Lake Manly, Badwater, Death Valley. January 17, 2005.
Last Thursday I sipped coffee, the sand cold against my sandaled toes. The muddy, foam-flecked Mojave River flowed before me. Twenty years of visiting and I had seen water in this part of the river only once before, and then without stopping.
The truck engine clicked cooling in the morning air.
The river was swift and shallow. Small standing waves covered almost every square inch of its surface. A line of ripples before me like tiger claw marks on brown corduroy pivoted upstream and down. Standing waves’ key characteristic is that they, well, stand. They stay. They are static. I decided that the river’s flow must be fluctuating to make these ripples dance. Cubic feet per second on the Y axis and time elapsed on the X: waves within waves.
The full flow of the river right before me. Upstream, a dozen braids converged, to split again downstream. Water sounds echoed off the old Fred Harvey building. Houses are scattered among the red rock hills on the far side, up towards Old Route 58. In 1856 Illinois sent two delegates to the first Republican National Convention. One went on to the White House and martyrdom, the other moved here and built a mill across the river for his silver mines. Robert Whitney Waterman’s workers later remembered him treating them well, and their wives appreciated his ban on liquor, gambling and whoring. When the price of silver dropped, all scattered to the four winds. Little trace remains of the mill.
A man in an impossibly run-down house on the south bank rummaged through one of five cars in his yard, shouting at his dog. A Barstow cop drove by, waved at me, smiled.
The night before I drove through downtown Barstow after the sun had set. Scattered groups of men huddled around brown-bagged bottles. At a stoplight corner three of them stood facing me, no eyes nor noses visible, only gaping, questing mouths. I thought it a hallucination spurred by driving and peripheral vision. I dared not take a second look.
Waves in the desert. Chart most anything out here and you find troughs, breakers. In Death Valley on Tuesday I hiked up into Coffin Canyon, a high-walled slot carved out below Dante’s View. A hundred yards in I was stopped by a dry fall, fifteen or twenty feet of smooth vertical rock. I turned to face down-canyon. Ten feet above me, pasted to canyon walls, a bathtub ring of leaves were stuck still drying from floods of a week before. The newscasters called the storm “unprecedented,” the most rain ever recorded in two weeks in Southern California. At the mouth of Coffin Canyon the flood had carved a small notch into a broad alluvial fan, exposing layers of head-sized rocks moved by ancient storms. On the floor of Death Valley old Lake Manly had returned, a foot or so of water covering the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level. It would dry up within a month or so, leaving a thin layer of mud and salt.