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PAGE 5

Death Valley
by [?]

“Well, Nielsen, you go ahead,” I said, with an attempt at lightness. “You weigh one hundred and ninety. If you go through I’ll turn back!”

Nielsen started with a laugh. The man courted peril. The bright face of danger must have been beautiful and alluring to him. I started after him–caught up with him–and stayed beside him. I could not have walked behind him over that strip of treacherous sink-hole. If I could have done so the whole adventure would have been meaningless to me. Nevertheless I was frightened. I felt the prickle of my skin, the stiffening of my hair, as well as the cold tingling thrills along my veins.

This place was the lowest point of the valley, in that particular location, and must have been upwards of two hundred feet below sea level. The lowest spot, called the Sink Hole, lay some miles distant, and was the terminus of this river of salty white.

We crossed it in safety. On the other side extended a long flat of upheaved crusts of salt and mud, full of holes and pitfalls, an exceedingly toilsome and painful place to travel, and for all we could tell, dangerous too. I had all I could do to watch my feet and find surfaces to hold my steps. Eventually we crossed this broken field, reaching the edge of the gravel slope, where we were very glad indeed to rest.

Denton had informed us that the distance was seven miles across the valley at the mouth of Furnace Creek. I had thought it seemed much less than that. But after I had toiled across it I was convinced that it was much more. It had taken us hours. How the time had sped! For this reason we did not tarry long on that side.

Facing the sun we found the return trip more formidable. Hot indeed it was–hot enough for me to imagine how terrible Death Valley would be in July or August. On all sides the mountains stood up dim and obscure and distant in haze. The heat veils lifted in ripples, and any object not near at hand seemed illusive. Nielsen set a pace for me on this return trip. I was quicker and surer of foot than he, but he had more endurance. I lost strength while he kept his unimpaired. So often he had to wait for me. Once when I broke through the crust he happened to be close at hand and quickly hauled me out. I got one foot wet with some acid fluid. We peered down into the murky hole. Nielsen quoted a prospector’s saying: “Forty feet from hell!” That broken sharp crust of salt afforded the meanest traveling I had ever experienced. Slopes of weathered rock that slip and slide are bad; cacti, and especially choya cacti, are worse: the jagged and corrugated surfaces of lava are still more hazardous and painful. But this cracked floor of Death Valley, with its salt crusts standing on end, like pickets of a fence, beat any place for hard going that either Nielsen or I ever had encountered. I ruined my boots, skinned my shins, cut my hands. How those salt cuts stung! We crossed the upheaved plain, then the strip of white, and reached the crinkly floor of yellow salt. The last hour taxed my endurance almost to the limit. When we reached the edge of the sand and the beginning of the slope I was hotter and thirstier than I had ever been in my life. It pleased me to see Nielsen wringing wet and panting. He drank a quart of water apparently in one gulp. And it was significant that I took the longest and deepest drink of water that I had ever had.

We reached camp at the end of this still hot summer day. Never had a camp seemed so welcome! What a wonderful thing it was to earn and appreciate and realize rest! The cottonwood leaves were rustling; bees were humming in the tamarack blossoms. I lay in the shade, resting my burning feet and achiag bones, and I watched Nielsen as he whistled over the camp chores. Then I heard the sweet song of a meadow lark, and after that the melodious deep note of a swamp blackbird. These birds evidently were traveling north and had tarried at the oasis.

Lying there I realized that I had come to love the silence, the loneliness, the serenity, even the tragedy of this valley of shadows. Death Valley was one place that could never be popular with men. It had been set apart for the hardy diggers for earthen treasure, and for the wanderers of the wastelands–men who go forth to seek and to find and to face their souls. Perhaps most of them found death. But there was a death in life. Desert travelers learned the secret that men lived too much in the world–that in silence and loneliness and desolation there was something infinite, something hidden from the crowd.