Zabriskie Point in Death Valley - It's not a gap...it's an abyss!Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park - “How you get there depends on where you're at.”
For most of my life, I avoided Death Valley like the plague. The stories about an ill-fated attempt to reach California by wagon train in 1849 - 1850 created a daunting image. The graben of Death Valley holds the record as the hottest place on Earth, with five consecutive days in 1913 registering 129 °F (54 °C), or above. Annual precipitation at Death Valley averages less than 2.5-inches. Further, its existence as the lowest point of elevation in the United States added to the negative connotations in my mind.
Then, in November 2016, I traveled from Las Vegas, through Pahrump, Nevada and on to Death Valley National Park, California. Other than photos and video I had viewed of the area, I had no idea what to expect. What I found upon arrival was reminiscent of a Martian landscape, rather than Earth. Volcanism, erosion and rocky or sandy soil abounded. As distinguished from the face of Mars, there were a few hardy plants and animals, but otherwise, normal life-support seemed unlikely.
Before arriving at my campsite in Furnace Creek, I visited Zabriskie Point. Relatively unknown until the latter 20th century, Zabriskie Point became the prime location and namesake of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 counterculture flick. Filmed in 1969, with music by Pink Floyd and Jerry Garcia, the movie features an incoherent plot, as if the cast and crew were not only blazing in the sun, but also blazing on lysergic acid (LSD). In fact, the often-panned, but now cinematically celebrated film "set the scene" for many other desert trips of fame or infamy.
On Oct. 12, 1969, at Barker Ranch, in Death Valley, just north of the San Bernardino County town of Trona, the murder spree of the Charles Manson “family” ended with his arrest. In September 1973, members of the rock band, The Eagles accompanied singer and songwriter Gram Parsons to the place and time of his death in Joshua Tree, California. According to public records, between October 2003 and November 2013, twenty people of lesser fame died in or around Death Valley. On July 6, 2014, hikers in the badlands near Zabriskie Point discovered the body of British actor Dave Legeno, known for his role as werewolf Fenrir Greyback in three of the ‘Harry Potter’ films. Temperatures at the time of Legeno’s death were as much as 123 °F (50.5 °C).
In the film Zabriskie Point, I remember a scene with the male and female stars standing on a tiny pinnacle of land. Filmed at sunset, one can see the Panamint Range looming and glooming in the west. As the stars embrace, the camera revolves around them. Amid clouds of dust, we see lots of skin and writhing bodies. Amidst the whipping wind and the grand vistas at sundown, we see dozens of couples apparently copulating on the hillocks below. After almost fifty years, both film acolytes and the curious continue to trek up the hill to see that famous spot. That tiny pinnacle of film-fame has eroded into dust. Oh, that the faithful shall not trample His grave, too.
In 2004, a flash flood swept across the highway, uprooting and destroying the substantial concrete pit-toilets previously installed in the parking area. After extensive repairs, both then and in 2014, there is now a paved pathway, leading up to a viewing plaza. With its low stone wall, the plaza is about the size of a baseball diamond. Although the once remote place called Zabriskie Point is no longer so remote, the views at sundown are every bit as exciting or sublime, depending on one’s energies at the time.
On November 10, 2016, my first visit to Zabriskie point occured less than two days after the U.S. election of “He Who Cannot Be Named” (HWCBN). After sunset, I lingered to talk with people from across the United States, and beyond. “Do you think he will open up the national parks and monuments for oil and gas exploration?” one man asked. “No”, I replied. “The U.S. Antiquities Act of 1906, signed by then president Theodore Roosevelt will protect our esteemed parks and monuments from HWCBN and his penchant for Old Energy exploitation”.
On April 27, 2017, HWCBN signed an executive order reviewing and attempting to rollback or eliminate every U.S. national monument created since the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, during the Clinton administration. The final list includes the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument in Arizona, Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and Craters of the Moon in Idaho. Thank you, Mr. HWCBN for protecting our national heritage.
On an April 2017 visit to Zabriskie Point, I noticed a curious recurring phenomenon. Once again, the sun set through the abysmal gap, framed by the Panamint Range, which is visible west of Zabriskie Point. At sunset, the place darkened like a theater when the lights go down. After staring toward the sun for the final fifteen minutes of daylight, my eyes could not readily adjust to the twilight and approaching darkness. Although the sun still shone for a time on the Amargosa Range to the east, the Zabriskie Point plaza looked like there had been a solar eclipse.
After gazing around the plaza, I snapped a few photos of the sunlight as it receded from the Amargosa Range. As darkness rapidly approached, all visible landforms were in shadow. Since there was nothing more to see, I sauntered down the sinuous pathway that led to the parking lot below. Here is the curious part. At the end of each visit, I spotted several photographers carrying long-lens cameras. Each was hoofing it up the pathway to the viewing area. I wanted to say, “It is all over. Don’t even bother going up there. There is nothing more to see”.
If you plan to visit Zabriskie Point and view that famous sunset, do not refer to the official sunset times listed in your almanac or on a weather website. They will list the time of day when the sun slips below the Earth’s horizon, not when it disappears behind the Panamint Range, which may be ten or fifteen minutes earlier.
Each time that I observed a Zabriskie Point sunset, several photographers ran toward the ancient plaza. With the sun already set, one can only hope that they arrived in time to take pictures of the abyss.