As Low As You Can Go
He hit bottom on six continents, saving the drop into Death Valley for last
Text and photography by Jim Malusa
(page 2 of 2)
TWO DAYS LATER,Malusa wheels down to the floor of Death Valley.
The Furnace Creek Inn is three stories of adobe and stone under a red tile roof, buried in palms and gardens. When I pedal up and ask a man coming out if they serve breakfast, he looks at his watch and says, "It's 12:15." He checks me out. The verdict: Safe, although it's clear I just descended a vertical mile on my bike. Wondering, he is, where I came from.
"I'm from Berkeley. I had a motorcycle dealership, but I sold it--to see the world."
Ronald Ware is not young, but his black skin is nonetheless wrinkle free. He wears a neat checkered button-down shirt, bluejeans, black leather shoes, white socks. We stand in the shade of a palm. I cannot resist asking, "Of all places, why Death Valley?"
"I was traveling through Europe, and I was in Istanbul when I had this moment, this ... epiphany. I'd gone to the bazaar, to the great mosques, when I realized that most of all Istanbul was a big noisy city crowded with people. I found myself thinking: I could have found this in San Francisco.
"And I said, why am I in Istanbul when I don't even know my own country? So I set out and found myself here, and I love it. The space, the quiet. I'm 61, and I had no idea!"
Ware also loves desert driving. "I can go a half hour without seeing another car."
The nomad's pleasure. "Treeless spaces uncramp the soul," declared Mary Austin a hundred years ago. She liked to urge her horse along at a "jigging coyote trot" through her beloved treeless space, the Mojave Desert of puckering summer droughts and zinging winter freezes. This desert.
Soon I've yakked and idled away my chance to reach the low point today. I spend the night in a canyon near Furnace Creek, munching pistachios and reading Austin's account of a prospector who'd camped out so often that he "had gotten to the point where he knew no bad weather, and all places were equally happy so long as they were out of doors."
In the morning I head back to the inn for breakfast. It's just me and one other diner and Betty the hostess. She wears a bright enameled flag brooch. "I never thought I'd like living in a trailer in Death Valley, but I love it. Come by and put your feet up on the coffee table--I don't care."
I'd love to, but I'm going out to Badwater for the night.
"For the night? I met a hiker who slept out there, and he said it was so quiet that he could hear the blood pumping through him. Badwater sure is a pretty place, but I wouldn't want to sleep listening to that! Too quiet for me, way down in that hole where there ain't no noise--uh-uh."
She deftly refills my water glass and takes a seat at the table.
"I want to hear a little something--a cricket or a frog or even just the sound of a car passing, not all squealing but just the sound of its tires, something to remind me that I'm not all alone."
That afternoon I leave Furnace Creek, all alone. The valley bottom, which from Dante's View appeared to be a perfectly level salt pan, is not. What looked smooth is actually blisters and little towers of salt. The farther south I ride, the closer they approach the road, until the tongue of salt reaches almost to the pavement and the crumbling mountain. Then the final drop, and I can go no lower. "Badwater," says the sign, "-282 feet": the lowest point in North America.
It's rough riding across the foot-wide polygons whose borders are thickly ridged or wrecked in heaves like sea ice. I walk the bike west, toward the center, occasionally turning to watch the road and parked cars diminish with distance. I pass the last tourists. The salt floes become much broader, three to ten feet across, with two-inch-high ridges between. The snowy surface is built of thousands of stalagmites less than a half-inch tall that crunch underfoot with a sound like knuckles popping. I could ride now, but even walking the bike leaves a track. So I carry it, not wanting to leave a mark I myself wouldn't want to find.
The sun goes down in flames without a sound. It's a good thing Betty the hostess isn't here, fidgeting in the silence. Quiet, I suppose, reminds her of death. But to be able to "hear the blood pumping" is to hear life, your own life.
After dinner and a beer, I light my pipe and watch the smoke laze in blue reefs around my bag. No wind. When I stand I feel a thermocline developing: It's colder at my feet than my head. All I need now is data: My thermometer says it's 75 at my toes and 82 at eye level.
At 8 P.M. the moon is just a grin on the western horizon, two hours behind the sun. The cool light catches the ridges of salt that encircle my camp and extend to the mountains. A very crisp scene: the perfectly flat, pure white floor of the valley, the black masses of the mountains beyond, rising 6,000 feet to the east and 11,000 feet to the west.
There goes the moon. The earth is spinning, and I'm pinned by gravity and good fortune. I think of the Seven Summits and the urge to leave Mt. Everest not long after you arrive--and how different this is, lying on a glazed sea of salt.
Jim Malusa is a botanist and writer. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, with his wife and two children.