On love in Death Valley, and what’s been lost

An ode to a time of both sorrow and new found laughter.


I’ve laughed every day for two years, and that’s because I’ve been dating Kevin for two years, and he’s a joyful and funny man, both in words and expression. I was thinking about this as we drove to Death Valley to celebrate our second anniversary: How utterly odd that at middle age, and during a time of world and national sorrows and resultant personal trials (insomnia, stomachaches), that I now found myself laughing. Sometimes the sound of my own laughter makes me laugh. It’s just so odd.

Besides being funny, Kevin has another major characteristic: He is a “music obsessive,” as he puts it, and every road trip features its own playlist, this trip’s being titled “America: An Alternative History Lesson.” So as we drove through a non-typical part of America, we listened to songs about our country’s dark side: Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Steve Earle’s “Christmas in Washington,” James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make it Here No More.” We hiked Death Valley, shuffling dust where it seemed there should be water, and we spoke of war, poverty, racism, resource extraction, and the roles that religion and patriotism play in all of them. How it all seems more relevant now than when the songs were written. What despair feels like in the body.

The poet John Keats called our ability to hold opposing thoughts at the same time “negative capability.” F. Scott Fitzgerald said it better: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” It seemed like a nod to first-rate intelligence, then, to be walking around Death Valley, talking about America’s underbelly, and so full of laughter.

Maureen Stewart

While Kevin is adept at laughing and talking, I am not. I’m a quiet writer, stymied by the disconnect between my brain and my tongue. Often, what I do get out of my mouth is ridiculous. Kevin is delighted by my propensity for malapropisms, my ability to get words or phrases slightly off-kilter. “Ice Tray,” I once called Ice Cube. As we left Las Vegas for Death Valley, I’d said, “What stays in Vegas happens in Vegas,” to which he could only laugh and say, “True, that.”

I think of laughter all the time now. I feel amused by its very sound — such an odd, garbly noise that stutters or flows so unexpectedly! I think of the neurology — the limbic system and how there reside feelings of friendship and love. I think of the body, how the epiglottis half-closes the larynx and heated air causes gasping noises; how stomach and back muscles get a good workout. I’m curious about something so new and prevalent in my life, this unconsciously, neurologically programmed social impulse. As we take a morning hike into cliffs of sheer gold, I turn to Kevin, take his hand, and smile.  


Death Valley’s delight is that it’s so extreme. It’s the lowest spot in North America. The driest. The hottest recorded temperature in the world. Volcanic and sedimentary hills of pinks and yellows, meadows of salt. Up close, it’s just as odd: salt crystals in intricate bursts; a roadrunner; and one little creature we were determined to see, the pupfish. A tiny endangered fish with ancient roots, it’s found nowhere else on the planet. We couldn’t find it at the national park, either, so we left to find the one aquamarine pool where the species survives. Unprotected, this area was slated for casinos and development. The park ranger told us the issue was contentious, culminating in dueling bumper stickers that read, “Protect the pupfish,” and “Kill the pupfish.” “America distilled, right there,” Kevin said. Then added, “Vegas should stay in Vegas.” And then, to the imaginary developers, Humphrey-Bogart style: “Your plans for these pupfish, pal, they’re hooey.”

We spotted the little blue flashes in the deep pool, and I found myself humming another playlist song, Rufus Wainwright’s “Going to a Town”:

“I’m going to a town that has already been burnt down

I’m going to a place that has already been disgraced

I’m gonna see some folks who have already been let down

I’m so tired of America.”

The fish kept darting around.

Driving home through warped mountains and ancient seabeds, we listened to the Eagles’ “Last Resort.” I thought about the West that’s been lost, the great divide that’s only grown wider, the mountains lain low. But then Don Henley hit a line I might not have noticed before I met Kevin, about “a place where people were smiling.” Kevin was intensely humming, his face lit with passion, and as the rugged and complex geography whizzed by, I knew I was there.

Laura Pritchett is the author of five novels and the recipient of the PEN USA Award, the WILLA Award, and the High Plains Book Award. More at

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • available in Gothic, CO for 2019 summer season - Manager, Lead Cooks, Prep-Cooks, Dishwasher - at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL). The Dining Hall...
  • Suitable for planting hay, hemp, fruit. Excellent water rights. 1800 square foot farmhouse, outbuildings, worker housing.
  • More information: jobs.wisc.edu. Search 96076
  • Friends of the Verde River is looking for someone to join our team who has a keen investigative mind and is an excellent communicator and...
  • - Thriving Indie bookstore in Durango, CO. 1800 sf of busy retail space in a 3100 sf historic building. Long term lease or option to...
  • The Deep Springs College Kitchen Manager is responsible for the overall operations and budget of a small commercial kitchen and serves as teacher to students...
  • with home on one acre in Pocatello, ID. For information and photos visit www.blackrockforgeproperty.com.
  • The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is seeking a technical partner to develop a land management plan for the 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears Landscape in southeastern...
  • Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • on 3 acres near Moxon. 3 bd/1.5 bath, apt. Views/access to hiking, fishing, wildlife.1-207-593-6312. $165,900.
  • Senior position responsible for the development of all marketing and fundraising strategies to grow the base of philanthropic support and awareness of GSEP.
  • 1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • This newly created position with The Nature Conservancy's Colorado River Program will play a key role in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve...
  • A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • near Ennis, MT. Artist designed, 1900 SF, 2BR/2BA home on 11.6 acres with creek, tree, views, privacy. 406-570-9233 or [email protected] www.arrowreal.com (Country Homes).
  • Colorado Farm to Table is looking for a full-time energetic, creative Executive Director to lead our team in Salida.