Eureka Valley sand dunes

From the Verge of Extinction To An Ecosystem Saved: A Botanist’s Story

About a half decade ago I was introduced to two very rare plants found only in a few sandy spots in the northwest corner of Death Valley National Park. After driving all day, my team was at the base of what are believed to be the tallest sand dunes in North America. The dunes appeared ominous, endless, yet inviting.

It was late May and unbelievably cold. The average temperature at that time of year is usually pushing 100 degrees in the afternoon, but on this day we were bundled up in sweaters and rain jackets. We even saw snow flurries in the northern part of the valley while driving in. Snow in May in Death Valley? Definitely the land of extremes!

The wind was blowing harshly across the dunes as we trekked out in search of the Eureka dune grass (Swallenia alexandrae) and the Eureka Valley evening primrose (Oenothera californica subspecies eurekensis). These two species are not only limited to California, but they’re Eureka Valley endemics—meaning they’re only found in a few sections of Eureka Valley and nowhere else on the planet.  (more…)

The Valley of Death.

Sorry, Rocks: An Admission of a Terrible Crime of the Early 1980s

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.  (more…)

Perfectly agreeable environment.

Notes From Nipton, California (Population 30)

When I moved to the desert full-time in 2008, I sent a friend a link to show her where the little house was that I’d rented for the summer. I got a horrified response. I’d been looking forward to the move as a clean break, post-divorce; a way to start over in a new place. She clicked on the link and then zoomed out a bit, and then she zoomed out a bit more, and then the machine noise that heralded the arrival of her instant message sounded much more urgent, somehow.

“You can’t survive out there,” her message said. “No one can survive out there. Humans need human companionship. You will lose your mind.” (more…)