On a Roll: Death (Valley) is Coming to Us All

After an arduous drive through the eternal night of Death Valley, I arrived to a cabin to sleep. It was already three in the morning, and the downhill descent into nothingness felt like a well-suited way to start a journey into this valley. In the morning, I awoke from fever dreams to find myself at the start of a road. The lens flare on my camera signaled the beginning of a fresh roll. I put on my boots and headed down the highway.

There weren’t many folks around, since it was already May in what was one of the hottest, driest, and lowest points on the planet. Nonetheless, I embraced the heat and rolled down my windows. I drank a gallon of water as the hot wind tangled my hair. I walked through sand dunes and climbed on tall, dead trees. As I cruised on to my next stop, I was a bit anxious.

I was headed for Badwater Basin, which is the lowest point in the entire Western Hemisphere. Here, I would discover a massive salt flat, which almost looked like a lake of snowy ice. There was a pathway of this white salt which led all the way out to the lake-like formation. So I walked and walked until I was surrounded by white. The winds were so strong they nearly tore me off my feet, and other times they held me up.

I sat there in the salt, which was so sharp at points it made me bleed. I thought about my life, the layers that had built upon me, and where to go from here. I was determined to sit on that flat until I figured it out. All of a sudden, this sense of something I had known but forgotten, flushed through my veins. It is quite inexplicable, and would be futile to attempt to put into words. All I can say is I found what I was looking for out there – some sort of internal clue to the grand unraveling of self – and I walked back to continue on the rest of the road.

From the lowest point, I journeyed next to Dante’s View. Resting on the spine of the Black Mountains, it felt worlds away from where I just stood. The winds were still strong but crisp and rejuvenating. I ran up and down the hills and glanced below at the salt flats I had walked upon below.

I sat on the cliffs engulfed completely in the present moment. I felt so alive, and I couldn’t stop smiling. There’s something mystical in those hills. Just as before on the salt flats, I felt a sense of euphoric relief pulsing through my veins.

The next stop on my circuit was Artist’s Drive. It was a curvy, narrow road with colorful rocks. I climbed a giant purple hill of sand and zig-zagged through canyon switchbacks.

Then I hit Zabriskie Point, which is a formation of Badlands. The different sort of colors and layers seen in the Badlands are formed by mineral deposits, which are eroded over long periods of time. The metaphors to the internal subconscious layers within people felt very prevalent in Death Valley. Over the years, different emotions and experiences form and build layers upon the soul.

After this stop I headed out of the park. I had circled on my map a place called Amargosa Opera House and Hotel. I had only intended to stop there for a quick look around, and ended up spending the rest of my road trip right there.

I walked around the seemingly abandoned, yet operational little hotel and learned there was going to be a ballet performance in the opera house that night – the last weekend of the season in fact, and I just happened to show up an hour before it happened.

After a while, the sun disappeared and it was time for the ballet. The entirety of this place’s story is quite unique.

The grounds used to be associated with the nearby mine and the town was called Death Valley Junction. When the mine shut down the place was abandoned. Twenty years later a woman named Marta Becket stumbled upon the building along a road trip where she was performing in her own one-woman show as a ballerina. She fell in love with the place and set on to fix it up. Through many a hardship and great endeavor as it was to get the place in order, she resolved to do it. She made her own stage, and painted the entire opera house from top to bottom herself. Every Friday and Saturday she would perform her ballet dances whether there was an audience or not. It was just this year that Marta passed away.

The night that I was there, a young ballerina named Hilda Vazquez performed two of Marta’s dances and one of her own. Marta had taught her, and Hilda wanted to carry on the spirit. The entire experience was moving in its own mysterious way.

The next morning I wandered into the hotel cafe and sat at the diner counter. The coffee was good and cup after cup fueled my hand to write.

As I finished my final cup, and my final line, I knew it was time to carry on. I felt a sense of sadness to leave this place and Death Valley behind, but then I remembered my moment at Badwater and the Black Mountains. There was a sense of resolution and I would carry that with me wherever I went – from the highs and lows of Death Valley to the highs and lows of this long, strange trip of life.

It’s All Gucci…