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Death Valley In All Its Majesty (And Desolation)

Photo by Alex Ross and used with his permission

Scenes of Death Valley wildflowers

On the website of Death Valley National Park - the text reads, “Hottest, Driest, and Lowest National Park.”

These could be good or bad attributes depending on how you look at it. But there’s no denying that the park has had a visually spectacular 2016 due to abundant rainfall.

Alex Ross has written about Death Valley in The New Yorker magazine. His article is “Desert Bloom” - with the subtitle, “This year, the hidden vitality of Death Valley Emerged in Full Flower.”

Ross is actually a music critic for the magazine, but he told KNPR's State of Nevada that he has long been fascinated by Death Valley. He said he has wanted to write something about the area for a long time and this past spring's super bloom seemed the perfect choice.

“Going back almost 20 years, I’ve really been deeply fascinated by Death Valley and it’s absolutely one of my favorite places on earth,” he said.

Ross first traveled to Death Valley in June of 1999 and was smitten.

“I had heard stories about Death Valley," he said, "I was expecting some kind of creepy desolate place that I would drive through quickly and I was just stunned to discover how beautiful it is. How varied it is. What extraordinary kinds of juxtapositions it gives you as you drive around.”

Ross said the place is dynamic with vistas changing all the time and the color of rock formations transforming depending on where you look at it.

The super bloom was really part of the dynamism. Because of the way Nevada and parts of California are structured as deep basin valleys and towering ranges, storms from the Pacific Ocean get cut off and don't retain their moisture.  

“By the time the system gets to Death Valley, the water has been drained out and that’s why it’s so dry and so hot," Ross said, "But every once in a while these freak systems make their way in.”

Rain storms in October 2015 soaked the ground and awakened long dormant seeds.

“There are all these seeds that are usually not activated but they’re waiting for their chance," Ross said, "So, you had this enormous explosion of wildflowers all over the valley as those blooms took advantage of a once in a decade, maybe even once in a century soaking.”

The super bloom seems like an odd occurrence in a placed called Death Valley. Ross said that while the name draws people to the area it is actually not accurate.

"I think it’s really deceptive," he said, "It is a badly named place. There is so much life, often of a more covert variety. You have to look a little harder to find it. but it’s there and it can be spectacular."

He said the original people who called the area home the Timbisha Shoshone Tribeconsider the name Death Valley to be an insult to their traditions. The tribe lived in the area for centuries and found a way to not only survive the harsh landscape but thrive. 

Alex Ross, staff writer, The New Yorker magazine. 

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Since June 2015, Fred has been a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada.