Death Valley and the Beauty of a Forbidding Land

A posthumous book from a legendary UNLV professor sparks thoughts on the history and meaning of Death Valley

Photo by Julian Kilker

Photo by Julian Kilker

Read & Go

Death Valley National Park: A History by Hal K. Rothman and Char Miller (University of Nevada Press, $24.95)

If you’re looking to ask questions big and small—or just to be awed—this is the best time of the year to see Death Valley. It’s an opportunity to not only meditate on the place’s storied past, but also to glimpse our own water-challenged future. Once you’ve read Rothman and Miller’s book, check out Nicholas Clapp’s Gold and Silver in the Mojave: Images of a Last Frontier, and let Michel Digonnet’s wonderfully informative Hiking Death Valley guide you.

In The Aesthetic Brain, the renowned neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee suggests that our ancestors found landscapes attractive when their features suggested safety and nourishment. People, he writes, are more likely to survive and thrive in these environments—the result, evolutionarily speaking, is more viable offspring. In short, we’re wired to appreciate geographic comfort zones.

How, then, can we explain the popularity of Death Valley National Park? Isolated but near the heavily traveled Los Angeles-Las Vegas tourist corridor, it hosts about a million visitors a year—and it’s also the largest national park in the contiguous U.S. Its name is foreboding but accurate: Early travelers struggled to cross its mountain ranges and sometimes died in these attempts, and even today’s GPS-equipped travelers underestimate its dangers and imperil themselves regularly (“Let’s take a shortcut … down that rutted road!”). Given all the danger-related names in Death Valley—Badwater Basin, Furnace Creek, Devil’s Hole, Funeral Mountains, Hungry Bill’s Ranch—it’s remarkable that Death Valley isn’t among the top 10 parks for search and rescue operations (Grand Canyon National Park is the No. 1 spot).

If not traditionally beautiful (more on that later), perhaps the park’s extremes make a bucket list of “must appreciate” locations. Lowest spot on the continental U.S.? Yes; Badwater is famously at 282 feet below sea level (and Mount Whitney, the highest point in the 48 states, is only 85 miles to the West).

Highest temperatures? Yep: Furnace Creek registered a record 134 degrees on July 10, 1913, and nearly matched that a century later with 129 last June 30. Destination for misfits? Scotty’s Castle and Barker Ranch (Charles Manson’s hideout) are only the most famous. Stand-in for other worlds? It’s portrayed fictional Star Wars worlds and played the “ideal planetary analog site” for Mars: NASA and the National Park Service held a Mars and the Mojave: Exploring Extremes on Earth and Beyond festival in March 2012. Nirvana for photographers? Just search online for “Death Valley time lapse” and view the results.

Though it’s a land of extremes, Death Valley is also a case study in the subtleties of time and change in the desert. These themes appear throughout the recently published Death Valley National Park: A History, based on a National Park Service report by Hal Rothman, who was a UNLV history professor, editor of the journal Environmental History and a prolific author (most famously of the landmark Neon Metropolis) before his death in 2007. This, his fourth book to be published posthumously, was completed by co-author Char Miller.

Just as there are geographic layers in the park, some visible to the eye and camera, there are less-visible historical layers. A subsection of what is now Death Valley National Park was proclaimed a national monument in 1933 by a lame-duck Herbert Hoover; the full-fledged national park was established in 1994. Every viewpoint and destination within the park is the product of multiple interests and uses. The people include the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, the miners (of gold, then of borax, then finally of tourist dollars), ranchers, bureaucrats near and far, investors ethical and not, and those providing all manner of boomtown services.

The transition from tribal uses and mining claims to a national park was neither direct nor simple. As with many parks, existing land claims had to be accommodated and challenged. Death Valley had a complex origin, rooted in the emergence of the personal car (at other parks, visitors originally arrived by train or bus); the declining success of mining operations; Hoover’s desire to leave a legacy; and his successor Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which provided the manpower to complete hundreds of miles of park roads. Together, these threads made Death Valley possible.

Hoover authorized five national monuments in that 1933 proclamation; three of them (Saguaro, White Sands and Death Valley) were the first desert parks. This was no coincidence. The National Park Service had expanded its holdings dramatically in the 1920s, but the emphasis was on protecting traditionally beautiful scenery. To further expand the park system, Rothman and Miller note in their history, the National Park System “needed new definitions of national park area-caliber features.” Such features were no longer limited to exceptional greenery, lush vistas, lakes and soaring cliffs.

Park-worthy landscapes now not only include “beautiful” ones that can support life, but also quite the opposite. At Death Valley, the landscape promises no comfort; we find it compelling in part because it forces us to ask difficult questions: Could we survive here? Can we survive without provisions? Without infrastructure? How can we think about the meaning of a true frontier, forbidding in every sense? We might even look at Death Valley and ask, as NASA does: Could we survive … on Mars?

Julian Kilker is a professor of emerging technologies at UNLV’s School of Journalism and Media Studies. He has worked for years on the challenges of photography in extreme environments, along the way researching the conditions, topography and history of the Mojave Desert.