“The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane,” non-religious mood of everyday experience. […] It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.”
Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational.
What is the meaning of the enticing allure I feel in my gut, as I gaze at the rippled, curving waves of endless sand dunes, ever changing, that spread out before me?
I stand at the edge of the parking lot for the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes off Highway 190, the main road through Death Valley National Park, about a mile east of Stovepipe Wells.
For the past two hours I have driven eighty miles from my base in Lone Pine, over two mountain ranges, with hair-pin turns, watching for reckless motorcyclists, who sometimes veer off the road to their death. Fighter pilots from China Lake fly low overhead, buzzing the highway, their afterburners shake my car. It took intense concentration to make it here safely as I wait for my soul to catch up with my body. Busy, numbed mind. Dry mouth. Fatigue.
At 4 pm, at the Mesquite Flat parking lot, most tourists are leaving the area. No wind, clear skies, 75 degrees on a spring day in March, two hours before the sun begins to set behind the Sierra Nevada to the west. I cannot resist any longer as I walk toward the highest dune.
The ground is hard, cracked clay or playa, which retains the pools of winter rain until the radiant sun evaporates the water, and the dried mud creates a mosaic of cracked clay, reminding me that the floor of the dunes is an ancient lake bed. The loose, deep sand comes quickly as I climb into the dunes.
Here and there are spots of green: creosote and mesquite, whose dried pods were a life staple for the resident Indians. Water has seeped deep into the sand, creating occasional pockets of life. Small burrows emanate out the sides of the brush, home to kit fox, scorpions, snakes and jack rabbits. When summer sun heats the dunes in the morning, a lounge of lizards dart about, including the whitish-gray foot-long Desert Iguana.
I follow a well-traveled trail to the highest dune, from the top of which I see a vast sea of undulating sand. I carefully walk the rim of the high dune to the left for a good distance and notice that there has been no recent foot traffic.
I must take my mind off the highway and focus awareness right now to what is in front of me, the steep edge of dune, like walking on a tightrope. My body wants to lean to the side, which means tumbling down the sandy slope. Focus on this step, now the next one. I let go of that last step and focus on this one. I look around me at the expansive mountains of sand, and begin to slip and slide down the dune, falling to my knees, losing control and tumble down. I press down harder with my hiking boots, trying to climb back up the steep slope. “Pause and regroup.” I remember that from Bobbi Patterson’s ten-day journey in the Sinai Desert in Egypt:
“’Pause and Regroup,” become aware of where you are and what’s happening. That reset of my awareness helped me discern the angles of approach I needed to slowly make my way back to the group at the top. But each step brought its own tipsiness. ….Like riding a rip-tide. I learned to go with the line of fall on the dune rather than fight it.”
Bobbi Patterson, Building Resilience through Contemplative Practice.
As I focused intently my awareness of each step, I arrived again at the crest of the dune. Moving westward for several hundred yards, I descend slowly down into a deep hollow, a high circle of dunes surround me. The intense exertion, the adrenalin of focusing each step, has purged my busy mind.
“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince.
Silence. No wind. My wobbly, fatigued legs pull me down upon the soft, cool sand. No Mind.
Awe, vast emptiness, silence. The Lord seems very close to me now, as this circle of sand surrounds me, God’s love enfolds me. The busy mind, following map directions, listening to music on the car radio, thoughts about yesterday and tomorrow, that busy mind now rests. Awe, emptiness and silence.
Empty desert landscape like this heighten my senses, focusing on Now. I remember what pulls me out into these desert spaces. For many years, during Erik’s health crises, retreats like this were a respite from the intense daily routine of his care. Now that his health has stabilized to some extent, the feelings of anxiety and fear about his future have changed to gratitude for how the Lord has been with us all along.
Visitors to desert spaces like this have various perspectives as they walk and contemplate. Sitting here on cool sand, a warm winter day, protected from wind by the encircling dunes, the foggy veil of consciousness fades. The gracious, loving Presence is beside me. As I write these words, many months after this experience, this foundational remembering enlivens my sense of God’s care and love.
