I had a fitful first day in Death Valley a few weeks ago. I felt like an apprehensive Spencer Tracy when he got off the train at Black Rock in the 1955 film Bad Day at Black Rock. Whereas Tracy was nominated for an Academy Award for his role, I was distracted and worried in mine as backseat passenger. Spencer Tracy had come to the desert town of Black Rock to find a Japanese-American rancher whose son had saved his life in the war. I had come to Death Valley and the Mojave with seven members of the Ratzeputz Gang to see the desert in bloom.
My mind kept drifting that afternoon. Flowering prickly pear cactus and desert mariposa lilies couldn’t hold my attention. I had a $100 bet, riding at 35-to-1 odds on Kentucky to triumph that evening over Connecticut in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.
Cell service was spotty, and there wasn’t a working TV in the Amargosa Hotel in Death Valley Junction, California. The Amargosa Hotel was used as the Lost Highway Hotel in David Lynch’s creepy film Lost Highway. Read David Foster Wallace’s review here.
The desk clerk steered us to a roadside casino seven miles away on the Nevada state line that was every bit as Lynchian. A handful of sorrowful souls pulled levers on slot machines while I watched sorrowfully as my Kentucky Wildcats fell apart late in the 4th quarter. But Lady Luck didn’t forsake me. I hit the jackpot during the next four days.
Shannon Still led the way across the desert. He is the son of my friend and fellow Ratzeputzer Steve Still. Shannon is an engaging thirty-eight-year-old who works as a postdoctoral research associate at the Chicago Botanic Garden. He possesses the patient skills of a botanist, the know-how of a horticulturist and the passion of a plantsman. Shannon completed his doctoral dissertation in plant biology at the University of California at Davis on Eschscholzia, the California poppy. His doctoral work was encouraged by the two desert stalwarts in their own right: plant ecologist Jim André and botanist Dr. Tasha La Doux, of the Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Station in the East Mojave Desert.
Change is constant. The television show “Death Valley Days” lasted for 18 years (1952 – 1970)—a miniscule fragment in the current Holocene epoch, compared to the hundreds of millions of years of geologic change in these deserts. (The oldest rocks in Death Valley are estimated to be 1.7 billion years old.) The TV show, sponsored by Twenty Mule Team Borax, featured Ronald Reagan in his last acting role (1964-1965), if you don’t count his subsequent political career. Seas have come and gone, volcanoes have erupted and rock formations have been laid down, uplifted and eroded.
Shannon’s current work at the Chicago Botanic Garden, sponsored by a generous grant from the Bureau of Land Management, hopes to determine how climate change is affecting plant species, not only in the desert, but also throughout the west.
While the temperature is infernally hot and dry for most of the year, especially at the lower elevations of the desert (it was 101 F at Furnace Creek on our first day), the landscape and vistas are spectacularly beautiful and the plant life abundant. A little winter rain in scattered locations across Death Valley and the Mojave brought plentiful spring bloom. We lucked out.
For five days we drove along paved roads and occasionally switched into four-wheel drive bulldog gear on gnarly gravel roads. Shannon has spent eight years wandering the desert and mapping rare plants. He knows his way around. Even when he wasn’t familiar with a few roads—some better suited for burros—we avoided “sleepers” (pot holes and small boulders) and didn’t bend an axle or cut a tire.
Shannon’s intuition was right on the money. The pay-off for bumpy roads and ricocheting body organs always seemed to be flowers even more outstanding than those at the last stop. Any Vegas bookmaker would have given long odds on such an unlikely outcome.
(I should pause: Ratzeputz excursions have never been ordinary adventures. Every few years, since 1987, my nurserymen, landscape architect, educator and seedsmen colleagues venture off into another world of nature and gardens. We’ve packed cars, vans and four-wheel drives with mixed nuts, beef jerky, salami, blocks of cheese, beer and water. We once even rode Paso Fino horses in the foothills of Argentina’s Acongagua, but we traveled light that day. Death Valley and the Mojave required lots of water. For once, more water than beer.
When we are spotted along roadsides on these trips—rare in Death Valley and the Mojave—strangers often seem bewildered when they see us on all fours, crawling along looking for prince’s plume, yerba mansa, bladder pods, beardtongues and cactus. We’re an odd bunch by any definition, but the looks of these tourists this month defied interpretation. I wondered if they didn’t think our aging group, trudging around on gimpy legs, wouldn’t be better suited for leaning on the rail of the craps table in Las Vegas. In fact, it is doubtful that any of the passersby realized that portions of the western deserts are a few of the last remaining intact ecosystems in North America.)
We wanted the closest possible glimpse.
The highlight of the trip was Shannon’s announcement of the naming of two new California poppy species that he had discovered a few years ago. Eschscholzia androuxii was named for his friends Jim André and Dr. Tasha La Doux. Eschscholzia papastillii was named in honor of Shannon’s father, Steve Still.
Papa was proud.