Death Valley Gave Me New Life

story and photos by Charmaine Coimbra

I gasped for air as the constrictor of too much life strangled the air from me. So I took a trip to Death Valley to remove the choking beast. 

Maybe it was the funeral I attended the day prior. Or maybe I was ready to take in the nothingness filled with life that colors the 5,219 square mile Death Valley National Park.

I escaped to three days of rock and sand—like a magic, colorful, sand strata bottle—hoping the trip would restore my soul's battery. 

At the funeral, filled with native Californians, I mentioned that I planned to drive to Death Valley in the morning.

“You know, I’ve never gone there,” confessed more than one person.  

“Why Death Valley?” another old-time friend asked.

“I can use a desert retreat,” I explained, oblivious to the fact that I was leaving a Death event to go to Death Valley. 

“But you live in paradise, a few blocks from the ocean, perfect everything,” my friend countered.

“True. But sometimes I like the stripped down and naked desert. Fewer distractions.”

After a year of personal challenges, I craved a drastic change of scenery. All I wanted was two things: unearthly silence, and minimal human contact.

So I booked The Cottage at Panamint Springs Resort. Sounded like ice tea on a hot day. 

Now I travel with a cat, so I have limited lodging options.  Panamint Springs Resort allows pets. The word resort is a bit of a misnomer—the facility is basic, funky, no internet or cell service, but friendly and quiet. 

It's a 40ish mile ride to Stovepipe Wells, and another 20ish mile ride to Furnace Creek, so I spent more time on the road than planned. But, in fact, it worked out as the light dramatically changed on my way back to Panamint Springs and brought a fresh perspective on the landscape and camera lens each time. 

Two coyotes, wily in their way of seeking handouts from travelers who think it is okay to feed wildlife, coaxed me off the road to photograph them. They wandered off when it was clear that I was not one of those people who feed wildlife, but will happily photograph them for free. I watched them pull their trick on other tourists and noted that one gifted them with chips and another with Cheerios. 

When I reached Mesquite Dunes, my trigger finger itched to take some photos. But the sun was mid-sky and the lighting lousy, and I was trying to heed the warning about sidewinder rattlesnakes on the dunes on warm days.  It was 73-degrees. I moved on to Scotty’s Castle.  What I really wanted to see was the riparian zone along Grapevine Canyon. Unfortunately, the road to the castle was completely torn up, and after two miles of 7.0 Richter scale shaking in the four-wheel drive truck, I turned around. Would’ve been nice if there had been some notice prior to the 30ish mile drive out there. 

But there was a change in lighting on the way back to the Panamint “resort” and my camera-trigger finger got great satisfaction as the shadows and light danced along the Mesquite Sand Dune curves.

I was in a hurry to view the smallest full moon of the year rising over the naked hills.  I sipped a chilled white wine while sitting on the cottage front porch. There were no people, and little noise. My grateful lungs opened and pushed out a huge exhale, and then inhaled enough deep breaths to hand off my ever-present tense neck and shoulders to the desert that surrounded me. 

Dinner was either the leftover peanut butter wraps in the ice chest or something more substantial at the “resort’s” restaurant. I picked an outside table under the desert moonlight and noshed on a surprisingly good sandwich and salad.  

Slept like my cat—zonked out past sunrise. This day and the next were carefully mapped out to match my 65-year-old body and energy level. 

My must do list included inhaling all the information I could at the Death Valley Visitor’s Center in Furnace Creek;  hiking the Natural Bridge trail; cruising Artist’s Drive; hiking Golden Canyon Interpretive Trail and Salt Creek Interpretive Trail. The three-day odyssey, however, did not allow a full tour of the park. There was more I wanted to see and do, but between my goals of yanking off that constrictor and clearing out my head, I had to leave some of the hikes and rides for my next visit. Next time, I’ll x-out five days on my calendar. 

So, did I achieve my goals?  Yes, I removed the choking beast and reaffirmed life in a place with Death in its name. How perfect. 


If you go:

Lodging in Death Valley runs from the posh Inn at Furnace Creek complete with bell service and a spa, to the more casual and family friendly The Ranch at Furnace Creek, or to mid-range Stovepipe Wells, and to the truly rustic Panamint Springs Resort.  

About nine options for camping are available within the park’s boundaries.

Plan your trip by keeping in mind that most popular sites are miles apart.  Consider your food, water and gasoline.  (There are three gas stations, one each in Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells, and Furnace Creek.)

Is the park quiet all the time?  No.  China Lake Naval Air Warfare Weapons Division is Death Valley’s next door neighbor.  You might witness and hear tactical aircraft like F/A-18, AV-8B, AH-1W, AH-1Z, EP-3E and the F-22 zipping overhead.



Charmaine Coimbra returned to her first love—writing —upon her retirement. Prior to her 20-year retail business ownership in Santa Fe, she was a feature writer and reporter for a California community newspaper, and freelanced her stories to major publications. Now she writes from Cambria, CA for both local and national publications and is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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