The Timbisha Shoshone tribe takes its name from red minerals found in the desert valley. “Timbisha“ means “red rock face paint.” Timbisha also is the name of the valley, where the tribe has dwelled for a millennium. The valley provides everything they need to survive.
Pioneers seeking a shortcut to the California gold fields had a different perspective. They couldn’t find their way out. After being rescued by two scouts who led them over the mountains, one of the forty-niners called it Death Valley. Parts have gone by other names: Badwater, Furnace Creek, Dante’s View, Hell’s Gate. All foreboding.
Geologists would have a different view. This 140-mile-long valley near the California-Nevada border is a dream come true for scientists who study the earth’s crust. Borax, salt, talc, volcanic ash, iron oxide paint the canyon walls and mountains. Steep cliffs reveal layers of sediment formed by an ancient sea. Heaven for a geologist.
Death Valley National Park is stunning in its beauty, and in its starkness. Dunes stretch across the valley floor. Mesquite trees push out from the white sand. From Dante’s View at 5,475 feet of elevation, the valley floor stretches out in streaks and swirls of sand and salt. Breathtaking.
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The man in the photograph taken at Badwater may look like the only living being in the vast desert. From his vantage point, he is standing at the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level. Across the salt pan to the left is Telescope Peak at 11,049 above sea level. A stark contrast.
A friend asked why I would visit this place. Death Valley records the hottest temperatures on Earth. To some people, it’s desolate.
To Pauline Esteves, it’s her ancestral home. “This is a place about life,” the tribal chairwoman wrote in 1999 when she urged the federal government to expand the Timbisha reservation. “It is a powerful and spiritual valley that has healing powers, and the spirituality of the valley is passed on to our people.”
Turn off Highway 190 south of Furnace Creek and the road takes you to Artist’s Palette, named for the colors of the hills, painted by oxidation of metals and minerals. A hike into Golden Canyon leads you through a narrow canyon to Red Cathedral and cliffs resembling organ pipes. At Badwater Basin, there is a pool of water encrusted with crystalized white salt. Otherworldly.
The perspectives of Death Valley are as varied as the landscape – colorful, harsh, alluring and challenging. For some, it’s hell. For others, it’s home.