Where We Are Was Once a Sea

When you get to Pahrump it feels like the end of the world. It’s California desert country, on the northwest edge of Death Valley National Park. Driving into town we pass Bride Street, Gravel Pit Road, and WTF Sand and Stone. Next to the Mobil where we gas up is a storefront church. It might have been a travel agency at one time, Anywhere But Here Travel. Now, in big letters above the door, between two crosses, the church identifies itself: IT IS FINISHED. What, as in end times?

Luigi points at the sign, gives his head an interrogative tilt.

I translate the religious text: Siamo fritti. Which means, roughly, in Italian: We’re screwed.

The last day and a half we have defied the heat in Death Valley. Nine months ago, when I booked hotel rooms for this trip, given the choice between the Inn at the Oasis and the Ranch at Furnace Creek, I chose the Furnace. Why I don’t know.

The place is more golfy than ranchy. By the looks of it, the horses have left town. Just behind the porch off our room is a blindingly green lawn and what looks like a two-hole golf course. No one would have the stomach for nine.

Nevertheless, the heat is a little bit welcome.

A few days ago, our last afternoon on the Colorado River, we plunged and splashed through eight rapids. They were not death-defying rapids, but they were fast and rough and wet, sheets of water rising over the pontoons, breaking on top of us.

When we finally hit flat water, it was pushing 3:00 p.m. We went ashore for a short hike and, using ropes and ladders, climbed up to a cave and waterfall.

Luigi and Adele have been rating waterfalls, a cascata (a real waterfall), a pisciata (a pissy little thing), a pisciatina (a dribble, a hardly noticeable pissy little thing). This one, tumbling into the cave from a hole 20 feet up, was anything but pissy. It was noisy, cold, and inviting. For photos, we took turns backing into it, daring each other to get wet.

Back on the raft, we swung out into the current, looking for a place to put in for the night. We needed a space wide enough and deep enough for 16 tents, a kitchen, and two privies.

The guides know the river and the rules. We passed by a long sandy bank with a wide flat space above it. Four rafts were beached in front of it. Rule #1: If someone is there, keep going.

We continued down the river, passed by 2-3 more spots, all of them occupied.

The river was shaded by high cliffs. We motored downstream, all of us eager to get the hell off the raft and change into warm dry clothes. Across the bow of the raft a cool wind blew. Blew hard. We were cold. And we were wet. We passed by another spot, a space big enough for us, also occupied; two small rafts on the bank, five tents already pitched.

After 20 minutes of cold floating, our two rafts tied off each other in midstream. The guides hauled out bags of candy to pass around. We peeled wrappings off chocolate bars, off granola bars, stuffed the paper in our pockets and ate. We pulled up our collars and faced the wind, or turned our backs to it. The guides talked, probably about where to stop downstream. Rule #2: Don’t wait too long to make camp. The candy was a distraction, and possibly a hedge against hypothermia, which takes its time but definitely had us in its sights.

When we finally pulled ashore, our space was a canyon floodplain, all rocks. Our guide apologized, said it’s the best he could do. Go find your spot, he said. And we did, stumbling over rocks and uneven terrain. A little later, in a fire line, we offloaded duffles and daybags and tents and cots and camp chairs from the rafts, and got to work.

At 5:30 the wind let up.

At 6:00 it returned, more of it.

The conch sounded at 7:00, meaning come for dinner. They’d cooked steaks, rice, warmed a green bean dish, mixed a salad. They’d baked two cakes. We huddled in our camp chairs, ate, and stumbled back to our tents.

Toward morning I heard coughing in the next tent. It was Adele.

I knew eventually one of us would get sick. Or more than one. And sick would present challenges. When you’re sick, you want to be home. That failing, you need comfort food. You need rest. You need to be warm.

There’s plenty of warm at Furnace Creek. Once we’re checked in at the ranch, Tizi and Luigi and I drive south toward Badwater Basin.

Adele stays behind in their room and goes to bed, the AC turned off. Along the way we steer down into the Devil’s Golf Course, get out of the car once or twice to take a picture. Those white stripes that look like water from the road above? Salt. On the display in the car, the temp reads 101.

That morning I read about how Miami is going to soon be under water. Florida newspapers have begun to make references to “the invading sea,” noting: “During king tides on sunny days, seawater bubbles up through storm drains and over seawalls into lawns, streets and storefronts. That didn’t happen 20 years ago, but it’s going to happen more and more.”

Where we are was once a sea. Now the water is deep underground, in an aquifer formed, or “charged,” as geologists say, thousands of years ago, during the Pleistocene Ice age. On the Colorado river, we struggled to face the cold. Here we struggle to face the heat.

That night we drive up to the Inn at the Oasis for dinner, looking for comfort food. The hotel is surrounded by palm trees. The grass is green, flowers abundant. The place is like a mirage.

We’re seated at a table on the veranda. It wraps around the second story of the building, cooled by breezes blowing through mists drawn from groundwater on the oasis. Adele is coughing, she’s headachey, she says she’s not hungry. When asked, she says she would eat soup. There is no soup on the menu. She confers with my wife for a minute, then orders the campanelle in pesto. It is a fateful decision.

What comes out of the kitchen is not what she expected. The server sets down a large bowl of pasta, with four slices of mozzarella laid over the pasta, and a dozen sun-dried tomatoes slices mixed into the pasta, and a few forkfuls of stewed spinach adding color to the pasta, and, in the bottom of the bowl, a swamp of pesto.

She looks at it, ahgast, spears a couple macaroni, shakes her head.

Non mi va, she says at last. I can’t eat this.

She and Luigi trade looks, shake their heads. Troppo lavorato, she says about the pasta. I would translate this statement as follows: too much crap.

Luigi has rice on his plate. He scrapes half of it onto a clean salad plate for her. When my turn comes to taste the pasta dish, I sink a fork into it. Not just bad. It’s world-class bad.

The next day, on the road across the desert, we practice useful anglo-Saxon terms to describe what ails Adele and the symptoms. Tosse (cough). Catarro (phlegm). Starnuto (sneeze). Brividi (chills). Stanchezza, fiacco (tired). Our next stop is Yosemite. Luigi navigates with phone, with map, and looks at me with disbelief when, in the middle of nowhere, I turn on Trona Road. It’s two lane, no center line. It will go 40 miles across the desert.

“It’s not on the map,” he says.

I’ve never been this deep in the middle of nowhere. I stop the car in the middle of the road—it’s a safe bet we will not see any other cars—and look at the Rand McNally folded in his lap.

“There,” I say. A faint gray line. It will take us across Searles Valley, past Fish Rocks, past Atolia, past Kramer Junction, to 395. What I need to explain is, I’ve never been here before, but I know where I’m going..

While we idle, a coyote walks across the road, five feet in front of us. It looks up at us and turns toward the car. It’s a female. The heat must be killing it. We’ve got water in the car, we’ve got bread.

“No,” my wife says. “Don’t feed the animals.”

At Yosemite the waterfalls are gigantic and in full roar. At the hotel buffet the night we arrrive, Adele goes to the salad bar, where there is soup. It’s vegetable, sort of like a minestrone. I know it can be terrible, a mix of leftovers and, worst of all, lots of herbs and spices to fancy it up.

She lifts a spoon to her mouth and tastes. “Buona,” she says.

Yes, good.

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