Death Valley Frito and I attend a birthday party in the California Desert

Death Valley. It's not the most inviting name for a vacation spot, but there are few places that can make you feel so alive. It's a place so desolate, so seemingly devoid of life, so alien, you feel you're walking the surface of another planet. It's beautiful and inspiring. And that's why I keep returning.

If you enter Death Valley from the west, from Panamint Valley, this is what you'll see. Those are the Panamint Mountains, and beyond them is Death Valley. Ahead, we'll cross Towne Pass, over three thousand feet higher than here. It's a brutal, unrelenting grade that will test Frito's cooling system on the way up and his brakes on the way down.

After you cross Towne Pass, you descend into the valley proper. Death Valley is a place that gives you pause. It makes you stop and think. If you wish, you can as alone as you've ever been. Vast and empty spaces are good for you.

The birthday party that Frito and I were attending was mine. I made these two self portraits on my 65th birthday - my first official day as a Senior Citizen. Ancient landscapes like this make you feel anything but senior. Looking out, you realize that nothing has changed here for thousands of years and that nothing you can do will have the slightest affect on it. This feeling of shedding responsibilities is just one of the reasons why I love this place.

This starscape was the perfect backdrop for my birthday party. A bottle of chilled Chardonnay, a lawn chair and a cigar were all I needed to party on that warm April night. Standing here, seemingly on the edge of the universe, I'm filled with thankfulness. And that's a good birthday gift.

Even though Death Valley has some of the darkest skies in America, there's still light pollution. That light on the horizon isn't the sunset. That's Los Angeles, 150 miles away.

Death Valley is a photographer's paradise. The sunrise at Zabriskie Point is a must-visit destination for photographers, and they come here from all over the world to test their skills as landscape photographers. Zabriskie's not a place for solitude, but it certainly is camera friendly.

If you do want solitude, however, it's easy to find. Here is the view from my bedroom inside Frito at an undisclosed location somewhere in Death Valley.

Okay, you got me. It's here, near Aguereberry Point.

Unlike much of the valley, the landscape near this abandoned gold mine has vegetation. The higher elevations trap just enough rainfall for sagebrush to live a tenuous existence.

For nearly four decades, a man named Pete Aguereberry lived here alone, working the gold mine he built.

Pete Aguereberry

In the far distance, Frito waits patiently in the noonday sun. Nearby, this vehicle; possibly a Buick, possibly Pete's. Like nearly everything else in the American wilderness, it's riddled with bullet holes.

Often, it's silent. Absolutely silent. If you listen carefully, you can hear your own heart beating. Here, at Eureka Dunes, you'll seldom see another human.

This parking lot is at Dante's View, site of my birthday party. The paved road here makes access to this spectacular site easy for any vehicle. Well, maybe not a bicycle. It's a long climb.

Death Valley is a place that makes you stop and think. This is Dante's View, with Badwater far below.

Badwater is the bottom of Death Valley, nearly 6000 feet directly below Dante's View. The elevation here is 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the US.

Here at Eureka Dunes in early April, the winter snows still coat the upper elevations of the Panamints. Early Spring is the perfect time to visit.

We'll depart Death Valley the same way we entered it, westwards via Towne Pass and Panamint Valley. In the distance, the Sierra Nevada and Owens Valley - site of another installment of Travels With Frito.

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