The desert. You can probably imagine it pretty clearly—if not a specific desert, then just the idea of one. Dry, sandy, harsh, hot. Big sky. Tumbleweed. You can access the abstract idea immediately. A lone cactus, arms akimbo. That was my thought, anyway. Even though I’d never been to Death Valley, CA, I figured I knew what I’d find. The hottest and lowest point in North America, I get it. So when Tracy called me up inviting me on an impromptu road trip to Death Valley with Jenn and Hankey, I shrugged, “Why not?” They had heard about this thing called Super Bloom, where once a decade or so Death Valley becomes covered with wildflowers. My interest was piqued, but I wasn’t convinced. Covered with wildflowers? There would probably be a couple of daisies by the side of the road. Flowers or not, I’m always game for a road trip. So I freed up my weekend and we hit the road. As we drove, thick clouds began to roll in, and eventually, fat droplets pattered the windshield.
Driving to Death Valley has a bit of an unsettling feeling. Highway 14 cuts across the southernmost tip of the Sierra Nevada mountains and curves its way up to 4,000 feet without you ever really noticing. Then, without warning, the ground begins to drop beneath you and you seem to hurdle towards the valley, to 182 feet below sea level, in a matter of just a few miles. By the time we reached this unexpected roller coaster drop in the road, it was completely dark and the wind was howling. A few raindrops had turned into a proper storm, and even in our rugged adventure van, Tracy had to use all her might to keep the steering wheel straight. As we plunged into the valley, we passed smaller cars parked on the side of the road, unable to make it through the gushing water and huge rocks covering the roadway. The chatter had slowly died away, and the four of us just stared, eyes wide, trying to find the ground past where the road cut away. We seemed to dip lower and lower into blackness and, nearly blown away by the wind, we seriously considered turning back.
What kept us going was the seriousness of this damn van. I mean, if we can’t make it through this storm why did we take it in the first place? We would be fine, we assured each other, and figured now more than ever we’d have to see what the fuss was about with all these flowers.
We made it to our spot, went to bed early, and headed out before dawn the next morning. The rain had stopped, but the wind was so strong it was difficult to get out of the van. The heavy doors would slam shut right into you if you weren’t careful. When the sky began to gradually lighten, what we witnessed was unreal. The remnants of clouds from the previous night’s storm obscured the sunrise, leaving only streaks of purple, grey and blue to announce its arrival. The salt flats glowed blue and otherworldly. The sky, too big to really take in, was cut with two rainbows. We ran outward from the road into it—into this desert, out into this immense space—and allowed ourselves to be pelted by freezing, blow-you-over wind, hair whipping our faces. In that moment we realized we had no idea what this place was. This desert, this place so mythicized and so deeply ingrained our minds, was in fact further than anything we thought we knew about the world around us. Before we were even hungry for breakfast, the wind pushed the clouds across the sky and the sun was already quite high. It burned bright and golden on the flowers that erupted out of every corner and crevice of dry dust in that valley. The road glowed gold and everything was irrefutably alive.
According to the locals, the wildflowers in Death Valley bloom every year. But in order for these tiny, delicate beings to fight their way through the harshest landscape on Earth and not just survive, but take over the entire valley, something special has to happen. The rainfall in October and November has to be heavy and prolonged. More importantly, though, it’s the seeds. They’re out there, every year. Just waiting. Lying dormant until the conditions are just right. Then, they take their chance and they bloom … slowly at first, until the entire park has been painted with new colors. You might think you know the desert. Predictable, dry, barren, extreme. For all of Google. For all the books written about it. You have no fucking idea.