I’ve been away from the blog for a week because this year, on a lark, our little family decided to take advantage of the week-long Thanksgiving school vacation and head out on a camping adventure. Our initial thought was to return to the Grand Canyon and take it in this time from the South Rim (we visited the North Rim in August). But our trailer is not well-insulated and, because we prefer to do without hook-ups so as to avoid the parking-lot style RV "resorts," approaching cold weather discouraged us. At the last minute I had a brilliant inspiration and suggested Death Valley. Neither my husband nor I had ever been there and indeed, prior to this desperate inspiration, I had never had any inkling to go there. Who makes a point of going somewhere with such an unfortunate and foreboding name? But our kids are on this kick of collecting National Park Jr. Ranger badges and--thanks to Bill Clinton--Death Valley became a National Park in 1994. The weather would be right at this time of the year (highs in the 80s and lows in the 50s). So why not?
Rarely have my expectations about a place been so minimal or so wrong. I was expecting stark, ugly desert--much like what I’d seen on our drive across Nevada this summer on the way to Zion. So as we turned North from Baker, CA, I wasn’t very disappointed to see much of the same sort of landscape before me. But as we crossed over the ominous looking mountains on the East side of the park and entered the Valley, I was surprised by my fascination with the vistas before me. First we saw things that were noteworthy mainly because of their peculiarity--like the slimy white salt deposits at Badwater that, as you press forward, gradually form into weird dry, crystallized formations jutting up from the surface of the long-dry Lake Manly. But as we got closer to the heart of the park in Furnace Creek, we came upon Artist’s Drive and Artist’s Palette. There can be no doubt as to why that place got its name. One feels an almost overwhelming urge to pick up a brush and a canvas at every turn. The colors and the light and the deep contrasts make it look deceptively easy to duplicate and irresistibly beautiful. My daughter--ever true to her Italian roots--commented that it looked like melted spumoni. Indeed, it rather did!
The dry, crisp air made insects a rarity and we were able to sit out in short sleeves well into the evening over a campfire and to enjoy the imaginative rendition of a Thanksgiving "play" from our kids about a turkey named "Slick" who comically manages to avoid every attempt to get him on a plate.
Wonderful as all of that beauty and family fun was, my awe for the beauty of nature and my patience with the antics of my kids will only extend so far. I still need a good juicy story to hold my interest in a thing. What stories could a place like Death Valley tell? It’s a barren desert, after all. What history could it have? Fortunately, my kids and their obsession with these Ranger badges brought us to attend a lecture given by Park Ranger Dale Housley on the "Colorful Characters of Death Valley." As colorful characters go, Ranger Housley can certainly claim to judge them from his own experience! Every history teacher in America should be required to sit in on such a lecture. This is how it is done. Apart from some very small children and some very old audience members for whom this talk was past their bedtime, every eye in the room was on this man as he spoke. Even my 8 year-old was able to laugh at the appropriate times and see the wonder of the tales he was weaving. The stories he told about men like John C. Fremont, Robert Manly, Shorty Harris, Death Valley Scotty, the native Ohioan, Albert Johnson (who actually built Scotty’s Castle), and--of course--the 20 mule Borax wagon teams were fascinating. Who knew that such a place could have such an interesting and compelling and uniquely American past? But then, this is America we’re talking about. Of course our deserts are our playthings. Of course we can pull riches from their soil and make riches out of their salt. We can even--as Death Valley Scotty so vividly demonstrated--make riches and rewards out nothing but what exists in our own imaginations with no other tools but a penchant for friendship (and a little BS). What a beautiful and a great country we have and I am even more thankful for her now that I have seen and learned about this part of her. I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving too.