Home | Odds | The maps | Readers' comments | Pictures | History | Flowers | Contact us

Dave and Jan's travels, day 132:
Mojave Desert National Preserve, Death Valley National Park

28th September
We've put these two together, as the two desert experiences overlap so much. What's it like in the desert? Today, children, I'm going to talk about heat, distance and the tedium of the desert. Then, we'll move on to sand dunes, salt flats and multicoloured rocks, just a few of the elements that make the desert such a rich and varied world (who needs consistency?). Next, the human interest will be covered by the story of Scotty's castle. We will then conclude with the terrapinical interest (see the first picture at the right).

[editor's note: this article has benefited by not only being written, but being rewritten under the influence of fermented Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Your feedback counts! Is this procedure generating (a) a better article (b) a poorer article (c) I can't believe that the others were written sober (d) you seriously expect me to read more than one of these?

Come to think of it, please write in and say something, just so we know you're listening. Please please please...

Finally, here's a new competition. Obviously "terrapinical" isn't the tortoise's equivalent of "canine": but what is? The marks for this competition will be awarded on the basis of 30% for factual accuracy and 70% for humour. In the event of a tie, the decision will be based on the quality of greasing up to the adjudicators. Prizes will be awarded, but we advise not giving up the day job]

The details vary, of course, but the constants in the desert are heat and distance. Heat you probably know about, in some ways the worst comes at night when the temperature stays above 70 degrees, and breezes just move sand and heat around. During the Mojave part of this, we lived in a motel in Baker. Baker is a dump, but it is home to the world's largest thermometer. (Strictly speaking, home to a fairly ordinary thermometer that happens to be conected to a 134 feet high thermometer-shaped digital display, but hey? Who needs casuistry?). Anyway, even in our pre-8am attempts to see stuff in the cool, we never saw this thing drop below 90 degrees.

Distance I hadn't banked on. Both the Mojave and Death Valley are enormous, and it doesn't help that 95% of the average desert turns out to consist of dismal scrubland. Sand dunes? Yes, they are beautiful, but they represent about 1% of the terrain, based on this showing.

The dismal scrubland is quite fascinating in a biology textbook, where the details of how plants live on 2 inches of annual rainfall can be explained. Adaptations they all share include minimal foliage, small scale and dusty colours. The Mojave wins out slightly in the dismal scrubland stakes, if only because chunks of the Mojave are festooned with Joshua Trees. These grow to the giddy heights of 15-20 feet, and look like deformed yuccas to this reporter. Still, they are quite fascinating, at least for the first forty or so miles. Not just a U2 album cover then.

But, every fifty or so miles - more frequently in Death Valley - you'll encounter something startling. I can actually imagine growing to like this place.

The sand dunes, especially in early morning or late evening light, can look quite beautiful. They combine curves and ridges, light and shadow, in ways which are quite sensuous. As the light changes, so the colours and shadows move in ways that make the dunes seem like so many Rubenesque limbs. Lie back, warm yourself in the carress of the dunes, and let the warm gentle colours sooth your eyes. Ooops - I'm off for a glass of cold water.

In Mojave, we walked into the Kelso dunes late one afternoon. We sat and watched the sun go down, then waited for the moon to appear. A new moon apparently doesn't rise until a long time after it gets thoroughly dark. After a while, our lives enriched by this new piece of empirical knowledge, we set off to return to the car. About half an hour into this walk it turned out that we were lost, although not particularly alarmed, as it was clear that continued walking would take us out somewhere on the road. Ten minutes later we began to speculate on the nature of the light behind a mountain off to the east. Then, the moon rose. Desert moons are quite startling. The complete lack of other light sources makes the moon appear super bright and super large. We had very clear shadows, and shortly found ourselves back at the car without further difficulty.

Two days later, we repeated the experiment in Death Valley's dunes. Some of the higher dunes bear elements of an adventure playground: we spent several minutes climbing one dune only to spend several seconds sliding down it. Once again, the sunset was gorgeous.

Apart from dunes, there's salt. Large chunks of the hills around Death Valley drain what little rain they do receive into the valley, from where there's no watery exit apart from evaporation. If you repeat this for thousands of years, you're left with vast salt deposits in the lowest valleys. The lowest of all - Badwater valley - is 280 feet below sea level. Badwater is named for the water found in this rare desert water source, which is far from tasty. The terrain even turns white: it's quite wierd.

Rocks. First, the "Artists' palette" in Death Valley. Vast buckled sediments of rock, variegated colours including pinks, reds and browns of iron, yellow quartz, purple manganese  and blue and green of some other metal. After that came the "Golden canyon", whose name pretty much says it all, but it again is beautiful.

Titus canyon was a twenty mile dirt road drive through a narrow canyon, more zany rock formations. I won't say too much about this, because although it was a highlight, you had to be there.

The next morning we stopped off at somewhere called Mosaic Canyon, where a combination of geological events had created both a mosaic of rocks and marbled sides. It looked like a good source of kitchen worktops, or perhaps of new fabric patterns. Delightful in any case.

Scotty's castle. Briefly: Scotty was a conman who got kicked out of Buffalo Bill's wild west show. Then he took to pretending that he'd found a gold mine. The deal was that he just needed an initial cash injection for equipment, then he'd produce heaps of gold. Various rich but not-too-smart businessmen provided cash, until eventually one Albert Johnson turned up in Death Valley and demanded to see the mine. Scotty tried to get rid of Johnson by means of a gruelling trip through the valley, but only succeeding in turning him into a lifelong fan of the region. Fortunately Johnson had a sense of humour, and the two became friends. Then Mrs. Johnson suggested a permanent holiday home in the region, Scotty decided it would be a better story if he pretended to be funding it, and the rest is history. The resulting moorish style chateau is highly entertaining, as are the tour guides who ham it up to great effect. An entertaining interlude.

Last but far from least, the desert tortoise. The desert tortoise drinks too much on the infrequent occasions when it rains in the Mojave desert. This causes its bladder to fill with water. So far, so typical Friday-night-lager-lout. But, unlike the lager lout, the tortoise doesn't get rid of the bladder's contents, but keeps them around for several weeks in case of drought.

Clearly such a doughty fighter for survival should be pretty hard to get rid of? Well, no, actually. The poor little chap is endangered. One possible explanation for this state of affairs is that the specimen you see today had decided to sun himself or herself in the middle of the tarmac. Fortunately, he was seen by a particfularly skillful Ford Bronco driver who removed him/her to a safer spot in the shade of a Joshua tree.

Finally, if you're still reading, then write and say "tuna" - I would really like to know if anyone reads all the words in these articles.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

Desert tortoise

Sand dunes, Death Valley

Badwater creek

Titus Canyon

Artist's palette