The Land Below
Sometimes the word adventure is to calm to describe something that happens and entering the land below sea level was definitely one of those experiences. By the time I arrived at the precipice and starting place of this adventure I was a well seasoned traveler and had taken and experienced more than my share of what most people would term adventures or risks. I had already driven a distance equal to a trip from my home in St. Louis to the island chain of Hawaii while on a road trip to Alaska. I had scuba dived, for my very first time, off the Florida Keys–and not part of a commercial dive trip. This was a two-man show, rent a 14 footer and head out to a location described on a map where we set anchor and plunged head long into the deep. I had already hiked and camped in desolate back-country following topographical maps and spent days in mountain campsites far from the beaten path. I felt well qualified for the adventure across Death Valley … seasoned and ready for any challenge known or unknown. What I had not counted on was the extreme environment even though, as a scientist, I was well versed in the conditions I expected to find. The unexpected was the reality of those conditions.
The trip across Death Valley was actually a tiny portion of a much larger and longer trip that encompassed some two months and probably eight or ten thousand miles of driving. The reality of this section of the trip is what has never left me and has allowed me to view life from a slightly oblique angle only available to one who had experienced an extreme. Death Valley is an extreme.
The portion of the trip began early one morning as I came out of the high plains desert, through Las Vegas and then onward toward Beatty which set at the eastern most entrance to the path across the valley. The trip there was in itself one to be considered if one were to be a story teller. The closer I came the more isolated and desolate the landscape became to the point that I stopped several times to consult maps and in that way assure myself that I had not mysteriously gotten off track. This may seem absurd when one is traveling on the only road providing access to that remote location but I had previously experienced a time when, while wide awake, I was sure that I had gotten completely off my trek and onto another. That situation arose during a hurried winter sojourn to Florida when a friend and myself drove from St. Louis to Key West Florida in one sitting, so to speak. It was on the occasion of a week winter break from school. We left on a Friday afternoon and arrived sometime Sunday morning in the Keys. During the trip and in the wee hours of Saturday morning while I was the designated driver we entered a dense fog just west of Chattanooga and when we immersed we were somewhere east and south having never glimpsed the city or the Great Smoky Mountains near which it lay. All I can remember is that we entered a foggy mist thick enough that I was forced to lower the window and look out and down following the yellow line and hoping upon hope that it was so late and the weather so bad that no one else was on the road coming the other direction. There were actually three in our little convoy, a over-the-road type truck ahead of us and another car or small truck behind. I can remember straining both on the lines as they passed beside the car and the dim tail lights of the truck ahead. The whole experience was very intense and became almost like a scene from a B time travel movie. Eventually the car behind faded as did the truck ahead and I was left alone, creeping slowly in the dead of night wondering where I was and when this would end. Finally, after what seemed like hours, the end of the fog arrived with the breaking morning light. My traveling companion, who has slept through the whole ordeal awoke and upon seeing where we were asked if I had enjoyed the trip through the Smoke’s and the town of Chattanooga. I laughed and explained in but a few words that although I had driven every inch of the way I had missed it all.
The trip up to the eastern entrance to the path across Death Valley seemed in some ways just as surreal as had that long ago trip across the Smoky Mountains. The road stretched ahead and behind the car a mere two lanes bordered by that same sandy soil and scrub flora that cover great portions of Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and Nevada. The difference was the desolation which was enhanced by the encroachment of the sand upon the road surface. As the road unfolded it seemed as if the sand itself was beginning to eat away at the road. No longer the precise machine made boarder separating hard asphalt from the surrounding land. The edge of the roadway became increasingly wavy and indistinct as the land fought to reclaim its missing acreage. Couple this with the fact that for hours no other vehicle has been seen as I headed into a portion of the southwest which I had only visited through the states scenic road maps–leading me to a known but unimagined location.
Upon arrival in Beatty, Nevada the town was so indistinct that it no longer holds a conscious place in my memory, rather destine to remain hidden in some series of far-away recessed memory neurons. I believe that this was due to the extremes that my senses and imagination had already been exposed to. I only remember that arriving was both comfort and a release, for arriving was a conformation that I was actually on path and a release because I realized that it was form this point that the actual adventure was to begin. I can not remember if I stopped, I think now for the mere fact of arriving was the empties to continue. By this point I was captured by the adventure and could only see ahead. I remember driving so distance westward, straining to make out the beginning of Death Valley–I’m not sure what I expected, maybe rounding a turn or topping a rise the suddenly to be confronted with Death Valley.
