Death Valley: How I Fell in Love with the Desert

After saying goodbye to Greg at McCarran International, I started the two-hour drive from Vegas to Death Valley National Park, my home for the next six weeks. (Six weeks is a long time; buckle in for a long ride.)

I had gotten a later start, so it was already getting dark when I left. The road was empty and really dark, so I put on Bastille to comfort me. I saw only a handful of cars on the whole drive, and I couldn’t tell how far away they were because of how dark it was.

As I got closer to the park, the roads got windier, and I felt very disconnected from my surroundings. One wrong move and I could crash into a rock wall.

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Rocks everywhere

I made it to my dorm building, but I was very disoriented and had no idea what my surroundings actually looked like. I was immediately greeted by a giant spider which gave me the wrong impression about how many bugs I’d see in the 120 degree heat.

I was given the next day to explore, so I slept in, got settled, and hit the road. I started with the visitor’s center where I took in all the exhibits, watched the park movie, and met some nice interp people who gave me plenty of ideas for how to spend my day. I first headed to Golden Canyon on the way to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. It was already 10AM, so hiking was not a good idea. I walked along the path in the canyon for a bit, realizing I was experiencing true silence for the first time in my life.

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Golden Canyon: pure silence

From Golden Canyon, I made the mistake of taking Artist’s Drive before hitting the basin because I was unaware that the one-way road would set me back a few miles. Once on the rocky drive, I additionally made the mistake of not even pulling onto the spot where the colorful rocks are visible – a big screw-up/waste of time on my part.

I headed out to Badwater at pretty much the worst time of day. It was nearing noon, the sun was high and hot, and I was sweating and burning. I walked out onto the “boardwalk” expecting there to be an endpoint, soon realizing that the salt flats go on forever, and I would die soon if I didn’t find refuge from the sun.

Having had enough of the heat, I headed home until I hit the adorable, tiny gym later. I made the last-minute decision to make the drive to Dante’s View afterward. It was beautiful, yes, but I was stupid and didn’t even stay for the sunset.

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Dante’s View

I got to know the offices and headquarters of the park over that first week and made the dorm my home. I made friends with all of my colleagues and dorm mates and attended every social gathering.

A favorite of mine was the Tuesday nights volleyball games. I never knew how fun the sport could be or how competitive I could be in a sport I’m so bad at. I looked forward to every Tuesday night, and I became known for my aggressive playing (hopefully in a positive way). Though the temperatures were high while the sun was getting low, I had the energy to play all night if I had enough teammates.

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Speaking of that sun going down, oh, my, were those some nice sunsets. Even on a dull, average night, the sunset was MAGNIFICENT. And then when that sun was down? The stars??!! Death Valley is an International Dark Sky Park and had the most stars visible that I have ever seen.

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Casually on my drive back from the gym

After I made friends in the dorms, I had people to play with. A few of us would take nighttime road trips to Badwater or the Mesquite Sand Dunes to play around and feel the stars fall at our feet. Like, even the Milky Way was extremely visible. Like really, really visible.

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The only star you need to see

On my days off, I went back and did Artist’s Drive correctly, on the way back from Badwater earlier in the morning. I wanted to and probably did the full Golden Canyon hike, but I hadn’t realized it was connected to Zabriskie Point, so it kept on going forever. It wasn’t as hot or sunny, and I came prepared with lots of water. Even so, it was always so nice to return to the air conditioning of the dorms.

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Artist’s Drive
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Zabriskie Point

There was really bad flooding at Scotty’s Castle, a well-known fixture of the park and a many-million dollar renovation was under way. It was closed to the public, but as an NPS volunteer and temporary park ranger, I was given a private tour of the empty buildings with other new DEVA-ites. It was kind of creepy, but I was glad to have a lot of the backstory for how and why a mansion was constructed in the middle of the desert. I can’t really imagine the castle filled with furniture as it normally was, but I’m happy to have had a unique way of experiencing it.

Near the dorms and park housing, there was a large “fire reservoir” that we swam in all the time. Though the water wasn’t very cool, it was nice to have something to dip into. And when those desert winds were a-blowin’ it was nice to have an oasis to escape to. We forced at least one pool party into my time there, but many a Sunday afternoon were spent at the pool underneath the 120 degree sun rays.

Speaking of parties, there were a lot of them. With the closest towns nearly an hour away, there was a tight-knit community in the park. Most people who worked in the park also lived there. Every time someone left, even for a short stint in another park, there was a going-away party. It certainly kept my social calendar filled. Hell, even the all-employee meeting was thrilling to me and brought me back to the assembly days of elementary school.

The actual work I did involved primarily the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA for short). I learned all about NEPA, NHPA (the National Historic Preservation Act), the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and many more environmental policies. Through the archival research and filing I did, I learned about the limitations and implementation issues of such policies. I was pretty much an expert on all things environmental policy and National Park Service by the end of my six weeks. I hope Death Valley feels that I did something for them because I feel like I got so much out of them. Even just talking to my supervisor and other people in leadership was an educational experience. I never thought I’d walk away from the internship wanting to return so badly, but I do. I could realistically see myself working for the National Park Service one day.

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Devil’s Golf Course

My NPS experience afforded other privileges like a visit to Roger’s Peak, the exploration of abandoned cabins, and tacos on the Timbisha Shoshone reservation located right near he headquarters of the park. In the book, The Wonder of It All, rangers write about being pleased that a park’s superintendent remembered their name. In Death Valley, the superintendent not only knew my name, but willingly hung out with volunteers and fee people after hours. From grocery shopping with a friend in Pahrump, NV the day after Bastille’s “Glory” music video came out to going to a VFW in Beatty, NV and having an older man tell me I have brass ovaries, every seemingly minuscule thing that happened was a giant adventure.

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Kilns near Roger’s Peak

Though I took road trips a few of the weekends I was there to Disneyland, Sequoia/King’s Canyon, Yosemite, Fresno, and Joshua Tree, my memories of Death Valley are the best.

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Ubehebe Crater

Dinner in both Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells; crouching down to take a photo with Ubehebe Crater and burning my hand on the ground; the day the power went out; asking literally anyone to take me to the racetrack; have I mentioned Volleyball; maintenance guys coming into the dorm unannounced when I was “not appropriately” dressed; buying a million stickers in every gift shop; watching the Warriors after someone’s going-away party; trying to figure what in the world Mustard Canyon was; weight lifting with the one other person who used the park gym; the week the temperature was over 120 everyday — literally everything was amazing.

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Mustard Canyon?

The best part is, this is only the beginning. I look forward to many more lengthy NPS experiences.

Death Valley NP was my 3rd National Park.

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