A recent endeavor, delving into the geology and anthropology of the jewel of the great basin: Death Valley. Enjoy!
The Charcoal Kilns:
An incredible find amongst the twisting pines of the bristlecone variety, high above the salt basins and rolling sand dunes. The charcoal Kilns of Death Valley National Park harken back to the times of hard earned manual labor at the hands of indentured servants (in this case Chinese laborers) bent to the will of their wealthy mine owning company elites. The kilns are a part of a larger system of mines dotting the hillsides and canyons of the park, in this case the charcoal having less mass than the bristlecone pine wood used in them was transported to a nearby smelter for processing of silver and lead. See below for more info on the mines of death valley. It would be unbecoming of me to mention the kilns without properly addressing their creators.
While the National Park Service provides information here: Charcoal Kilns of Death Valley
The NPS takes a painfully politically correct position of, “Actual documentable details of the construction job and the operation are lacking, as is confirmation that the labor force included American Indians and Chinese. The presence of Mexicans is amply indicated.” The use of terminology akin to Laborers Only hints at the truth behind the obvious hardships the workers had at the expense of their bodies and minds; all to feed the coffers of the elitist few. I can only imagine the pain and suffering of hand mining the asbestos laden igneous stone from the nearby hillside, the hard labor resulting in deep breaths of the friable material settling sharp particles in their lungs. The carcinogenic charcoal being shoveled by hand, breaking apart and wafting easily with the breeze, covering clothes, tools, hands, lungs… I can not imagine these poor souls enjoying a long and healthy life. Now obviously there was no NIOSH, or OSHA in the 19th century, but that does not excuse the elites that benefitted from such arduous labor. How quickly from one generation to the next we forget the suffering of our ancestors. All of which is particularly depressing when taken into consideration that perhaps the kilns operated for only a short portion of time. How easily we the “modern” viewer forget the true price paid in our seemingly recent history.
Now, to a less depressing sight to behold.
Devoid of high banks, loud engines and devastating environmental contaminants pouring from exhaust, Death Valleys very own racetrack is perhaps the most imagination invoking course on earth. Complete with its own grandstand (a nearby inselberg), the flat inhospitable dry lake bed is the result of grand geological forces on a vast open area locked between prominent peaks. Beneath the surface lies several thousand feet of sediment, a result of erosion from the surrounding hills slowly settling into an ancient lake bed.
Dry cracked silt, hard pressed from the bearing sun, splittting from beneath the surface causes wonderfully beautiful hexagonal patterns on the outer layer that are substantially strong, easily supporting the weight of my heavy footfall. With each step towards the seemingly random placed rocks strewn across the southwest portion of the racetrack, a creation nearly from science fiction itself takes hold over my senses. Dry, hot, unbearably lifeless and still…
But not always! At times enough rain falls in the area to create a small, perhaps just over an inch of water rising up from the once barren soil. The silt becomes a muddy, potentially deadly trap to footed and hooves alike, yet, almost magically an unfathomable object takes float: rocks, very large and small alike. As the days sun winds down and the cold night approaches, ice forms easily around the rocks, then, as the buoyant ice forms a ring the rock lifts from the muddy bed, and the strong winds famous in the valley push the stone. Stones with a more prominent surface area leave a brilliantly obvious path in the mud, slow to erode from lack of intense rain events. The entire scene plays out amongst dozens if not hundreds of competitors, large and small, flat and knobby, all rocks compete as equals, in a world where less and less equality is seen elsewhere.
However, of course there are those whom only wish to foul such natural beauty:
Please if you intend to visit this incredible place, and it is wet or muddy. Respectfully refrain from damaging it. More information is readily available here: The Racetrack
Death Valley Mining:
Gold, silver, lead, borax, talc the list goes on and on, death valley, despite its name and geographic isolation has been and is still in the grasp of greed influenced companies looking to enrich their coffers. I am never short of surprise to find yet another rape of the earth at the expense of profits, sometimes they go long back, as pictured above, however its antiquity does not justify its existence or its purpose.
