November 22, 2005

Pilgrims and Promises

1547 page31 capeath Valley National Monument, in southeastern California, offers stark beauty and calming solitude. Colorful, fantastic rock formations, mountainous sand dunes, long-extinct volcanic craters, and countless canyons beg to be explored. When the fickle, light winter rains fall on the valley, the desert blooms for a short time in the spring with incredible beauty. Plant and animal life are unique, including wary coyotes that bark and howl at dusk, just when you're building your campfire. The sunsets are gorgeous, and the stars in the night sky shine with an awe-inspiring brilliance.

One hundred fifty years ago, however, Death Valley more than lived up to its name when westward-bound emigrants struggled for survival as they passed through the nearly 3 million acres of this vast, dry salt lakebed. The few hope-filled pilgrims who followed this particular route from east to west, in order to follow their dreams to the ?promised land,? had to trudge through the Nevada badlands, cross the Amargosa Desert, and climb the Funeral Mountains before descending into Death Valley, one of the hottest places in the world. The highest official temperature ever recorded on the valley floor was 164° F.

If they happened upon the pools at Badwater, they would have been unable to quench their thirst. These shallow puddles on the floor of Death Valley sit directly atop a salt crust that makes them far saltier than seawater. At Badwater these weary travelers would have literally been at their lowest ebb, at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point ever surveyed in the United States. In order to reach life-sustaining water, they would have had to continue north about 30 miles to Furnace Creek, where during the summer months the air temperature sometimes reaches a searing 130°F in the shade. In 1917 maximum temperatures of 120° F or more were recorded for 43 consecutive days, between July 6 and August 17.

1547 page31Some emigrants died in Death Valley, while a few hearty souls actually braved the extremes and took up residence there in order to extract its wealth. Borax, mainly used to manufacture soap in those early days, was the most common mineral mined in the valley.

For the majority who pushed on to the west, however, it would have been no easy task to leave the parched and seemingly endless valley behind. They would have had to climb the Panamint Mountains and traverse yet another desert, the Panamint Valley. Then after a steep climb up the rocky west side of the Panamint, they would have had to cross the Inyo Mountains before entering the windy, dusty Owens Valley. Here their thankful, upward gaze would have rested upon the refreshing, snowcapped peaks of the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains, with California?s promise beyond. Just over 100 miles from their lowest point in Death Valley, they would have been looking up at the highest mountain in the lower 48 states, Mount Whitney, which towers 14,492 feet above sea level.

All of us would prefer a life journey that consists of merely stepping from one mountaintop to another. But the cruel reality of sin requires that we struggle through some deep valleys along the way. If we were to chart our lives, the resulting graphs would rival the stock market for highs, lows, and everything in between.

The Bible tells of many who lived just such lives: Joseph, Moses, Samson, Job, Mary Magdalene, Ruth, and the woman who was healed by simply touching the hem of the Masters garment, just to name a few.

We all experience trying times and low points. These ?Death Valley? experiences may crush in on us and sometimes seem too much to bear. But God's promises are sure, and He is always there to help us through to the ultimate, unimaginable mountaintop experiences--a new heaven and a new earth.

David had the assurance of God's goodness when he wrote: ?Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me? (Ps. 23:4).* He also stated confidently, ?I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills--From whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth" (Ps. 121:1, 2).

*Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version.

Deryl R. Corbit is a cytologist, practicing at Pathology Sciences Medical Group in Chico, California.