I was so excited about our last-minute reservation at Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley that I nearly emailed the hotel a thank you when I received our reservation confirmation. How did I get a room five days in advance when it appeared that everything had been taken for months? I have no idea, but I’ll not second-guess a chance to see the super bloom that appears in the desert once a decade.
A native Californian, I’d never been to Death Valley, a confession I make with shame. How can I visit remote and beautiful places around the world when I haven’t been to my own? The desert’s winter bloom is something I have wanted to see for such a long time, it had started to be one of those phrases I swore I would never say – “Someday, I’d like to see Death Valley in the winter” – I either do things or I don’t, but I generally do not make wish lists.
I have been close to the lowest place on the North American Continent. At 282 feet below sea level at the lowest spot, it is a place to avoid in the heat of the summer. Right now, Mid-March, the forecast is 85 degrees F (30 degrees C.) Summer temperatures are often well over 100 F (38 C.) With only two inches of rain most years, it is also quite dry.
I had visited the eastern side of the Sierra Range several times, skirting around the road to Death Valley and speeding past the turn-offs that would have taken me to the place that is the single-greatest inspiration for horror films according to Stanley, who keeps track of such things. But this year’s blooms are said to be remarkable, and once in ten years is something I shouldn’t put off. I decide the 6-hour drive to Death Valley, and the 6-hour drive home is worth the one-night visit, and worth the threat of horror-movie scripts brought to life. As a last-minute traveler, I don’t get much choice.
Stanley is coming along. He has watched all the pertinent horror films, so for motivation I promised him some restaurant visits, and tried to lie about the hours in the car. But he is quite familiar with the territory, having supervised parolees in the area once upon a time. I dazzle him with promises of breakfast buffets, and hope his memory won’t kick in until it’s too late. Food, after all, is a better motivator than memory.
It takes us longer than six hours to get to the valley floor. The ride has been interesting, but we are eager to get out and walk. We explore Mosaic Canyon, a marble-sided canyon so narrow at one point I can touch both sides. Stanley tries to convince me to climb up a slick shoot to the next level in the walk, then slips down (safely) himself. We decide I better scoot up seated, pushing with my legs. I make it, but barely. I feel a couple rain drops, look at the sky that suddenly fills with massive dark clouds, thunder heads and wind. Up a narrow canyon in the desert during a rain storm seems to be one of those things people shouldn’t do. I convince Stanley that we’ve gone far enough, and as the darkening clouds gather, we head back, using the slick marble as slides. I think about the name of this place: Death Valley. We hike up the nearby Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in the midst of a windstorm.
Having been greeted by canyons, sand dunes, a surprise rain shower, then a rainbow, then an enormous dark-clouded storm, I’m already wondering what on earth the wildflowers will be like tomorrow. I know the delicate beauty of the desert, having lived in El Paso before. I understand the enormous effort of the desert to sprout anything at all from seed, so I moderate my expectations. I know it won’t be lush rolling hills, like at home, but I wonder what I will see on my first visit to Death Valley’s winter bloom. I haven’t yet seen any wild flowers – just a spectacular greeting of unexpected events and scenes. Because of the rain and lingering cloudy skies, there won’t be stars out tonight, so I will have to wait for tomorrow for more of what Death Valley offers.
I needn’t have lowered my expectations. We wake up early and drive to Mud Canyon, get out and walk around a pristine array of wild flowers just waking up to the sun. We continue on to Furnace Creek and along the way, see the fields of flowers that are so rare in the desert. They lift up out of sand, gravel and volcanic rock, all unfriendly hosts to flowers.
Our visit is so short, but we fit in everything I had hoped we’d do. On the way out, early on a Saturday afternoon, we pass hundreds of cars coming into the valley to have their turn at this remarkable gift of the desert.
So the story about how this place is named isn’t, as Stanley would have you believe, because of the many horror films filmed here or even the ones based on stories that occurred here. It comes from the relief of several travelers in the 1800’s who got a bit lost in the cleft between two very high mountain ranges. When finally they found an escape through one mountain pass, they turned back for a last look on the valley that had kept them prisoner in the heat of the summer. One said ‘Finally, we are out of that valley of death.” But none in their party had died.
We drive to this place in comfort, stay in a pleasant hotel, and can only imagine the terror of being stuck in a place that reaches 132 degrees F in the summer. For us, no horror stories and no death march. Just some fun surprises and fragile desert bloom.