The open pit mine pictured above is a wonder the curious beholder. Why here? I ask when I see it, a small seemingly random slice into the side of a rolling hill covered in assorted succulents and strewn with sunburnt rocks. What would draw the eye of a mineral obsessed prospector to drive shovel into the earth? Simply put a fine whitish grey stone: talc. Used in a myriad of products, and readily found the world over, it seems almost out of place in the beauty of the park. Again my thoughts drift to the miners, their plight at the merciless turmoil that is silicosis, as the hydrothermally altered stone over millennium forms into a small, hygroscopic material, fishing comfort in the warm pockets of the miners lungs, never to be extruded no matter how much phlegm and coughing. All for what? Was it an exploratory mine? Was it used to supplement the small gold mine nearby? I’m quickly lost in thought of maybes and forgone conclusions beyond my grasp.
Yet I am drawn to these sites, perhaps after years of working in and around them, cleansing the soil of contaminants I feel an empathy towards their existence, for the overwhelming knowledge that looms behind the necessitation of these titans of environmental destruction is daringly held back by a need to do better.
The mines are not easily found in the park, sometimes a ways off of the well rutted dirt roads that criss-cross the landscape, but I can assure you, their discovery is a testament to the rigors, beauty, dangers and isolation of the industry. Their tailings hint at the exotic treasures they chased below, the dangers of toxic H2SO4 a result of the process of delving deep into the earths crust. Adits dug, or perhaps even exploded from the hillside below the small vertical shaft promise adventure, and though many have most likely taken the call up without a second thought, my trained senses warn of the dangers of a confined space. Confined space, the words harken dread to me, but to the individuals that braved them to feed themselves, before a rescue team was a thing, its a non existent worry. The ore beckoned them deeper, longer, working hard to unearth its riches, despite the damage to themselves, or even the world around them. Don’t worry, we have regulator’s and their regulations to protect us now… Well not for much longer, and not when history proves that private industry has rarely ever protected anything other than its profits. We must learn from our past, or else we are doomed to repeat it.
A mine is a terrible thing to waste.
Wherever stone meets the forces of fire and water there is sure to be a dramatic result. Though the Park in its entirety can be summed up in such a manner, it is beyond doubt the apogee of the intricate splendor that is this battle called Mosaic Canyon. The name itself is a telltale sign of what is to be expected, a double entendre, where small unique pieces come together to form an all together holistic monstrosity of seussian whips and whirls, rounded edges and warped reality.
Like most other mountainous creeks, the water here follows the softened rock caused by a fault, where deep bellow the surface, tectonic movements have forced gargantuan areas to move in geologically speaking rapid time. The mountain pushing upwards reaves from the plates incredible movement are seen in striking non horizontal sediment deposits, where small pieces of stone cane be seen littering the canyon walls, called breccia, the Mosaic like formation to which the canyon earns its name. Further up the alluvial trail, amongst the thousands of footprints is the polished marble water slides. Made of dolomite and limestone heated into marble by the mountains need to thrust upward. Eventually, I make it to the true spellbinding portion of the hike, the recumbent fold. Where once, many millennium ago, a sudden underwater landslide was forced to fold back upon itself, shaping the canyon wall, now cut clean by the scalpel of water, I to a near perfect crescent. I stood awed by the audacity of nature, the overwhelming beauty of it’s power and symmetry.
The Ubehebe Crater:
I remove the keys from the ignition of a large passenger van, and reach to open the door, the sounds of harsh winds blast through the small space between the door and chassis. I am able to force the door open, but the winds are hurricane in strength, my hat barely able to stay on though strapped securely. Distracted by the Gail, I’m overwhelmed by my sense of sight when I return my attention to its demanding image before me. A crater, 800 feet deep, a mile and a half wide, a gaping maw of the power of our planet earth reveals itself: the Ubehebe crater. The result of a phreatomagmatic eruption, where cool groundwater meets searing hot magma, the resulting stream exploding forth from the earth spewing superheated stone for miles, coating the landscape in eerie unearthly black. Thus began the Maar Volcano of death valley, a result of the farallon plate sliding under the North American plate. I stand relieved to know that this most likely happened tens of thousands of years ago, long before human time in the region. Imagine my surprise to hear that there is evidence that it may have happened no more than a millennia ago, that the range is considered a medium threat on the volcano danger indicator.
