(All photographs taken by me).
Several days ago, I traveled to Death Valley National Park to hike to the summit of Telescope Peak, the highest point in the Park and the Panamint Range at just over 11,000 feet. (Technical specs on hike at bottom). Although I have hiked several large California peaks before—including Mt. Whitney, Alta Peak, and El Capitan—Telescope Peak is by far the most remote and most desolate. One might think there’s not a lot to learn about life in a place as rugged and ruthless as of the Valley of Death, but one would be mistaken. Because as I’ve learned throughout my hikes in California and beyond, Mother Nature is the greatest teacher of all.
Hike up to any mountain—but particularly traverse the ridge that leads to Telescope Peak—and the first thing you appreciate is the smallness of man. So much of our lives are spent entrapped in man-made environments that we come to believe places like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc. are large and imposing. Far from it, dear reader. Perched upon the ridgeline leading up to Telescope Peak, I could see an area covering literally hundreds of miles with virtually no trace of civilization in sight. Before me lay immense valleys, deserts, dunes, canyons, peaks, and mountains—but I could discern no roads, no buildings, and certainly no people. I got a taste, in other words, of what the world looked like before the arrival of man.
And man, what a world. As Colin Fletcher observed in his wonderful book The Man Who Walked Through Time—about his solo journey through the entire Grand Canyon in the 1960s—there comes a point in every hiker’s life when his travels bring him “not merely new knowledge but new humility, and so new wisdom.” And as I stood there on the ridgeline with steep, snow-covered descents on either side of me, I was humbled by the vastness of nature. To my left, over 11,000 feet below me, I could see the lowest point in the United States: Badwater Basin. To my right, over 3,000 feet above me and almost 100 miles away, I could see the unmistakable summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States. In the span of one head-turn, then, it was possible to take in everything from a scorching-hot desert to the snow-capped Sierras.
But that’s just what was visible. What was invisible—but no less present—was the vast expanse of time that it took for Death Valley and the Sierras to be created, how long they have looked like they do, and how long after us they will still look like they do. And for me, that more than anything placed the smallness of the human world into perspective. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed: “There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time. … [T]he hours should be instructed by the ages, and the ages explained by the hours.” And from that one point in the Panamint Range, the ages spoke to me clearly and directly: man is a relative newcomer to this Earth.
And that’s a humbling lesson indeed. Because as Colin Fletcher put it, we spend most our lives in the “man-constructed world … in which the days are consumed by clocks and dollars and traffic and other people.” Living in such a world day-in and day-out, we tend to convince ourselves that man has been here forever and that man will be here forever. We believe that the man-constructed world—monthly bills, foreign affairs, international organizations, daily routines, domestic politics, social media, the daily news, etc.—are all that matter and all that exists, when in fact that view is myopic. We are missing the bigger picture, which is that our environment was created long before us and will last long after us. To paraphrase something I previously wrote, we can’t continue without the natural world but it can (and will) continue without us.
Standing there on Telescope Peak, the lesson was as clear as the valleys below me. I knew then—felt it, breathed it—that this vast expanse of territory looked precisely the same then as it did when it was first crossed by Native Americans and as it probably did during the time of Caesar. I understood, as Colin Fletcher did at the end of his journey through the Grand Canyon, that “the ‘here and now’ is only a flickering heartbeat in many long, slow pulsations” of time. As individuals and as a civilization, man has been on this Earth for what amounts to a split-second in the grand abyss of time. And yet in that short time, we’ve managed to cause harm to this planet—through climate change, deforestation, pollution, fracking, consumption of fossil fuels, etc.—as no animal has done before.
And yet we hardly seem to notice either our destruction or the natural world around us. We wait with breathless anticipation as to what smartphone (or movie, or videogame, or TV show) will come out next. We focus on achieving our career goals, on finding a life partner, on not falling behind on our debt, on what’s going on this weekend, that we often forget about the natural world that sustains it all. The latest peace accord or executive action or celebrity scandal makes the front-page news, but the harm that we’re inflicting upon the natural world does not. We believe that we are the smartest things to ever walk the Earth, forgetting that on the Earth’s time-scale we are mere children still learning about the sandbox that surrounds us.
But I love learning about, playing in, and reflecting upon that sandbox. And as I stood there on Telescope Peak assessing the scene around me, I was reminded of what Theodore Roosevelt said at the Grand Canyon in 1903, and about what lessons we might’ve missed while we were too busy playing with our iPads. As Roosevelt said: “I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you[.]”
But as I left Death Valley and made the long drive back to San Francisco, I was saddened to recall that “the great loneliness and beauty” of the wilderness is not what we are likely to leave for our children. Instead, the realities of what one sees on Route 5 slowly set in: drought, unemployment, recession, development, construction, poverty, and the like. As Curtis White put it in Orion magazine, the modern world of “global capital triumphant” has removed many of us from the “great loneliness and beauty” of the world in exchange for “the cold comfort of the television and computer monitor[.]” Perhaps it would benefit us all, in other words, to take a hike and see what we’ve been missing.
Technical Specs on Hike to Telescope Peak: Getting to the Telescope Peak trailhead is both long and difficult, and the National Park itself offers zero help as there are no signs letting you know where the trailhead is. Not one. So, presuming you are coming into the park from the West, take Route 190 East into the park. Once on 190 East and about nine miles before reaching Stovepipe Wells, there will be a turn-off to a right on the road marked “Wildrose.” This is the turn you want to make to reach the trailhead. This road is technically Emigrant Canyon Road—which you can Google Map—but please note there will be no signs there indicating that this is Emigrant Canyon or that it takes you to Telescope Peak; the sign will only say “Wildrose” but that is the road you take. Also, please be advised that there is no water or gas once you make the turn towards Wildrose, so if you are in need of either gas or water continue on Route 190 East until reach Stovepipe Wells, which is where you can obtain both.
Take Emigrant Canyon Road for 20-odd miles as it winds through beautiful landscapes until you reach the Wildrose Campgrounds. Continue on the road (pass the campgrounds) and keep going past the historic Charcoal Kilns that are about six miles ahead. Once you pass Charcoal Kilns, the path turns into a fairly rough unpaved road and I would strongly advise using a 4WD (ideally an SUV) vehicle for this final section of the journey. After eight miles on the dirt road, you come to Thorndike Campgrounds, where you can camp for the night or park your vehicle for the hike (the trailhead begins at the end of the road a mile or so past Thorndike). Alternatively, if you continue on the road past Thorndike, you can go on for the final mile which will take you to the Mahogany Flat campgrounds, which is both where the road ends and where the trailhead begins. Once you’ve reached the trailhead, it’s about eight miles (one-way) to the summit. The trail is fairly narrow and steep throughout and there’s no question this hike is strenuous. Additional details on the hike itself can be found here.