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Death Valley Days

June 2024
1min read

A Portrait of the Definitive American Desert

by David Darlington , Henry Holt and Company, 337 pages, $25.00 . CODE: HHC-8

EVEN IF YOU’VE NEVER BEEN WEST OF Massillon, Ohio, you’ve doubtless seen the Mojave Desert and its notorious Death Valley in Westerns and also in countless TV commercials. As David Darlington writes, it is “the most filmed desert in the world.” At fifteen thousand square miles, it is the smallest North American desert, but its placement “between the infamous urban poles of Los Angeles and Las Vegas” may account for its “outsized influence on the public imagination.” It is a destination for very few who pass along its searing stretch of Route 66, and, of those who have made the place a temporary home—miners, bikers, and ecologists—few have studied it in its totality as Darlington has. He knows his desert up and down, from the life habits of the desert tortoise (which survives the hottest months by burying itself and retaining its urine) to the history of the desert bomb programs, the running of the Barstow-to-Vegas motorcycle race, and the uses of the Mojave’s “sunbaked, uncomplaining plants.”

Other writers have found purity or anarchic freedom in the Mojave, but Darlington, while seeing the desert’s beauty, shows it in harder detail: “The unofficial symbol of the desert is the abandoned automobile: overturned, covered with rust, riddled with holes made by bullets.” A car will often contain a corpse, and Darlington’s investigation overlaps briefly with the work of some desert homicide detectives, among whom “the running joke . . . is that if all the people they haven’t found were to stand up simultaneously, the Mojave would resemble Manhattan Island.” Many little border towns live off the hardships of desert tourists, and are sustained by towing charges and the sale of radiator hoses. Darlington ends up surprisingly divided over the recently passed Desert Protection Act, which may tame the Mojave he loves in order to save it.

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