I lose a sense of time, but time has passed, as the sun is now just above the crest of the Sierra Nevada, darkness is less than an hour away.
A thought arises: a memory from the world religions class I taught for 45 years: the haunting insight from Rudolf Otto of the Numinous, the deeply sensed encounter with the Holy that is beyond words. Mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Unique life encounters with awe and wonder can evoke a sense of a merciful and gracious Presence. We do not conjure this, it just happens. We are drawn into the gracious Presence by an innate holy longing, and at the same time, aware that this Presence has great power, and in our awareness, we step back in fear and dread. Drawn forward in awe and holy longing, stepping back in fear and dread, Otto’s classic insight describes the ineffable encounter with the Sacred.
Landscape like this endless sand does evoke an inviting awe.
But sand dunes are also deadly, as recent events remind me.
Visitor attendance in Death Valley peaks in the summer, the most brutal season, when temperatures range from 115 F to 125 F.
Recently on an early June afternoon, a tour bus stopped at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for the passengers to step out and take photos. The dry 115-degree heat would have taken their breath away, as they exited the air-conditioned bus. The driver warned the patrons that they must return to the bus within ten minutes.
French tourist, Guy Brossart, must have become captivated by the allure of the sand dunes. The bus driver waited for an hour, then called the Death Valley Park rangers, who began the search. Brossart’s body was found four hundred yards from the parking lot, succumbing to heat exhaustion.
In August, when Death Valley has broken world heat index records, a Japanese tourist exited the bus and walked into the dunes to take photographs. You only have a few minutes in this intense heat before the sun fries your body, sucking out every bit of moisture, leaving you quickly fatigued, disoriented and unable to walk. The hypnotic draw of the dunes has power to pull you further and further in: “just a few more steps and I will turn around.” But the brain stops working as the sun beats down upon you. The body of the Japanese tourist was found at sunset a mile away from the parking lot.
“The shifting sands! Slowly they move, wave upon wave, drift upon drift; but by day and by night they gather, gather, gather. They overwhelm, they bury, they destroy, and then a spirit of restlessness seizes them, and they move off elsewhere, swirl upon swirl, line upon line, in serpentine windings that enfold some new growth or fill in some new valley in the waste. So, it happens that the surface of the desert is far from being a permanent affair.”
The Desert, John C. Van Dyke, p. 28.
Of the five sand dunes within Death Valley National Park, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are the easiest to visit. Cottonwood Mountains to the north are the likely source for the grains of quartz and feldspar that have created these dunes.
The dramatic fluctuation between freezing winter snow and melting summer heat wear down the rocky heights of the mountains. Monsoonal summer storms beat upon the barren slopes of the mountains, creating violent flash floods, breaking loose the rocks, grinding them into sand, dumping the debris into alluvial fans, which spread out from the narrow canyons unto the valley floor.
It doesn’t take much of a breeze to move the sand particles. But the wind is often intense, creating blinding sandstorms.
“Once sand begins to pile up, ripples and dunes can form. Wind continues to move sand up to the top of the pile until the piles is so steep that it collapses under its own weight. The collapsing sand comes to rest when it reaches just the right steepness to keep the dune stable. This angle, usually about 30-34 degrees, is called the angle of repose. Every pile of loose particles has a unique angle of repose, depending upon the properties of the material it’s made of.”
“The repeating cycle of sand inching up the windward side to the dune crest, then slipping down the dune’s slip face allows the dune to inch forward migrating in the direction the wind blows. As you might guess, all of this climbing then slipping leaves its mark on the internal structure of the dune.”
- S. Department of the Interior, U. S. Geological Survey.
Sand avalanches moved by compressed air can cause the sand to sing! Yes, the sand dune can produce singing or booming sounds.
Here is the sound of a singing sand dune:
Conditions must be just right: sand grains 0.1 to 0.5 mm in diameter, silica within the sand, and the right humidity and heat. Researchers have found that the best chance for hearing singing sand dunes in Death Valley is with intense heat, the most dangerous time to walk in the dunes. The sound can be started by wind or a person walking on the crest of a high dune. While the dunes of Mesquite Flat don’t sing because of the water that is present, the Eureka Dunes, at the far eastern end of the Park can sing.
