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: