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22nd Apr 2021 in

When summer came rolling around the bend it was always a happy time for me while living in the various deserts of Southern California. Winters were grey and filled with rain, and maybe a little snow if we were lucky. After winter came a spring season full of howling, biting, icy winds. The warmth and calm of summer was always a welcome respite from the rest of the matter that it might get just the tiniest bit warm. I would greet the season with happiness and find many ways of welcoming the summer solstice. It always felt like a holy day to me.

As I got older and found a steering wheel in my hands and my foot on a throttle, my friends and I would take advantage of the change of season and make our way toward various locations for a little hiking and camping, star gazing, and storytelling. We often made our way to distant places in Utah, Nevada, and Arizona, but just as often we stayed within the beautiful state of California. One of my favorite places to visit was Death Valley. We visited there many times be it winter, spring, fall, or summer. My favorite time of course was summer. 

After a few years were spent exploring Death Valley in the summer, we became very familiar with the environment and the possible dangers involved with the heat and the human body. That was when my friends and I developed a tradition in which we visited Death Valley during the full moon closest to the Summer Solstice. We would welcome the season with a ritual of our own creation, and a celebration that included days of camping in solitude and simply being in one of the most amazing places on earth.  

On these trips, we would leave early in the morning so we could arrive in Death Valley before noon. Buying groceries and filling gas tanks are tasks accomplished much faster in the earliest part of the morning. Also, the drive to Death Valley goes through some very desolate places, and even if that desolation was beautiful, the drive could definitely wear long, so it was good to get it behind us early in the day. 

Our goal for the day was to reach Badwater, a well-known spot in the southern-most part of Death Valley National Park, and it was where our first day and much of the first night in Death Valley would unfold. We would arrive sometime around mid-day and extract ourselves from the vehicles to breathe in the heating air and let the silence and immensity of the valley and surrounding mountains sink into our souls. Badwater is the lowest point in North America at almost 300 feet below sea level. The heat builds there in the summertime like a kiln firing ceramics. By noon, the temperature is usually well over 100º F, and on its way to 110º or beyond. I was there in July once at about 3:00 in the afternoon and the temperature was 126ºF.

There would always be a few hardy tourists visiting Badwater when we got there. Many were from Europe and were on tour, so they dismounted the bus they were traveling in and would form a line, then parade past the information boards, and pay a visit to the latrine if necessary. Others would be on their own driving rental cars. Others might arrive by van from points unknown. What was common among all these people was the look in their eyes. “The squint of disbelief” was how my friends and I wound up describing it. To be wrapped in utter silence and resonating heat unlike anywhere else on earth, at the lowest spot in North America at almost 300 feet below sea level, with a view of snow-capped, 12,000-foot mountains a mere 15 miles distant as a crow flies is a sight not easily digested without frequent exposure.

In recognition of the visitors' probable disorientation in the blistering heat, we would pull out our Cinzano shade umbrella, our folding chairs, and our large ice chest full of beer and set up a vantage point from where we could sit in the umbrella's shade sipping cold beer and watch the people go by. Many of them would stare at us, but only a very few ever came up to say hello. We were frequent recipients of the “squint of disbelief”, ourselves. 

After a good amount of time spent at Badwater, we needed to set up camp. To do this, we got back in our vehicles and traveled north a few miles to where a dirt road intersected the pavement coming from the west. We would take this dirt road and travel across the salt flats to the west side of the valley where there are no gas stations, hotels, stores, or any other people. Our goal was a place of quiet and solitude in which to celebrate the summer solstice. The west end of Death Valley fits that description better than almost any other place on earth. 

Keeping track of our location via topographic maps, we eventually came to a spot directly across the valley from Badwater. We searched for and found the remains of a well we had seen located on some topographic maps. It was a large, flat concrete structure, built in the late 1890s by a gentleman looking for gold. Instead, he found water, which can be much more valuable than gold, especially in this particular area. It’s called “Death Valley” for a reason, after all. All that remained of the well was a flat concrete slab with a large hole in the middle. Nearby there was a small open spring with grasses and reeds and stunted trees growing around. It made a wonderful spot to set up camp. The bird watching was incredible, and the views of the starry night sky would be breathtaking.

Once camp was set up, we relaxed in the afternoon heat, told stories, read books, and just enjoyed the solitude and peace. As the sun began its descent behind the 12,000-foot Panamint Mountains that rose like a cliff directly behind us, we began preparing for the ritual. One by one we got up and began stretching and trotting around to loosen the muscles and generally work out the few beers we had ingested over the course of the afternoon. The number of beers was purposefully kept to a minimum, knowing what lay ahead.

