America Through My Eyes- Death Valley
Telugu Original : Dr K.Geeta
English Translation: Madhuri Palaji
California state in America is very diversified. The weather is different in each corner. Snow towards the north, hot towards the south, seashore on the west. The unconquerable Sierra Nevada mountain range on the east. Not only that, the world famous desert, “Death Valley” is situated adjacent to the eastern mountain range that is covered with snow almost half of the year.
We should travel two hundred miles via the highways that lead to Los Angeles and from there we should head east. It is about five hundred and twenty miles away.
Even before the children’s schools had summer holidays, we went during the long weekend in May. May month here is warm and pleasant with the beginning of the summer. We could’ve gone during the summer holidays for kids, in the month of July. But we read that Death Valley registers the highest temperature in the world during the month of July. So, we decided to go now.
If we start in the afternoon, it will get dark before we reach half way. So, we stopped in Bakersfield for the night, in the middle of our journey.
We should’ve reached Bakersfield by seven thirty in the night. But because there was road work going on, on the freeway for about ten miles long, we got stuck in a terrible traffic jam for the first time in America. Assuming that we would reach Bakersfield by dinner time, we didn’t bring any food with us. And the need to go to the bathroom is entirely a different story. Freeways here do not allow the travellers to stop wherever they like. If we get stuck in a traffic jam between the rest areas that are a hundred miles apart, we will be in a terrible situation. We moved for about fifty miles slowly, like a tortoise and by the time we found the first food outlet, it was ten. We were disappointed by seeing the crowd and the tiny place. There was not much food available there, except for chips packets and other snack items. We ate them and filled out tummies for the time being. There was a big queue at the bathroom. By the time we reached Bakersfield after driving through that traffic, we all were exhausted and wanted to sleep.
We started our journey towards Death Valley in the morning, the next day.
After traveling about forty miles, the greenery started disappearing and we found small, round cactus plants everywhere. No matter how long we traveled, the view remained the same. I thought the desert would be covered in sand. This was the first time I saw a desert that looked like this. There were tall mountains alongside with their tips covered in snow. These mountains were very very tall. Though we saw some in pictures, videos and movies, seeing them directly with the naked eye is an entirely different experience.
It was the first time for us to see such tall mountains. There was no trace of plants on these mountains. These red mountains hung from the blue sky like a beautiful painting. At times, there were mountains in front of us, a thin highway in the middle and thorn bushes on either side of it. Our car shook like a boat traveling fast on that road with no trees around.
According to our rule during the long drive, we exchanged the responsibility of driving for every hundred miles. There was no village, or people to be seen. I felt like laughing for my own thoughts. People usually don’t live in habitable places here, why would they live in a desert?
At one place, there was a turn that headed into a different road. When we saw a place like a small town from afar, we felt very happy. Thank god, there was a town in the middle of the desert and we hoped we could find something to eat. But when we were close, all we could see were old, rusted iron furniture, some sheds where wooden items hung. It looked like people left that place long ago. We lost our hope of finding food. We saw a board saying that there is a restaurant about a mile ahead from the turning. It was twelve thirty in the noon. We all were very hungry. We had to turn and go. We contemplated for a while whether to drive a mile further ahead to check if there is a hotel or to leave. We finally decided to go and check the hotel because we didn’t know if we would find another hotel for the next hundred miles. We felt hopeful by seeing about ten cars parked outside. When we stepped into the hotel, we saw people everywhere.
The restaurant walls and roof were filled with different shapes of animals and birds. Among them, California’s state animal grizzly bear and pelican bird with its long beak attracted our children.
Since it was Saturday that day, we ordered only vegetarian from the menu. Vegetarian food here includes leaves, boiled beans, corn, potatoes and cheese toasted bread for kids. We attacked the food and finished all of it in no time without even sprinkling salt, pepper or chilli flakes. The food was expensive, though. At least we could eat something in the middle of the desert. Children felt enthusiastic after eating food. They started singing in the car. One was the main singer and the others were chorus while the rest played instruments. We forgot the dryness outside amidst the fun and entertainment.
After traveling another hundred miles, we reached a rest area. We stopped for a while and played. There were mountains all around. The wind blew high and high touching those mountains. The soil around was red in color. Kids started running and playing in the soil, chasing each other. The sky was shining bright with the sunlight. The sky was clear with no clouds. Though we were in the middle of the desert, it was not that hot, don’t know why. We resumed our drive in a while chasing the mountains.
Within half-an-hour, a terrific storm started suddenly. Our car started shaking so much. We thought it was because of the speed we were going at. But we couldn’t stop anywhere. We couldn’t see anything nearby. We slowed down and drove forward. Still the situation was the same. We wondered if the luggage we tied on the top of the car stayed and flew off.
Finally, we reached the place where there was a board that said ‘Death Valley Travel Information Center’. When we stopped the car and opened the door, the car door went way back because of the strong wind outside. I never saw such strong wind in my life. We had to hold on to each other to reach the bathroom two feet away. The restroom door that looked like a train wagon didn’t open and when it opened, didn’t close. The wind was so strong that we couldn’t close the door. They were heavy iron doors. If we observe, almost everything is made of iron in that place. Of course, if they were made of wood, they would be torn by this terrific wind.
Kids and I recorded a video about the storm like we were reporting live. Until Satya gathered information from the information center, kids played in that dust and cold running around the car. It felt like the car would fly away, if we sat in the car. We were lucky that Siri was sleeping soundly in the car. If she was awake, she would have been terrified. I couldn’t understand if the climate here is like this throughout the year or only in May.
