Death Valley National Park

“Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures.  Let the noon find thee by other lakes, and the night overtake thee everywhere at home.  There are no larger fields than these, no worthier games than may here be played.”  – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

 

This may shock you, but I’ve discovered that Death Valley gets pretty hot in the summer.  Face-meltingly hot.  The downside is that your body begins to overheat so intensely that it systematically shuts down its life-supporting functions.  The upside is that you have great photo-taking opportunities.   Few other people are dumb enough to wander around the Mesquite Dunes when the thermometer jumps well into the triple digits, so you usually have the place to yourself.

Death Valley is one of my favorite parks (despite the fact that my last car, the only vehicle I’ve ever become attached to emotionally, tragically died there in 2005).  When it comes to politics I am instinctively repelled by extremes, but the opposite is true with landscapes.   And Death Valley is nothing if not an extreme landscape – it’s the largest National Park in the continental U.S., it has the lowest elevation, and it often has the highest temperatures…  The place is vast, imposing, and desolate.   Plus it has great sand dunes.  And I’m a sucker for sand dunes.

One of the reasons I like photographing sand dunes so much is that you can get interesting shots any time of day.  Normally it’s very difficult to take good landscape photos in mid-day light.  Most of the truly jaw-dropping landscape photos you’ve seen were taken around sunrise or sunset.  So far I’ve only been on the road for five days, and on four of those days I dragged myself out of bed before sunrise so I could try to get some good shots.  Waking up that early on a regular basis can be brutal, but to get certain kinds of photos you just have to make yourself do it.

Sand dunes, however, understand how frustrating it is for photographers to be restricted to such a limited window of opportunity, and they’re kind enough to help by giving us something to work with in almost any kind of sunlight.  Strong direct light can even be a good thing when shooting sand dunes, especially if you’re doing abstract work with the always-changing shadows that surround you in a place like the Mesquite Dunes.

 

Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park

 

All that is a long way of explaining why, without even really thinking about it, I chose Death Valley as the first destination of my Big Trip.  My last day in San Francisco was hectic – I had to finish cleaning my apartment, return my key to my landlord, drop my cable box off at Comcast, and make one final trip to the place where I’m storing my stuff – so I didn’t get out of the city until about noon.  I knew it was too hot in Death Valley to camp there (high of 117, low of 86 that day), so I spent the night at a cheap motel in Bishop, about 140 miles from the dunes, then got up at 4:45am the next morning and made it to Death Valley before the whole area turned into a furnace.

 

The Only Other Idiots Walking the Dunes

 
I didn’t hear the dunes sing this time, but I did have them mostly to myself, making it uncharacteristically easy to find footprint-free foregrounds.