There is in Tecopa Hot Springs, California, on the flat top of a small hill, a labyrinth of stones. Unlike a maze, in which paths branch and choices must be made, a labyrinth has a single path which, looping back and forth provides the illusion of indirection but always leads to the center, and away again to an exit. Reflection, thought, prayer are the intended mental states of those who follow the curves. Great labyrinths were laid into the floors of many medieval cathedrals where, for some, walking its course — sometimes on the knees– served as a virtual visit to the Holy Land.
There may be a less Christian, though still intended, destination for the one in Tecopa Hot Springs. Those who walked it with me may have been thinking of lives still to live, destinations dreamed, or diner, for all I know. For me the winding path was an analogy not to an imagined or hoped for spiritual center but to the wanderings we were making through this part of the Mojave looking, as it were, for the center of understanding: how did this land come to be? And when? Not just who has come here but what, and how? What does the clock-work of stone tell us? By extension, how did the terrain of the world at large come to be?
For many traveling across the great southwestern corner of America there is more and more mere desert, a bleak trouble of dust or sand or hard-pan. For a slow walker, however, it is a marvel in all directions, up, down, ahead and behind. Beneath our feet in the first week of April, cold and often windy, were the finest flowers of a desert spring:
the yellows of desert gold and desert dandelion,
the purples of Mojave aster, purple sage, even chia flowers (salvia colombariae) which, while not their more famous cousin salvia hispanica, produce similar tiny seeds whose potency was known and used by early tribal peoples.
Gravel ghosts and desert pincushion nodded white in stray breezes. Jimsonweed — luscious seeming trumpet flowers on fetching green –tempts the unwary; small potions will change a mammal ‘s relation to reality; large amounts will kill.
And most of all, sometimes taking over entire flat valleys is the creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) which has nothing whatsoever to do with the creosote distilled from tar but does so well at scavenging water that it occupies its own little ‘creosote circle’ where nothing else grows — lining up almost as if humans had planted orchards of the stuff.
Flowering plants developed about 130 million years ago, about the same time the continent of Laurentia, containing the yet-to-be North America, started circling west and the Farallon plate began diving beneath it shaping, in the next many millions of years, the deserts and distant coasts of California we now take for granted. Monkeys, much less men, were still millions and millions of years away. The land we were now walking across was deep under water, not yet covered with the muds, silts and sands that would flow down from mountains yet to be made, not yet carpeted with ash from enormous volcanic explosions. Even the famous Yellowstone mega-volcano of 2 million years ago which marks the far bottom of long dried Lake Tecopa, whose rubbled upper layers we were walking on, is still far far away.
What we see as we walk depends where in the Tecopa badlands we are. The topmost layers of enormous alluvial fans run in some places 100 meters down, the wash off of mountains to the south and south-east which are no longer there. Elsewhere we are in the cut-channels from rivers, boring through old mud-stone and silt; vertical sand cliffs stand 100 feet above our heads. Interspersed in some of these muds are chunks and slabs of limestone, quartzite and other products of deeply distant times and places, say mid 300 millions of years ago baked, pushed, regurgitated into newer younger soils. Some 15 tephra layers from volcanoes near and far snake across old stacked up lake bottoms as flows of syrup might over ancient griddle-cakes. Six have been dated. The most recent is from another Yellowstone explosion, known as the Lava Creek event of about 620,000 years ago. One in the middle, about 760,000 years ago, was blown, flowed and burbled over from the eastern Sierra Nevada and the Long Valley caldera one of the largest on earth.
This is all new, as geologic time goes. These volcanisms are not even 1 million years ago. The modern Sierra Nevada began uplifting about 10 million years ago, carrying within the famous granite which had formed deep underground in the Triassic period, say 250 to 200 million years ago. The Basin and Range stretching of western North America, which treated the surface lithosphere like enormous teeter-totters, raising the eastern ends into mountain ranges and sinking the west into valleys, arrived in the Death Valley area about 14 million years ago.
Trying to keep these stretches of time in place and in order is like staring at the stars then focusing on a fingernail. Done quickly and often it gives you a headache. Even when done slowly the eons, eras, periods, epochs and ages (that’s the correct order from long time to short) get ribboned, scrambled and folded in the mind — like the earth itself– until we are dizzy.
If, in a life-span of 100 years, a person is spoken of as ‘old’ at age 80, in the 4.54 billion year age of the earth, old (looking backwards of course) is 3.6 billion years ago! At middle age, 2.25 billion years ago, we’ve only gotten to the mid-Proterozoic: early photosynthesis and O2 beginning to change the atmosphere! Not an animal in the earthly dreams. Homo Habilis several thousand thousands of years still to come.
This is what I meditate on in my labyrinth journey.
Death Valley is about an hours drive north of this part of the Mojave. It too, once had a lake — many lakes in fact, of different depths and extents. More clearly than at Tecopa Lake, ancient shorelines can be seen, though again, young. When Tecopa overflowed and burst it’s southern containment wall about 186,000 years ago the water ran north-north-west and helped fill what we now call Lake Manley, its center at Badwater, the lowest land point in North America where every gawker, hiker, geologist and hula-hooper has to go.
That lake was at the end of a necklace of lakes and rivers that began at Mono Lake, still a lake, and a wonder, though a puddle of its former self. As the long glacial period came to an end about 14,000 years ago, and with it the waxing and waning wetness in the area, this lake and the others dried up during mankind’s presence in the area, except for rare water rich springtimes. And there were lakes before that. The most famous geological viewpoint in California, Zabriskie Point, flexes its gold and chocolate sands and ash from several million years ago, uplifted since to provide the eastern rim of the Death Valley basin.
Humans have met the desert, of course. Many not to be amazed but to scratch out a living somehow, someway, others just to get away from the noise and bother of too many people and too many rules. Near Shoshone, back in the Tecopa Basin, in caves carved out of 620,000 year-old ash from Yellowstone’s Lava Creek eruption, local people lived before the prospectors and miners. Then depression era families, hanging on with hope and a day’s work here and there. Hippies from the 60s brought their particular sauce.
In this land of “waste and nothing” there is too much to be seen to take in on one visit or two — from tin and iron cast-offs of human enterprises never fruited, to wild-flowers making their brief appearance, to scuttling creatures seeking shade — scorpion, gopher snake, coyote and wild cat, to the stars, sublimely indifferent to the fanciful human names and prayers sent up to them.
Even the stars, when we look at them, and we do, we do!, bring me back to stone, and our own soft, ephemeral bodies. There, in a physics unimaginable, the irons and potassiums and cobalts and nickles are made and sent streaming through space to, finally, make us. Miraculous? Yes, if not so common over billions of years.
Of the non stony things , I have a preference for birds, and find them — the elegant phainopepla, dressed in regal black and flash of white sleeves, tiny vireos and screeing red-tail hawks as well.
Above all, for me, it’s the stone and the time it breathes. Was it so long ago, 50,000 years, when mankind first foreshadowed our modern selves? Seconds ago, my dears, mere seconds.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Michael Ellis and his Footloose Forays for a wonderful introduction to one of his favorite parts of the world. The twenty of us, in his company, bonded like we were comfortably at home, even as the spring weather dipped into the high 40s, the fire had to be kept lit and we compared the thousands of footsteps taken, date-shakes tasted, meals made and shared, sights seen and yet to be seen, perhaps even, here again.
Don’t miss doing the desert. It won’t disappoint.
Here, from a couple of companions, more photos and remembrances of the trip: