Following a night of enthusiastic storms, I headed east from Twentynine Palms, California. I decided to take the shortest route to my destination, which sent me through Mojave National Preserve and Mojave Trails National Monument. While this was a beautiful and intriguing landscape, it was also quite soggy from the rains of the previous hours. There were a few close calls, but I luckily made it to my destination of Las Vegas without encountering any roads that were completely washed out and impassable.
I'd never been to Las Vegas before, and wasn't entirely sure what to expect. My first thought was that it was actually a lot smaller than I had envisioned. Other than that, it pretty much lived up to my expectations... gambling, over-the-top glitz, shows, weird people, and lots of intoxicated partiers who could barely walk - including one who had literally passed out on the sidewalk. His friends were pretty concerned. I don't think I have a lot in common with the people for whom this is a dream destination, but it was fun to experience it for a day. I do love people watching.
The streets were pretty empty when I rolled out of town around 7 a.m., wild and crazy party animal that I am. The clouds were beginning to drift away, making for a dramatic and beautiful scene as my car passed through Red Rock Canyon and headed west again.
In about an hour, I was in Pahrump, Nevada, my home for the next week. I hadn't researched much about Pahrump ahead of time, only that it was the closest locale of any size at all to Death Valley National Park. I came to learn that Michael Jackson had once owned an estate here, it is home to the Chicken Ranch and some other (yes, legal) brothels, you can do some hardcore firearms training at Front Sight Training Institute, and famed madam Heidi Fleiss was once proprietor of a laundromat in the town called "Dirty Laundry." I can't say that any of that got me really excited. :-)
I was pretty pumped up about seeing Death Valley, though. After itching to visit this expansive national park for years, I was finally going to experience it. I had also achieved my goal of visiting during the wintertime, as a summer visit to the hottest, driest, and lowest place in North America can be worse than inhospitable. Back in July of 1913, the temperature reached a whopping 134 degrees there.
Death Valley has apparently been growing slightly wetter over the past few years, and they had received nearly half their total average yearly precipitation a couple days before my visit. This meant that the landscape was different than it would likely look in warm and toasty July. The lowest lying areas of the park were home to shallow bodies of water, not dry, cracked salt flats. Salt Creek, home to the rare desert pupfish, was flowing instead of being reduced to a few life-filled puddles. And there was certainly plenty of salty mud to adorn my hiking shoes as a souvenir of my visit.
One my surprises at Death Valley was the variety of scenery that exists there - flat, salty, lifeless expanses; beautiful multicolored striped mountains; surreal, wrinkly, colorful badlands; canyons; sand dunes; creeks teeming with fish; the well-preserved ghost town of Rhyolite just outside the park's borders; and so much more than I could ever properly describe. It literally takes hours to drive from one end of the park to another, and it seems nearly impossible that anyone could ever truly see and experience its diverse wonders.
I have found that the desert has a way of teaching you about the persistence and creativity of life. Some might think that Death Valley would be an exception to this observation, but despite everything it's up against, life creeps through even this harshest of landscapes. In addition to amazing desert fish, I spotted a brave and curious coyote, many birds, lots of darting lizards, and some very hopeful vegetation. While the guy passed out on the sidewalk in Las Vegas probably woke up the next morning wishing he wasn't living and the gold prospectors cleared out of Rhyolite long ago, these life forms slowly and quietly adapt, adjust, and amaze those who take a moment to stop and spot them. I'm glad I am among them.