Death Valley Diaries

In February, I was looking for a six-week internship. I had started looking in January and I was ready to solidify my summer plans, but I was receiving no bites on the many lines I was casting. Sure, I still had time, not needing approval for funding until the beginning of May, but I had a very specific time-block to work with and I want to have a choice rather than be forced to settle for the only offer that came to me.

After seeing the Robert Redford-narrated National Parks Adventure, I decided that I should try my luck with the National Park Service. One boring afternoon in my too-hot dorm, I sent out twenty-ish short messages explaining who I was and what I wanted on the NPS website to various parks whose names sounded familiar. Because I still had time, I waited a couple days before I was going to send my next flurry of email requests for six weeks of unpaid work.

It was the day before she was going to be recognized at Rally Day, an annual Smith tradition honoring remarkable graduates, and Gloria Steinem hosted a Q&A session in the middle of the day. With my strange, two-days-of-class-a-week schedule, I was very available to attend the talk at such a weird hour. She spoke and I listened and I teared up and she’s not perfect, but I love her. As the session came to a close, my phone vibrated with an email notification from someone at Death Valley National Park.

I had received a decent number of responses from my NPS attempts, but they were overwhelmingly ridden with phrases like “we don’t take interns for only six weeks” and “I can’t think of a single opportunity we’d have for you.” This email was different; it was hopeful. Without anything set in sand, let alone stone, I imagined the only way I could manage for six weeks in the middle of the desert: with a car. It dawned on me that it would take a lot of explaining and convincing to have my mother give her blessing for me to take a car that’s still in her name to the other side of the country when it hadn’t been that long ago that she didn’t trust me to drive it to Smith.

It took nearly two months for details to be finalized, my background check to go through, my housing to be arranged, my mother to stop going back-and-forth between being excited and terrified (actually, did that ever end?), and me to set up my travel plans. It was happening. I drove the 40+ hours, stopping in every place that ever vaguely interested me, my boyfriend along for the adventure in my tiny sedan. We camped, we citied, we countried, we Airbnb-ed, and we saw 15 states along the way. Then, I was here. In Death Valley. The hottest, driest, lowest place in the world/North America.

I acclimatized faster than I expected, considering I am among the sweatiest people I’ve encountered. I tricked many peers into becoming my friend. I had a routine and I performed household duties. I participated in weekly volleyball games and utilized the fire-reservoir/pool often. It was 120 degrees for a week straight and my name filled the sign-in pages of the CCC-era gym. I have loved every minute of the time I have spent in this magical place.

I’ve learned so much about environmental policy, and I’ve gained new perspectives on life, relationships, and career paths. I fell in love with the National Park Service. As my six weeks are grinding to a halt (I don’t stop until it’s over), I could not be more thankful and grateful for the opportunities that are presented to me. I will never forget the nights I spent looking up at the sky full of stars, the laughs I shared with pretty much everyone from the superintendent of the park to the women I lived with, or advice I’ve been given both directly and indirectly from hours of observation.

Death Valley is a special place. Though it seemed unlikely when I first arrived that I would ever double-dip and spend an extended time at a unique place like this more than once, the spirit of the rocky hills and sandy dunes has made me rethink my travel policies. I could not thank every single person here enough for the time we spent together. It’s truly been life-changing.

6 thoughts on “Death Valley Diaries

  1. We are going to be driving through Death Valley in a few weeks! We fly into L.A. and then are heading to Mammoth Lakes and Yosemite! Is there anything we absolutely must-see?

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    1. How fun! Since CA190 goes right through Death Valley, it’s mostly a drive-through park. Top sights for a quick trip: Zabriskie Point, Badwater Basin, and the Mesquite Dunes (pictured here). I’m not familiar with Mammoth Lakes, but I know Yosemite will be wild! My recommendation is to get there early, go to Glacier Point to get a view of Yosemite Valley and Half Dome. You could check out the Valley if you have quite a few hours, but parking will be nearly impossible and it will take forever even to leave the park. Have a blast!

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  2. Lisa … I am writing from the other side of the world and we both have been talking about deserts… they certainly bring you closer to reality than all those cute chocolate box landscapes in areas that “make sense” … zabriskie point was featured in that classic Peter Fonda movie Easy Rider I think … keep on blogging

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  3. That was interesting. I went through there once…at age 13. Too young to appreciate it because at 5:00 a.m. in the morning, it was…”too hot!” Silly me. I’ve experienced worse since then. One thing, though, about your last two paragraphs. You did some tense shifting with your verbs that confused me a little. Maybe it’s just me. It was a good read. Thanks.

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