“Since at least the time of Marco Polo, desert travelers have heard the songs of the dunes, a loud — up to 115 decibels — deep hum that can last several minutes.
Scientists already knew that the sounds were generated by avalanches but were not sure how. One thought had been that the force of an avalanche could cause an entire dune to resonate like a flute or a violin. But if that were true, dunes of different sizes and shapes should produce a cacophony of notes instead of one characteristic tone.”
The Timbisha Shoshone Indians have lived in Death Valley for a thousand years. It is hard to imagine how a people could survive here, but they worked intently as hunters and gathers, moving to the cooler, higher elevations in the summer heat. The mild winters gave time to store up pine nuts and mesquite beans, their main staples. Mule deer, bighorn sheep, jackrabbits and chuckwalla lizards provided meat. Death Valley to them has been a land of abundance, until outsiders invaded during the 1849 Gold Rush and Borax was discovered. This changed everything. Moved off their land, survival has been a struggle. It was not until 2000, when President Clinton signed the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act, that 7.500 acres would be returned to the tribe.
In my writings on desert spirituality, my life has been enriched by connections to scholars and others who have found meaning in desert explorations. I have a new friend in Fred Mercadante, campus minister at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit University in Pennsylvania.
I discovered recently that for several years Fred has led desert retreat experiences for students in Death Valley during December. Inspired by the school’s Jesuit foundation, the students spend five days practicing contemplation while they explore different desert landscapes, including the Eureka Sand Dunes.
In the Christian tradition of Desert Spirituality, the desert is a place of discernment and prayer. Fred offers this retreat experience to help the students not be complacent on their faith journey but “go to deeper places, perhaps even places that feel uncomfortable at first.”
This desert retreat guides students to pray in nature, build community among one another and fosters personal growth. As Jesus experienced his deepening connection with the Father in his forty days in the desert, these students come closer to their true selves, their Christ selves.
One participant, Bryan Gorczyca, shared: “The week spent in Death Valley tested every member of our group physically, mentally and spiritually through many tasks and challenges which brought us all to a new outlook on ourselves, others and Mother Nature. At no time in my life have I experienced such peace with the world as I did in the silence of reflection on this retreat….I have come out a better version of myself”
National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2018.
“The sand dunes again! Clear, soft, blown clean by the wind, rippled as by shore waves, rising from the desert in long smooth rounded slopes, climbing and swelling and mounting, curved, scalloped, knife-edged, lacy, exquisitely silver, on and up, alluring steps toward the infinite blue!”
Zane Grey, Stairs of Sand: A Western Story.
Death Valley National Park has five sand dune locations.
Mesquite Flat Dunes are the easiest to visit. You can access from parking lot off Highway 190, near Stovepipe Wells. Covering a vast area, the highest dune is about 100 feet.
Eureka Dunes is accessed from Big Pine, off Highway 395, via 28 miles of paved road and 21 miles graded dirt. Most autos can travel this road, but avoid stormy weather
Saline Valley Dunes have infrequent visitors as the area is remote. The dunes cover a large area.
Panamint Dunes are off Highway 190, five miles down an unmarked dirt road, followed by a three-mile hike. Because of the slope of the dunes, there are dramatic views of the valley.
Ibex Springs are near Saratoga Springs but hidden behind desert hills. About one-mile hike.
The best time to visit the dunes is between November and April. Avoid summer and other hot days. Carry two liters of water per person for short hikes; one gallon for longer.
Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational.
Bobbi Patterson, Building Resilience through Contemplative Practice: A Field Manual for Helping Professionals and Volunteers., p. 52. New York: Routledge, 2020.
Death Valley National Park: Sand Dunes. https://www.nps.gov/deva/learn/nature/sand-dunes.htm
Loc 2728, Stairs of Sand: A Western Story, Zane Grey. 1928, renewed 1954, New York: Skyhorse Publishing.