Artist’s Drive/Artist’s Palette in Death Valley

Scalloped alluvials, brushed to the edge with primal pigments
Scalloped alluvials, brushed to the edge with primal pigments

Climbing above Badwater Road, Artist’s Drive displays a spectacular palette of colour on the face of the Black Mountains. Minted pearl green from chlorite—my favourite. Lavender empurpled from manganese. Yellow, light as pollen and dense as mustard, from iron oxide. Pastel pink deepening to ochre red from Hematite. The threatening sky a wash of denim blues.

Taking local advice, Magellan and I drove this nine-mile loop in the light of late afternoon after hiking for most of the day in Marble Canyon. The desert heat and gusting winds had dusted our faces, clung to our hair and trickled into our boots. Although sweaty and sandy, it felt good to be out of the elements, in Rove-Inn, on such a scenic drive.

Surreal colours aren’t they? The multiple hues were produced by chemical weathering and hydrothermal reactions in mineral deposits  in the Miocene millions of years ago. Layers of volcanic debris, cemented gravel and playa deposits built up to a thickness of 5,000 feet. Continuous weathering from flash floods and desert winds further exposed the rocks, their colours beautified by oxidation.

To help describe the range of nature’s palette on Artist’s Drive, I reached for a Mothers’ Day gift from Lynn, The Secret Lives of Colour. Tyrian purple, Cleopatra’s favourite colour, the product of two varieties of shellfish fermented in a vat of stale urine. Hematite, used to stain mummification linens, the title “Lord of the Red Cloth” given to Osiris, the ancient Egyptian god of the afterlife. Gamboge, the solidified sap of Garcinia trees from Cambodia, a fixture on the palettes of artists from the Far East for centuries and later for Rembrandt, Turner and Reynolds.

Along the one-way route there are turnoffs and short walks over narrow washes so you can get even more impressive views of the unique geology and rainbow colours. A frisky breeze, dust and wind flirting at our ankles, and rain shadows darkening the western skies kept us from going too far or staying out too long when we reached the highlight of the drive: Artist’s Palette. (As did knowing we had to find a windproof place to camp.)

While hiking Marble Canyon we met a couple from Sacramento who also had an Airtop tent, although theirs was on a Jeep Wrangler. “Johnson’s Canyon, yeah, it’s a bitch,” said the wife, advising us not to camp there as we’d planned. Her husband suggested we try Echo Canyon instead. However, the huge pile of stones accumulated in the centre of the dirt road was playing havoc with Rove-Inn’s belly so we found a spot to camp just a few miles into Echo Canyon.

It was calm. We realized it was the first day of spring, March 21. “How about a shower in our new stall?” Magellan asked. Spring cleaning?

What? I can hear you asking. A shower stall?

I know. I too was dubious when Magellan found what looked like a flyaway outdoor-biffy at Bass Pro Shop and bought an Oz Trail 12-volt shower.

Only an engineer could rig up something like this. We set up the shower stall, close to Rove-Inn so we could plug the shower hose into her cigarette lighter. Removed a rubber floor mat from Rove-Inn and put it on the floor of the shower stall. Assembled our aluminum dining table, moved it beside the shower stall to hold our clothes. Hung our microfibre towels. Placed our Latitude65 rug and sandals outside the shower stall. Heated water on our camp stove. Poured it into a bucket. Remembered to dig out soap and shampoo from our kit bags and find my thin Japanese washcloth. (Magellan always insists I go first—generous, but then I leave him lots of water.) Got nude in the shower stall, tossed aside dirty clothes and turned on the Oz Trail hose, which has a pump that draws water from the bucket. Turned off the water after a minute or so. Watched it pool around my dirty feet as I soaped and shampooed. Turned the hose back on. Sprayed and rinsed. Reached out for clean clothes and sandals. Nirvana. “Bottom-shelf luxury,” Magellan calls it.

But do you really get clean with less than a bucket of water?

Have you seen an artist’s palette at the end of a day? If you have you know it’s intermingled shades of paint scraped clean down to the wood, only a faint tincture of indeterminate colour left in the thin grains. That pretty much describes our skin after a desert wash-and-rinse. It feels superb. “The smooth tranquility that comes from dwelling among primal things.”


Jarvis, Brooke. “Rethinking the Science of Skin.The New Yorker. August 3 & 10, 2020. “Five years ago, I stopped showering.” Brooke introduces this fascinating article with words from Dr James Hamblin, a medical doctor who wrote a book that takes a critical view of the soap industry and what it’s doing to our skin—and also stopped showering for five years. It made me think about our skin on that 79-day trip in Rove-Inn around the southwestern US…

The quote by Sylvia Plath dates from 1951 and was first published 31 years later in The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath.

St Clair, Kassia. The Secret Lives of Colour. Great Britain:  Hatchette UK, 2018. A delightful book you’ll find yourself slipping into for a spot of colour. My favourite quote in this book is from John Ruskin: “It is the best possible sign of a colour when nobody who sees it knows what to call it.”  Colours like Isabelline, Lead-tin yellow, Orpiment, Minium, Orchil…

12 Responses

  1. Beautiful subtle shades of so many different colours.

    Like so many other situations; the more you look the more you see.

    Thank you.


  2. Wow – what a post! Your adventures are inspiring, informative and combine a dash of MacGiver-like ingenuity – love the cool outdoor shower – with extraordinary narrative – that description of “neopolitan-ice cream coloring”. Brilliant words and images. You two are having way too much fun!

    xoxo Myra

    1. Ah, TY Myra. Every day on that 79-day odyssey was extraordinary—I re-read my diary and am so glad we we went in 2017. Kassia’s discussion of colours is such fun but then you would probably have heard about them. What would Alan add to gerrymander the shower even further?

    1. The piece de resistance is the floor mat from Rove-Inn standing in for a shower pan. And as Barry says, you don’t really need a towel as nature in Death Valley usually has her blow-dryer on.

  3. Always a struggle to imagine shades of different colors as they do not exist in my color blind world, enough to see imagines that mother has laid out for us all, sublime to be sure, I will leave the script to you as it’s just too foreign for me.
    Being in the desert I was thinking sandblasting might be your shower, truly abrasive, but non the less, it gets the job done.
    Outside showers are indeed nice, only privacy needed to eliminate the stall walls or prying eyes, our trailer has one and in the right circumstances comes in very handy, clean is so refreshing. I have to think drying is a non issue, considering the air is equivalent to Mother Natures giant blow dryer. 🌞🌞🌞🌞🌞🌞🌬🌬🌬🌬🌬

    1. I too am colourblind so was a bit challenged when Spice asked me to use the outcrop with the tinge of green as the Feature Image. All I could see were beautiful shades of brown!

  4. Bass Pro has a lot of “stuff” you won’t find anywhere….did not know about the portable shower! Fall is Dallas’ favourite time of year as well. I think it has something to do with the farm & harvest being over. On the flip side, I did not like fall as it reminded me of the coming relentless winter which often arrived quickly on the prairies. Beautiful photos and descriptions of the subtle colours…..

    1. The shower shelter we got from Bass Pro surrendered to the high winds the next night, snapping two side poles. But they replaced it without question when we got back to Canada.

      The 12V Oz shower we got from a speciality off-road distributor. It sure was a lot nicer than the black thermal bag you can hang from a tree with a nozzle that barely dribbles water.

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