Our bodies are made of sweat and rubble. We can’t see because we keep wiping our salt-laden eyes with the back of our sleeves, as we trudge towards what promises to be a spectacular creation of nature. I can barely carry my own weight. The posters and info boards at the Visitor Center had warned about drinking water. One gallon per four or five or six hours, they’d said. I curse under my breath and think longingly of the bottles of water we’d left back in the boot of the Buick, wondering why I hadn’t been clever enough to take a large swig from one of those bottles before agreeing to do this hike. I’d never wanted to come here in the first place. I’d only wanted to tick off a bucket-list item—see the Grand Canyon. This dust-drenched wasteland was never on my list. I’d heard that whoever had named it Death Valley did so assuming that they’d be found dead in it. And at this moment, as I haul my 200-pound body up the gravelly hill ready to pass out, I wholeheartedly agree with them.
I pause for a second and turn towards the land that unfurls as far as my eye allows me to see. The December sun makes it difficult, but the mountains of Death Valley are not ones to shy away from the sun. Resilient, indifferent to suffering, born of the sea hundreds of millions of years ago and yet completely separated from it now. Although they do look like they didn’t have a choice in whom they got to hang out with, somehow smushed together randomly like colorful modelling putty I used to play with as a child, each peak starkly different from the other in every way. I walk onwards and look up to find my husband paused ahead of me waiting for me to catch up. It annoys me to see him waiting. My husband, Sundaram, is this lean happy-camper, an aspiring marathon runner who spends an hour at the gym every day. He’s sweating and squinting, but shows no impatience and gives me a bright smile as I drag myself up to him. And that annoys me. Why is he happy underneath all this sun? Isn’t he thirsty? Doesn’t he want his wife to lose all the extra weight so she can keep up with him on a hike? Doesn’t he want to hurry me so that we’re done and over with this torture as soon as possible? I stop myself from rolling my eyes.
In a short while we reach the main attraction of Natural Bridge, a brown, rocky arm overextended from one side of a limestone mountain to another limestone mountain, a result of differential erosion. It is clearly spectacular for the rest of the hikers, who immediately pop out their selfie sticks and smartphones and rush to pose underneath the rugged arch. I agree, reluctantly, to stand still for a group photo as well. If nothing else, it will attract at least a few likes and a few “oohs” and “aahs” on social media. The sun is higher and hotter than I remember it being only twenty minutes ago. The hottest the Valley has ever been was 134 degrees Fahrenheit, in the summer of 1910. We lean our spines backwards to lower our centers of gravity and our calf muscles stiffen as we make the journey back to our cars. It’s trickier to climb down.
Soon after we’re on our way to the next stop on the map. We chug from plastic water bottles as the SUV jolts along the dirt road before it gets on the main road, that’s made of tar and pitch and it’s smooth. The four of us fall silent. My husband sits next to me rubbing his eyes. His friend Dev drives. Dev’s wife, Priya, rides shotgun and tussles with the map. The Death Valley Plan was their brainchild. We’re the only ones on the road, and it seems like we will be for some time. The silence is deafening, only marred by the low white noise emitted by the car. The roadside is dotted with little green banners —bearings to where we might want to go —Artist’s Palette, Scott’s Castle, Badwater Basin, Darwin Falls, the Canyons, Ubehebe. We’re visitors, and the road seems to know more about where we’d like to go than we do. From what I can see through my passenger side window, the land stretches out on both sides like an immense piece of sandy lycra, pulled upwards without warning to form jagged mountains on both sides. They don’t look too far away, but they are. They don’t look too tall, but they are. The smaller ones, dunes, look climbable. Not by me though. I’d run out of breath just walking to their feet. As we move, the mountains move too. Bigger ones give way to smaller ones and I spot a single black dot on top of one especially craggly hill. The dot moves. It seems to have limbs. It’s a person. Much much braver than I am or will ever be.
The fifteen-mile drive is unlike any I’ve ever been on. Like a fool, I had expected it to be something else, something familiar and manageable. I have been on numerous road trips before. Several more than numerous. In summer, in winter, in torrential rain, through strips of dangerously iced bridges. But none like this. The landscape here changes every few seconds, in appearance and disposition. Sand dunes, flaxen and light, throw up grime in the wind and change into salt flats that breathe under our hiking boots as if something alive lies just underneath the surface. I step on the cracks of the Badwater salt flats. Gingerly at first, as it squishes under my weight. But it doesn’t let me down. The soles of my shoes sink almost an inch or so, but they spring right back. I look up. Sundaram and his friends have walked ahead as usual. But I’m not annoyed. I’m forced to concentrate on my steps. I’m sweating (what else is new), the horizon is low, and my eyes have almost narrowed to a close because of the fiercely sunny sky that seems to almost start at my feet. But I know the flats will wait for me, understanding and unflappable, until I’m able to walk across them. They’re kind, I whisper under my breath. Before we can reach the end of the trail, which is only about a mile away, the heat proceeds to burn the skins off of our exposed bits. Wrists, backs of the necks, the faces. So we trudge back to our car, parked at a tilt near a public washroom that soaks the air with the dank stench of piss.
