I remember an intense fear of the desert in my youth, probably fed by Hollywood, Walt Disney, and cartoons. The possibility of dying from thirst, unfriendly spiny plants, unbearable heat, mirages that trick you into getting more and more lost, and the worst: rattlesnakes wrapping around your axles at night or crawling into your sleeping bag for warmth. So the first time I drove through the desert with my grandparents at 12 years old I felt an uneasy sense of fascination and adventure. At 17 I went again when I drove across the country in my purple VW bug—alone, except for my cat, Shalom. I took every precaution to ensure my safety, and felt an adrenaline-fed hyperawareness until I arrived at the exit of Death Valley. Oh, how that name added to my trepidation! Finally, I faced my worst nightmares full-on when I took a Vision Quest journey to Death Valley in my forties and spent three days and nights fasting alone in my Sacred Spot. I learned about protecting myself from scorpions and rattlesnakes, how to tie knots with my tarp (no tents!) to create shelter next to creosote bushes and Joshua trees, choosing a site to avoid the danger of flash floods, and, most importantly, to love and revere the desert. Since then I have gone regularly, enjoying how the eight hour drive into sparser populations (along with fewer distractions of urban environments) inspired a sense of magic and spiritual connection to nature.
I heard about the hot springs at Saline Valley about 20 years ago—about a transient community (camping is limited to 30 days a year) that evolved with very few rules and lovely warm water baths in a beautiful desert setting. It was a bucket list item ever since, but stories about the road being unpredictable and a little hard to find, and the potential for getting stuck made me afraid to go alone. Plus it sounded like it would be too hot in the summer and, as a teacher, I couldn’t take enough time off during other times of the year. Since that restriction no longer exists, what a great opportunity to check it out! In addition, I learned from Max at a lunch we had together 10 years ago that he went there often in the past and knew the road almost like his backyard. He offered to take me there while we nibbled on sushi, and I often thought about that offer. What a wonderful place to gradually re-enter my own culture after my immersion in the mellow, slowed-down pace of Peru’s Sacred Valley.
Check out this video to experience the bumpy drive over the southern route into Saline Valley
On the Road Again!
Excited to reunite with Riley and take another adventure in Wanda, I cleaned and reorganized the cupboards and tubs and bags I keep things sorted in so I can find what I need. Max busied himself barbecuing chicken, salmon, and filet mignon in his secret ginger and sesame marinades while I baked a fresh batch of cinnamon-ginger granola, threw together ingredients for salad bowls, and simmered a large pot of jujube tea with cinnamon sticks, ginger, and Asian pear that we bought at the farmer’s market before leaving Max’s house in Simi Valley. The kitchen smelled like Christmas and a Chinese restaurant. We packed Wanda full with musical instruments, camping gear, a cooler and the Engel Fridge, a little propane heater (which we never used), about 10 gallons of water, and 5 gallons of extra gas (also never used), just in case. We planned to leave on Thursday, but as we loaded the last items we realized it was too late to arrive at the springs before dark, making it hard to see the turnoff, so we decided to postpone for a day. Darn Daylight Savings time! But at least I didn’t need to worry about getting back to a job…
A Little History
Max narrated the history and geology of the peaks and passes as we wound through he Inyo Mountains in the northern part of Death Valley National Park. Saline Valley, originally on BLM land (Bureau of Land Management, which imposed very few controls), evolved into a vibrant, self-regulated community, but about 20 years ago the National Park Service expanded its boundaries to include the hot springs, and Max felt a deep concern for the possible changes from increased regulation since his last visit almost 30 years ago—especially the sense of freedom he cherished. His stories featured characters with names like Lucky Rich (wasn’t so lucky), Garbage Mike (looked for food in the garbage), Green Turtle Jim (drove a green VW bus and other slow moving vehicles), Jackass Andy (a prospector and miner from the area), Singsaw Jim (played a musical saw around the campfire), and Tequila Johnny (flew his airplane into the valley and brought plenty of tequila). If your name was common, like Jim or Tom or John, you ended up with a handle as soon as someone created a story about you. Max discovered the hot springs during a field trip offered by a couple of our Ravenswood High School teachers, and fell deeply in love with the desert—eventually deciding to move to Death Valley in 1979. He has lived there, or in the Owens Valley next-door, on and off since then. His brown eyes sparkled while his bearded face, with eyebrows arching high and realistic sound effects, animated one funny story after another.