Our planned ritual began at the parking lot at Badwater where we had stopped earlier. Wanting to arrive there at around nightfall, we waited for the sun to fall far in the west before we all climbed into one vehicle. Ensuring that we had the keys to the vehicles we were leaving behind and that everything was secure, we traveled back the way we had come earlier in the day and came to rest again in the parking lot at Badwater just after nightfall. 

It's very uncommon for any traffic to travel past, much less stop at Badwater after nightfall. It's a very lonely, but very lovely place at night, and that was just what we were looking for. We still had to wait for the moon to rise above the Black Mountains just to the east of us, so we got out and continued our stretching and trotting in the lessening, though still over 100º heat.

When an unmistakable pinkish-orange glow began to appear above the mountains, the ritual began. We all reached into the vehicle and grabbed our small backpacks. We put a note on the dashboard that said we were hiking on the salt flat and gave our estimated time of return later that night, locked the vehicle, and walked down the cement trail to the salt flat that is Death Valley.

Once on the salt flat, we all stripped naked except for socks and running shoes and put our clothes in our packs. We did a few more stretches. I pulled out my compass and found our (almost) due-west heading. We looked at each other, and one of us said, "Let's go", so we set off, running nude across Death Valley, celebrating the summer solstice under the rising moon.

It was a 6.5-mile trip back to our camp across the salt flat that didn't rise or fall more than 10 feet in all that way, so it was an easy, hour-long jog in the silvery light reflecting off the white salt flats. It was absolutely exhilarating to celebrate the ascent of summer, the fitness of our youth, and the changing of the seasons on these runs as we continued our individual journeys through time and space.

One year while engaged in this ritual, I remember several coyotes running in the same direction as we were about a quarter-mile to the south. They kept up with us for a long while and then disappeared into the darkness. Another year there were some high cirrus clouds above the valley and when the moonlight shined through them, a rainbow arched through the clouds. I swore I saw the rainbow's colors reflected off the salt crystals on the valley floor.

When we made it back to camp, we all howled at the tops of our lungs and danced around, celebrating a feat that very few others, if anyone at all, had ever done before. After celebrating, we put on our clothes, jumped back into a vehicle, and drove back to Badwater to retrieve the one in the parking lot. Our solstice ritual complete, we lit a fire and relaxed under the moon and stars, reveling in the wonder of it all. 

We celebrated the solstice with this ritual five or six years in a row, then our lives took us in different directions. Those runs will always shine in my memory with the full moon bathing them, and the hot, dry desert air rising and swirling around them, bearing them up, up into the heavens where Orion and his dog Sirius, while chasing the bull Taurus, seemed to stop for a moment to gaze down and laugh with us, celebrating the rise of summer while naked and free in the joy and awe of the passing of the seasons.

Prologue...of sorts

My grandfather or my dad must have bought this print because the photograph was taken by Stephen H. Willard, a famous photographer and painter of the Southern California deserts. Coincidentally, my mom and dad took me on a trip to Death Valley in 1965. That trip is one of my very earliest memories. I had been extremely upset the morning that we were going to enter the National Monument because we were going to "Death Valley". I was convinced we were going there to die. We even had pancakes, and I understood the syrup to be "poisonberry", not "boysenberry". It took my mom and dad a lot of work to extract that information from me, but when they did they laughed and hugged me and told me that death was indeed NOT what was going to happen. My first trip to Death Valley was definitely a strange one...they only got better after that.

Badwater Basin from Dante's View, 1965
Badwater Basin from Dante's View, photo by Stephen H. Willard

Epilogue...for sure


Weather Report, Suite I

Performed by The Grateful Dead
Lyrics by Bob Weir and Eric Anderson
Music by Bob Weir

Soundboard recording from Freedom Hall in Louisville, KY on June 18th, 1974.

Winter rain, now tell me why
Summers fade and roses die
The answer came, the wind and rain

Golden hills now veiled in gray
Summer leaves are blown away
Now what remains, the wind and rain

And like a desert spring, my lover comes and spreads her wings
Like a song that's born to soar the sky
Flowing till the waters all are dry
The loving in her eyes

Circle songs and sands of time
And seasons will end in tumbled rhyme
And little change, the wind, and rain

Chorus -

Winter gray and falling rain
We'll see summer come again
Darkness falls and seasons change
(Gonna happen every time)
Same old friends the wind and rain
(We'll see summer by and by)
Winter gray and falling rain
(Seasons change and roses die)
We'll see summer come again
(Like a song that's born to soar the sky)

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