Harmony Borax Works was nicer, I think. It was our first stop on the drive through the National Park. And the first stop for most tourists, it seemed, when we had walked up the rolling slope to the old plant that was built when borax reserves were found near Furnace Creek Ranch— initially named Greenland, obviously by someone with a twisted sense of humor—now half buried and dilapidated. I could half imagine a bunch of sweaty muleskinners with white cotton cloths wrapped around their heads and sun-burnt necks, chaperoning mules with a train of wagons carrying borax behind them, right in the middle of dull yellow nowhere. A hundred and thirty years ago.
In the middle of the drive, we stop at a random point, somewhere on Badwater Road, with a lonesome toilet block and a couple of picnic tables, to take a break and munch on ham and cheese sandwiches that we’d put together in a hurry at the AirBnb earlier that morning. There’s just us and the two tables and mountaintops that seem only a small leap away. We spend the first fifteen minutes eating and consulting the map, our conversation speckles with discussions on the temperature and where we might get to see the best night sky. I can feel my hangry-ness subsiding, and even though I’m sure everyone notices it, I’m thankful no one mentions it. When the wrappers and packets and paper bags are disposed off and we’re almost ready to hit the road, there’s a moment when we just stop and breathe. Priya folds the map. Dev turns towards the vast valley and stretches his neck to catch a grimy ribbon of wind. Sundaram stands silently with his hands on his hips staring at the hills behind us.
“Let’s hold our breath for a second,” I hear myself say. We do. And in an instant, everything around us falls silent. We hold our breaths for ten seconds, and they seem like the longest ten seconds of our lives, swathed in thunderous vacuum and ancient air. Nothing moves. Nothing whispers. Nothing flutters. Nothing flies and nothing lives. Only the valley stares back at us.
It’s getting chilly, and we want to make two more stops before we head back to Pahrump, Nevada. The car glides along the narrow strip of a road. Yellow mountains give way to brown ones that give way to pink ones that then turn green and ultimately blue, capped with white ice. They move with us. With us till we reach Ubehebe.
The Ubehebe Crater was created by the steam explosion of a maar volcano. It’s one of a few that Death Valley houses. I can’t see it from the parking lot, although I know it’s there from all the black cinder that we tread on when we get out of our vehicle. And as I walk to what I can only imagine is the rim, the crater appears abruptly, almost out of nowhere. A conical dip of elephantine proportions right in the middle of the ground. It is the ground. I stand at the edge.
“What do you think?” Sundaram asks as he stands next to me. It’s cold, and I want to grab his hands that are tucked in his jacket pockets. What he really wants to know is if I’m still annoyed by this place.
“It’s nice,” I reply.
“It’s incredible,” he says. “Look at those gullies.” He points to one corner of the crater. Someone or something had scratched deep ridges on that part of the wall, the edges ruffled like feathered frosting.
“Water erosion,” he says, reading my mind. After a small pause, he continues, “I’m gonna see if I can run up to the top, okay?” I nod. The sooty rim rises at a sharp angle, only a short distance from where I stand. I watch him break into a sprint up the slope. It’s a stiff climb. He gets smaller by the second, and his climb gets slower by the second. Seven minutes later, he is but a dark dot on top of the highest edge of the crater. In fact, I squint and wonder whether the dark dot is my husband at all. There are several dots up there, scuttling around the edge like ants. We are not alone. Some adventurous souls are trekking around the rim which has a circumference of about half a mile. Some are running up the slope. Some are heaving themselves up the slope, wheezing loudly. A group of teenagers fling their laughs into the icy air. But I stand still.
I have never seen a crater before, up close and almost tempted to jump in. The absolute heart of the crater is a pool of orange, pink and brown. A little boy of about six or seven and his father start climbing down the narrow path—more of a ledge that snakes along the curved wall of the crater—right into the heart. The pebbly cinder makes it difficult to not topple over or slip while climbing down, but the boy is doing admirably. I look on in amazement. Actually, I look on in awe. The boy talks to his father in sing-song tones as he prances down the path and I wonder whether he’ll find it taxing to climb up in the cold and dark. I lower myself and sit on the rim with my legs dangling out over the edge. This makes me feel brave. If a little boy, only a little older than a toddler, can brave this, surely I can let my fat legs dangle over the edge without worry. I envy the little boy. At six, my biggest concern in life was matching my Barbie’s outfit to her shoes. And here, this little boy is up against a volcanic crater.
