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PAGE 4

Death Valley
by [?]

Next morning the marvel of nature was exemplified even more strikingly. Out on the hard gravel-strewn slope I found some more tiny flowers of a day. One was a white daisy, very frail and delicate on long thin stem with scarcely any leaves. Another was a yellow flower, with four petals, a pale miniature California poppy. Still another was a purple-red flower, almost as large as a buttercup, with dark green leaves. Last and tiniest of all were infinitely fragile pink and white blossoms, on very flat plants, smiling wanly up from the desolate earth.

Nielsen and I made known to Denton our purpose to walk across the valley. He advised against it. Not that the heat was intense at this season, he explained, but there were other dangers, particularly the brittle salty crust of the sink-hole. Nevertheless we were not deterred from our purpose.

So with plenty of water in canteens and a few biscuits in our pockets we set out. I saw the heat veils rising from the valley floor, at that point one hundred and seventy-eight feet below sea level. The heat lifted in veils, like thin smoke. Denton had told us that in summer the heat came in currents, in waves. It blasted leaves, burned trees to death as well as men. Prospectors watched for the leaden haze that thickened over the mountains, knowing then no man could dare the terrible sun. That day would be a hazed and glaring hell, leaden, copper, with sun blazing a sky of molten iron.

A long sandy slope of mesquite extended down to the bare crinkly floor of the valley, and here the descent to a lower level was scarcely perceptible. The walking was bad. Little mounds in the salty crust made it hard to place a foot on the level. This crust appeared fairly strong. But when it rang hollow under our boots, then I stepped very cautiously. The color was a dirty gray and yellow. Far ahead I could see a dazzling white plain that looked like frost or a frozen river. The atmosphere was deceptive, making this plain seem far away and then close at hand.

The excessively difficult walking and the thickness of the air tired me, so I plumped myself down to rest, and used my note-book as a means to conceal from the tireless Nielsen that I was fatigued. Always I found this a very efficient excuse, and for that matter it was profitable for me. I have forgotten more than I have ever written.

Rather overpowering, indeed, was it to sit on the floor of Death Valley, miles from the slopes that appeared so far away. It was flat, salty, alkali or borax ground, crusted and cracked. The glare hurt my eyes. I felt moist, hot, oppressed, in spite of a rather stiff wind. A dry odor pervaded the air, slightly like salty dust. Thin dust devils whirled on the bare flats. A valley-wide mirage shone clear as a mirror along the desert floor to the west, strange, deceiving, a thing both unreal and beautiful. The Panamints towered a wrinkled red grisly mass, broken by rough canyons, with long declines of talus like brown glaciers. Seamed and scarred! Indestructible by past ages, yet surely wearing to ruin! From this point I could not see the snow on the peaks. The whole mountain range seemed an immense red barrier of beetling rock. The Funeral Range was farther away and therefore more impressive. Its effect was stupendous. Leagues of brown chocolate slopes, scarred by slashes of yellow and cream, and shadowed black by sailing clouds, led up to the magnificently peaked and jutted summits.

Splendid as this was and reluctant as I felt to leave I soon joined Nielsen, and we proceeded onward. At last we reached the white winding plain, that had resembled a frozen river, and which from afar had looked so ghastly and stark. We found it to be a perfectly smooth stratum of salt glistening as if powdered. It was not solid, not stable. At pressure of a boot it shook like jelly. Under the white crust lay a yellow substance that was wet. Here appeared an obstacle we had not calculated upon. Nielsen ventured out on it and his feet sank in several inches. I did not like the wave of the crust. It resembled thin ice under a weight. Presently I ventured to take a few steps, and did not sink in so deeply or make such depression in the crust as Nielsen. We returned to the solid edge and deliberated. Nielsen said that by stepping quickly we could cross without any great risk, though it appeared reasonable that by standing still a person would sink into the substance.