Bad Water, Beautiful Flowers

One guide for Death Valley writes that people go to National Parks to get away from the stress of the outside world. And then they come to Death Valley to get away from the crowds of the other National Parks. I’ll agree to the first statement, but not to the second. When I hiked Theodore Roosevelt Park I saw no one in five hours; at Crater Lake, I snow-shoed out alone. In Death Valley: lines of cars waited in the lot so that people could park then saunter out below sea level and experience the frying relentless sun. Caught unaware, everyone turned some shade of sweaty pink. In March. In the camp ground my little tent wedged between two RVs, the couples cheerfully grazing their way through retirement in the National Parks. “What’s not to love?” one said, sweeping a hand toward the horizon. What’s not to love? That there are no birds.

Brewer's BlackbirdOk, there were a few birds. The Brewer’s Blackbird, a cousin to my favorite, the Rusty (yes, I have a favorite and it’s an easily overlooked, un-colorful, tuneless fellow) came skidding in a flock to my tent the minute I set up no doubt looking for a handout. A long-tailed Grackle sang its cranky song atop a tree, pointing its bold black beak skyward.  I kept hoping for something surprising to show up. And what I got was a Pipit tip-toeing its way along one of the rare little creeks, this one salty with a population of Pupfish eeking out their tough fish lives. But a land that doesn’t hold an abundance of birds can’t long hold my attention. And if birds know they don’t belong in Death Valley, then neither do we?

Death Valley is a park you drive, viewing the natural world from the inside of an air-conditioned car. Everyone raced (literally—I puddled along at 45 miles an hour and everyone zoomed past me, as if we were in downtown LA) from one sight to the next: Bad Water, Artist’s Palette, Dante’s Lookout. And then, by the side of the road, a car pulled over and a woman with her easel, painting the landscape filled with yellow flowers, or a couple strolling out, taking selfies. The desert is in bloom. News of the bloom brought many of these people to the park, the desert in bloom high on the bucket list of one couple I spoke to. These people had driven for hours for flowers.

That thought floated through my head for the two days I spent in the park. Of course we see flowers all the time, out the backyard or in pots by the local bank. But flowers where they don’t belong, where they are unexpected, where they color up a vast and brown gray landscape—that is worth driving hours for. And as much as I bristled at the crowds, I also love that people are motivated to venture out, for flowers. Anything that survives in this landscape—the Grackles or the Pupfish or those short-blooming flowers—should be celebrated. I did, then packed up and left. 

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