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It's that kind of river

March 30, 2012

Saratoga Springs upstream from the Amargosa River. This freshwater spring supports a thriving world of ducks, coots and other waterfowl and a tiny fish found nowhere else in the world. Photo/Wendilyn Grasseschi

Death Valley’s Amargosa River knows nothing, and everything, about being a river

The river is gone.

A few hours ago, it was here and now it is not.

I went walking down to the river this morning, the warm rain blowing in from the west, drying as soon as it touched my skin. Walking in the rain, warm, blood warm rain, light-shot from the rising sun, I didn’t get wet.

The wind blew in from the west, cresting the Sierra Nevada one hundred miles away but when it got here, deep at the bottom of this deepest valley of them all, smelling of creosote and desert, the wind was warm—blood warm.

I walked to the river this morning over bright clean hot stones and tiny scattered pebbles, the whole world born anew after the rain.

The stones steamed when the warm rain hit them. The ground, though, remained dry, rain giving way to heat and wind as quickly as it came. The sky to the east was dark as it can be that time just before dawn and darker; indigo blue edged with thalo. The color didn’t seem real.

I reached the river then, the warm, rain coming down on me. I was still dry and the river wasn’t there. The stones were still damp from its passing, the pickleweed still green, the mud still soft. But the river was gone.

It’s that kind of river. It comes and it goes.

I’d seen it late last night, flashing to the last of the evening sun, flashing magenta and tangerine under a bright new moon and a setting sun that didn’t want to go to bed. It called me all night and it was hard to sleep. I knew it was there, where I wanted to be. But I was there this morning and it wasn’t.

It’s that kind of river. It comes and it goes.

I went walking again, heading south, upriver. I figured it had to be somewhere. A whole river can’t just disappear overnight, can it? The rain slowed and the sun grew fat and gold and the mountains to the south—where the river was supposed to be coming from—showed their shy faces again, newborn after two days of rain.

I followed the dry riverbed, jumping over salt-encrusted mudflats, crunching on hot, flat stones, looking. Across the deep, deep valley, the Panamint Mountains were swathed in new snow. Past them, over another deep valley, the Sierra range stalked the storm, holding most of it to itself. Down here though, at the bottom of this valley at the bottom of this continent, my world was all steam and spark and flex and shimmer. All except the river that wasn’t there. I kept walking, heading south, knowing that at some point, the river would show. 

It’s that kind of river. It comes and it goes.

I crossed another mudflat, shiny and new, and another, older one left behind when the river ran away the last time. The crust of the old one was crispy, like thinly sliced potato chips, and as satisfying to walk on. I stomped and crunched and cackled and generally forgot that I was an adult. But the river still didn’t appear.

The sun came out and shone like starlight on the white stones of the white valley. This is a place of elementals, of pure, clean light, of ground so clean you could eat off it, of sharp-edged shadows with no mercy and mountains with no trees and rivers with no water. After it rains, it’s all that and even more so. The creosote smells like sandalwood and musk and nutmeg and something else some don’t like but I do. The wind smells like the creosote smells and the light knits and weaves and heals and cleans and when it’s time to return to the tall mountains I call home, I, too, am born anew.

I kept walking, looking for my river. I followed a hawk winging south, thinking maybe she knew where my river was. I walked and walked and walked some more and then it was there. Gleaming in the afternoon light, sparkling, the river was there. I followed it then, ephemeral and light, more salt than water, to the south where it came from, watching tiny fish dart and skim, watching the light dart and skim, watching the storm recede back home to the mountains. The river caught the light and held it, reflecting it back to the sky. The afternoon deepened and the sky cleared leaving behind only more light and more blue. The new-born leaves of the mesquite shone in the blue light and the hawk cried and screamed as I passed by her nest high on a bluff above the river.

I kept walking, feet encrusted in mud, legs scratched red by thorny mesquite, eyes clear.

Then it happened again. The river disappeared as the bedrock under me gave way to sand and gravel and the river sank into the porous ground, running underground to the bottom of Death Valley where her journey ended, just as she had run most of the way here underground from her birthplace in the mountains of Nevada. The hot, dry, flat, white, clean stones were all that was left.

I turned north and headed home.

It’s that kind of river, the Amargosa.

It comes and it goes.

Hike details

Length: .5 - 2 miles, one way

Difficulty: Easy cross country

Elevation gain and loss: 20 feet

Hike notes: This is an easy hike at first glace, right off a good, gravel road in Death Valley, flat, easy walking. BUT it is a cross-country route in an isolated section of extreme southern Death Valley National Park. Death Valley is famous for its heat and dryness. The Amargosa River is not potable. It is too salty to drink, though the pupfish love it. This is a hike for experienced cross country hikers only. A good Death Valley map is a requirement, preferably the National Geographic company’s map of the park.

Getting there: Death Valley National Park is three hours south of Mammoth on U.S. 395. or 205 miles from Mammoth to the Furnace Creek Inn inside of the park, and another approximately 42 miles on the paved S.R. 127 before you head south on a gravel road. At Lone Pine, take S.R. 190 east into the park until you reach the Furnace Creek Inn junction. Go south here on S.R. 127 toward the town of Shoshone. Follow this road past Badwater until it makes a 90-degee turn and heads up toward Jubilee Pass. Turn right here onto the gravel Harry Wade Road. Follow it for about 9 rough miles (sometimes suitable for a passenger car, but drive slowly). Cross the dry Amargosa River channel and drive another half mile. Look south toward where the river channel is. When you see bright green mesquite and creosote in the river channel (the only real green out here during this drought spring), head south on foot, parking your car off the side of the road. Go as far as you wish, following the river channel. You will hit open water within a half mile of the car. 

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