There are still one or two voices in the air, but they’re only smoky wisps of sound that disappear somewhere in the distance while I sit and stare into the bright nucleus below me. I know I will carry a torch for this for a long time. This serenity, this vacuum of senses where only a transparent cling wrap of cold and blinding awe exist. I think of all the places I’ve travelled to and all the places I like to travel to—self-obsessed cities defying time, towns steeped in history that we only find in textbooks, a picturesque forest or a hill station, an ancient monastery jutting out of a mountain side that makes us feel obligated to pretend to be spiritual for a moment—and how Death Valley has been unlike them.
It’s almost six in the evening, and even though the sky hasn’t been cloudless, we decide to drive back to Furnace Creek, to Harmony Borax Works, in the hopes of seeing a starry night sky. That, along with Badwater Basin and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, are the only spots where the light pollution is at a minimum. A couple of rangers walk by carrying cases of equipment, heading towards the ancient borax wagon posted uphill.
“Seven thirty,” they say, nodding at us. Apparently, 7:30 in the evening would be the best time to see the stars, if any of them decide to show up at all. They also tell us that they’ll be giving a talking tour on star-gazing up the hill if we’d be interested to listen. Sundaram, Dev and Priya are interested. As soon as we near seven thirty, tiny red lights illuminate a lonely path up the hill, presumably to where the rangers have set up, they start walking.
“I’ll be here in the car,” I announce. The parking is almost full, but our SUV is still in a corner that’s out of the way with a few empty parking spaces in its vicinity. At a quick glance, it seems we’re the only ones here. More cars roll in, tourists climb out—children, couples, teenagers, old people, white people, black people, and brown people—and they all head up to that borax wagon. I look up at the sky. Blank. The guidebooks warned us; it may take more than half an hour for our eyes to adjust to the lack of light before we’re able to spot the stars. After all that I’ve seen and felt throughout the day, I’m willing to be patient. The air smells of nothing. It’s sharp and gashes the insides of my nose when I breathe in. A few Indian tourists emerge from an RV parked four slots away carrying stainless steel tiffin boxes. They’ve laid out a blanket on the concrete patch behind the vehicle. They sit and chatter in low tones and eat from the boxes, their faces lit with the light from the vehicle’s headlights that they’ve kept on. I find that familiar sense of annoyance bubble up inside me. When they pack up, switch the lights off and leave me in the darkness, I curse under my breath. I have to wait another half hour for my eyes to adjust.
At almost eight, I stand out in the cold, leaning against the boot of the car. No other cars have pulled in in the last twenty minutes or so. The darkness is depriving. I can’t really tell if my eyes have adjusted or not, because when I look down to where my hands are I’m unable to see them. Somewhere in the distance a ranger is lecturing a large group. I can’t hear them, but I take comfort in the fact that they exist. The sky puts on a poor show. I spot two planes and half of Ursa Major—at least I think it’s Ursa Major—but that’s about it. A few more stars scattered here and there like cookie crumbs, fade in and out. But the rest of the sky is deep plum and starts where the hills end, so close by that I raise my left hand hoping that I might just be able to touch it. In the descending curtain of cold, in the black of the darkness and under the poorly lit sky, I stand in absolute silence leaning against the boot of the SUV. I can hear myself breathe in. I can hear myself think. And at this miniscule moment in time, I am the only living thing in this stony quarter-mile patch in Death Valley.
After a while, I hear footsteps crunching down the hill. A large group returns. Among them are my three travel companions. The engines of several cars litter the quietness and headlights pierce through the dark. I look up at the sky one last time, but the stars are lost to me again. The drive back to the AirBnB is a quiet one, one of many we’ve done that day. During a moment, Sundaram turns to me and in a whisper asks, “So how was it? Do you think we should make it back here again?” I smile and nod with all my might. Out of the window, only silhouettes of the mountains are visible. Silhouettes of the mountains move with us too.
My name is Amrita C and I’m a British-Indian writer and architect, currently living in Dallas, TX. I have previously written for The Writing Cooperative, The Nottingham Post, The Bangalore Mirror, Lonely Planet, Hippocampus Magazine, and Bridge Eight, among others. My spirit animal is pizza.