The true wilderness experience is one, not of escaping but of finding one’s self by seeking the wilderness.
- Howard Zahniser
A playa is a dried-up lake bed within a desert basin. It is a peculiar feature of the southwest US and other very arid places in the world. It is the remainder of what was once filled with water. What is left behind is cracked soil, exposed rock, and salt deposits.
To experience a playa, one must walk on and through it. In its walking I was left to experience the unexpected. What was unexpected was what lay ahead. I thought this would be a rather monotonous salt flat. Yet every hundred yards or so there was something new. The stream changed direction and shape. The bottom of the stream had different colors than back there. The cracked and fissured soil becomes serpentine waves. It was much more enticing than I had expected.
It drew me inward.
This playa is in Death Valley and one I wandered for many hours. Wandering is my way of progressing through a photographic field session. Only the setting sun and its later darkness sent me home. Otherwise, I would have continued to wander, lead on by the lines and textures at my feet.
There is a clarity in a playa. What was once filled with water is now a torrid landscape. Seasonal streams flow through basin sediments to form fractured and fissured shapes that become lines when viewed from a distance. These forms are simple and the lines leading. They led me onward this afternoon into the depths and length of this playa.
My feet sometimes squished into mud beneath a thin crust. At other times they crunched on salt rifts. It was often hard to know what was underfoot.
I was drawn into the playa by curiosity of what lay beyond the next turn in the stream. As I wandered, the sun began to slowly set in the west, and the stream began to reflect the heavens.
The salt reflected the blue of this afternoon's sky. There was a combination of heaven and earth in my viewing. I felt moved to catch it and bring it home so the experience could remain within me. These times, when the world and my place in it are so abundantly clear, are the times I wish to hold. Much of my life is not so clear. In the midst of a playa, life becomes imminently clear.
Before me lay the desolation of time as well as the reflection of this day's end with its expectation for tomorrow. What was desolate before would become something else tomorrow. This day would live within me to later share through my photographs and words.
There is a great sense of simplicity and recurrence about this playa. The simplicity is in the forms. The sense of recurrence is that I knew tomorrow and the day after and the one after would be the same as today.
It is a place of great meaning for me in its spaciousness and invitation to return. To experience that solemn invitation, I will travel again to the playas in Death Valley. I like to believe there are times when the land asks me to come back.