What’s left of the old salt tram that carried heavy carts of salt over an 8500′ pass to the western side of the Inyo Mountains
As I slid into the welcoming spring water, its warmth enveloped me like a nurturing mother. Worries and thoughts oozed away with the sweat that beaded off my skin. Entering the circular pool in darkness, my feet caressed smooth stones as the liquid slowly crept up my body, a soft glove of delight. I turned my headlamp off to prevent it from glaring into anyone’s face, so my foot groped around for a place to settle between the other soakers I couldn’t see. The conversation quickly opened to include Max and me. We learned that most of our fellow soakers came to the springs for a wedding on Sunday, and spent the day erecting a large white dome for the festivities on the nearby playa.
The springs were a perfect antidote to a day of hard physical work, soothing away the aches and pains and tight muscles from bending long poles of PVC pipe as well as from three hours of bouncing along 40 miles of rocky dirt road in Wanda. Feeling at one with all that is, a sense of Nirvana seeped into my being. After about a half hour I had to sit up on the stone edge to let the nighttime desert air perform its evaporative cooling magic for several minutes, which I repeated every 15 minutes or so. After maybe two hours—the relevance of time ceased existence sometime earlier—I pulled myself out, relaxed and floppy and ready to head to our tent to snuggle into our cushy bed: an air mattress topped by a new 2 inch memory foam pad. No more sleeping on hard ground for me…Ah! What a perfect life!
And so it was each of the 5 days we camped at the springs, with Wanda nestled into a shady slot the burros made in the mesquite bushes: meditating shortly after sunrise on the playa, a short Qi Gong or longer yoga practice to loosen up and enliven my joints, whipping up a nutritious breakfast smoothie with my trusty solar-powered VitaMix (since it’s nearing winter I’m experimenting with hot green smoothies—a warming vegetable soup with roots, potatoes, greens, avocado, ginger and garlic), walks with Riley (off leash, unless we saw burros!) across mineral-rich soil that crunched under our feet like crusty snow, napping and reading in the warm afternoons, taking turns cooking a delicious meal or two, and soaking again at night under an open sky full of stars and an occasional meteor shower. Seeing Riley run free, fully expressing his dogness, made my heart sing. We gradually got to know some of the regulars and Max found things were very much the same as he remembered them from the late 70s and early 80s: very few rules except respect for other campers, leave your campsite better than you found it, and pitch in and clean up now and then. When it was time for the daily draining and cleaning of the pools people took turns scrubbing them with bleach. And don’t feed the feral burros!
They come around several times a day, looking for an improvement from their typical forage of mesquite and to drink the spring water runoff. We heard warnings about burros getting into things, and as we set up camp a neighbor told us not to leave food out—and they especially like cardboard. The first day I came back from my morning soak to find the cooler opened (I didn’t think a burro could do that!) and our bok choy, kale, multi-colored carrots, fennel bulb, and celery were smeared into the sandy dirt. Max’s Sun Magazine was chewed up and disbursed around the campsite (Max said the burros ate the interview, so he hoped they gained some intelligence from it!). After that we locked everything inside Wanda when we went off to soak.
A short video of Crystal Pool and surroundings:
My favorite part about Saline Valley was the sense of freedom to do what you want: you can camp wherever you want, wear a swimsuit or not, and soak in the pools any time of day. Max and I went every night to the Sunrise Pool, where there was no shade cover, and saw a wide sky filled with stars. Ahhh! Light pollution is one of the biggest sins against nature of our urban environments. To me, witnessing the cycling of the moon and pondering over stars and galaxies at night is a birthright that bonds us to our ancestors and all living beings, as well as evokes a sense of wonder and mystery at this amazing life we’re blessed to experience. Every night except one we soaked by ourselves, mostly in silence, for at least a couple of hours. It was silent unless the wind picked up (the weather in the desert changes quickly!) and whipped the pre-shredded palm leaves so they sounded like running water. Maybe it’s due partly to my intoxication from the freedom of not going to work each day, but the lack of regulations and streetlights and stores and internet appealed deeply to my soul. I yearn for a place to settle that provides some of this same sense of freedom, though I think it might also require stronger self-discipline than my past lifestyle choices. In other words, it could be something I need to find within instead of looking outside myself. Hmmm…more ideas to explore!
