January Days South in California
©Charles Shere 2001
for Richard and Marta

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    1: The Road to  Ojai 4: Pasadena
    2: Bombay to Brentwood 5: Barstow to Death Valley
    3: Downtown Los Angeles 6: Bishop, Mono Lake and Tahoe


5: Barstow to Death Valley

Sunday morning, 7:30. Just outside our room at the Best Motel in Barstow ($33.66) you could look across a flat expanse far far to the west, the rising sun streaking along it for miles. It was another clear beautiful day. We drove out of Barstow hoping for a decent breakfast somewhere, and arriving at Baker were welcomed by signs for The Mad Greek's restaurant. Our Italian sculptor loves things Greek; he spent some years there as a young man, learning Greek and journalism, and he wanted to use his Greek, still fluent, so we pulled up to a low tinny-looking desert roadhouse, not expecting much, and took a table in a huge room whose walls were decorated with photomurals, dating from the '60s I wouldn't be surprised, of Greek islands; and with slogans in Greek composed of cut-out letters pasted under the ceilings; everything blue and white, obsessively Greek, rather cheerful in a desperate and mindless way.

There was one other table occupied -- a young couple earnestly starting their day. Richard spoke Greek to the waiter, but he apologized that he knew no Greek; he was bilingual, of course, but his native language originated at the other end of the Mediterranean. The pancakes and eggs were the usual; the caffelattes surprisingly good.

And then up the road to Shoshone, a gas station and general store whose timeless lanternjawed proprietess looked on philosophically as I indecisively did not buy a beautiful black hat, and then the longer back road up through Death Valley. There was hardly any traffic. There were a few cars pulled off at the Lowest Point, where we dutifully walked toward the desert, and where I tasted the brackish water as I always do, and where we marveled at the salty sand crunching underfoot; and there were a few, but fewer, along Artist Road up into the oddly subtle colors of the formations making up the Painter's Palette.

Zabriskie Point was cold, windswept, not greatly crowded. The panorama was strangely affecting -- the great waves of pastel-colored rumpled dunes rippling away below toward the valley floor. In the distance Telescope Peak had no snow, but you felt snow wasn't far off. It was January and winter, clear and dry, and the desert was in an even more indifferent mood than usual. In the heat of summer it can be heavy and threatening; it feels inimical. In winter it is merely objective. You realize the irrelevance of your visit, your self. You are not really a participant.

It was also lunchtime, and we stopped in that unfortunate restaurant at Furnace Creek for a cup of chili. There was a small contingent of foreign tourists staying there, but this was clearly off-season. We were reminded again how our National Parks seem to be run by franchise-food operations; Death Valley and Yosemite have more in common with Greyhound Bus stations than they should. We take it for granted, but it's truly an American experience, like the desert itself. Diners speak German and French among themselves, wonder at the menu, thoughtfully finger their unfamiliar change as they leave.

Still, Death Valley was magnificent. Cafeterias and motels and gas stations are trivial clutter in this setting, the desert ranging from Barstow to Reno, opening out onto Basin and Range occupying something like a quarter of our country's terrain -- the lower forty-eight, anyway. I was moved once again by the quiet certain uninflected shingle of desert rising to the foot of the Panamint grade. We were all silent, impressed with the continually changing subtleties of the monumental landscape of desert and mountains, the steeply drawn scarp to the west of Highway 395 where the Sierra Nevada rises to shut the Promised Land away from the invaders. It was easy to make our next nightfall, Bishop.

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