Woody Allen once said something like, "as I walk through the valley of...make that, as I RUN through the valley of the shadow of death..."
Saturday I went to Death Valley for the first time. This despite well-meaning admonitions to the contrary from nearly everyone to whom I revealed my plans. Apparently Death Valley suffers from intensely bad publicity, but what should we expect from having names like Death Valley, Furnace Creek, Last Chance Mountains, Badwater Spring, and Mormon Point? (that last is not as stigmatized now as it once was)
Indeed, I wondered if this were a spectacular hoax, and the valley a veritable paradise with scary names intended to frighten off the timorous and keep the place safe for those who know how good it is.
Anyway, some said I should make my trip during the winter months, but to do so would render eventual ill grace in conversation: should I ever mention in passing that I visited Death Valley, the inevitable response would be, “Was it hot?” To be able to say, “Yes, about 120” has much more cachet than a bashful, disappointing admission that it was chilly and windy, does it not?
I saw one group taking a picture of two adolescents who had wrapped up their arms and were shivering vigorously, as if it were quite cold. That was pretty funny.
In truth I was quite comfortable. The desert was as miserable as could be expected, but I avoided it entirely. I never spent longer than five minutes in the heat, preferring instead to admire the scenery from the bridge of the USS Short Bus (my 2003 Honda Element).
And the scenery was really something. Being almost devoid of plant life, all a visitor can really see of Death Valley are the shapes and hues of the very rocks themselves. One becomes quite enchanted at how many different shades of brown there are in this world. All the eye sees is brown, and yet it is still quite striking.
The place is a miner’s paradise. From the valley floor you can see the different layers of rocks all over, twisting and winding, now reddish brown, now beige brown, now chartreuish brown. The mouths of many mines have vomited out wide swaths of underlying strata, adding strange patterns and colors to the mountainsides. There is even a thick seam of good, black coal at the side of a highway. Some cubic feet of it have been taken away by passing motorists, no doubt intending it for the Christmas stockings of their offspring.
Two main attractions of Death Valley are the Devil’s Golf Course and Badwater Spring. The Devil’s Golf Course is an area where salt collected from countless gallons of now-evaporated runoff lifts itself from the desert floor and builds up into crystalline shapes. Visitors are permitted to walk among and atop the shapes for they are already doomed; they dissolve with every flood only to rebuild in a few weeks.
The action of heat, salt, water flow and evaporation somehow moves the salt ever up. In some areas gigantic mounds of salty earth rise up above the roadway. It is rotten and fragile, eroding back and collapsing, only to build up again. I think the very earth and minerals have had it with Death Valley and are trying to leave.
Badwater Spring is an otherwise unremarkable statistical extreme. It is the lowest continental point in the Western Hemisphere. There is a groundwater seep that means the low point is always covered in salty water (hence the name “Badwater”). There is a boardwalk over the pool, and one is not allowed to actually stand ON the lowest point in America, just over it. I did, however, stick my finger into the pool (it was much cooler than I thought it would be). So, as far as I know, my right index finger has gone lower than any of you ever have – 282 feet and one inch below sea level.
I took the opportunity to watch the movie “Amadeus” this week. I had seen it when much younger and less inclined to appreciate the music or be critical of the story’s flaws. What a mad, amazing, beautiful disaster that film is. Mozart and his wife jarringly act (and talk!) like petulant American teenagers, whilst everyone else more truly displays traditional European courtly behavior that one would expect in such a production.
The heart of the story is Antonio Salieri, the court composer who feels he is cursed with the love of music and the desire to make beautiful tunes, without the actual ability to produce it. Portrayed by F. Murray Abraham, Salieri is probably the evilest character in any film ever that the audience cannot help loving. With murder and hatred of God and man in his heart, he is still an intensely sympathetic character, and one hopes it ends well for him.
The film is also suffused with the love of grand music. Some of the scenes where Mozart’s character (Tom Hulce, famous for his portrayal of a drunken frat boy in “Animal House”) directs his wonderful operas with such passion and emotion, and to such a tepid response, that it is by turns enchanting and heart-breaking, and the viewer scarcely cares whether the particulars of the story were made up or not.
I also went to the Capital Grille this past week. My favorite restaurant, and the most expensive one to which I would ever willingly go, I am never disappointed by the experience. They make these things called “cottage fries,” salt-seasoned potatoes covered with spiced, fat-fried onions. To allow ketchup or mayonnaise to touch them would diminish their deliciousness.
After dinner I paid a bill of over a hundred dollars (while I was in the washroom our server asked my date if we wanted water, and she said yes. Water: seven dollars). I also realized that the bill was half of an iPod. Such is the irrationality of consumers. An iPod is an unreasonable expense, though its effects long-lasting and the good itself can be resold for a substantial amount. But an expensive dinner that ends up pretty much the same as homemade mac-and-cheese is perfectly reasonable.
(co-opted from an email to a friend)