I think of the Timbisha Shoshone, and others of the region, and how chaos must have reigned when the volcano shattered their daily life. What was it like for them, how did it seem to be occurring, why did they think it happened? My questions go unanswered, another reality check that our country, soon to be made great again apparently, was and is not great for all those whom called it home long before my ancestors arrived.
Of course more info on the crater can be found here: Ubehebe Crater – Death Valley National Park (U.S. National Park Service)
The Timbisha Shoshone:
The sun crawls over the western ridges of the Panamint Valley, a chilled windy night closes beckoning forth a new sun drenched desert day. The group of explorers, of various ages and ethnicity form around a young woman, eager to tell the group of onlookers about the people who call this rugged terrain home. I’m in my element now, my studies of peoples the world over has prepared me most for this moment, a chance to stand where they stand, to hear their story and learn their history, a moment to bypass ethnocentrisms and breathe in the fresh morning air of culture. Instead, I breathed in the smell of rancorous eurocentric bias, blanched by the perky attitude of the speaker, who managed a laughable, Disney like rendition of a people that are as complex and intricate as any other. When given a chance to tell their story, instead, she found room to mention the prospectors of the death valley region, of how one died, and the natives acknowledged it, naming the park. (At best a tale twisted to soothe obvious tensione between the miners and indigenous peoples of the region) I stood in silent protest, every ounce of my body burning to scream out in rage, that this is what is wrong with our world now: No one really gets to know one another, instead we gloss over some easily read pseudo-informative website and proclaim it as fact. Well, the Timbisha deserve better, and so here I may finally retort to the sacrilegious atrocity that was presented before me that day:
At some, unknown point, phenotypically speaking white people came across what we know now as the great basin region of the western United States. Stretching from the Impenetrable prominence of the Eastern Sierra Nevadas to the formidable Rocky Mountains to the east, the land is a hodge podge of unique, exciting geologic features. From the untrained eye, it almost seemed like a sprawling wasteland, created unbeknownst to early settlers by the pulling apart of the plate underfoot, slowly ripping apart the surface into such a profound sight. Uninhabited they called it, a wild land of unimaginable horrors, dry deserts and impassable ranges, deep dark forests and salted ground. How wrong they were. Here, the Shoshone thrived. The name, derived from a Diné word meaning: people of the grass, the Shoshone are a people numbering in the little, yet achieving what their ethnocentric invaders considered impossible, life in the basin. While it is true that Shoshone relied on grasses of all sorts for shelter, clothing, basketry, and tools, the term even in the past was a slight at their behalf. Who could see such a small group such as the Shoshone, maybe numbering around 3-6 thousand at most, in comparison to the monstrosity of the Diné? The cultural comparison is not even worth trying to make, for the Shoshone are a people that we all stand to learn a lot from. They take from the land, as all humans must, but they also know and practice second harvesting, truly reusing the worlds vital resources to its fullest extent. Against the odds stacked against them, the Timbisha Shoshone would call home what we now refer to as Death Valley. Hunting large and small game, remembering locations where fresh water flowed instead of saline. These ancestors to the Uto-Aztecans would, without the aid of modern technology like this over weight author relies on, plan ahead of the the oncoming seasonal changes, migrating from climate to climate to more benefit their survival. Carrying water in hand woven baskets of intricate design and purpose, knapping heads to spears, gathering pine nuts, mashing mesquite beans, even utilizing burning techniques to influence yields of more favorable plant life. The Timbisha are masters of the most hazardous region of the great basin. Sadly, this would change, the discovery of precious metals, rare earths and the challenge of the area called forth a wave of greed driven, earth ravaging privateers of the dirt. Fouling the basins waters and blighting the land, the lust for riches would cast a looming shadow of death and destruction over the valley. Hence where the park in my mind gets its true name, at the hands of the indigenous Shoshone who were massacred as a result of this rush.
