Death Valley: From America’s low point, looking up
It happens to everyone now and then. Last week, I boiled over. A combination of seemingly intractable problems, both personal and professional, the relentless noise of Facebook and Twitter, combined with a steady flow of stupider-than-usual news (turns out our economy has a delete key and our best answer to an environmental crisis is to follow the plot of The Simpsons Movie and put a big dome over the whole thing) twisted around me into a knot that wouldn’t untie.
So I did what any sensible Angelino does when the world gets to crazy and headed out to the desert for some alone time.
If this sounds like one of those stories where I go out in search of my spirit animal, it is. Only, my spirit animal turns out to be a Mustang convertible and along the way, I discovered that the sky has fallen– and none of us seem to have noticed.
Everyone has their own way of blowing off steam. I’ve tried my share of poisons, though last time I managed to get really drunk it only led to me emailing and overly effusive letter to my congressman, Henry Waxman, thanking him for his work on the health care bill. Needing silence and solitude, I rented a red 2010 Mustang convertible and took off for Death Valley, which is not only the largest national park outside Alaska, but also, come night time famed for being the darkest spot on Earth.
I made my way up Antelope Valley, past Owens Lake, the source of much of L.A.’s water and as a result of that city’s thrist, now little more than a dry salt pan covered with sprinklers to keep the dust down.
I shot the car over the Panamint Mountains, dropping 6000 feet in little less than an hour. The temperature rose from the mid 60s to 102 as Mustang and me sailed to Death Valley’s floor, which at its lowest point in Badwater Basin, is the lowest point in North America. It’s only 76 miles away from Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48. Despite its terrifying name, Death Valley is nothing if not a place of superlatives.
Of all those superlatives, the one I wanted to experience was Death Valley’s legendary night sky. It’s widely regarded as the darkest place on Earth.
You see, I wanted to see the stars. I remember as a kid, hiking at Philmont Ranch in northern New Mexico and marveling at the night sky while laying on dry chalky rock breathing in air perfumed with mesquite.
I figured if I could get a taste of that feeling again, of looking up and seeing the Milky Way as a tangible band across the sky, then things would be all right.
I pulled the car into an empty campground, cracked opened a can of Bud Lite already warm only an after hour after buying it from the nearby general store and looked up.
It’s hard to describe the heavens to someone who hasn’t seen it and unfortunately, chances are you haven’t. Up until the last century, when the electric light lit up the planet like a epileptic glowworm, the night sky looked much like it does in Death Valley everywhere.
I remember learning about constellations when I was young and joking with my pals about how bored the ancients must have been to see scorpions and bulls and twins in the sky. I see now how wrong I was and I see why I was so wrong. The sky that I grew up with, that we live with now is a paint-by-numbers version of the Mona Lisa that is the real sky.
Looking up at the real sky, your imagination can’t help from firing. I easily see giant turtles festooned with blinking jewels and scarabs and great arms cradling them. Another thing I notice is that the sky doesn’t look like a perfect dome. Ribbons of gas, nebulae and clusters give dimensionality to the heavens.
At one point, it appears as if I am looking up at the inside of a giant pagoda; tiers of light receding upward into infinity. Nothing man has created compares, not even Avatar.
As my eyes adjust to the dark, something else becomes apparent: a hazy glow rising up from behind the mountains to the east. It’s Las Vegas. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “light pollution from Las Vegas increased 61 percent between 2001 and 2007″, threatening this last remaining bastion of darkness. As the National Park guide to Death Valley glumly puts is, “there’s little we can do to impact the light from Las Vegas.”
Now, I know concern over light pollution may seem like tilting at windmills with all the problems we face, but there’s something terrifying in our indifference, something that bodes ill for our future. What chance do polar bears, frogs or the ice caps have when we so readily accept the loss of the entire night sky?
It would not be an unreasonable hypothesis to suggest that it was the combination of man’s primitive brain, gifted with the ability to make connections and the night sky, fretted not just with golden fire, but with the promise of endless possibility and wonder, that made our species so successful.
The night sky dazzles, but it also invites curiosity, a sense of humility and if not a perception of the divine, then at the very least, a stunning argument that compared to the infinite vastness of its reaches, we are still so very small.
Without making the mistake of assuming that connection indicates causality, it does seem that we live in an age devoid of wonder, which we have replaced with fear. We are beset by challenges, as every generation has been, but we seem to have lost our faith in possibility, whether it’s in our politics or in our arts. It says something that we’ve elected a President of hope and change, but whose great dream is to usher in an age of pragmatism.
A great many evils have been committed in the name of fanciful dreams, to be sure. The last century provides ample evidence of this, however it’s also true that our greatest achievements, not just as a country, but as a species, all began with dreams which exceeded our horizons. What happens then, when we dim our view, not just of the sky above, but of our own future?
And if we are willing to sacrifice the sky, what else are we willing to sacrifice as we press on into the unknown?