The most rotten thing I ever did in a national park was to peck a fake petroglyph into the sandstone wall of Cottonwood Canyon, on the north side of Death Valley and many miles of sandy desert wash from the nearest paved road at Stovepipe Wells.
This happened approximately 30 years ago, in the company of three or maybe four other high school degenerates. And to be clear, I did not deface any indigenous canyon rock art. In fact, I couldn’t find any rock art. Lacking modern tools such as a Global Positioning System and a functional moral compass, I figured I could just make my own little “ancient astronaut” stick figure like the one on the official Death Valley refrigerator magnet I’d purchased for $2.75 a couple of days earlier at the Stovepipe Wells General Store.
Of course my rock art looked nothing like the real thing, mostly because it didn’t have the “desert varnish” of many centuries. I had a styrofoam cup of cold coffee in the cab of my pickup, and I worked a little of that into the markings, and it looked better until the moisture evaporated a minute or two later. We have all done things that plague us with guilt, forever, and that’s one of mine.
Still, it had it a certain style, the little dude I made. And in another 30 years from now, it would be hard to keep from laughing if, while flipping through the “pages” of a new IMAX movie about the American deserts fed directly into my optic nerves via my iHeardYou hearing router, I saw a photograph of that eight-inch-tall alien with the mystery squiggles radiating from his balloon-shaped head. “An early god of an unknown people,” the caption might say. “Tantalizingly, similar figures have been discovered at ancient sites in Cambodia, Ireland, and Mesopotamia.”
But it was Wrong, as wrong as emptying an RV toilet tank in a creek, as wrong as tearing across the desert crust on a carbon-farting “dirt bike.” Part of my education. On that same trip, my second to Death Valley in the two or three months, my sudden infatuation with the desert turned to something more permanent.
Death Valley was a national monument then. It would not win the title of National Park for another dozen years, when the California Desert Protection Act barely got through Congress in late 1994, upping the status of both Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments, and creating Mojave National Preserve.
Other than suburbs starting to spill into the High Desert from Los Angeles, things hadn’t changed tremendously since the Manson Family had set up their Apocalypse Camp just over the Panamint Mountains. The motorcycle gangs from the Inland Empire, the Vagos and the Angels, loved the wide-open highways through Death Valley. Elderly snowbirds in huge travel trailers loved the golf course and cafeteria down at Furnace Creek. Jeep campers took to the backroads, often running into narrow-canyon traffic jams of feral donkeys descended from those left by “jackass miners” a century before.
My first trip, over a long weekend before Christmas, was accidental. “Mike”—these guys were generally named “Mike”—had put a rebuilt engine in his Volkswagen bug that afternoon and wanted to take it for a spin. Six hours later, four of us were wandering the mysterious maintenance tunnels beneath the Furnace Creek Inn, under cover of darkness.
None of us had anything resembling camping gear. I had never been camping in my life. We talked our way into a room at the Amargosa Opera House motel, out at Death Valley Junction, where Marta Becket had painted her own audience on the theater’s walls and performed a one-woman dance show several nights a week. She wasn’t there and we weren’t looking for ballet, anyway. We drank our 12-pack of Miller Genuine Draft and fell asleep on dusty beds alongside piles of other furnishings, stacks of chairs underneath sheets, the winter wind blasting against the old window frames and squeaky doors. We were the only guests, and the sketchy character who took our twenty dollars was nowhere to be seen the next morning.
Back in San Diego’s sprawl, I couldn’t stop thinking about Death Valley, about the snow-covered mountains quivering in the mirage waves of the desert floor, the white plaster buildings of the Amargosa Hotel reaching high above the sagebrush, the ribbons of blacktop you could see unwind ahead for miles and miles. My high school library didn’t have much but they had a book called Desert Solitaire, a plastic-jacketed library hardback that had last been checked out in 1976, according to the stamp on the little manila slot glued inside the front cover. The army surplus store in La Mesa had a self-published paperback called Death Valley Jeep Trails.
The second trip to Death Valley involved attempts at camping and hiking, as performed by teenaged boys who were raised not on John Muir, but on microwaved burritos and In Through the Out Door. By the third or fourth journeys we were even packing out other people’s garbage left behiind at some of the canyon’s remote and primitive campsites. I even put a Sierra Club sticker on my four-wheel-drive.
I’ve done many other terrible things, like throwing away plastic yogurt containers full of mold, and flying to other countries on a whim because the tickets were two-hundred dollars, and driving for months at a time without checking the tires, and working for money, and being polite to policemen half my age just because they’re wearing guns. But that comical graffito I pecked into a rock three decades was obnoxious as hell, there’s just no getting around it.
Sorry, rock! Let there be hope for the most damnable among us!
Ken Layne is the editor of Greenfriar. What’s the worst thing you ever did out there, the “biggest fail,” as they used to say on the Internet? As long as it’s fun to read and will not prompt a homicide investigation, we might want to publish your tale at Greenfriar. Check our submissions page for the details, and if you’ve got something in mind for us, send it over with this subject line: “Sorry, Earth!”