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.

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