[November 26 2015]
The line “As I walk through the Valley in the shadow of Death” – reworked from Psalm 23:4 into the opening to Coolio’s ‘Gangster’s Paradise’ – echoed through my mind as we vaulted ahead into an infinite landscape. To the left, a huge wing of darkness was spreading out like spilled ink onto the wide plain as the sun dropped down behind the Inyo Mountains. To the right, the high, sparse clouds cast dramatic shadows onto the rugged rockfaces of the Panamint Range. Once through the pass, there is no other exit. We were riding inexorably into Death Valley.
Hurtling across this extreme terrain inside an air-conditioned bubble of European Volvo technology meant that the hostility of the outer environment – the hottest, lowest and driest in America – could not touch us. I try to imagine walking step-by-dry-throated step like those who first came here, dragging wagons and oxen and dreaming of fields of gold. It was they who named this ominous vale one of “Death” as their parting shot when they finally escaped it after months of disaster.
For us, it had been only fifteen minutes on the I5 motorway until the city fell away and scrubby desert appeared, punctuated only by a local lawyer’s billboards, a few gas stations. Three hours into the journey, alabaster dust billows out from behind us as if we were a bank-robbing getaway car. One hour later, we would be there.
The destination of our journey was Zabriskie Point, on the far side of the Valley. I had had an intense desire to come here ever since I had seen Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film of the same name. I was transfixed by the immensity and scale of this ancient landscape, which the director used as a backdrop for the complex revolutionary aims of the era. His story is of two young Americans who, like we, ride through Death Valley with metal boxes sheltering their flesh (her car, his stolen plane). Bold cinematography shows them speeding separately, as the only moving points in the emptiness of the wasteland, until they can’t help but coincide; Mark teasingly buzzes Daria’s car and she responds by waving him down to land with his own red shirt, which he had dropped to her. They link together for an impulsively perfect moment, and then move away from each other again into what harsher ‘reality’ has in store.
In Il Deserto Rosso, (1964) this most semiotically fastidious of directors had his Art Department paint the ground and plants to match his stark vision of industrial Italy. But the Badlands are a ready-made; no need to paint the rocks or sand as the artist’s hand of geology has already carved them into a masterful statement. We see this especially when the accidental lovers physically connect at Zabriskie Point; Antonioni psychically projects their personal lust into an expressive conceptual ‘orgy’ explosion of hundreds of bodies, epically scattered throughout the hollows and dunes.
We two arrive at Zabriskie Point just before dusk. That dark cap of lava lies distinctly atop the ridge, a defiant mohawk crest, just as in the movie, and the pictures. Dusty grey is creeping over the limbs of the mountains, eclipsing the retreating fingers of golden light. It is as if that hand of the artist is running a charcoal stick over his sketchbook page, drawing in the night. This was the same time of day that philosopher Michel Foucault came here in 1975; parked up on this self-same circular lookout he took LSD while listening to the dissonance of Stockhausen’s Kontakte. He described the moment as ‘the best experience of his life’.
My own exhilarations come later when all around has fallen into soft black, around midnight. Taking pictures standing atop the pure modernist line of the sixties-built benches, the camera flash illuminates the ridges only for me to see, and my own shadow-shape flashes across them, gargantuan. And looking up into the rippling desert air, the stars of the usual constellations are so enlarged, they gyrate and flicker; Orion and Sirius in the disco.
The next day in the full sunlight, after exploring the green grassy oasis of Furnace Creek (where a springy golf-course lies under imported palm-trees) I too tumble down onto the ridges, lying out on their edges as the creamy warm dust covers my limbs. I thought that der Wüste might be unsettling. But I instead felt comforted by its blanket of nullity. The silence of the desert is an overwhelming ocean of nothingness. It is the sound of lack. Sharp clear nothing. Not even the wind whistles. This is the absolute sound of silence.
We drive to the literal end of the road up to the panoramic vantage point of Dante’s Peak. The Badwater Basin that lies beneath is perhaps the most spectacular piece of LandArt I have ever seen. Whorls and spirals of salt grow naturally out from the pale glazed turquoise sea. The thin canyon trail winding out from the lookout reminds me of similar trails like Runyon Canyon and Griffith Park which lord over Hollywood, the last remnants of LA’s original wilderness. That the tightly gridded city of Los Angeles would have looked like this at one point in prehistory. Without crushing concrete. Unshackled land.
The next evening we retrace the same roads home. The white median line runs like a ticker-tape as black night rolls out in front of us, the eastern horizon hazed with the rainbow spectrum. Nearing the small town of Trona, only Evangelist Christian and regional Mexican radio stations pick up. We flip to Christian. A preacher with the deep hellfire voice of Johnny Cash delivers Moses’ ‘Exodus’ speech. This bare land reminds me of that seen flying over Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan – appropriately similar to what Moses and the Israelites were walking through in this very passage.
Next, a slow-voiced female reads out listener’s prayers. In one letter, a woman prays that her husband will stop beating her. The announcer prays for his anger to cease and for him to embrace the Lord. The abused woman had written the letter and posted it to the station rather than call the police for help. She felt a radio station that broadcast out into the desert was a more direct connection to God. Even as an avowed atheist, after feeling this place, perhaps it is.
Back in L.A. proper, the radio picks up hundreds of different channels and outside the car windows are many lights, souls and signs. After Death Valley, this most airy and spread-out city suddenly seems intrusively noisy. We are back to Life, in this metropolis which is a true Babel, a horizontal (Hollywood) Babylon, with its multitudes of people, thousands of tongues, conurbation chaos and each citizen bent upon an insane race to reach their personal pinnacles of success. But there is always a spot of light in the darkness, and vice versa. Still scanning through, I find a Vietnamese station emitting a peaceful, calm voice. The station is called ‘KALI’. The inescapable Hindu Goddess – of Death.
Photo Hannah Bhuiya and @theartofchase, text Hannah Bhuiya