- Hardcover: 192 pages
- Publisher: Sasquatch Books; First Edition edition (August 9, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1570614482
- ISBN-13: 978-1570614484
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 4.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 13 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,190,901 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Live! From Death Valley: Dispatches from America's Low Point Hardcover – August 9, 2005
From Publishers Weekly
Part a memoir of his years spent exploring the largest national park outside of Alaska, part an amateur naturalist's appreciation for the geography, flora and fauna of this extreme environment, and part a history of the "crazy humans who did bizarre things" there, Soennichsen skillfully weaves these diverse subjects into a narrative of one of the most fantastic and dangerous places on Earth. Soennichsen first visited the area at age 13, and he returned to hike and explore the region for over two decades. His experiences roused a fascination with the desert, as well as a profound respect for its dangers. Much of the human history of Death Valley over the past 150 years is concerned with mineral prospecting, mining and death by desiccation. Naïve Easterners and Europeans came seeking fortunes in mythical gold and silver mines, wilted under the unforgiving climate and abandoned homesteads and short-lived boom towns. The most significant and lasting result of the mining boom in Death Valley is the large present-day population of wild burros, descendants of miners' jacks and jennies freed when their owners gave up or died. Eloquently written, Soennichsen's book is a triumph of reportage reminiscent of McPhee.
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Well, I started reading it after having it in my "to read" pile for a couple of months, and must say I am VERY pleasantly surprised. John has a great writing style - very accessible, and easy to read. I also like the way you have the past interspersed with the present in this volume. I learned so very much from this book, and have actually told my husband that I'd like to visit Death Valley at some point. (Though, I must admit, I'm one of those city wimps who would want air conditioning & cold water at all times. *grin*)
I'd highly recommend this book to anyone - whether they do or do not currnetly have any interest in Death Valley. It will suck you in and make you long to see this lowest point in America. I am so very pleased that I enjoyed it :) - I honestly thought before I cracked the book open that I'd read 20 or 30 pages then put it away due to a lack of interest.
He knows the power of the fanciful placenames we use to try to account for Death Valley's weird formations. Our attempt to play Adam shows both our bold confidence that we can control nature, and our failure to understand the ineffable forces that outlast us. Our naming reveals their power over us far beyond what words can convey. Nevertheless, he tries in a variety of registers to explain some of the fascination that this territory's provoked in him and within a few hardy, or deluded, people over the past century and a half.
William Lewis Manly's tale-- as retold skillfully by Soennichsen-- of his fellow pioneers who took what would become a fatal short cut for some in their party in 1949-50 (ironically a much wetter winter and more forgiving climate than usual) here's interspersed with chapters on the geology and dessication, the mining and pioneer days, the unpredictable weather, the flora and fauna, the crazy folks, The Devil's Racetrack mystery of gliding boulders, more crazy folks, his earlier forays into danger, burros, and what can be seen off the main roads that circle the National Park. Unfailingly, he gives enough insight into his own experiences without getting bogged down in superfluous details from the rest of his life.
He selects only what's appropriate to illuminate the Valley, from his point of view, and supplements it sparingly but deftly with the records from history and fellow sojourners. I sensed that much more could have been told about the mining camps in particular, but other guides and academic works did this. The context, nonetheless, for such efforts as the 20-Mule Borax Mule Team that in turn spawned the now-nearly forgotten (he makes an aside to it) "Death Valley Days" show by Ronald Reagan before he entered 60's politics remained undernourished. Yet, we can find out more in longer, or less accessible, works. He appends a short list of sources selected, but I would have liked much more annotation or specific suggestions for other media. (There's a URL given on the dust jacket with [...] plus the main title of his book as a single word plus dot-com; I tried it today and found a dead link, however.)
This book earns five stars for its clear prose, careful composition, and thoughtful analysis of this infamous expanse. Although the cover and titular typeface make it at first look less than the well-informed investigation that the contents reveal, and the lack of a usable map or representative photos does detract unfortunately from my perfect rating overall, this book's recommended. The photos tended to be rather indistinct, as if random snaps, and did not depict the splendor or strangeness of the sights his words witness.
I admit a bit of confusion. He cites verbatim the dangers of desiccation from Richard Lingenfelter's standard history, while he contradicts what Lingenfelter asserts on the previous page of "Death Valley & the Amargosa": that the Shoshone term "Tomesha" did not mean what Soennichsen in his own introduction's first sentence asserts: "Ground on Fire." (xi; cf. Lingenfelter 1986: 11-13--also reviewed by me.) Lingenfelter traces this false "Paiute" etymology to a 1907 "one-liner" from a geologist. Lingenfelter gives "Coyote Rock" as the probable Shoshone derivation from what was once the largest Indian village there. Thus, as both authors agree, the mythic and the illusive certainly reign over the landscape.
Speaking of placenames, Soennichsen's map, while it reminded me of an affectionate sketch one might take away from an insider who shares his own points of interest on a napkin with you after a long conversation in a local bar near the Valley, on paper's too cramped and idiosyncratic to serve the curious reader wishing for more precision and an easier comprehension of the many sites referred to in the text.
Yet, these remain minor faults compared with the book's strengths. I admired Soennichsen's style, both as a thinker and a chronicler of his beloved realm. For roughly four decades, as he sums up his book's scope, he's been roaming when he could these quiet lands, preparing to tell the tales in this brief, lively, but serious record of what lurks beyond the myths of this often forbidding, yet coyly inviting, place.
He's edited this efficiently told collection of interrelated essays down, I estimate, from a larger work, and the discipline in crafting his reflections shows in the meditative, yet never dull, pace. With touches of self-deprecation, memories of lots of beer in coolers, and the right amount of anecdotes, he tells entertaining yet educational stories. As with Edward Abbey's "Desert Solitaire," this updates the ancient wonder of the American desert for our times; Soennichsen has the advantage of moving further west than Abbey into what still seems to me a Mojave that has lacked the attention from nature writers that it deserves and earns in the hands of such earlier efforts as the late Colin Fletcher's "A Thousand-Mile Summer."
Soennichsen's final chapter accomplishes this feat of verbal reclamation best. Without revealing why I think his night in Surprise Canyon proved so apt a name for such an encounter as the one he relates, he also cocks a sober eye towards our hubris and chides our refusal-- in a wilderness that often punishes the foolhardy visitor-- to respect the limits that such a desert represents to all of us who drag motorhomes and generators out there into the silence. We wish to see Mother Nature from the comforts of only our frigid automobile window, or perhaps after tearing it up under our 4WD's spattered windscreen. Without getting sanctimonious or hypocritical, he marvels at relentless human endeavor to tame such an awesome place. Also, he elicits respect for the hidden places that should not be domesticated.
I did not expect the penultimate pages of this little book to end with a chapter citing Sartre, but it's again testimony to Soennichsen's skill that he can integrate a profound observation into his own reflections without it coming off as showing off. At Chris Wicht's Panamint camp, he finds intimations that connect with Wordsworth's "inward eye which is the bliss of solitude." (qtd. 168) Our existential solitude, as he learns one midnight, takes us into our minds as the most mysterious of all our landscapes, where even Death Valley may look tamer by psychic comparison.