Driving back from Ubehebe Crater and a private tour of a snowy Scotty’s Castle, I discover a hanging valley. It begs to be explored. I slow down: several hundred feet of steep, rocky alluvial fan, about an hours climb at least until I can reach the mouth of the canyon. From there, I will probably soon encounter slick rock, moist from yesterday’s snowfall. I am tired after a week of canyon hiking. Let’s take it easy today. A few miles south, I see the Kit Fox Hills on my left, drop my car and wander off into the desert.
I start off at the old Stovepipe Wells Road, heading east on the former Rhyolite-Skidoo Road. The Kit Fox Hills run along a residual of the Furnace Creek Fault Zone. The fan is fairly short, and soon I veer off the road and explore some smaller side gulches and canyons. In one of them, I nestle myself into the narrow fold between the hills and enjoy the sunshine warming my body. In here, there are no birds; it is too cold for insects today as well. The silence is deafening. Not even the wind makes a sound down here.
When I was a child, I heard my father talk about desert silence. He spend a year in Iran, where he got to know desert travel. He described it as “being dead while alive”.
I feel anything but dead in the silence. It makes me hyper-aware of how alive I am. I can hear the blood pumping through the vessels in my ear. My breath is light and easy. I feel the pebbles under my body. You ever wonder where the expression “sun-kissed” came from? This is what your skin feels in a desert winter sun: caressed gently. It is a comfortable spot, so protected I feel the earth is giving me a hug.
I wander on, slowly making my way up the hills. Toward the crest of the hills, the graded, pebbly surface gives way to desert pavement. You will immediately recognize desert pavement for what it is when you see it. It looks like the mosaic on Stanford church, just in earth-toned colors. The desert wind blew away the sand, and just left pebbles nestled against each other as if dwarfs carefully paved the hills. Over the centuries, desert varnish evenly colors the pavement deep reddish-brown. I almost hesitate to step on it for fear of disturbing the pattern.
I find a cairn, sit down with my back leaning on it, surveying the landscape and eating. The Rhyolite-Skidoo road stretches out toward the west, eventualy leading to Beatty, NV. Somewhere up there is a rusted car body, but I decide not to hike up the two miles to find it. Instead, I trace the trails criss-crossing the hills. Some are deer trails, some are travel and hunting routes of the indians. You can’t tell one from the other, and most likely they are one and the same after all. Man and deer have long shared paths. The patter of feet and the sound of hoofs, going from spring to shade to a thicket to shelter to spring.
I pull my flute out and start playing. Long notes, slowly merging into each other. Like a small light illuminating the darkness, the sound emanates from my flute and soon fades into the desert. Suddenly, silence closes in, then lets go. Breezes are counteracting my breath pressure, taking the sound away and giving it back. I start to play games with the wind. Look, I found a sheltered position – no, I can blow from that direction too! The game lasts for half an hour, then I get cold and need to start moving again. I turn around, and notice I am one gulch away from the Skidoo phone line.
I decide to follow the phone line back to the road. Build in 1907 and soon after abandoned, some of the poles are still standing! Shortly, I come to the base of the hills and can see along the alluvial fan toward the valley floor. Very few plants grow here. Some desert hollies are in bloom, further down the creosote bushes are competing against each other. Somewhere I read creosote is an “invasive” species, which made its way from South America to North America about 10,000 years ago. I don’t know if it is true, but if it is, we have thousands of illegal immigrants taking up habitat in Death Valley NP.
A rolling thunder growls across the valley. Looking north, I see two F-16s dive in and out of the clouds. Turning, chasing each other, accelerating, slowing down. They must have come from Nellis AFB. Even from down here, I can feel the raw power of those machines. Seeing those planes sweep through the sky, I can imagine the thrill of the two young pilots up there, adrenaline pumping, intense focus, joy in their skill of the play-fight.
Further down the wash, I oversee the valley floor at a low angle, looking into the setting sun. Like a ghost, the wagon rut marking the course of the Stovepipe Wells Road appears from the nondescript valley floor. Making my way toward my car, I suddenly notice a green rock in the fan. Huh? I steep down to pick it up and find myself holding a piece of glass insulator from the old phone line. Years ago, the broken pieces from a toppled pole must have been washed down here by a rare summer storm. Decades of fierce winds sandblasted the glass surface to a dull color. I place the glass back on the ground, for the next hiker to find. Or not. A tiny shard in 100 square miles of rock, pebbles and sand.
Back at my car, I decide to go back to Furnace Creek, have a shower followed by a buffalo burger. The evening ranger talk provides two hours of warmth in the auditorium before I crawl back into my tent for another cold, long desert night. Cold only outside, because my sleeping bag keeps me warm and comfy, while my tent keeps out the wind. Coyotes are singing me to sleep.