Saturday, January 7, 2012

Death Valley

Death Valley is an elemental land made sensuous by simple combinations.  From a broad view, parched earth, scoured canyon walls, and blue sky combine to elevate the soul in an impossibly low landscape.  Crouch down for a closer look and dazzlingly small crystals of two more basic elements conspire to tickle the light and tease the tongue.  We came to Death Valley to explore its salts and quickly learned that Death Valley was a sophisticated laboratory precipitating many different combinations of elements.  Sodium borate, or borax is probably the Valley’s best known mineral, made famous by the “20 mule team” (actually 18 mules and 2 horses) that was used to haul the versatile mineral 165 miles across the Mojave Desert to the nearest railroad.  Borax is used in detergents (as a water softener), and metallurgy, and glasswork (as a hardener!).  The glass in the 200” Hale Telescope wasn’t successfully cast until the engineers tried Pyrex, which has borax in it.  Many other mineral salts, some with very colorful crystals can be seen in the Borax Museum next to the Visitor Center.  Most of the Borax in Death Valley was mined and then refined, but surface deposits of cottonball—a mixture of borax, salt, and dirt—can be seen near the Harmony Borax Works.  

Katrina on the hunt for a glimpse of the elusive salt
Katrina and I were mostly interested in sodium chloride, a mineral that Mark Kurlansky proclaims in his book Salt, a world history to be “the only edible rock.”  The flats in Badwater Basin are coated with large crusts of salt.  Runoff from the sorrounding slopes and the valley's meager 2 inches of annual rainfall washes minerals down the steep valley walls where it is trapped in the deep basin.  Cloudless skies and scorching temperatures (often over 120 degrees F in the summer) quickly evaporate the water leaving behind a 95 percent pure salt.  We walked a trail out onto the expansive white salt flat and I caught Katrina licking the ground a few times.

Mark Bitterman, another salt enthusiast, provides some useful historical perspective on salt in his book Salted, a Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral.  He writes, “For most of human existence salt has been scarce… difficult to transport and of dramatically varying quality.  Salt was, literally, a treasure, and everyone everywhere who could make it would.  Yet salt making was a challenging, physically demanding, risky job requiring the participation of an entire community.  The salts that resulted were unique, each bearing a mineral and crystalline imprint of the elemental and human forces that wrought it.  Salt was a natural, whole food, intimately tied to a place and a way of life.”

Joseph flint knapping
I spent much of the day at a flint knapping demonstration by Joseph Moore, a retired archaeologist.  He used elk and stone tools to flake obsidian into beautiful arrow heads.  He is also an avid birder and forager with a lot of  knowledge about the regionally available plant resources (basically a great guy), so I picked his brains about Pine Nuts and Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glanulosa) beans.  Neither are in season, but it would be fun to make another trip to the Desert SW when they are. 

We then drove northwest out of the valley towards Yosemite.  The higher elevation passes were covered with Single-leaved Pinyon (Pinus monopylla) and we stopped to investigate, but none of the nuts we found were any good.  Joseph said that this was a poor productivity year, and it was too late in the year anyway.
The robust needles of Single-leaved Pinyon
These large Pine Nuts are empty

We descended into the Owen's Lake Valley and made a brief stop to collect a little salt in the fading light.  There were birds everywhere, but not enough light to see them.  We found a nice piece of desert near Bishop to set up our tent (too cold and windy for sleeping out).

Camp Bishop
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