Death Valley had always been a mysterious and formidable destination for us. Extreme heat and aridity being the causes of enjoyable objects was simply beyond our imagination. And yet we kept hearing testimonies about the unique landscape and experience it could offer. We finally decided to explore it at the end of a peaceful winter break.
Having lived in California for over a decade, we thought we had already gotten used to the geological and climatic diversity within this vast state. Within a few hours of drive, we had departed from the humid cool East Bay, cut through green-orchard-ridden Central Valley, and reached the southern tip of the High Sierra. Turning eastward from there, towering mountains and extensive deserts began to alternate dramatically, and finally led us into the rust-colored Panamint Range that guarded the west rim of Death Valley.
Entering the valley at dusk added another layer of mystery to our anticipations. The setting sun cast its deepest red-brown hues onto the mountains, blending short shrubs, rocks, and soil into unpolished canvases, which quickly started to sink into darkness. At that moment the edges of mountains where they met the sky became the only visible thing, outlining the extensive yet fathomable dimension of the valley. When the daylight finally appeared, however, the valley became surprisingly lively, not so much in the varieties of creatures, but rather the shapes, colors, and textures of geological formations within our sight.
Badwater Basin, the lowest point of land in North America at 282 feet (86 meters) below sea level, was a grand salt flat. Rain, scarce as it is, dissolves minerals in the soil of surrounding mountains, brings them down to the bottom of the valley, evaporates under high heat, and accumulates the salt crystals there. The majority of the area was flat, smooth, and white as snow; the edge, where the ground was a mixture of mud and salts, however, had a much coarse, wavy appearance. The visuals were so unusual that we felt as if we were walking on a giant lake, frozen in time.
The high 70s temperature here reminded us of the amenable Southern California winter weather, but as we drove around, we were reminded of the harshness of the natural conditions during the rest of the year. Rock arches among bare, crumbly hills, along with the badlands structures at Zabriskie Point were evidence of the immense power of nature over ages that had drastically shifted the shape of land. At Artist’s Palette, the entire face of a hillside displayed the most unnatural array of vibrant colors, caused by chemical weathering and hydro-thermal alteration of an area where various geological components had deposited and cemented. Every tourist was ecstatic here, climbing up the radiant hill like children. What a feast of visual enjoyment in such an unexpected way!
Mosaic Canyon was a spot where the valley seemed to have opened her heart to us. A rocky side road led into a trail that was a dried river bed. The two sides of the river banks often times revealed completely different textures–one side mainly contained coarse, grainy sediments; the other was composed of enormous, smooth boulders. Walking on the quiet trail, I could imaging the river in the past, where roaring water gushed down, carrying rocks that constantly scraped the banks for centuries or longer. Was that not the past of the entire Death Valley that was dynamic and ever-changing? Or was it even the case now, except we couldn’t notice it with our naked eyes?
We were told this was the start of Death Valley’s light season for tourists, and yet clusters of people still filled the place, most with awe and joy upon setting foot on this marvelous land. And we were not alone! Native Americans have been residing here for over a thousand years, relying on the flora and fauna that are resilient enough to survive the extreme conditions. At Salt Creek, where streams of water flowed all year long, we saw an expansive bed of desert plants, and were told that pupfish, a species unique to Death Valley, could be found abundantly in the extremely salty waters in spring, along with blankets of wildflowers that could cover large areas of the valley. The name “Death Valley” may not be really appropriate after all. And yet it does proclaim the reverence we ought to have toward nature and the forces it is able to render.
Stovewell Pipes was the town we stayed in during our visit. This town was within the National Park periphery and provided comfortable daily rest one would need to explore a remote area like this. Toll Road Restaurant, the only dining place in the town, had a decent menu, where an entrée called Pigs N’ Puddin’ stood out. This Tex-Mex dish featured barbecue ribs on a bed of polenta. The rich, tangy barbecue contrasted and complemented the creamy polenta nicely, with some salsa on top, bringing a touch of freshness. It was a beautiful, hearty dish after one day’s exploration in the dry, warm wilderness.
Coming home, Fei successfully brought the Pigs N’ Puddin’ into our kitchen. She used the Smitten Kitchen’s oven-roasted ribs recipe, where spare ribs (for flavors) or baby back ribs (for tenderness) were seasoned with a dry rub, wrapped in foil packets, and cooked in the oven. The juice of the cooked meat was then reduced into a naturally thick sauce. Polenta was cooked with milk into a thick porridge, blended with cheese for extra creaminess, and then topped with the cooked meat and sauce. Minced fresh herbs (cilantro or chives) and diced tomatoes and avocado added the final complexity of colors and flavors. This dish has become a course of comfort food that we now cook often times, and reminds us of the memorable moments we have spent in Death Valley. —WZ