It is the time of almonds, slender spirits shimmering in poufy robes of white. Hundreds upon hundreds of the trees fill the highway’s edges as I speed by, blossoms all enticing. At 70 mph, the flowers blur like long sheer skirts of ballerinas, but there’s no time now for dancing. I keep driving south, past the fruit trees, past the grass-fed cattle in their meadows, past the housing farms that rise up every spring like weeds in disturbed soil, on to the valley named for death. This time of year, in early March, Death Valley seems benign enough—if not what I’d call welcoming—and I mean to photograph this fierce and legendary place.
Death Valley is home to velvet dunes, goofy desert pupfish, somnolent volcanoes, wild convoluted canyons, abandoned mining sites, crazed dry lakebeds, and the inevitable, inescapable, salt. Salt is everywhere, a coat of minute crumbs dusting every angle, every plane, every grain of sand and every mote of rock. If you doubt, only lick your finger, touch it to anything, and lick again: salt has claimed this neighborhood, and laid down the necessary sign. It has discovered every crevice, every crack, like powdered sugar loosed from beignets devoured on a breezy morning in New Orleans’ vieux carré. Nowhere is it more astounding, though, than at Badwater—great swirled sheets of it as far as you can see, packed dense and firm on a spacious valley floor between two mountain ranges.
So here I am before dawn, shivering and wishing for cocoa, at the low point of the continent. I’ve schlepped my gear to the middle of the salt flat, arid crystals crunching under every step. Now I crouch on the caked surface, waiting for the sun to chase the moon from its perch and light up the countless wavy hexagons, low ridges of hand-crimped salt crust arrayed endlessly in this vast pan. It looks like a massive comb, abandoned half-complete by giant alien bees. I sit in its dry white heart and fiddle with my tripod, check my camera settings, and wait. It’s thirsty, cold, and slightly creepy work–in the blackness, with no other task at hand, the salt feels oppressive, like an enemy set on seeping through my skin to thicken my blood, draw out all my water, and add my desiccated carcass to its territory. The only sound is an occasional squeak of fleece against unyielding crystals as I fidget, vain attempt to conjure sunrise and a bit of warmth.
Slowly the sun creeps up, turning the salt from blue to grey, then white at last. The sky turns too, from black to blue through shades of pink and violet. Finally the light is sweet and golden, and the Panamint mountains at the far edge of the pan begin to burn with alpenglow. A thin sliver of moon hangs on by its fingernails, framing the exchange of night and day. I shoot, and shoot, and shoot some more, each new shade more fantastic than the last.
Once the sun has mastered its steep arc I get up, stiff from stillness and from cold, and trek back to the water near the parking lot, looking for reflection shots. This is what gave the place its name, Badwater: beckoning pools that promise sweet relief but offer only misery, their high salt and mineral content no help to the desperate. Here the sun peeks over eastern mountains, casting long light on the pool’s surface. Foamy clouds of salt float on the water, mirroring the ones above, and I think again of almond blossoms. No gauzy ballerinas here, but beauty of another sort—inorganic, odd, and silent.
A breeze stirs and the salt clouds scud across the surface in their own solemn minuet. I catch a few fired by slicks of gold as the early sun meets the water, then decide it’s time for breakfast and hot coffee. I pack up and load my gear into the car as my stomach starts to agitate in earnest. Brushing off my clothes, I taste it billowing around me: from cloth to air, from air to breath, from breath to blood, the salt rises unrelenting and persistent. Come dance, it says, come join us. Looking back across the beguiling but deceitful water, out over the hexagons now become a blinding alabaster sheet, up the Panamints’ threadbare slopes to blazing snowy caps, I remember almond trees. I think now I might have time to dance.
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