It just wasn’t what I expected. The road rose slowly into the distant mountains and I began to wonder if I were in the wrong place or heading in the wrong direction. I was well versed in mountains and driving up and over but I was not prepared for the vision from the top of these. I still have this intense mental image of reaching the top and as I began to go over and downward literally stopping in the middle of the road in wonder, for before me lay a ribbon of dark road surface stretching downward through the black bordered mountains and stretching out in to an expanse of white, flat nothingness. I had arrived!
I began the decent with both trepidation and excitement and literally said my good-byes to the land above and the mountains around as I plunged alone into the white hot expanse of Death Valley’s alkaline sands. The bottom reached I had to stop and get out and just look. The landscape was like that I imagine one would find on the moon or Mars–simply the most inhospitable place one could imagine. Stretching in every directions was rolling alkaline sand and rock–devoid of life, or at least it seemed, and near where I had stopped was one of the most ominous structures I had ever seen–a water tank with instructions to fill your radiator and radiator bag before you proceeded further. It was not the tank itself that was so unbelievable and ominous but the implication it represented. I was truly about to enter a journey for which the mere act of traveling became a serious life-and-death situation. I chuckled a little as I was driving a Volkswagen van with its air cooled rear mounted engine. Air cooled, now that was definitely an oxymoron in this situation. After a few moments in the sun and heat the idea of what I was about to undertake became overwhelming and I began.
The details of most of the trip across the valley, which in miles was not really that great, is lost in now and in its place is a sense I have gained having been in a place for which there was no mercy for either plant or animal, a place where being a man, a human–a molder of the present day earth and modifier of the environment held no importance. The trip and the place stripped me of my humanness and exposed from within me that most basic and fundamental part of all life, the basic and fundamental necessities to continue life. A temperature not out of control, an amount of fluid to hydrate the cells of my body to a degree that they resisted shock and a system of protection, both physical and mental, that allowed the animal me to survive these conditions and move onward. I realized that even the slightest change or error could spell my end in a very short time–a flat tire or worse leaving the hard road surface and getting stuck–an over heated vehicle unable to survive the conditions leaving me stranded in a place for which I was not designed to live. These thoughts added to the intensity of the adventure while at the same time creating a morose feeling just behind my consciousness.
I can not say that the whole experience was not absolutely wonderful and that even today, confined as I am to a wheelchair for my many sins of over-extending my body, I would not repeat that trip in a moment. I stopped several times as I crossed and just sat in that place allowing both my body and my senses take in a maximum experience. At the same time I began to realize that in that place life continued and that were I capable of existing there I would easily find it both comfortable and home. This awareness formulated within me the understanding of just how flexible living is and must be, for life itself is the challenge and the place is but the template that molds the life into its unique form.
Occasionally, since that time, I have wondered what it must have been like for living things as they coped with some of the geology of the earth’s past. I can only imagine that the trip from water to land, while spanning probably hundreds of thousands of years at a minimum, must have been in many ways like my trip across the valley–both tentative and compelling and driven on by some unexplained desire to go. In fact, life itself is much like my journey here described for the act of living is a challenging adventure into a hostile world. Consider what would happen to us if we were simply to loose the waterproof but porous quality of our skin. We would be like the frog that many many years ago leapt from my hand in some long forgotten college comparative anatomy class–refusing to become the object of a quick trephine and then anatomical examination. That leap, like the leap all living things take as they brave the environment, exposed the frog to a place for which it had no defense. The safety provided by a cabinet, hiding it from my view was also its death sentence, for without the moist surroundings of the herbarium where it has existed it was faced with the reality that it had no means to prevent water loss. As it sat in the dark it slowly dried out to death. Some weeks later I found the poor unfortunate think a dry, flat prone shadow of its former living self.
Life too must balance the reality of the surroundings with the ability to cope and survive. It may be that those principles for which nineteenth century biologists fought and argued, the survival of the fittest and more, were just logical semantically outcomes of the simple act of living.
The time I spent crossing the land below instilled in me a third eye capable of looking at a situation from a slightly oblique angle and thus seeing a reality that is no longer black and white but always a changing shade of gray, never quite the same, always in flux. I have often mused, using this unique vision, what it must be like to experience the other possibility, the one you did not choose or experience, the one that never happened. What would have happened if that possibility had somehow taken sway? Would what we know as the earth and the life here be anything like what exists now? Would there be a new reality–a new set of rules which, just like the reality and rules now in command, would form boundaries that preclude any other possibility. Would a traveler from this reality to that find anything common, or would that new reality be like the animators nightmare. Could it be that what we presume as time travel or is nothing more than a plane of connection between these two different permutations of life? Could it be that given the right set of circumstances one could step between these two realities or better yet, stand on the boundary becoming part of neither but existing in both.
As I intimated at the beginning, sometimes an unexpected experience can give you a new sense of perspective from which you can reflect a new vision of the world and your place within it.