You may think you know the desert. Sand and cacti, spread over an expanse of infinite flatness, baked by relentless sunlight. Roadrunners chased by wily coyotes. Rattlesnakes lurking under rocks. And meth labs, just as in Breaking Bad. Meth labs guarded by rattlesnakes. If this is your conception of the desert, then you are clearly not familiar with the oeuvre of Death Valley Jim, an explorer, writer and activist who knows the California desert as well as anyone alive. His is a particular kind of knowledge: ghost towns, abandoned mines, the vestiges of Native American villages, the humble graves of unlucky prospectors. He knows about the desert tortoise, sure enough, but also about the legend of Yucca Man; about the effects of prolonged drought on desert succulents but also about the Spanish galleon that sank near what is today the malodorous Salton Sea.

Don’t get too excited. Like so much else in the desert, that colonial treasure could be a mirage. But if does exist, Death Valley Jim knows the guy who might know where it is: He interviewed said guy on his radio program (did I forget to mention that, until recently, he was also a radio host?). His is the desert visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, as well as the desert of hardy desperadoes with names like Seldom Seen Slim, a place precious and rough, with wildflowers and mine shafts.

03_25_DeathValleyJim_02Mattern hangs out on the road to Squaw Tank, which was once a Serrano village, in Joshua Tree National Park on March 11. IVAN KASHINSKY FOR NEWSWEEK 

In an age of “glamping” and virtual vacations, Death Valley Jim—his real name is Jim Mattern, but he never uses it—makes the case for the desert as a place of sacred mystery, a place that might kill you or, if you’re willing to give yourself over to the blazing expanses, might turn you into a more reflective, thoughtful human being, one who is aware of a world beyond the glowing confines of an iPhone screen.

And then maybe kill you.

They Paid for Their Mistake

Augustinus Van Hove and Helena Nuellett had a mission: find the famous Joshua tree that graces the cover of U2’s Joshua Tree album. The two European tourists had recently arrived in Los Angeles, and after a short stay there and in San Diego, they drove east into the desert. On August 22, 2011, they set out into Joshua Tree National Park, famous for the spiky, spindly trees that look like they were cultivated on some other planet before a seedling floated to Earth. The Joshua tree captured by Anton Corbijn for U2 was not in the national park that bears its name, but the two tourists did not appear to know that.

Van Hove and Nuellett drove their rented Dodge Charger off a main park thoroughfare and onto Black Eagle Mine Road, according to a reconstruction of events in The Desert Sun newspaper. Their car, said the Sun, became stuck in a wash, “and they couldn’t get it out. There was nowhere to rest in the shade,” so they set out for the main road, which was about 8 miles away. In ordinary circumstances, this might pass for a decent day hike. In 108-degree heat, it meant death. Another tourist later that day discovered their bodies.

“The desert will kill you,” Death Valley Jim says bluntly. It is not likely to kill him, though, and that has as much to do with his truck as with his desert survival skills. Jacked up on tires that look like they were stolen from a Boeing 747, his beloved 2013 Jeep Wrangler is what the steed Rocinante was to Don Quixote, a trusty conveyor through surreal realms.

“I might be able to pull it off,” Jim said to me on a recent winter afternoon as he tried to turn his Jeep around on an especially narrow section of Black Eagle Mine Road, just a mile or two from where Van Hove and Nuellett died. We had just stood looking at the remnants of the Eagle Mountain mine, which some wanted to turn into a garbage dump (horrible idea, according to Death Valley Jim) or, when that push failed, a hydroelectric plant (less horrible, but still pretty terrible). Below us was a dry gulch, and while the drop was only a dozen feet or so, the boulders down there looked like the misshapen teeth of a monstrous jaw. As ever, the desert was going to allow little room for error. Which, frankly, is thrilling in a world where so many of our thrills involve clicking and swiping. Death Valley Jim drove his Jeep to the precipice, then up the opposing slope. It lurched, huffed, tilted, but, like a mountain goat, it never lost its footing. Soon we were cruising down the park’s main road again.

Joshua trees line a road through Joshua Tree National Park on March 11. IVAN KASHINSKY FOR NEWSWEEK

Danger is one of the desert’s allures, the price it extracts for all that unperturbed open space. It’s like a meditation retreat without the sanctimony, a mindfulness exercise where your guide to the sublime is a salamander skittering between sun-blasted rocks, a place whose utter lack of wireless service is one of its best features. “The desert reduces one to a rawboned simplicity,” wrote the theologian Belden Lane in The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. “Life out there is lawless. The structured patterns of civilization do not extend that far. Law and order break down.”

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