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Death Valley: Beauty & Grief

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Death Valley: Beauty & Grief

Peter Polito

It was February 2005 when I made the memorable trip to Death Valley NP. It wasn't my first trip, nor was it my last—just memorable. I had planned to go with my friend Dave but the week leading up to the trip, I learned that a childhood friend of mine had died suddenly and tragically. I wanted to be alone. I wasn’t particularly emotional about his passing, after all, we hadn’t kept in touch, but there was still a deep longing for solitude.

I left Friday morning right after my Petrology class at San Francisco State hitting the road in my recently acquired 1992 Nissan Pathfinder. The drive through the Sierra was idyllic. It had been a fairly wet winter so far and the snow pack was substantial, so there were only a handful of passes still open. I passed through South Lake Tahoe and dropped down to Hwy. 395, and headed south towards Mono Lake and Mammoth Mtn. I was awestruck by the beauty of the snow of the Eastern Sierra. The land there is stark—desert like—yet all that could be seen were the rock promontories, cliff faces, and the various species of evergreen draping the eastern flank of the Sierra, everything else was white.

 Descending towards Mono Lake on US Hwy. 395.

Descending towards Mono Lake on US Hwy. 395.

I took the turn off near Big Pine, entered Death Valley on the north side, and headed for the Eureka Dune field. Driving down the long dirt road I was in complete and utter solitude. I had to fumble around to find a scrap of paper to cover up my hi-beam indicator. The bright blue light was completely jarring in the blackness. I remember going to the bathroom before bed and seeing several black widows on their ratty looking webs in the eight corners of the outhouse. The following morning I didn’t see a single one. Never have I shit so fast in all my life. Visions of John Candy in Arachnophobia plucking a single silken string moments before his demise, seared into my mind.

 Crest of a dune in the Eureka Dunes, Death Valley NP.

Crest of a dune in the Eureka Dunes, Death Valley NP.

It had rained the day before and was threatening to do so again. The dunes had a thin crust of damp sand across their surface. They were stunning. I don’t remember where else I went that morning but I ended up at Dante’s View sometime around lunch. The valley sky was still broiling from the storm that west of the Sierra crest was dropping loads of rain and snow but out here only the occasional shower. I then headed off for the destination that was the sole reason I had made the trip, Racetrack Playa.

 Three tracks on the playa.

Three tracks on the playa.

If you’ve never heard about the Racetrack you should read about. In short, it is a dry lake bed in a tucked away graben in the western half of the park. Here there is a perfect confluence of temperature, moisture, wind, and a handful of rocks. During perfect conditions, the winds coming off the surrounding ridge can push the rocks across the surface as if on a sled. At the time I’d been there, this was just a hypothesis, but the result were these rocks (<1 to 3-5 lbs) with long tracks behind them. You could actually walk the track and see when the wind had come from a different direction. You could also see where previous visitors felt the rocks were so special they had to take one home.

 35 mm selfie. #oldschool

35 mm selfie. #oldschool

The drive out was a badly washboarded 90 minute drive. It was on this drive that I discovered my car had a “squeak” that could not be located nor fixed. I didn’t pass a single car on the way to or from the Racetrack. I was in complete solitude for a better part of 5 hours.

It was on the way back from the Racetrack that the reality of Stephen’s death poignantly struck me. I raced through every memory we had made together—playing Super Off Road on his Nintendo, both having hideously ugly tails at one point in our life but thinking them pretty cool, playing games via floppy disk on his old Mac, the last time I’d seen him when he showed me the camera after getting into photography. I imagined what the last few seconds of his life must have been like as his car escaped his control, the sheer terror of seeing the tree immediately before impact, and how his family must feel at that very moment as his father and brothers were processing their loss by building his coffin. I proceeded to eat two sleeves of Double Stuff Oreos and push the thoughts and images from my mind. His death made me think about my own mortality. My twenty-one year old mind had no space nor the emotional aptitude to deal with his death, so I literally ate it away. I remember that after about the third Oreo they didn’t even taste good anymore, but I kept eating.

 A break in the storm at Ubehebe Crater.

A break in the storm at Ubehebe Crater.

I was hit by a couple of intense but very brief rainstorms as I headed back to the little civilization Death Valley had to offer. I stopped at Ubehebe Crater as the low sun—about to set behind the Panamint Range—made the bright yellows, oranges, reds, greens, and purples explode right out of the crater. It was just what I needed. Despite wanting to be alone, I’ve never been good at it and the bright colors and sunshine breaking through the clouds warmed my body and soul. I pulled into a parking lot near the Stovepipe Wells and called it a night. Happy to be around people again but glad I wouldn’t have to interact with them (#introvert).

 Ubehebe Crater, formed by a series of phreatic eruptions over 10,000 years ago.

Ubehebe Crater, formed by a series of phreatic eruptions over 10,000 years ago.

The next morning I felt refreshed and rejuvenated. There is something about an intensely emotional day followed by a night of very heavy sleep. On my way out I stopped near Telescope Peak, threw a snowball at my car, and headed back to San Francisco. On my way home, while driving up I-5 (or as I would have called it at the time, “the 5”), I drove through a curtain of the most intense rainfall I’d ever seen at that point in my life. The trip had been for me like the rain was for my car: An intense burst that stripped off all the shit that I’d picked up along the way.
When I arrived back, I stopped to gas up my car. As was filling the tank I leaned against the spare tire mounted to the back only to find it completely collapse under my weight. I unzipped the spare tire cover to find it completely flat with several holes in the sidewall. I’d just driven hundreds of miles through no-man’s land with no spare. Only now as I write this do I realize that the SOB who sold me the car didn’t tell me the spare was no good. Jerk.

 Purifying rain.

Purifying rain.

I exhaled a deep sigh of relief, went home, and jumped right back into life like nothing had changed. Grief is a strange thing.