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Off The Trail - Oasis

May 22, 2014

Waterfall in Saline Valley. Photo/Wendilyn Grasseschi

The roaring wind picked up the foot-thick dust at bottom of the old dry lake and threw it at the truck, slamming millions of sharp-edged particles against window and door and windshield.

It was impossible to talk, even in the sealed cab, and so we didn’t, focusing instead on keeping the big truck upright and moving forward on the sand-drenched road.

It was almost dusk, and what light there was, was gone; swallowed whole by the raging wind and dust.

Outside the truck, wiry green creosote bushes slanted almost horizontal in the slashing wind. The huge mountains surrounding the valley were completely obscured; only the sand and wind existed.

Setting up a tent in such an insane dust storm seemed impossible; it quite likely was impossible, and so we pushed on, trying to find a cliff or ravine that would block some of the wind before it got too late to see anything at all.

We had come to Saline Valley, here near the north end of its more famous cousin, Death Valley, running from the heat, but we had traded one dangerous desert creature for another and so we pressed on, trying to find some place to call home.

Just before the last light disappeared, a tiny road struggled through the dust on the left and we shot down a rock-rimmed 4WD road toward the faint bulk of a cliff, hoping to find a flat spot somewhere near the base.

The road came to an abrupt end in a barbed wire fence and we stopped the truck.

It was silent, completely silent.

The wind was gone, although we could hear it roaring just 300 feet back up the road, above the little dale we were in.

Frogs croaked, crickets chirred, the faint chatter and shimmer of a tiny creek glowed in the moonlight.

Creek? This is Saline Valley, one of the hottest, deepest desert valleys in the country.

But it was there, almost hidden beneath a deep and steep embankment, tiny, but there. Across the way, big cottonwoods and willows caught the moonlight.

Some mysteries are meant to be mysteries at 10 p.m. after an epic day in a desert sandstorm and we went to sleep in the little dale; the roar of the sandstorm, flinging itself at the cliff above our heads like the roar of an ocean breaking.

The next morning dawned brilliant blue; deep, dry Saline Valley stretched hot and white before us. To the east though, the sandstorm hung above neighboring Eureka Valley like a hulking monster on the prowl, brown and dull against the blue morning sky, waiting for the wind to shift.

The little creek revealed itself to be Willow Creek; a tumble of cottonwoods, machinery and ramshackle houses nestled in the trees, surrounded by hundreds of miles of desert. We found out later the little creek fed one of the last remaining and still operating mines in the valley, but in the dark night, it had seemed nothing less than a miracle.

We slipped down the sandy road away from the congested Saline Valley Warm Springs and its dozens of tents and campers and bare-white-bottomed visitors and palm trees and koi fish and picked a straggling road shooting up into the precipitous bulk of the big Inyo Mountains above us.

The walls of the canyon closed in tight and high as we climbed up the steep desert wash, which was littered with huge boulders brought down from the mountains above us during a massive flash flood last summer.

I took a deep breath, thinking I was dreaming. I smelled water, could feel the cool touch of water on my skin, but this was a desert and there wasn’t any water down here, was there?

A silver shimmer appeared, thin and fine, trickling though the grey stones.

It grew wider, small willows lining the banks, dragonflies and butterflies casting shadows against the hot sun.

We rounded a corner and stopped hard and short.

A thirty-foot waterfall cascaded down a slick fall of granite, coming to rest in a tiny pool at our feet. Grasses and ferns, willows and flowers, lined the canyon walls.

On the left wall, the water had created a hanging grotto, complete with maidenhair ferns, columbines, and orchids. Droplets of water shimmered on their leaves, then fell to the ground.

In the white, hot silence, the green was like an emerald shot through with light, the water like molten silver.

Again, oasis.

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