Once in my life I could truly say I was at my lowest point. The lowest point in North America, that is, at approximately 282 feet below sea level in Badwater Basin. And it wasn’t a bad thing at all. Instead it was a journey I’ll never forget, a trip to Death Valley several years ago that changed my idea of what natural beauty meant forever.
The desert had never held much fascination for me. I’d been to Arizona a few times as a child, and remembered finding it interesting but so very brown. I love trees and green, growing things. And the arid landscape I recalled in my mind’s eye always seemed to be lacking somehow, in life, in shade, in mercy.
But then I travelled to Death Valley, California. And though green and growing things were few and far between, life was still there, waiting.
From the cacti, to sagebrush, to the Joshua trees, living things were all around me, though they weren’t always green. Sometimes they were brown or gold, red or purple. There were blooms of life in the salted water, lizards under the hard pan of earth, and beetles inside the belly of a cactus. The version of life that survives and thrives in a desert environment wasn’t what I was used to seeing in my many years in the Northeast.
It wasn’t what I knew. But it was beautiful and unique, all the more so for it’s strangeness. Being there was like walking on an alien world, finding life that looked very different at first, but still deep down was the same.
The trees, shrubs and other plants that call such a world home were often small, scrubby, thick or spiny. Some appeared withered and dry, only to have flowers blooming on the tips of their branches. Only the fabled Joshua trees were tall, and looked like they might actually bite when you got up close, with their spiked bark and leaves.
I glimpsed only a few of the animals that live there, including a shy desert fox and a roadrunner. But I felt privileged for the sight of them. I knew whatever animals lived there had to be tough, quick, good at adapting and surviving, which probably meant staying far away from people.
The openness of the landscape itself was breathtaking. Far away snowcapped mountains bordered the endless skyline, dropping down to the dry depths of the earth. And yet there was water as well, salty and undrinkable, but water still, covering the basin floor. I had never seen giant sand dunes before, but they were there, too, stretching on for miles. Hills painted every shade of pink, green, gold, purple and red grew up from the desert floor.
When I stood up high on one of the hills, I felt like I could see the whole world. Looking out over the valleys, across the dunes, along the basin floor, there was such emptiness, such space, such room. And it was enough that it was there, that it should be.
No one would ever fill that space, no one would probably ever want to or could. It would stay as it was, most likely forever, a wild and wide-open place where many people might visit, but few would stay.
And I would be one of those who would only visit and then leave such a place in peace, returning to the familiar comfort of my green fields and tall trees. But I’m grateful for having seen it, and I think I understand at least part of it’s appeal now. Along with it’s strange beauty, there is almost no place to hide in the desert. It is open, honest, impartial. Cruel and beautiful, soft as sand and hard as stone.
The truth of it all was marvelous, humbling. I felt lost and found in that world, both swallowed up and saved.
It was the same feeling I experience when visiting the ocean, that same sense of being so small and insignificant against a timeless vastness. In such places I really understand how a part of everything in nature I am, that I am not better or worse, that I am not – in it’s eyes – different at all. Nor should I be in my own.
I am simply moving over and through a world that was, and hopefully always will be, there even when I am not. I am just a grain of sand in that desert, just a drop of water in the endless ocean.