because as the wildflower guide I later bought at the ranger station warns, “contact with skin can cause rash.”
The white flowers in the mix were dainty varieties like the Desert-Star (Monoptilon bellioides), the whimsical Pebble Pincushion (Chaenactis carphoclinia), which I found next to an old-fashioned can, and the Shredding Evening-Primrose (Camissonia boothii ssp. condensata). I was lucky to see the Shreding Evening-Primrose so early in the morning because it was still open from its night blooming.
Aside from the wonderful array of flowers, the rocks were just as fascinating to me.
Seeing life spring from the cracks between these rocks made me appreciate the tenacity of life in the desert.
After the sun came up and turned the flowers and mountains to gold, we backtracked to Stovepipe Wells to set up our camp and sleep the hottest part of the day away . . .
. . . or, so we thought.
To read more about our Death Valley adventures, stay tuned for more blog posts and read: