Millennial Weather Effects In A Unique Spot


In the spring, the valley shimmered with myriad points of color, as if Georges Seurat had touched up a Georgia O’Keeffe. PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM MANGAN

This is one of the longest articles in recent memory, but worth every word on every page. Wishing only that there were more photos or that we could have been there to see it:


This year, a historic deluge created a Superbloom of wildflowers in one of the hottest places on Earth.

By Alex Ross

Death Valley, the majestically desolate national park on the eastern edge of California, is a rain-shadow desert, meaning that nearby mountain ranges drain moisture from incoming weather systems and stop rain from reaching the other side. Eighty miles to the west is the Sierra Nevada range, the highest in the contiguous forty-eight states, rising to fourteen thousand five hundred feet.Close by are the jagged Panamints, which reach eleven thousand feet. Any system that can carry water across those barriers is a freak occurrence. The dryness of the region is compounded by the depression of the valley floor—as low as two hundred and eighty-two feet below sea level. Whatever rain gets in tends to evaporate as it descends to the sunken bottom. In summer, nothing stands in the way of extreme heat. In 1913, a weather observer reported a temperature of a hundred and thirty-four degrees—still the official world record. Some meteorologists doubt that measurement, but even without it Death Valley would remain one of the hottest places on Earth.

The shadow lifted in October of last year, when several storms struck Death Valley National Park, resulting in what the U.S. Geological Survey called a “thousand-year-flood event.” At Scotty’s Castle, a Mission Revival villa that an eccentric millionaire built in the north of the park in the nineteen-twenties, three inches of rain fell in five hours. The deluge tore up roads and carried Dumpsters for miles. In a flashback to the Ice Age, when a lake filled the valley, a shallow body of water covered the basin for several weeks.

Because of the rain, Death Valley experienced what came to be called the Superbloom: cascades of wildflowers across thousands of acres. Park rangers had predicted an exceptional flowering after the October storms, but they were unprepared for the intensity of the public response. The park usually receives about a million visitors each year. In March alone, more than two hundred thousand people came through. No mania in the bizarre history of Death Valley—the prospectors and swindlers of the late nineteenth century; the playboy adventurers and car racers of the Jazz Age; the psychedelic goings on in the sixties and seventies, including a residency by the Manson family—matched the Superbloom invasion.

In early March, when the bloom was at its height, I drove from Los Angeles to Beatty, Nevada, northeast of the park, and checked in at a Motel 6. “This thing with the flowers, it’s crazy,” the man on night duty said. “The town can’t handle it. Restaurants are running out of food, having to get supplies from Pahrump or Vegas.”

Just before sunrise, I drove into the park. As the mountaintops lit up, I thought of Willa Cather’s description of a desert morning: “The world is golden in an instant.” I went through Daylight Pass, and the entire expanse of Death Valley sprang into view: the dark mountains, the white floor, the perpetual mirage of an ancient lake. Snow capped the Panamints. Few places on the planet offer a more dramatic juxtaposition of extremes: the climate ranges from desert to subarctic conditions.

The valley shimmered with myriad points of color, as if Georges Seurat had touched up a Georgia O’Keeffe. The dominant presence was desert gold, a sunflower that blossoms on a long, spindly stem. Notch-leaved phacelia, in colors ranging from blue to lavender, were also common, along with the free-floating white blossoms known as gravel ghosts. Scarlet clusters of paintbrush spattered higher elevations. The flowers were especially thick along the shoulders of the roads, since runoff soaks the ground on either side. They seemed to greet you as you went by, like bystanders cheering a parade—or, perhaps, like protesters silently resisting the incursion of asphalt.

As the day went on, the landscape was overrun by people. They moved through the fields in slow motion, their legs extended at funny angles, their heads bent down. From a distance, they appeared to be playing Twister or performing modern dance. Once I got off the road, I understood why people were contorting themselves. You did not want to step on any of the brave little blooms that were coming up in this unlikely terrain: bone-dry sandy soil, cracked sheets of dried mud, patches of soil on the ledges of cliffs. The desert-five-spot flower looks up at you with a tiny, bright-painted face—purple petals speckled with red. All that color has a practical purpose: to seize the attention of hummingbirds and other pollinators. But it was hard not to see it symbolically, as a defiant assertion of life in the face of death.

Such a conceit assumes that there is something inherently deadly about Death Valley. The name was coined by gold-seekers who passed through in 1849 and 1850. They had a difficult time, and as the survivors escaped over the Panamints one of them exclaimed, “Goodbye, Death Valley!” He probably had the Biblical psalm in mind: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” Since then, macabre nomenclature has been in vogue: the Black Mountains, the Funeral Mountains, Coffin Canyon, Devil’s Golf Course, Dante’s View. The first overlook on the drive in from Beatty is called Hells Gate. Yet Death Valley is no more lethal than any other stretch of wilderness. On average, there are one or two fatalities a year, mostly from car accidents. Members of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, who have lived in the area for hundreds of years, call the place Timbisha, after a red ochre that their ancestors used as body paint. For them, death became a looming presence only when the first white men arrived.

In Death Valley, life does keep a low profile. Often, it is latent: seeds stay in the soil for years, waiting for a deluge to awaken them. Or it is hidden, as in the isolated pockets of water where desert pupfish—survivors of the Ice Age lakes—dart about. The feminist adventurer Edna Brush Perkins, whose 1922 book “The White Heart of Mojave” is among the best of the many Death Valley travelogues, wrote, “The desert mixes up your ideas about what you call living and dying. You see the dreadful, dead country living in beauty, and feel that the silence pressing around it is alive.”

Some years ago, I succumbed to what Perkins called, not without irony, the “terrible fascination” of Death Valley. I was lured by the spooky clichés; I’d read “Helter Skelter,” which describes how the Manson family ran amok while hiding out at Barker Ranch, in the park’s southwest corner. (Manson was apprehended when members of his gang set fire to a piece of Park Service earthmoving equipment, prompting rangers to investigate.) After a few days in the region, I lost interest in all that. I realized that Death Valley is not so much a desert as a surreally varied mountain region with a desert at its heart. At first sight, the landscape seems fixed and timeless, but you soon sense that there was violent change in the not so distant past. Vistas rearrange themselves kaleidoscopically as pastel-colored geologic formations move in and out of view. Vast slabs of rock descend into the earth at severe angles, like the Titanic making its fatal dive. I took a photograph of a stretch of two-lane highway, with sky, mountains, desert, and asphalt forming a geometric abstraction. The image haunted me, becoming the desktop picture on my computer. I have gone back to Death Valley every so often, and this year I have made a series of visits, trying to better understand its allure.

Almost everything anomalous about the place—its climate, its ecology, its history—is the result of its geology. It belongs to a region known as the Basin and Range, which passes between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. Here the earth’s crust is being pulled apart: in some areas, blocks have been shoved upward, forming mountain outcrops, and in others the blocks have fallen, forming a basin. Hence the vertiginous, two-mile drop from Telescope Peak, the highest of the Panamints, to Badwater Basin, the low point of the valley. Earthquakes are frequent, and in the past few thousand years there has been volcanic activity in Ubehebe Crater, one of the more unearthly features of the park. In geologic time, all this happened just the other day: the Death Valley that we see now did not begin to form until about three million years ago. It has a raw, chaotic look, like an unfinished construction project.

One weekend in April, I rented a Jeep Wrangler and toured the park with Darrel Cowan, a professor of geology at the University of Washington. A weathered, fit seventy-one-year-old, he is a native of Los Angeles, and first saw Death Valley as a child, while on a family vacation. He returned in college, when he took a field trip with a geology class. “I was amazed to realize that I could make a living wandering through this kind of landscape,” he told me. A few years ago, he and his brother bought a small house in Shoshone, California, a pleasant roadside village on the eastern edge of the park. He goes there several times a year, often bringing students with him.

We first drove down the Badwater Road, which winds along the foot of the Black Mountains. At Badwater Basin, we stopped to survey the terrain. Nestled in the rock face high above us was a sign reading “sea level,” in white block lettering reminiscent of the Hollywood sign. “The actual bedrock is much lower,” Cowan told me. “It goes three or four kilometres beneath our feet. There’s layer upon layer of sediment on top.”…

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