Breakfast in Vegas can get interesting pretty quick. I’ve seen the mile-long buffets at Caesar’s, golden tubs piled high with silicone-dense scrambled eggs covered in shiny, orange cheese. For the amount of grass I’ve consumed on this trip already, the prospects of wading my way through lukewarm french toast at just outside a casino floor doesn’t quite speak to me. Eggs, a croissant, chorizo, a mixed green salad tossed in a lemon vinaigrette, and a red eye (coffee with a shot of espresso) is more my speed.
In between monstrous mouthfuls of my breakfast, I’m apprehensive of the day’s drive. Getting to the ghost town of Rhyolite would be easy enough, then getting from there to Death Valley would be equally straightforward. Getting out of the Valley looks to be the tough part, doubling back onto Route 190 to head East, then South to Vegas. But in the dark (no streetlights), without GPS (no signal), and a dearth of gas stations (no people), making a wrong turn would be easy, and unquestionably costly. A massive breakfast steels the spirit in the face of odds like these.
By 10am, I’m out of Vegas proper, onto the winding highway and into the desert again. Leaving the dusty city limits, the sun bleached strip malls on the skyline start to dwindle, then disappear. The lanes on the asphalt go from eight to six, then four, then just a two-lane blacktop, a ribbon of simmering of endless highway, stretching forever into the forbidden desert.
After refueling at Amargosa, the only gas station for a hundred miles in any direction, I make it North to Beatty, on Nevada’s side of Death Valley. Outside the wastelands of what either is going to be a town, or what was once a town, a roadside shooting range sits vacant and desolate. I can hear a dune race in the distance, I can see dust clouds from speeding cars on the highway, but I realize how desperately far away each of them are. I’m alone out here.
Rhyolite, or what’s left of it, sits at the Northern edge of Death Valley. The town was named after the igneous sandstone in the low rim of the Bullfrog Hills. Gold was found in the region sometime around the turn of the last century. Mines and quarries appeared almost overnight in the largely unsettled desert. By 1907, Rhyolite emerged as a full-fledged town, complete with running water, municipal electricity, and a population between 3,500 to 5,000.
The Montgomery Shoshone Mine was the lifeblood of Rhyolite’s economy. Purchased by Charles Schwab in 1906, the mine was the chief source of employment in the town, and was the de facto backbone of the town’s survival. Miners put down roots here– the town once had a school. But by 1908, the richest ore had been extracted, and the payload began to shrink. After an independent study revealed the mine to be significantly overvalued, Rhyolite’s population fled for better opportunities. The town was abandoned almost as quickly as it was built.
The empty husks of Rhyolite’s buildings sit tall, proud, full of 20th-Century neoclassical pomp and circumstance, but ultimately ruined and ravaged by the elements. Like the Pharaohs’ tombs of Egypt, the ruins here are picked clean by three generations of scavengers, scrappers, and salvagers. The brush around the former town is strewn with the remains of stoves, bed frames, suspension springs, and the belongings of former residents of Rhyolite. There’s nothing left here.
At former ancient temple sites like Baalbek or the Parthenon, the remains have a pastiche of elegant ruin; a noble decline. However, temples are no longer focal points of city planning and architecture. Part of what makes their ruins look so graceful after centuries of decay is that the very purpose for which they were built has been gone for ages. The ruins at Rhyolite, its municipal buildings barely a hundred years old, hit a little closer to home. There is no noble decline here. These ruins are an example of the inevitable effects, a reflection of the uncompromising climate in Death Valley.
This is the second-lowest place on the Western hemisphere. Generally, the lower the altitude, the hotter the temperature. The sun’s rays hit the ground, warming it up. But as the heat radiates upward, it’s trapped by the dense air. The air absorbs the heat, trapping it, making the air in Death Valley as hot as 134℉. Badwater Basin, is at the bottom of what used to be a glacial ocean, then a cluster of lakes, then just one lake, and now a salt flat the size of my hometown. It’s 86m below sea level, with nowhere for the air to go. This is the hottest and driest place in North America.
Maybe the most striking part of the landscape out here is the juxtaposition between the sprawling city of Vegas only a couple hours away, and the very absence of civilization, or even humanity. Death Valley gets plenty of tourists, sure. There’s an RV park, a gift shop, a little restaurant, and even a golf course. But it’s miles from anything resembling a town.
This desert offers a glimpse into a world without humans. It’s an expanse old as the Earth itself, born before anything lived on the surface. It’s also prone to induce hallucinatory experiences in humans, depending on the subject’s level of dehydration, malnourishment, and exposure. Each of those factors on their own are far more likely to make you hallucinate than by walking alone in a vast expanse of desert. However, by just being in a space that desolate, and by being still, you can experience some pretty unsettling shit.
The aching tires groan onto the asphalt state route from the gravel thru-road. Rhyolite disappears in the rearview, and the crest of Bullfrog Hills after it. The air outside the car is a balmy 94℉, zero percent humidity, and the faintest suggestion of a breeze. The only cloud cover was the chemtrails left by a dozen flyovers in the last hour. I’ve hit the entrance to Death Valley National Park by 1:30pm, with only a few hours of daylight to spare. That’s when I finally see it; the mouth of Death Valley. The Big Empty.
The valley is massive, like a terrible gash in the Earth. The layers of stone a million times older than me yawn and stretch their terrible forms into the sky as the highway descends into the Valley. This place is impossibly big. The psychoactive effect of being in a place like this isn’t quite vertigo, and not quite kenophobia, but more like an acute sensation of being very, very small, insignificant almost in the face of the impossible rock faces and endless stretches of wasteland that reach into the burning horizon forever.
I’ve never seen a place so immense, and so apparently vacant of life. I know there must be a family of foxes somewhere in the hills beyond Furnace Creek. I can see buzzards are flying over something that either is or will soon be dead just beyond the Borax Works. I know there’s life here. I can see a few shrubs dotting the roadside, for christ’s sake. I know I’m not totally alone out here, but it’s hard not to feel this way when I’m dwarfed by the Big Empty.
My head starts to pound as I park the Nissan, walking off the road and onto a salt flat. The ceaseless sun bakes the sulphur-rich soil under my boots. The air is heavy, but dry. It’s hot, but not in a “I’m definitely sweating through my shirt” kind of way, but more of a “I shouldn’t be here right now because this is a place not meant for living things, and I would like to continue living” sort of way. There’s a nagging feeling, too, out here. There’s a sensation I can’t quite put my finger on, but I’m convinced it’s just the heat, the fumes, and the lack of direction. I’m losing light fast. I climb back into the car, and head South for Badwater Basin by way of Furnace Creek.
The permanent residential neighborhood of Furnace Creek is full of semi-nocturnal lizard-humans. Exercising outdoors for the better part of the morning, they’re rarely seen out of their dwellings after the mighty Death Valley sun reaches its zenith. After sunset, though, they go straight for the bar. Or to the golf course. I avoided both attractions pulling through Furnace Creek to ask for directions. The staff at the squat, sun bleached gift shop pointed me further South, but warning me to double-back after sunset, and not get caught in the Valley after dark.
“Why?” I ask, “Are there predators here?”
“No,” she says, “It’s just really dark, and hard to see the road.”
Another eighteen harrowing minutes winding desert roads, a tourist bus directly ahead of me, and a Nevada State Trooper behind me, I finally pull into Badwater Basin. The Trooper and the bus blew straight past, and I was finally alone again.
But here in Badwater, the “alone” is a lot more palpable. Combined with the sensation of being dwarfed by the brimstone mountains, the air pressure, and the absolute removal of civilization, I feel absolutely insignificant. And the pounding in my head comes back, along with that nagging sensation. Something’s bugging me about being this alone, and this far from everything, and I can’t tell what it is. I shake it off again, and set foot into the bottom of the world.
It’s all salt. The little walkway at the edge of the parking lot goes down on a ramp toward the former ocean floor. The walkway extends a bit into the salt flat, then a path continues in the absence of wooden planks, the footprints of a million tourists making their pilgrimage out into the Big Empty, marking their territory as they go. I pass an “I love you Henry” hacked into the mud on the walk. The footprints thin out after a mile, though. And within a mile and a half, they’ve disappeared completely.
The nagging sensation and the pounding in my skull gets to be unbearable, and I have to sit down. Gulping water, and trying to get my bearings, I realize the rhythmic throbbing in my head, just behind my ears doesn’t hurt. I can feel “thud,” keeping up with my pulse. And then I finally understand what I’m hearing: It’s my heartbeat. I’m so far from anything else that makes noise, and anything for noise to bounce off of that I can actually hear the beating of my own heart.
I’m overwhelmed at once. I have never felt so absolutely insignificant, and so furiously human. I understood that unlike the Big Empty before me, my time on Earth is finite, and after long enough, no one will ever know I was here. I could hear my own mortality beating away in my chest. Looking into the grandest, most desolate void at Badwater Basin, I know I am small in the face of the Big Empty. But I know I am alive.
Shivering, I drove back to Vegas under a blue patchwork quilt of constellations, clouds, and the crystal-clear glare of a waxing moon.