Feb 18

Day 3 – Ash Meadows

Category: Death Valley

After getting a very late start (after all, this was a vacation) we headed off in the direction of Death Valley. On the way, we’d pass Ash Meadows, and planned to spend most of the day there. There are a couple of things about Ash Meadows that make it unusual: one, it has a lot of water. Two, it’s slightly out of the way, and I suspected that it wouldn’t be overrun by people. I was right, or at least lucky – which is the same thing if you don’t look too closely.

When I look at a map of this area I delight in the macabre flavor of its place names. Death Valley encompasses the funeral mountains, funeral peak, coffin peak, Furnace creek, Badwater, Deadman pass, Hell’s gate, and Dante’s view. The Devil, by the way, owns a lot of amenable real estate in the valley: there is a Devil’s hole, gate, cornfield, playground, golf course, kitchen and even a speedway. Even the more prosaic names are amusingly forbidding:dry flat (works as a proper name and descriptive phrase!), jackass flats (overlooked by Busted Butte), several lakes parenthetically described as dry, and the saline valley. I’ll admit that there are places like Pleasant Valley and Manly Peak (the name of a person, not an anthropomorphism), but they don’t have as much panache.

Which brings us to Ash Meadows. Having absorbed the spirit of the region via its place names, I figured that the meadows’ name was a wry reference to the hellish heat of the summer desert. As it turns out, it’s named after the Ash trees that grow (or used to grow) in this region before America’s wave of European colonizers wiped them from the land. But the name turns out to be strangely appropriate. The soil in many areas of Ash Meadows really does resemble fine white fire ash. In fact, it’s salt and minerals left here from the evaporation of ancient seas and lakes. It looks like snow, but everything you see in these pictures is salt and other minerals.

ash meadows

Even though it’s dry here, it does occasionally rain. The area’s low-altitude valleys act as sumps for drainage from mountain ranges extending hundreds of miles. So there is water here, not merely occasional moisture but flowing creeks and standing lakes. Every season there is water that comes and goes. The salt is transported by this water and is left behind in its absence, crystallizing onto blades of grass that grow in the promise of abundant water. Betrayed by evaporation, the grasses mummify when the summer sun blasts all moisture from the salt’s ionic embrace; the beckoning marsh is transformed into a poisonous wasteland.

The prevailing scarcity of water elsewhere in the desert makes of it a spice that brings taste, color, and life to a burned land. This charmed place in the desert collects water with the same intensity that the remainder of the land scorns it. Animals are attracted to it, and some find a permanent residence here. There’s actually enough full-time water to attract waterfowl and to support fish, crayfish, and algae.

One of the main attractions of this area is the Devil’s Hole pupfish, a rare native animal that used to swim freely over wide swaths of this region when it was a sea, then a series of deep lakes, and eventually the desert it is today; the land changed, and the fish changed with it, becoming accustomed to the punishing conditions of overheated hypersaline water. Human activity has almost destroyed this creature, which is why the flooded cave known as Devil’s hole is protected with a high belt of chain fence crowned with barbed wire. The visitor’s only access to the hole is visual, and even that through a tiny opening; I felt like I was visiting someone in prison. In the picture below you can see the viewing port behind me.
devil's hole fence

The hole itself is a narrow channel filled with bright blue water and cluttered with rusting scientific instruments. Such is the fate of the pupfish; driven into this remnant of its former range, slaughtered by an insatiable invader, imprisoned in this crevasse with no hope of escape and subjected to endless scrutiny which may be its only salvation. Only a few miles away, the tiny compound of the Timbisha Shoshone people stands in dusty fellowship.

Unable to stop the decline of the pupfish, government biologists have relocated small schools of pupfish to other bodies of water in the region, as well as aquariums and lakes in neighboring states. Having read that the fish could therefore be found in a neighboring “refuge” creek, we went in search of it. And found it! In the picture below, you can see Holly watching the pupfish and the non-native red crayfish. Not having an underwater camera, I could only get these blurry shots. If you click through and look at the largest image, you can see the animals better.


We followed a visitor boardwalk that follows the crystal spring creek bed.

Crystal spring, the source of all this water, glistens jewel-like and shocking blue in the midst of aridity. A hearty algae forest supports the pupfish as well as a few other species. We saw fish and crayfish at many points along the boardwalk. In the distance, coyotes howled and bayed.

We could easily have spent multiple days here, but wanted to beat the setting sun and so headed off to Death Valley. We made it to Furnace Creek at dusk and checked in. Only then did we discover that we’d scored a really cute little cabin on a quiet side street. Furnace creek is the most complete NPS “town” I’ve ever seen, with full facilities- gas, gift shop, multiple fine restaurants and a golf course, for god’s sake. In the middle of a desert! Even though we were there at the beginning of the high tourist season, the desert sucked up all sound and the place was restful.

Having settled ourselves and had a nice dinner, we decided to take a walk under the full moon. Grabbing flashlights, a compass and dressing well against the cold, we headed off through Furnace Creek’s date grove and across the neighboring salt flat. We walked about 3 miles, the moonlight literally strong enough to read by, our flashlights unused. The infinite desert absorbed all sound, creating a feeling of being somewhere sacred. The lack of any acoustic reference was disorienting. It was to the ear what absolute darkness is to the eye. The salt crust beneath our feet looked for all the world like snow. A lone coyote skulked through the scrub, eying us warily. Not trusting us, but not terribly concerned either, it decided to play things safe and trotted away casually, periodically halting and glancing over its shoulder to assess our threat potential. Soon it slipped away, merging with the shadowy mesquite scrub like a drop of black mercury, vanishing completely.

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