The earth is such a strange place. I realized that things that we never saw or heard of occur like this in many other places. We also heard that sometimes winds in certain states in America turn into whirlwinds too. We never got to experience the strength of nature before this incident. By the way, how did the wind here get so much strength from? This is not the kind of wind that blows before the rain. Whirlwind, storm.. What should we call this? It didn’t slow down a bit during the thirty minutes we stayed there. Instead, this was the situation all along our way. We didn’t even know where to stop. We had to move forward… until we reached our stay by night which was two hundred miles away.
We saw a check post about twenty miles before entering the desert. The wind slowed down by then. Sun shone back again. We had to pay a twenty dollars toll to go ahead. We wondered why we had to pay when it is nothing but a desert. We understood later that this price is to conserve the sand area and the original state of the Death valley. Within half-an-hour, we found sand along the road like a beach. We jumped out of the car happily seeing a small parking spot there and a notice board that said that we could walk forward. After moving ahead for about ten feet, our feet started burning on the hot sand. That’s when we remembered that Northern America has the highest temperature. But because of the wind and also because of the hot climate in our country, we didn’t feel much hotter there. But it was very difficult to walk barefoot in that sand. We came back running to wear our footwear. Everytime we lay out foot, it sunk about one feet into the sand. Children were very happy. When nature could surprise adults with its uniqueness, kids are much more surprised. But because there was no choice of sitting in that sand to play, we didn’t stop anywhere.
After moving ahead for about a hundred feet, we saw dunes of sand spread across in front of us. There were thorny bushes here and there like boats in the sea. The wind easily carried sand over the dunes. We were dumbstruck by the beauty of this scenery before our eyes. We felt like we might ruin the beauty of the sand if we lay our foot on it. The dunes looked like they were arranged so beautifully by some artist. The sky was bright above. The red mountains afar stood tall. This place felt like the sea that was here until yesterday suddenly turned into sand due to wind and heat.
First time it felt hot like we were in India. Still, we didn’t want to move.
Kids understand that I’m in a trance whenever they see me silent. While returning, they hugged me around my waist and walked along with me in silence… like the happiness that flowed through me reached them, too. Even after getting back into the car, we wanted to go back once again. My heart felt peaceful after the journey of hundreds of miles. That beautiful scenery remained in front of my eyes even when my eyes closed or opened.
We moved forward because we had to cross this desert before it got dark and because we had to visit a few other places.
From there, we drove ahead on a narrow highway. We reached Furnace Creek at about four in the evening. We saw the grand resort adjacent to the road. That resort charges five hundred dollars for a family to stay one night in that expensive place. Since we didn’t plan on stopping in that place, we just viewed it during the drive-through. That hotel looked lavish and expensive like a palace built in the middle of a desert with palm trees all around.
There was an airport nearby. If anyone wants to stay there for three to four days, it’s easy to fly instead of this hectic car drive.
We took a turn from the main road to visit a place called Bad Waters. Red mountains on one side, and Bad Waters (we could call it a lake), on the other side like salt is spread all over.
It’s 282 feet below sea level and it’s the lowest place in North America. We look at the mountains, we can see the sea level somewhere on the top. That’s the lake where only salt remained after the water evaporated long ago. Though little water flows to this place due to the seldom rainfall, water evaporates in no time and only salt remains.. Like this! This is not a small lake. One can see the salt spread across until as far as the eye can see. We parked the car in the small parking lot and got out of the car to walk on the wooden bridge. The strong wind hit us again.
Our goggles flew away as soon as we stepped on to the wooden bridge. We went running to pick up. Varu’s plastic goggles flew into the lake. She started crying. We helped her walk forward holding her on each side. After walking a little, the lake starts from halfway of the bridge. As we walk ahead, it is a little wet because of the water. But initially, we walked on hard salt for a distance. We played for some time throwing salt balls at each other and we made a big boulder of salt and brought it along with us like a souvenir. Because of the wind, the sun rays falling on the salt were scattered across in different shapes. We didn’t understand where the wind was coming from in spite of the huge mountains standing in the way.
While we walked back, the wind blew so strong that we were pushed away. I almost fell. Satya started walking back along with the wind and then came up to the front and stood. Like we jump a little and hold stead on a beach when the waves hit us. Komal and Varu started somersaulting in the wind. I was very scared that she might be blown away. I yelled and asked her to hold hands. We couldn’t hear anything even within ten feet distance. During the gold rush, the people who first visited this place, apparently, were so happy to see water and came running here. But after seeing the salt, they cursed the place saying, ‘Bad Water’. That’s how this place got its name.
I walked halfway through the prohibited area to grab Varu’s goggles stuck amidst the salt. She was immensely happy to have them back. It was adventurous for me. What if I fell! The land became hard because of the dried salt. It was not slippery but extremely dried. When I went down to bring the goggles, kids were scared and shouted asking not to go in. But I felt it was worth it after seeing the happiness on Varu’s face.
We could experience the desert in a better way if we came on bike, on foot or by trekking, instead of a car drive. But since it was difficult for us with the kids, we spent only one night in the desert. Extreme hot weather, strong winds, no water, only rocks and thorny bushes, sand dunes – it was deadly and may be that’s why it is called ‘Death Valley’. We should visit at least once in a lifetime to experience the high mountains, diversified weather, sand dunes, and salt lake. Since we had plans to visit Las Vegas which is two hundred miles away, we headed in that direction… through the desert, on the highway where the sky and the earth are found in different colours.
Photos & Telugu Original:
Madhuri Palaji is a writer and book reviewer from India. Her book “Poems of The Clipped Nightingale” is available on Kindle. She writes book reviews for various publishing houses like Penguin Random House, Meerkat Press, Hot Tree Publishings, Bethany Publishers, etc. She is one of the top 50 book reviewers in India. Her reviews are available at http://www.theclippednightingale.com/