Mathews: As climate changes, we’re all headed downhill to Death Valley

If the world really is going to hell, please get your brakes checked. The ride will be very downhill.

I learned that lesson, among others, after my own brakes smoked while descending down, down Highway 190 into California’s answer to the underworld — Death Valley.

I did not run into the Devil on this Death Valley visit. But I did enjoy the otherworldly vistas of mountains, deserts, and salt flats in locations like Dante’s View, Hell’s Gate and the Amargosa Chaos. 

Despite such sights, Death Valley attracts just over 1 million visitors annually, one-third as many as cram into Yosemite each year. 

This relatively lower visitor number is healthier for the sensitive desert ecosystems. But Death Valley deserves Yosemite-level respect, and not just for its 130-plus temperatures or the damage that a drive to the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere can do to your car. 

Death Valley, bigger than Connecticut, is the largest national park in the continental U.S., and one of the world’s largest sections of protected desert. The National Park service bills it as a “vast geological museum,” with visible examples from most of the planet’s geologic eras.  

Nearly all of it is officially wilderness, providing quiet, darkness, and solitude unmatched anywhere else in our state.

Now, Death Valley offers a portal to our planetary future. As the climate changes, our world is becoming a place of extremes. Death Valley is already there. It’s at once the hottest and driest place in the country, and a place where a sudden, dangerous rainstorm can bring snow, level hills, or revive ancient lakes.

Because of its scary extremes, Death Valley is misunderstood. Just as Voltaire quipped that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy nor Roman nor a real empire, Death Valley is not exactly a valley, nor is it dead.

It’s a graben, a block of the earth’s crust dropped between two higher pieces of crust. And it’s full of life—with more than 300 species of birds, 50 species of native mammals, and even species of native fish. 

Understanding the way life flourishes in Death Valley should demonstrate that, as California’s landscapes and climate change, we shouldn’t trust our eyes. Places may look barren, but they still contain much worthy of our devotion.

Protecting extreme places will demand more shared governance. In recent years, Death Valley has received notice for a novel governance system that in which the National Park Service co-manages the park with its Indigenous residents, the Timbisha Shoshone. 

Today this partnership faces the mounting threat of climate change to the park, and to the ability of humans to survive there. As the philosopher Margret Grebowicz described in a January essay for the New Republic, Death Valley’s already scorching summer temperatures have risen, drying up the piñon pine nuts and killing off honey mesquite, both of which the tribe’s members harvest. The heat also makes the Shoshone’s summer migration more dangerous.

Along with the greater heat has come unusual rain. Death Valley has seen a “thousand-year” storm in each of the last two years, forcing park closures.

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The 2023 Tropical Storm Hilary created ephemeral lakes, some of which remain. This includes Lake Manly, which last appeared in 2005 in Badwater Basin, remnant of a lake that dominated Death Valley in ancient times.

After a mechanic refilled my brake fluid, I visited Lake Manly, which demonstrated one compensation of our downhill drive to climate hell: extraordinary beauty.

To reach the lake, you walk across white salt flats resembling fresh fallen snow. The lake perfectly reflects the Panamint Mountains to the West. Its color is silverly blue, and feels not quite of this planet.

Visitors removed their shoes to wade into the shallow waters. Among them were a Nevada church group, who recited the 23rd Psalm, and its famous lines about facing future peril:

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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