I visited on a whim, with my roommate. I woke up one day and said "I need to take a trip," and 36 hours later we were in the car heading east. We were there for just two days and one night, and it was fabulous. We saw the canyons, the dunes, the salt flats, the creeks, the badlands... we camped out in the middle of a valley and listened to the wind howling at night... we went on a hike with a ranger in the morning... we saw a pair of foxes... it was an amazing little get-away. Here are a few pictures to give you an image of the place.
The valley where we camped.
As you can see, it's an incredibly cool place! It's been on my mind a lot this week.
I was at a kind of weird place in my yoga practice at the time of this trip - lots of questions - and visiting this park gave me unexpected clarity in a couple of ways.
First, it made me appreciate my body. A strong, healthy body is such an incredible gift. Death Valley attracts a cool group of visitors, because it's not as touristy and "commercialized" as some as the other parks. People come to Death Valley because, for one reason or another, they really want to be there. There were many return visitors, and many others who had spent years watching the Travel Channel or reading travel books and dreaming of seeing this park. Most of the visitors were middle aged, much older than my grad school roommate and I. And many of them were in poor physical condition. Some were simply aging; a little slower, a little stiffer, a little more cautious. But I particularly remember a man who was visiting from Boston for a week with his wife. He was overweight and walked with a cane. He couldn't follow along with the guided tour because it took him too long to climb a few 12 inch high rock ledges. His wife came along and chatted with us for a bit, then went down to help her husband. She said that he would probably be able to get up and see the canyon, but they were going to have to go at a slower pace.
I felt empathy for this nice guy from my home city, but more than that, I was struck by a realization. For a huge portion of our population, this is now the standard of living. People's bodies aren't taken care of, they break down long before their time, and they never reach their full potential.
And this is why it matters: because we live in this world, filled with natural wonders, and your body is the vessel that carries you through it. I felt this intense gratitude for my body that day, and I felt so much joy in my ability to scramble up rocks, hike through sand dunes, and sleep out on the plains. And I felt that this is why we really need yoga in our lives. Not because we want to look pretty in standing bow pose or have a cute butt in our Shakti shorts (although those things do happen along the way!) But because yoga gives us the gift of a strong, healthy body, for life, and everyone deserves that. We don't even have to age, at least not in the way that it usually happens. And in these bodies of ours, we can experience the entire world.
The national parks bring out the philosophers in us all!
The other thing that I experienced was a sense of scale. Especially in a place like Death Valley, where you can see millions of years' of history etched into the canyon walls, it's impossible not to feel that there are things much larger than yourself. The rocks themselves appear as living things, but their lifespans are measured in millennia. We followed a knowledgeable park ranger, a slim, quiet woman, who told us the Buddhist saying: "There is no death, there is only matter that changes form." Like I said, everyone is a philosopher here...
I was watching a public TV special on the National Parks last week, and I was blown away by the words of one park ranger. I don't have the precise quote, but he said something to this effect: When you visit the parks, you see that something exists that is so much bigger than yourself, and you see that it is majestic and powerful, and you see that you have a place in it. And then you realize that, if this power (energy, chi, spirit, god, or whatever you'd like to call it) exists inside of you, then it must be inside of every other person, too. And once you feel that understanding, once you realize that tangible connection, the way you relate to your fellow man is forever changed.
Holy cow. This sounds like some serious Yogic philosophy to me, and it's coming from a park ranger, describing how he feels in Yellowstone National Park among the trees.
But he's absolutely right. And I felt this, too.