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Empty and Full: Finding Beauty in the Desert's Dry Lake Landscape

Patterns on Badwater Basin Surface No.2 - Death Valley, CA - 2015
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Tourists at Badwater Basin - Death Valley, CA 2015 | Photo: Osceola Refetoff
Tourists at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, CA, 2015. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

High & Dry surveys the legacy of human enterprise in the California desert. Together, writer/historian Christopher Langley and photographer Osceola Refetoff document human activity, past and present, in the context of future development.

“I said nothing at the time, just ran my fingertips along the edge of the human-shaped emptiness that had been left inside me.”

-- Haruki Murakami, "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman"

Standing at the edge of the salt pan on the floor of Death Valley I think of sugar frosting, chocolate foam and chocolate chip ice cream. I reach down and pop a very tiny piece from my fingertip to my lips. It tastes like table salt and it tastes surprisingly good. The sweetness I briefly imagined was mere ephemeral wish fulfillment.

I am poised expectantly at Badwater Basin, the most popular tourist attraction in Death Valley National Park. Couples and small groups stroll with casual curiosity along a well-worn white boulevard of packed salt, out towards a glimmering horizon. Is it 500 feet or 5,000 or five miles or 50? The great epic landscapes of the desert often play havoc with our ability to estimate distance. Here people simply give up and turn back when they see others ahead do the same. This inability to understand how far things really are can be deadly in the desert wilderness.

Osceola Refetoff Photographs Salt Formations at Badwater Basin | Photo: Christopher Langley
Osceola Refetoff photographs salt formations at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, CA, 2015. | Photo: Christopher Langley.

I watch these casual pedestrians and hear their voices, sometimes serious, sometimes just chatty. Some folks talk about the geology before them, others about mundane events, last week's office politics, or their children who have scampered ahead. One couple, hand in hand, ponder the look of the salt pan on a night illuminated by a full moon. A few couples walk in silence, either deep in personal thought or enraptured by the immensity of what lies all about them.

I crouch with my journal trying to capture my thoughts, and then sit on my small portable writer’s chair and listen. Few are speaking English and I think many of the travelers are from other countries, drawn to this unique park with the prospect of seeing the landscape swathed in a light of unknown depth. The photographer struggles with the light and with his tilt-shift camera lens. Later he remarks about something I had noticed. He thinks that many of the people are visiting from older countries. Their infrastructures have filled the land before the idea of public lands was birthed in the United States a hundred years ago.

There are parks, but few protected lands of this size. Even more atypical for these visitors is the wilderness of the American West. Parks in Europe are tamer, more manicured, having been altered with the intention of improving upon nature. The parks of the world, now part of the Anthropocene Age, have human-disturbed landscapes, roads, even lawns and interpretive kiosks and centers. They have exhibits of pristine nature contained within; most parks are primarily modified for human interaction.

The evening's darkness moves in the form of a land-devouring murkiness. Telescope Peak’s shadow sweeps suddenly across the land. We are both unprepared for the precipitous onset of dwindling light. We will return again tomorrow, a little earlier this time to extend the “magic hour” of light that photographers celebrate.


We are back to the salt pan again. The photographer is striving to capture the unnamable that is before him, as I struggle to understand my compelling feelings. It seems all about emptiness. Yet, the desert is empty only at first glance. Although there are great sweeping vistas here that my mind struggles to understand, interpret and explain, I cannot capture in words this deep abiding sense I have upon our return to this area.

Salt Formations at Badwater Basin | Photo: Osceola Refetoff
Salt formations at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, CA, 2015. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

Edward Abbey warns against searching for meaning in the desert. He fears bringing meaning to the desert beyond what is actually there. The desert is neither empty nor full; its meaning is constructed. The desert is there to be cognized and perceived, devoid of meaning -- it could be argued it is empty of meaning.

Yet, I cannot achieve this idea, grasp it and hold it to me. I crave meaning; struggle to capture it with words. The desert is in ways as no other landscape. I carry a Christian culture deep within me, molding my thoughts and behavior. In that religion there is the concept of kenosis: the emptying of the ego that opens one to God. In “Contrasts: A Defense of Desert Writings,” Rune Graulund states “For Abbey, too, the desert is a silent, solitary, contemplative place in which one often looses one’s self yet gains something in return.”

I am not alone, surrounded by strangers, but really alone as only humans can be in a crowd. It is a quandary, an emptiness of soul.

I turn to the facts of the “bad water.”

Standing Water at Badwater Basin - Death Valley, CA 2005 | Photo: Osceola Refetoff
Standing water at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, CA, 2005. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

The Badwater Basin is a marvel of surprise. First there is the pool with water collecting year-round. But in the summer it is empty because evaporation is so great it exceeds the water collecting at the end of its long, tedious journey. The salt pan is constantly changing, as if it were reaching teleologically to satisfy the biologist’s definition of life itself.

Salt crystals expand, pushing the crust of salt into rough, chaotic forms. Newly formed crystals ooze between mudcracks, sketching strange patterns on the surface of the salt flat. Passing rainstorms wash off windblown dust and generate a fresh layer of blinding white salt. Floods create temporary lakes that dissolve the salts back into solution, starting the process all over again.

-- Death Valley interpretation kiosk (on site)

More astounding is the origin of the water: Once ice age snow, now melted, it mixes with present-day rain falling on mountains hundreds of miles away in Nevada. It then seeps through porous limestone bedrock and begins a long underground flow through the regional aquifer. It emerges along the fault line of the valley floor, and is fresh until it mixes with the salts that have been deposited in the basin over eons.

Facing North from Badwater Basin - Death Valley, CA - 2015 | Photo: Christopher Langley
Facing north from Badwater Basin, Death Valley, CA, 2015. | Photo: Christopher Langley.

Yet, instead of an empty barren wasteland, the pool supports diverse life forms. In the area there is Salicornia (pickleweed), several species of aquatic worms and insects and the Badwater snail (Assiminea infirma), which has adapted and can now only exist in these extreme conditions.

I feel now a vacuity within, as my skin’s sense of touch focuses on the small flies murmuring about me. They must be seeking sustenance on my salty sweat. An intense realization strikes me that my old skin matches the skin of the salt pan: splotchy, rough and worn.

I and the salt pan are one. I await the sound of silence here that explains it.

Flies, how do you make it out here? You ignore the earth’s salty skin and tickle mine instead. What is there on either skin to nourish you? The skin of the salt pan is a skin of extended patience yet subtle sensation. My skin is old and wrinkled yet still able to respond to the erotic touch and painful attack.

Patterns on Badwater Basin Surface No.2 - Death Valley, CA - 2015
Patterns on Badwater Basin Surface No.2, Death Valley, CA, 2015. | Photo: Osceola Refetoff.

It is my skin that breaths and heals and holds this bag of water and bone together. My fluids are salty, reminding me that we crawled from the sea long ago. The salt pan can heal and reform with water and sun. All this pondering leaves the emptiness that surrounds me now within me. I am one with the desert, with the salt, with the small life of flies on my skin.

I realize it is not the desert that is empty. I am empty and in that emptiness awaits a new fullness.

For a passing moment I am the desert salt pan: empty and full; epic and intimate; senescent and reborn.

Then I am back to me.

To explore more High & Dry: dispatches from the land of little rain visit or the project's Facebook page. We welcome your questions and comments.


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