I remember looking into sparkling, smiling eyes across rippling water and queries into lives and beliefs, and sometimes trying to make sense of our world, though mostly not. This was a place to get away from that, to revel in the creation of a community with very little structure and rules, to renew the hope that a Utopian life could maybe exist, somewhere, even if just for a short visit.
I remember discovering art everywhere I walked, in designs of scorpion, dragonfly, dancers, peace signs, and fish made from mounds of black and rust-colored volcanic stones arranged on the contrasting white playa; in sculptures made of scrap metal and skulls hanging over benches around the fire pit; the cluster of crystals embedded in a mini waterfall at the south end of the Crystal Pool; and even the drawing-in-progress of ravens on the wall inside the pit toilet. Does the freedom to live without restrictions and schedules inspire greater expression of creativity?
I remember bundling up in layers of fleece for my morning meditation, then peeling off layer after layer as I walked back to camp in the blazing sun after half an hour.
I remember the expansive views of distant mountain ranges, some slopes streaked with zig-zag striations of dark and light earth tones, as if painted by a giant nervous hand.
I remember the faint aroma of burro dung, slightly sweet and herby, and Riley’s fascination with the dark green egg-shaped balls, and waking to the sound of flattened teeth crunching and grinding on mesquite leaves, accompanied by an occasional horse-like snort and very rarely with that startling odd braying that only a burro makes.
I remember one night of star gazing in the Sunrise Pool (which Max re-named the Starlight Pool) when I suddenly saw a familiar group of stars from the Vision Quest I did over 20 years ago: a woman’s body outlined in stars, with arms opened in a rejoicing V above her head and a cluster of stars for her heart. When I shared this vision with my guide she named me ‘Woman With Glowing Heart’, a name I strive to live up to. It was such a powerful image for me I made a stained glass window of her, which appears in my dreams every now and then. I realized my Vision Quest was very close to Saline Valley and happened at almost this exact time of year. My heart overflowed with joy. I’m coming full circle, back to where I started!
I remember my delight at living outdoors, noticing the weather coming and going, feeling air moving across my skin, watching lizards, feeling settled, as if there is nothing more to do. Maybe that’s the secret to a life well-lived.
Saline Valley is in my blood. I’m no longer a Saline virgin!
In a week and a half I will already be ¼ of the way through my year-long sabbatical. Thoughts of creating a home and wondering where that might be creep in with more frequency now, along with a growing realization that I need some other ways to make money—expenses for both my house and living exceed what I anticipated. Expectations of what I can live on were probably a bit unrealistic. I own that tendency! Traveling to Peru was a big splurge, but I’m so glad I went! I might retire sooner than planned in order to increase my monthly income. I also found out Wanda needs to get her engine rebuilt, at a cost of $8000. Whew! It sure is expensive living in our culture! I love the simplicity of my life now, with very few decisions to make each day, and without many distractions like driving to go shopping or lots of social events to attend. Don’t get me wrong, I love socializing and a variety of good restaurants to choose from, but really the peace and calm I feel inside after spending time in the desert is delicious. I don’t know if I could live there full time, but I appreciate many of its advantages. The things I would miss, that are pretty much engraved on my must-have list are: access to year-round farmers markets, recycling facilities, a garden with rich soil, and good water (the water in Keeler, where Max lives, contains arsenic). Is there any place out there with those things that matches the cost of living in the desert? I saw a house for sale at $80,000 in a sweet, artsy community near Keeler a couple days ago. That would provide a lot more freedom and possibilities for me compared to what I can do in Santa Cruz! Such temptation…