An evening at Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is windy. Despite the malfunctioning weather display at the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center claiming 1-2 mph wind speeds, the whole time I was exploring for this photo I was blasted with unrelenting (I’m estimating here) 25 mile-per-hour winds, with the occasional 10-second-long gust that caused me to check my balance. Strangely, the wind pummeling me was out of the south (to the camera’s left), whereas the clouds moving over the Panamint Range (the mountains pictured here) were moving from west to east. Of course, I was at around 200 feet below sea level, and the highest point of the Panamint Range rises 11,000 feet higher.

Several times I left my car on the side of the road and trudged the quarter mile or so into the Badwater Basin area, going to a point where I didn’t see many other footprints. I spent about three hours on the flats, scouting different areas and compositions and exploring the strange mud formations. Eventually, when I found what I was looking for, I just took a seat and waited for the light to get better.

At one point while I was shooting (or as most people call it, “waiting”), a large flying bug buzzed by my ear. It was completely out of control, carried away with the wind, its body turned 90 degrees from the direction it was actually traveling. The insect’s undersized wings did nothing to change its large body’s direction, no matter how madly it flapped. Several more bugs “flew” by in the same manner. It was tragicomic.

Without a book to read or an Internet for my phone to connect to, I started thinking about the bugs, wondering if they got frustrated with the wind. Their task was Sisyphean, but it occurred to me that they probably didn’t care. With the ability of ants to carry hundreds of times their own body weight over their heads, I doubt there’s an analog for Sisyphus in the insect world. These tiny careening bugs of Death Valley were supposed to fly, so they did, regardless of the outcome or the progress. As I sat there, waiting, I started to see value in going about my daily tasks with bug-like effort.

The clouds crowding the western horizon looked like they were going to pummel the sunset into oblivion, and despite my new-found resolve to go about my photography in a bug-like way, I started to get a little bummed. Eventually, though, the light got weird-interesting, not perfect or even what I had imagined good light looking like in this particular setting. But small holes in the clouds created bright, sharply defined rays of light over the mountains, just enough goodness that I was able to appreciate it in the moment and feel like my efforts to get to this spot had not been wasted.

I started thinking about how this tiny bit of joy mixed with relief was very un-bug-like. Those flying insects I saw earlier probably feel no joy when they overcome an obstacle or meet a goal. Sure, they likely don’t feel defeated by setbacks, real or imagined, but don’t these setbacks amplify feelings of accomplishment if goals are eventually met? And even if the goals are never met, isn’t there some merit in perseverance or in actively, consciously cultivating a cast-iron resolve? And besides, has anyone ever seen a colony of ants pause to admire a nice sunset?

A denuded branch sits on the salt flats of Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park.

A denuded branch sits on the salt flats of Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park. Prints available here. Click for larger size.

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