Death Valley wakes up with a bang

  • Broad-flowered gilia

    Donald Davidson,

I stood among the multicolored stones of Death Valley, gazing at the greatest wildflower bloom I’ve ever seen — the greatest bloom of a generation. I had driven from my home in Oregon through the night to see this spectacle, and now that I’d arrived, I found I was unprepared for the power of its beauty. I was on the shore of a golden lake of flowers, a lake that filled this deepest valley of the continent.

Dozens of varieties of wildflowers contributed to this bloom, but in Death Valley in mid-March, by far the predominant species was desert gold, a knee-high sunflower whose massed golden blossoms lit the sky. Its seeds had been slumbering for decades — in some cases, perhaps for a century — among the rocks, only to be awakened by the record six inches-plus of rain that fell on the desert this year.

The other species formed a garden of names almost as colorful as their flowers: desert trumpet and snake-head and turtleback, honey-sweet and pickleweed, pebble pincushion and gravel ghost. I know many nature-lovers who feel that identifying flowers, birds, and butterflies robs them of their mystery and prevents pure appreciation. I’ve found the opposite to be true. The concentration and clarity of vision required to identify a flower takes me deeper into its beauty, strengthens my awe at its particular perfection.

On this trip, I was blessed to be with friends who shared this perspective, and we happily crouched among the rocks to focus on the details that make all the difference between a broad-flowered gilia and a broad-leaved gilia. Each identification made, we raised our eyes to the color-drenched landscape and were swept away all over again.

Our awestruck appreciation was not unique. We were sharing Death Valley with a mighty host, many thousands strong. They had come from every corner of the United States, and from Canada and Europe and Japan, to share in this moment when everything aligned to create the perfect bloom. The crowds, the intense but mellow energy, the high spirits, and the sense that this was a once-in-a-lifetime happening, all contributed to an atmosphere that can only be called the Woodstock of Wildflowers ... Bloomstock.

A few of the participants would not have been out of place grooving to Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane all those years ago. But most were inhabitants of a very different reality. SUVs replaced VW buses as the vehicles of choice, and immense RVs formed a fortress-like city that seemed to loom over the sprawling, dusty parking lot that was the "overflow campground," home for our time at Bloomstock. Still, for all the variety of values among the attendees, we had all come to Death Valley for the same reason: We were all chasing beauty.

Beauty is like love. It afflicts us all, leaving us happier and more sad, richer and poorer, more foolish and more wise. It is indispensable to a good human life. In its absence, we seek it, often not quite knowing what we seek or understanding the lack that we feel. The search makes us one, the Republicans and the Democrats, the old and the young, the drivers of Hummers and of hybrids. When I stood among the flowers with a NRA member from El Paso, I felt profoundly hopeful.

Like Woodstock, Bloomstock was a fleeting moment, and too soon it came to an end. My friends and I all had jobs and responsibilities, and we reluctantly tore ourselves away. It was a long drive home.

When, after many hours, we reached northernmost California, a blizzard descended around our two cars, the only vehicles on that long and lonely road. As we drove slowly through the night, the numberless snowflakes surrounded us with an ever-blooming chrysanthemum of snow as they flowed past the windshield. It was a bloom almost as spectacular and certainly as fleeting as the golden lake of flowers filling Death Valley. While we were chasing beauty, it had captured us.

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He lives and writes in Ashland, Oregon.

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