The story of a 30-day winter exploration through California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range

Day 25: Death Valley — From the mountain top to rock bottom

benje williams
My First Winter in the Sierra
9 min readDec 1, 2022

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I’ve been to the mountain top, I text my parents, resting against the hotel headboard as I look over pics. Of the 10,000 feet bristlecone pine grove. But also of the last two weeks. The dark red sun setting over the endless forest of Kings Canyon’s bright orange sequoias. The yellow afternoon light streaking through an ocean of dark clouds above the Kaweah Valley. The same snowy clouds consuming Moro Rock and the Great Western Divide only seconds later. The full winter moon beaconing through the sugar pine canopy to illuminate the snow packed path of the night.

You’ve been to the mountain top, my mom texts back, hearting a few of the pictures. I smile, shake my head slightly, and feel something slide slowly down my chest, weighing me against the headboard. This is the terrible thing about the mountain top, my body is telling me: you eventually have to come down. You eventually have to leave. You eventually have to drive away.

“What a shame it is, that nothing lasts,” I said to my parents over a dinner, before leaving Auburn.

“Somethings last,” my mom responded, completing the movie quote.

Was this one of those things? I ask myself, scrolling back through the pictures. Was this WS Merwin’s three acres? A bit of the earth’s surface to belong to and to call my own.

Maybe, I think, knowing immediately that it’s this exact maybe that is pressing against my chest — not only because the answer is maybe, but because the answer is maybe but also not today.

To find a home, a place you can call your own, a place you perhaps have always called your own, without even realizing it. And then to talk away from it. To come down from it. Is almost as hard as not knowing the place even exists. As wandering aimlessly in search of it. To know there is a place where you belong, but to also know now is not the time you belong there, feels like knowing you’ve met the love of your life, but also knowing you’re either too early or too late.

The weight stays in my chest throughout the night, settling into a soft exposed place near my heart, tossing and turning me throughout the night. When I finally wake up, the heaviness is still there, but just enough sun is inching past the hotel’s double blinds to help me get up, pack my bag and load up the car.

I text my parents as I pass the sign pointing to Death Valley National Park: From the mountain top to the valley of death. You can’t make this stuff up. Sometimes life really is better than fiction. Better or bitterer.

A lone cactus appears in the dry brown landscape. The road continues straight as far as I can see. There isn’t a single cloud in the sky ahead. And behind me, shrinking slowly in the rear view, is the majestic Sierra Nevada. Diminishing by the second: a portrait of ice-capped granite royalty, then a small family of snowy hills, then a faint mumble of mounds, then a thin layer of white horizon, indistinguishable from the mourning grey clouds above them.

I am no longer in the mountains. And the mountains may no longer be in me. Which is what I fear the most. As if the mountains inside of me have slowly eroded away by the pressure in my chest, glaciating into a hollow canyon of granite and ice and darkness that now sits empty.

At the gate of Death Valley, I meet Wayne. He is standing above Rainbow Canyon, in front of his black Jeep Wrangler, with a green canteen of coffee, a grey walkie talkie, a red Budweiser jacket, and a camo Canon camera that’s longer than my forearm.

“You never know what you’ll see out here,” he says, pointing to his walkie talkie, “that’s why we keep this baby on.” He’s wearing khaki cargo shorts, even though it’s nearly 30 degrees. I ask him if he’s seen anything today, and he says no, not yet. He begins to tell me a story when, as if on divine cue, an excited inaudible voice comes through the radio, followed by a massive boom erupting from the sky, echoing across the canyon below. Wayne immediately goes silent, scouring the sky and then yanking his camera to his face. I hear his rapid fire shutter before I even see anything. Then an enormous grey military plane emerges from the range. It’s flying on its side, and I can see six or maybe even eight jet engines, streaming thin vapour trails across the blue sky, booming in a collective thunder that’s so loud I can barely still hear Wayne’s rapid fire shutter. The plane is heading straight towards us, then drops towards the canyon we’re standing on the edge of, then turns sharply to the right, and disappears into the valley.

“You just saw the treat of a lifetime, buddy,” Wayne finally says, lowering his camera in startled wonder. “A Boeing B-52 Bomber.”

I shake my head in disbelief. Amazed. But also still not fully there. I look at the canyon Wayne is pointing to, but then I fixate on the distant Sierra peaks that he says the plane probably originated from. “Before the accident, they used to fly inside this actual canyon,” he says, and tells me the story of Navy fighter pilot Charles Walker, who died only a year ago, in a training mission that the Navy is calling a suicide event. “But that’s not how people commit suicide,” he says quietly, as if we aren’t completely alone in the desert. He tells me how he was here the day before, in the exact same spot the plane exploded into thousands of pieces. “If my sister hadn’t called me for help, I would have been standing right there, and I wouldn’t be standing right here today.”

