In my first post, I mentioned my journey along New York’s Long Path — but now let’s take a jump out west, to Death Valley.
As you may know, the Badwater Ultramarathon is held in Death Valley each July. It’s a 135-mile ultramarathon from Badwater Basin to the Whitney Portal, famous for the extreme temperatures runners face, and for this reason often identified as one of the world’s toughest footraces. I ran Badwater in 2010 and 2012 and completed a double in 2014.
Each time I’ve journeyed to Death Valley, I’ve been curious about the harsh but beautiful lands and the people who have long lived here, the local Timbisha Shoshone Indians, who today have a reservation near Furnace Creek.
Historical encounters with Native Americans interest me, because they give us a glimpse of what people were like before modern technology. For example, consider this encounter, as recounted by William Lewis Manly, a scout who led emmigrant gold-seekers across Death Valley in 1849:
One day I was going up a wide ravine leading to the summit, and before I reached the highest part I saw a smoke curl up before me. I took a side ravine and went cautiously, bowed down pretty low so no one could see me, and when near the top of the ridge and about one hundred yards of the fire I ventured to raise slowly up and take a look to see how many there were in camp: I could see but two and as I looked across the ravine an Indian woman seemed looking at me also, but I was so low she could only see the top of my head, and I sank down again out of sight. I crawled further up so as to get a better view, and when I straightened up again she got a full view of me. She instantly caught her infant off its little pallet made of a small piece of thin wood covered with a rabbit skin, and putting the baby under one arm, and giving a smart jerk to a small girl that was crying to the top of her voice, she bounded off and fairly flew up the gentle slope toward the summit, the girl following after very close. The woman’s long black hair stood out as she rushed along, looking over her shoulder every instant as if she expected to be slain. The mother flying with her children, untrammeled with any of the arts of fashion was the best natural picture I ever looked upon, and wild in the extreme. No living artist could do justice to the scene as the lady of the desert, her little daughter and her babe, passed over the summit out of sight. I followed, but when I reached the highest summit, no living person could be seen.
Manly, William Lewis. Death Valley in ’49 (p. 59). . Kindle Edition.
Manly was intrigued by this Timbisha woman because she was so natural, wild, and fast — she flew off with her children and disappeared from sight before Manly reached the summit — and he was no slouch. If you read Manly’s memoirs, you’ll see that he was curious about the Indians, whom he regarded as the “real kings of the forest” — and respectful.
Technology does so much for us, but the question is whether we’ve lost some of the physical vigor of our distant ancestors — and if so, what we can do to recover it. Bernd Heinrich writes about running as a way to recover that strength and forge a link with ancient peoples::.
As runners, I think we reach directly back along the endless chain of history. We experience what we would have felt had we lived ten thousand years ago, eating fruits, nuts and vegetables, and keeping our hearts and lungs and muscles fit by constant movement. We are reasserting as modern man seldom does, our kinship with ancient man, and even with the wild beasts that preceded him.
Heinrich, Bernd. Why We Run (p. 10). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
I agree with Bernd, and judging from what I see ordinary athletes accomplish in trail races and ultramarathons, I believe a lot of that strength is lying just below the surface.
If you keep running with me, we’re going to go backwards in time, on the tracks of that Timbisha woman and her children, and then even earlier.
To a time when the animals were people…
And we’ll see what we find….