Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Celebrating Death Valley, part 2

The story so far: After planning to be in Death Valley for the two-day grand re-opening of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, I encountered one photographic opportunity after another and missed all of Saturday's events. But I was determined not to miss a Sunday morning panel discussion with the park superintendent and three former superintendents, representing thirty continuous years of Death Valley management.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking: what kind of geek gets excited about listening to a group of National Park superintendents talking about management challenges? A Death Valley geek, of course.

Sarah Craighead, superintendent from 2009 through 2012, introduced the rest of the group: Ed Rothfuss (1982-1994), Dick Martin (1994-2001), and JT Reynolds (2001-2009). Each talked briefly about the major issues of his or her tenure, and then the four of them answered questions from a very interested and well-informed audience. Topics covered included the Desert Protection Act of 1994 – the decades-long political battle to pass the bill as well as the challenge of running a park that had grown by more than a million acres overnight. Dick Martin spoke about his efforts to make the Timbisha Shoshone tribe an equal partner in managing a park that is, in fact, their homeland.

JT Reynolds stressed the importance of being able to work with very different groups of people, each with its own ideas about what the park should be. It sounded at times like he was describing parenthood. "The previous superintendent always approved our events." "We've never had to pay for this before." "Mommy always lets me do this." All four agreed that, sooner or later, a superintendent has to be willing to risk his or her job by standing up for what's best for the park.

It was clear that these were people who have devoted their careers, and their lives, to the place they love. (They don't just work in the park, they live here.) In fact, there was an obvious affection for Death Valley on the part of each of the participants, and everyone in attendance as well. Every one of us, park employees as well as visitors, had chosen to be there because of our love for Death Valley. 

I spent the next hour just relaxing in the courtyard at Furnace Creek Lodge, something I've rarely, if ever, done before. Normally, if I stop there at all, it's to fill my gas tank, get some ice for the cooler, maybe buy a book or get something to eat, and quickly be on my way. Today, though, felt different. This was a weekend of celebration, and that fact had definitely influenced my attitude toward the crowds. I read a book while listening to two guys with guitars holding an impromptu concert, then had lunch at the 49er Café.

After lunch it was time for the main event: the dedication, awards, and ribbon-cutting ceremony. The whole thing had a slightly hokey, small-town feel about it, and I say that in the most affectionate and positive way. There was nothing slick about it. Like all similar events, the speeches were a mix of inspiring and dull, polished and halting. One was predictably corporate; another sounded like it was written on the way to the podium. One or two were very moving. Each of the speakers, in his or her own way, expressed the same love of place I had been seeing all day.

The dedication by Timbisha elder (and former tribal chairperson) Pauline Esteves was especially powerful, though hardly anyone understood the words. Her prayer, in an ancient language now spoken by fewer than two dozen people, was a connection to the past and a reminder to all of us that we are part of a continuum of people who have found spiritual sustenance in Death Valley.

After the speeches it was time for cake and schmoozing. I chatted with a few people and then saw Alan van Valkenburg, a ranger I've worked with on some interpretive exhibits. We talked about the Visitor Center, the weekend, Death Valley, and our latest encounters with sidewinders. I was about to leave when he said he was leading a tour of the building and would be talking about its history and the challenges of updating it. How could I resist?

I'm glad I stayed for his talk. The story of modernizing this historic structure is one of conflicts, surprises, and flexibility, as the Park Service worked to balance the needs of historic preservation with modern standards of energy efficiency, water use, safety, and accessibility. That might sound a little boring, but Alan is an enthusiastic and entertaining presenter, and he brought the Visitor Center to life.

After the talk, I said good-bye to Alan and was ready to call it a day, but Death Valley had other plans.

Halfway to my car I looked up the road and saw twenty mules pulling a borax wagon, heading my way. It was not a replica. This was an original borax wagon, pulled by a team of twenty mules and accompanied by a handful of cowboys on horseback. I ran alongside them, shooting what I could from various perspectives, not really knowing what kind of photos I'd get. I felt like a little kid, with a big silly grin on my face, and when I looked around I saw the same expression on the dozens of faces that had suddenly appeared along the road. Everyone was smiling and laughing, making jokes about Death Valley Days, and just feeling thrilled to see a bit of living history.