A BMW drives by. Another plane flies overhead, this one too high to be visible. A raven lands on the sidewalk, gargling his guttural opinions. The pilot’s story is remarkable. Almost fantastical. And yet, I can’t feel the wonder in it. As if I’ve betrayed or abandoned my sense of amazement. Left it stranded alone to freeze a slow death at the foot of the mountain top.

The feeling stays with me the entire day. Across the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, where friends and families and lovers take selfies and have picnics and tell each other stories. Across the deep Gower Gulch Trail which carves through golden canyons of badland. And finally, across the Bad Water Basin, which is literally the lowest point in the entire hemisphere — 282 feet below sea level. You can’t make this up either. From the snow laced immortality of the bristlecone mountain top, through the valley of death, to the salty rock bottom of the entire hemisphere.

“Isn’t it just unreal,” a tourist yells as he walks across the basin, waving to me as he rotates his mounted video camera stick. He’s tall and lean and bald and honestly looks like he could be my cousin or even my brother. “Yeah, it is,” I say, trying desperately to match his vibes. And knowing how far off the mark I am.

I continue walking down the basin, across interweaving patterns of salt crystals that the sign says are formed by rain falling on distant peaks, creating floods that rush lower and lower, collecting minerals along the way. Finally, the water comes to rest, forming temporary lakes that evaporate, leaving behind layers of minerals that concentrate into salt crystals. But I can’t taste the salt. And I can’t see the other minerals. I can only feel the water and the flood.

That night, I drive towards the desert solitude of the Mojave National Preserve, the last fragment of the earth before I leave my home state for good good. Even before setting off, I know what I’m getting in to. I know how terrible of an idea it is. But I can’t not go. The best I can do is maybe go at night, so the pain might be dulled by the soft light of the full moon.

1.3 million dead Joshua trees, more than we’ve ever lost before, I read just the month before. The fire could have been stopped at a few hundred or thousand acres, with aircrafts and retardant drops, but other fires were burning in more populated areas, and a desert wilderness fire was not given high priority for limited firefighting resources.

The article was so unreal, I couldn’t process it. How do you process 1.3 million dead trees? I have no idea. Which is how I know I cannot not go to the Mojave Preserve. I have to confront the devastation. To witness the destruction. To understand what is at stake. The erasure of human subspecies is largely painless — to us — if we know little enough about it, Aldo Leopold wrote in 1949. A dead Chinaman is of little import to us whose awareness of things Chinese is bounded by an occasional dish of chow mein. We only grieve what we know. The erasure of Joshua Trees from Mojave Desert is no cause for grief if we know it only as a name in a botany book or a picture in a newspaper article.

As I drive through the desert, towards the Cima Dome where the wildfire happened, I feel this grief taking over.

I am alone. There are no lights. The air is freezing and there is ice on the single lane road, breaking as I drive slowly through it. Hard snow covers the desert floor. Isolated bushes appear every few seconds. The distant hills outline the dark horizon. Then, finally, the Joshua tree appears. Silhouetted like a Dr Seuss Truffula tree against the full moon. This one has survived, I allow myself to think. And so has this one. And this one. But when I step out of my car, into the sharp wind and the mournful silence, I see what I have been trying to deny this whole time. The tree I am walking towards is lifeless. Without life. Its trunk is entirely black, charcoaling my frozen hand as I touch it. The tree is dead. Completely dead. A standing corpse. Its sharp cactus leaves are bleached blond, hanging from a branch that would simply snap off if I were to pull on it. But I don’t have the heart. Or the strength. I’m barely still standing.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. I’m sorry. I want to fall against the trunk. To lie in the snow and not get up. To pile the 1.3 million trees at the foot of the world so everyone else can see what we’ve done. What we’re doing.

I get back in the car. Maybe this is the why. The why not now. The reason I’m driving away from the Sierras. Because how can you be happy, how can you be comfortable, how can you build a home, when the whole world is on fire. When you know that that home will likely burn. When 1.3 million Joshua trees are standing dead at the feet of the world’s most divinely beautiful mountain range. When four million acres of California have burned this past year alone. When only two weeks ago I saw a wildfire erupting across the sacred Yosemite Valley.

This is the burden of the Understory. The work that lies in front of us. That surrounds us. But I still don’t know if it will make a difference here, in California, in the Sierra Nevada. If it will help or even move the needle, or if it will just crumble into ash, like everything else. The understory — the life beneath the forest canopy — is, after all, the first to burn.

I keep on driving. Beyond the reach of the Sierra Nevada. Across the California state line. Through the cloudless night. And with the darkness now 1.3 million times heavier in my chest.

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benje williams
My First Winter in the Sierra

“it is common to take a dog for a walk, it is less common to take a dream for a walk” || nature novel in progress || recent writing at benjewilliams.org