Sorry I’m late about doing this blog post. Usually I try to post regularly, but I had to make a choice this weekend: Write a blog post or go to Death Valley to see the Superblooms.
What are the Superblooms? The Superblooms are a wildflower event that happens once every decade or so, in Death Valley. Death Valley is on the eastern border of California and Nevada. It is one of the driest places on earth. It only gets 2 inches of rain a year. But not this year.
This year was the year of El Niño or the Super El Niño which didn’t quite happen in Los Angeles–because of a high pressure system that blocked the flow of the jetstream–that would have transported rain our way. El Niño did happen in a big way in other parts of the state.
This means that Death Valley–a desert basin where the Panamint mountains deposit their minerals on a sinking floor and where pioneers crossing the California landscape met the road block of ill fortune that gives Death Valley its forboding name– is now awash with wildflowers. The wildflowers are golden and purple and white. They are lacey and bulbous and spiny. Some are hearty colonizers. Some bloom one night, seeking shade underneath the umbrella of other plants, and fade the next day.
But the dominant color is gold–everywhere–gold. The most common flower, the Desert Gold, boasts an uncommon beauty. It looks like a cross between a dandelion and a sunflower with serrated petals that are cadmium yellow up against a pollen-y center that is exactly like the amber of a runny egg.
All of these wildflowers have existed dormant on the valley floor waiting for rain, and even though they do pop up regularly during the Spring, this Superbloom is super crazy. There are vast ribbons of yellow in some spots like a beautiful girl who is suddenly confident in the first blush of her beauty. There are sprinkles and dustings and scatters in other spots–spots that remind you of the barren-ness of this, the hottest place on earth, a place that is cracked and barren and toxic.
One of the great things about going to a National Park is that you meet a lot of interesting people from all casts of life. And this time, there was an added bonus that made these people really cool: They were the kind of folks who are going to the National Forest not as your run-of-the-mill tourists. Rather, they were people who know that this event is important– that it only happens once in a blue moon. They were pilgrims with a purpose.
I met a man at a gas station–the last stop for a fill-up in the town of Baker, just outside of the park– who was Vietnamese like me. “Are you Vietnamese?” I didn’t need to ask. I could tell by his accent. I could also tell by his clothes: unflashy, utilitarian, practical. He was dressed for the theme of the outing: khaki shorts and a clean pressed souvenir shirt from Yellowstone National Forest.
“Yes,” he told me. “This is been so exciting. This is only time I see the Superblossom.” He told me that he missed it fifteen years ago and had been kicking himself ever since, checking the reports every year and every year, disappointed. “So this time, it come, I say ‘oh boy’ you better jump on this opportunity.” He made me promise that we would drive into the National Park together, right after he took his kid to the bathroom to take a leak.
I could understand his enthusiasm. I had missed the poppies last year in the Antelope Valley, just north of LA, where they go on a riot of display in March. Legend had it that last year was the best of any other year–and I kept putting off the drive out of sheer laziness–and then a hot spell descended upon the Southland and destroyed those delicate gold flowers in less than a day. Moral of the story: Wildflowers don’t negotiate. They wait for no one. They just don’t give a fuck.
At the end of the day we met two sisters– Belgian – who were on the way from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. The younger sister was finishing her PhD in Aquaculture, and the other sister was a court stenographer working underneath a famous judge. We met around a fire pit at the local watering hole. And we watched them quietly and diplomatically fend off two men who could have been their fathers.
“I have some…” Then he put his thumb and index together and let the air out from between his lips, while pressing his fingers to his mouth–the international sign of marijuana.
“Maybe later,” said the aquaculturalist. But I knew there would be no later. There would be no sexual Superblossoms in the desert night of Death Valley, at least not for these hopeful gentlemen.
The man put his hand on the young woman’s shoulder and gave it a good shake. “Maybe we’ll see you later at the campsite, then. After dinner.” And the two old men walked into the overpriced sit-down restaurant where only old men with jobs and bank accounts can afford to eat–the restaurant where young men eat, only if they are with their parents.
The younger sisters remained by the fire eating their nachos and chicken wings. I was drinking a beer and sneaking swigs of whiskey that I had poured into a tiny Perrier bottle. And they told us about their itinerary.
The pair had flown to Las Vegas for an International Conference on Aquaculture and the younger sister was going through an anxious time at a major moment in her life: she was about to start filing her dissertation. It would take the remainder of the academic school year and she named all the steps toward the final goal–the proposal, exam, defense, submission–toward that moment of achievement and release. Afterwards, she was going to travel with her age-appropriate boyfriend throughout the world for year.
“Do you know how I know somebody is really done with their dissertation?” I asked.
“Tell me.” The young woman was truly interested. She stopped eating her chicken wing, which she held like a baton.
“When they start talking about their signatures.” This is actually a crucial moment, because most people talk about filing their dissertations for years and never get to the final stage. “If they are talking about writing something perfect, I know they are still very early in their progress. But if they are talking about signatures, that means they will file within weeks, if not days.”
That got us onto a discussion about traveling. You see, my wife and I also traveled after I filed my dissertation. We actually traveled for a few years, because we thought this would be the one opportunity to do this kind of adventure. So this launched a kayak into the ocean of conversation, and we compared notes about different places: some of the crossovers in the Venn Diagram of our itineraries, some of the things to avoid, some of the pitfalls–how, for instance, to avoid getting drugged in India.
My wife and I cast before them the pearls of experience. My tip for dealing with people in India (bribe them). What the what the money situation is like in Argentina (lousy). And what the situation is like in Bolivia (deeply inconvenient but immensely rewarding). These were all points in a conversation that unfolded naturally and pleasantly as the sky emptied itself of its color and our faces caught the light of a flickering fire pit.
“We will be staying in Venice Beach when we leave for LA the next morning,” the younger sister told me. While the other sister–the stenographer– took notes, I recommended a few places for them to tour, and I suggested to them a few options in the event they wanted to be among people for the Academy Awards, which were to occur that following evening.
They were thrilled to be lodging in Venice. It was where Janis Joplin had her ashes scattered and they wanted to walk into the ocean that was her final resting place. And they wondered about what happens to the landscape of the city when an event like the Academy Awards sweeps into its plains–a hard driving rain waking the people from a world built around the somnambulism of dreams.
We are all Lotos Eaters in Los Angeles. We are all addicted to our opium dreams. That at least is common wisdom.
That night, I looked up through the transparent fabric of my tent and was amazed to see that I could see to see, quite clearly, the Big Dipper and the wide expanse of the Milky Way. The ranger guide says that half the park happens at night–that the firmament is its own display just as spectacular as wildflowers…though perhaps not nearly so evanescent. And then I realized I had to get back to the city because I had dinner plans for Oscar Night.