Pico Iyer says you should always take a book with you when you travel, but it should not be about the place you’re traveling to. And so, I spent a week and a half walking (not hiking, I insist) around Death Valley and other parts of the Mojave desert, spending at least some of the evenings reading Iain Sinclair’s American Smoke. It’s a book in which, in his oblique and free associative way, Sinclair investigates his own American literary influences and enthusiasms. The fact that I share some of these – Burroughs, Kerouac, Ed Dorn - makes it a damn good read.
Consequently, by day I would be walking round, say, the Ubehebe Crater then at night I’d be reading about Sinclair walking around Gloucester, Massachusetts in the footsteps of Charles Olson. Or I’d be walking on the Racetrack Playa then reading Sinclair’s account of walking the waterfront in Vancouver looking for the site of Malcolm Lowry’s shack, bulldozed in 1957.
One of the disappointing things, or at least one of the defining features, of Death Valley these days, is that you’re seldom entirely alone when walking there, certainly not when visiting one of the “main attractions.”
At the Ubehebe Crater, for example, a handful of people were visible walking down to the very bottom of the crater. The National Park Services website says “Walking to the bottom of the main crater is easy; however, the trip back up can be exhausting.” That’s a bit of spectacular understatement. It’s a steep 600 foot drop, and some of the people I watched making the return ascent were crawling on their hands and knees by the end. There are actually a couple of people in this photograph – two minute dots on the diagonal light gray path rising on the left. You can see them slightly better here.
Being of sound mind I walked around the rim instead. The National Park Services website again: “Walking around the rim is moderately difficult due to the initial climb and loose footing.” And the winds – don’t forget the lacerating winds.
And you might think that visiting the Racecourse Playa – 20 odd miles down a bone-shaking dirt road – would buy you a bit of solitude. But the day I was there a camera club was in situ - much fancy equipment, many tripods, many people shooting the same landscapes from the same angle. Those are their Jeeps on the right of the rock formation, but at least they're forming a Herzog-esque fata morgana.
Of course you don’t have to engage with these other people, and only an idiot or a snob would say that a little human presence ruins a walk, but if you actually want to be alone in Death Valley, the best plan is to visit some location that nobody else wants to go.
I was much taken by these cyanide tanks at Journigan’s Mill – yes really, Death Valley was once a great source of cyanide – and although there was evidence that plenty of other people had been there before (beer bottles, the remains of fires, some wrecked cars) when I was there I had it to myself, and could walk in ruins in solitude.
I don’t know that Jack Kerouac ever went to Death Valley but when I got back I dug out some of my Kerouac books. He was one of the first authors I ever discovered for myself. I was pretty young at the time and there’s always a tendency to think you’ve “outgrown” early enthusiasms – but some you never quite do.
It’s true I don’t have quite the passion for Kerouac’s writing that I once did, but any time I go back and read his work, I’m always reminded why it moved me so much. Here’s a passage from The Dharma Bums, about walking, more or less. “Try the meditation of the trail, just walk along looking at the trail at your feet and don’t look about and just fall into a trance as the ground zips by. Trails are like that: you’re floating along in a Shakespearean Arden paradise and expect to see nymphs and fluteboys, then suddenly you’re struggling in a hot broiling sun of hell in dust and nettles and poison oak… just like life.”