All whom tread to this beautiful land must pay homage to those whom paid the ultimate price, whom now number far fewer than one hundred. Please take the time to learn more about our shared history and respect those that history certainly has forgotten: Timbisha Shoshone Tribe – Death Valley National Park (U.S. National Park Service)
The desert pupfish:
A short drive on a surprisingly smooth dirt road ends at a dramatic find in the park, where a wooden decked walking path rises a few inches from the ground, hugging the banks of a well hidden treasure of the barren surroundings: Salt Creek. Aptly named, having a salinity almost 4 times greater than that of the ocean, the water runs thin, perhaps an inch of two in depth, but crystalline clear. My focus, despite the urging of my ADHD to take everything in, is drawn to a small creature wiggling against the creek bottom. A fish, small, well hidden by its almost perfect tan coloration, the same hue as the sediment below it, cues a childish sense of curiosity. How did it get here? What cruel environmental circumstances caused it be to the sole surviving species in these limited waters? The fish takes no notice of my lament, instead seeming to defend the calm alcove it has found from others of its kin. I’m delighted to learn that there are 5 other specific pupfish in the park, one of which endangered. The energetic little swimmers, named for their puppy like behaviour, have a simple system of sexual dimorphism, coloration and a mild almost unnoticeable size difference. The females seem adamant to avoid the, well let’s just say enthusiastic approaches of the males that almost in perfect harmony echoed their evasive actions. The sediment is of course this fishes natural escape and refuge, where one can at times see them burying themselves for protection, or maybe looking for a place to rest until the days hot sun reveals their algae or bacterial meals. The diurnal eaters have truly found a paradise amongst the salty lifeless valley basin, a fascinating tribute to the wonders of evolution, defying the very name given to their home: life amongst death valley.
Evolution, wherever this word creeps up there seems to be a fierce, determined resistance to its counter, a battle between one culture and another. Perhaps left for a better time and place, but a fair point to remind ourselves that some battles occur because of the natural world, others because of human incompetence. The pupfish are not an exception to this idea. The intensive mining of the valley, and modernization of the means to extract ground water has left the fish with a declining environment. All for what? I understand the point that some make, along the lines that it’s just a fish. However, I am forced to retort, well then you should be thankful that right now you aren’t the fish.
Respect the fish, be the fish, for more info check this out: The Fish of Death Valley
A lake once churned here. The evidence of which is palpable in the briny air, a salty one indeed, for what seems like miles a stretch of white, flat plain of saline ground stretches between prominent peaks. The southern end of death valley plays host to the Spencer salt formation known as Badwater Basin. The lake is long gone, at least 10,000 years have past since its waters would have been crashing upon the rocks that now bask in the glow of the salt flat. Now, underwater aqueducts, fed by the impressive Mojave river flow over a hundred miles north from the San Bernardino mountain range to give some measure of life to this barren flat. Amidst the hundred degree heat a thin muddy tepid pond sits on the farthest edge, where floats a bit of garbage and the lost hat of some far gone tourist. How irresponsible of them.
The basin is a result of seismic activity in the region. Two faults reside on either side of the lake bed, even the far edge holds the twin peaks of a once mighty volcano ripped apart by the continuous action of a fault. Through no fault of my own I’m distracted by the grand scale of everything here, perhaps more so now than ever before. The stretching of the plates upon I walk will someday rip parts of the southwest apart from the rest of the U.S. a result of the underplaying as the farallon plate melting underneath the north American plate. For now I am one of the few lucky enough to gaze in splendor at the results of its geologically speaking short term work.
The Journeys End:
My time in Death Valley culminated an experience of sensational, thought provoking magnitude. I am humbled by the grand scale by which such a place has come to exist, and encouraged by the hard work so many have put forth in order to safe guard its existence. However, I am not without qualm, for studying humanity, I know what it’s capable of doing even without trying. Death Valley is a place where happen stance, circumstance and chance have all played into the equation at some point, with varying results across the board. One way or another there is and will always be the forces working underneath to change the visible system, in both people and geology. My only hope, is that in the end, it is as beautiful as it was before people were part of the equation.
Thanks to the Riverside City College department of Geology for this incredible opportunity. To Dr. Phelps I owe a very special thank you, for your insight, leadership and expertise.
Thanks to the compatriots who accompanied me through the deserts, mountains and valleys, the conversations and companionship were a true highlight of the trip. CONTACT!
Thank you all for taking this journey with me. I hope to see you on the next one.
– Nathan Allen Meisenbach