Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Sunset in Death Valley

After the sun falls behind the mountains I sit on the dunes and try to see if I can spot the instant that the lights in the night sky became visible. I look to where I know Venus will appear and watch the spot intently. The deep blue of the twilight sky seem to saturate my eyes and I look away for a moment at the light of the setting sun breaking through the mountain peaks and when I look back Venus is there; but it must have already been and I had blocked its light from my perception of the blue. Next I look for Vega, then I find Altair and Arcturus. The handle of the big dipper appears and I guess the location of Polaris. Deneb finally appears overhead and I follow the neck of the swan all the way down to Sagittarius.

The wind keeps changing direction, blowing warm from the south and cool from the west. Suddenly the gusts become sustained and the sand starts to bury my bag and my tripod tips over. I quickly pack everything and stuff my camera into my shirt because it isn’t worth opening my bag and letting it fill with sand. The last glow of the sun is gone and what looks like a large dune distant is actually right in front of me and I stumble up the hill and over. I put my hat over my face to shield it from the sand as the wind continues to gust; the sky is so dark that it doesn’t do much good to look ahead anyway. I know that my car is in the direction of a saddle shaped peak in the mountains ahead but this doesn’t help when I’m down in the pit on the leeward side of the big dunes and all I can see is the smooth black crescent slicing into the milky way. I know that it was roughly south-south-west and use Polaris to get my bearings as I climb the slip face of the big dune.

As the crests get smaller I know that I’m nearing the edge of the dune field and I’ve gotten myself to roughly the right area. Suddenly I find myself in a stream of foul air that is unmistakably the odor of a pit toilet after a hot day and many tour buses. But I remember that I parked next to the pit toilet! So as I climb the last dunes I try to stay downwind of this rank stench and follow its stinking trail back to my car. As I’m crunching up the gravel on the trail out of the dune field some kids sitting on top of their convertible turn a flashlight on me, assuming I’m some wild animal creeping out of the dunes, lured by their graham crackers and marshmallows. 

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