An Old Crone in Death Valley

I’m writing this note to you from a hotel in Beatty, Nevada, just outside of Death Valley. A mourning dove coos a rhythmic chant outside the window. A not-so-wild burro woke me at 3 o’clock this morning rummaging through a garbage can right outside my hotel room. I opened the door to see what was going on. The beast looked up and brayed rudely at me, then went back to foraging.
I came here to visit my first questing site from sixteen years ago in Hanaupah Canyon. Last week I was in New York City, surrounded by massive glistening man-made structures and too many people who refuse to negotiate passage on the sidewalk; they hold their ground fiercely. This week in Death Valley I’m in the company of stones and mountains which also, by the way, refuse to move aside to let anyone pass. They have been here for thousands of years and, by all rights, they do have the territorial imperative.
There are very few people here. What there is, is an unfathomable number of rocks– a crash of stones. The billions of stars in a clear Death Valley night sky are mirrored by the billions of rocks on the ground, everywhere I look. Spring wildflowers bloom from cactus and bush tucked between stony outcroppings, reaching desperately to flag down insects as they fly by, “Choose me! Choose me!” they beg.
Yesterday I visited Hanaupah Canyon after a 10-mile drive over a road so rocky and rutted that the movement measured steps on my Fitbit even though I was sitting in the car. When I finally arrived in the Canyon, I got out of the car and stood absorbed in the view. I looked east toward the Badwater salt flats which lie two hundred feet below sea level, then to the west at the cascading ranges of the snow-topped Panamint Mountains at 11,000 feet, great aprons of rocky debris spreading out toward the valley floor. I heard the sound of a bird’s wings, looked up at the dark silhouette of a raven flying overhead. I breathed the silence down into the deepest branches of my lungs, relishing the solitude.
I love this place. I love the way the categorically flat land meets the uncompromising rise of mountains, forced up by the compression of the earth’s plates fifty million years ago. It is a bold and daring landscape, yet uncomplicated in its simplicity. There is flat land and there is mountainous land. There is peace and there is a chaotic fight for survival.
The sun blasted my face, already burning at 10 o’clock in the morning. Death Valley is like an old dry crone, ancient and wrinkled from baking sun, the scent of minerals oozing from her topographic pores. She holds strength and wisdom. She speaks of being true to your natural self, enduring life’s hardships and getting by with little resources.
I did not find my questing place from sixteen years ago. I thought I knew exactly where it was. Something had changed – my memory, or the landscape. Flash floods move rocks in and out of the crevices changing the topography, and memories are not always reliable.
I walked back up the steep hill of the canyon got back into the car and drove back to Beatty watching dark clouds billow up in the western sky and hover over the Panamints. I felt disappointed and silly, coming all this way to visit my first questing site then not finding it. I thought about an adage I’d heard or read somewhere: You can’t go home again.
When I got back to the hotel I googled the passage to see where it originated, and found this auspicious quote:
“Something has spoken to me in the night…and told me that I shall die, I know not where. Saying: ‘Death is to lose the earth you know for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.” from You Can’t Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe
Even though I didn’t find the exact place where I’d first quested, I did find a re-connection to my love of the Old Death Valley Crone with all her austere beauty and eternal wisdom. She reminds me to accept what is, make the best of it, and live life on life’s terms.
Here are photos from my collection titled “Patterns of Death Valley.” Enjoy!