What a perfect ending to this day of celebration.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Celebrating Death Valley, part 1

I had been planning a fall trip to the East Mojave, so when I heard that the grand re-opening of Death Valley's Furnace Creek Visitor Center was scheduled for the first weekend in November, I decided to make that part of my trip. The decision felt a little out of character for me. I usually avoid people on my Death Valley trips, camping in remote locations and rarely stopping at the Visitor Center or the various museums, gift shops, and restaurants in and around the park. I always buy an annual pass, so I don't even have to stop to pay the entrance fee.

But this trip would be different. Talks, tours, and other events were scheduled all day Saturday and Sunday, with the dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sunday afternoon. I spent the previous week camping in Mojave National Preserve, and planned to arrive in Death Valley early Saturday morning. To make sure I arrived on time, I left Mojave Friday evening and spent the night in Baker, home of the world's tallest thermometer. (It's 134 feet high, to commemorate Death Valley's record temperature of 134 degrees.)

Driving into Death Valley on Saturday morning, I encountered the typical photographer's dilemma: there was just too much to see and photograph along the way. My first stop was Saratoga Spring, especially beautiful in the warm light of sunrise.

Continuing north, I reached the little town of Shoshone just in time for their annual Old West Days celebration. Naturally I had to stop and browse the booths, pick up a couple of books from the Shoshone Museum, and enjoy a date shake from the China Ranch Date Farm.

Finally arriving in Death Valley around 4:00 pm, I had to stop for a couple of coyotes who were creating a traffic jam on Badwater Road. No complaints from me, of course – my only problem was that I had to run back to the car for a shorter lens. But I guess someone thought it was a safety hazard, because after a few minutes a ranger pulled up and used her siren to scare the coyotes off the road. They returned as soon as she left.

By the time I finished with the coyotes, the sun was setting. The obvious thing to do now was shoot evening reflections at Badwater. Oh well, there's always tomorrow.

After dark I checked in at the newly remodeled Stovepipe Wells Village. The new owners have done a good job of fixing it up – and of course it has a great location, just a mile or so from the sand dunes at Mesquite Flat. But it's still a motel, and it's hard for me to get excited about a motel room, no matter where it is or how it's described. (A "dune view" room faces the highway; a "mountain view" faces the other way. But why would anyone care about the view from their motel room? Just get out and experience the desert!) I had a late dinner in the restaurant, where, as is often the case in Death Valley, there seemed to be a different language spoken at every table.

Sunday morning I was up early, looking forward to the first event of the day, a panel discussion with the park superintendent and her three immediate predecessors. But that didn't start until 9:00, leaving plenty of time for a walk on the Mesquite Flat dunes.

The weather was beautiful, and had been all week, which is not necessarily the best time to photograph sand dunes. Without wind, any footprints will remain where they are. A good windstorm restores the natural ripples and textures of the dunes to the pristine condition that everyone wants to photograph. It was immediately obvious that I wasn't going to get that kind of photo. On this morning there were more footprints than I've ever seen, and they were everywhere.

Even a mile from the parking area there was still a ten-foot-wide path of footprints upon footprints, all making their way toward the highest dune. Off the main path, heading off in all directions, were individual prints of boots, sneakers, sandals, bare feet, hands, arms, legs, huge strides of children's footprints running across the sand, and wide troughs made by people sliding on their butts down the steep sides of the dunes.

I could have seen all these human-made marks in the sand as ruining my ideal photograph. Instead, I saw stories of exuberance and joyfulness, a celebration of and connection with nature. For someone who usually prefers to be alone in the desert, and was looking ahead with some trepidation to a full schedule of social events, all those footprints turned out to be a pretty good start to the day.

On the way back to my car I saw the tracks of a sidewinder crossing on top of the human footprints. That made it even better.

 Part 2: I finally make it to the celebration.