In late September I visited Badwater in Death Valley, the lowest point in North America at 272 feet below sea level. The hypersaline waters support the tiny Badwater snail, which is endemic to springs in the area. A look west from the snail’s home, past the salt-rimmed pools and across a huge, yawning space, took in the main crest of the Panamint Mountains and Telescope Peak, rising 11,300 feet above Badwater. It was a hot morning, and as I watched the snails retreat into the shade of salt crust and pickleweed, I imagined the cooler world of the Panamints, and searching for a plant restricted to the highest 500 feet of Telescope Peak – a subspecies of bedstraw, Galium hypotrichium tomentellum, whose entire population may number less than a thousand individuals.
Badwater; Telescope Peak in the Distance
Other tasks, and vagaries of the weather, forced me to postpone hiking up Telescope Peak, and it wasn’t until October 23rd that I set off on the 14-mile hike. I wanted to see sunrise from the summit, and so I left the trailhead at 3:20 a.m., climbing through scattered pinyon pine to the long, sagebrush-covered ridge leading toward the peak. It was a cold and beautiful morning – the full moon high in the western sky, broken clouds scudding overhead, the snow-covered mountain gleaming in the distance. I switched off my headlamp and walked with the moon, through a sea of sagebrush laved by silvered light, before climbing into bristlecone pines and crusted snow. I reached the summit at dawn. Below, clouds lay over Death Valley and Panamint Valley like blankets of thick, damp gauze; only the main crest of the Panamints, and the shadows of the Argus, Inyo, and White Mountains, far to the west, rose above the mists. Badwater was invisible, although I could recall the view from decades before, when Melissa and I had made the hike on a much warmer October day, and the white salt flats lay shining in the sun. I pulled on several extra layers of clothes and huddled in the lee of some rocks, trying to escape from a bitter north wind. For a half hour or so, I sat and thought about pupfish, toads, and salamanders – the lost and lonely populations of the region, the trajectories of their histories, the imperative of water. Much of their beautiful country lay hidden beneath the clouds, as obscured as are the species’ futures. In place of certainty we only have their tenuous present, and our hope, rising through the clouds like those distant desert mountains.
Sunrise from Telescope Peak