Awash in the glare of the sun, we cross the Nevada-California border and head toward the Funeral Mountains. Once through this mini-range we enter what is correspondingly named the Death Valley.
We first do the two-hour drive through the valley, from one end to the other, in a single stretch.
The mountains rise menacingly around us, crumpled into uncomfortable shapes by the vagaries of time. Their multi-coloured frowns scan the barren valley, streaked by salt flats, sand dunes and countless boulders which, it is obvious, have been blown around at some point in the remote past with the very ease in which today's wind transfers dust from one basin to another.
We stand on the lip of a crater half a mile wide and 500 feet deep and try to imagine the day, now enshrined only in the memory of the land itself, when a smouldering cauldron exploded at this very point, scattering its contents with nuclear fervour for miles around.
It's late in the day. The world around us changes colour and shape even as we move through it, still in a hurry, as if there is a destination and a deadline.
I see something move on the tarmac a bit ahead. I slow down.
It's a coyote, young and curious. And daring. It stands in the middle of of the road, right in my path. Like a Sardar on the Grand-Trunk Road, twirling his moustache, scanning the horizon for signs of the next bus. Staring at me. I stop the vehicle. He looks at us questioningly. Unmoving.
We are at an impasse, it appears. He decides to look us over some more. He circles the machine, stares up at us again, as if incredulous at what he sees. He proceeds to circumambulate us relentlessly -- to our delight.
We have some birthday cake with us, the only thing we feel he may not find toxic. We throw a few pieces out of the window. He stops. Looks at us warily. Eats the offering. And resumes his inspection.
We reluctantly drive away. He jogs with us for a short distance, and then disappears into the landscape.
We head for yet another forebodingly named spot on the map: Dante's View.
We follow a serpentine route up the mountains. It takes a dozen miles and considerable groaning on the part of the engine along the incline and hairpins, before we arrive at the top, about 5,500 feet higher than we started in the valley below.
Directly across -- close enough, it appears, for one to reach out and touch it -- and towering another 6,000 feet above us, is Telescope Peak. The sun is perched on it, ready to roll down the other side, out of sight. It is almost six o'clock.
Spread out between us on Dante and the sun atop the Telescope, lies Death Valley.
It sprawls over several miles. To the right, you can see it all the way to the horizon. Much of the full length of the drive we did earlier in the day is visible because the air is crystal clear.
I make my way down a pathway over a promontory jutting over the valley. It rises and falls like a roller coaster until I find myself at the edge.
The Edge. Black jagged teeth of rocks make it easy to clamber over them. I find a nook with a flat surface and sit down to catch my breath.
I close my eyes to relax and savour the cool breeze, a welcome respite from the 85 degree Farenheit we've had in the valley all day. I lean back on the rock behind me. I snuggle by spreading out my elbows and feel the hard cool on both sides.
I open my eyes some time later. I gradually focus them. The sun has disappeared. The brightness is also gone. Only pastels remain.
The cliff-face slopes down in front of me and then, a few feet away, suddenly drops precipitously. But for a sharp edge here and a short ledge there, there is nothing between me and the floor of the valley. Five thousand five hundred feet beneath me. Further, in fact, because I realize that directly below me -- way, way below, on the white sheet of salt that shrouds the valley for miles in every direction -- is Badwater, much touted as the lowest point on land in the Western Hemisphere, at almost 300 feet below sea level.
I notice that I am free of the fright I usually have for heights. I settle back even further in my seat. I look out at the expanse of creation before me.
It's the land where native tribes have lived for 10,000 years. A landscape whose configuration began, according to the experts, 3 million years ago. Since then, the Ice Age arrived and departed. Oceans have come and gone. Rivers have meandered through it, and left only memories behind. Storms and flash-floods and heat -- brutal 135-degree heat -- have visited this land, and continue to do so, since time immemorial.
I have read of God who was in the Beginning and will be in Eternity. But I have no way of visualizing the beginning of creation or its existence into the eternal future. I realize that God who has no beginning and no end is even more unfathomable for me.
But sitting here with Dante, I can get an inkling. Just.
My eyes take in a land that has been around, from my limited perspective, for ever. And will stay around, in the same measure, for ever.
Sitting here in my ancient chair, almost 6,000 feet above the infinitely small cars parked beside the salt flats of Badwater below, I see a creation that remains untouched by anything that shouldn't be here. Sure, there is a roadway down below, but it was delineated no more than 50 years ago. It will crumble in a few years and another one will be built. And yet another. But for how long? It doesn't even pretend to compete with the eternity that surrounds it.
A thousand species of plants and trees thrive, and have done so from the Beginning in this vast desolation. And creatures -- like our coyote -- and lizards and snakes and scorpions and crows and eagles, rule the land.
The Homo sapien is but a mere visitor and is the only one around that has to struggle with the question as to whether he will be in the picture when the next rearrangement of this landscape takes place.
The sculpted mountains, the carved valleys, the shifting dunes, the stoic creatures, all have been around since long before Man. And will remain long after he is gone.
They were around before man invented the wheel, and lit the first fire. Before the pyramids of Egypt were even imagined by a pharaoh. Before Moses came down from Sinai. While Alexander strutted across the globe, and Ashoka surveyed the killing-fields of Kalinga with sad eyes. Even as Jesus overturned the tables of the money-lenders and sent them packing. When Nanak the Teacher walked the earth. Or when Hitler played out his madness.
Through all the nuclear tests carried out on the other side of the Funeral Mountains in Nevada -- in the name of peace, freedom and democracy. They left nary a mark compared to the scars of infinity on this land. The winds have wafted in news of all gods and goddesses, prophets and saviours, saints and philosophers, and short shrift has been made of them all.
This land IS God.
It is not dependent on tribute, homage or supplication. Or subscription and membership. It boasts no righteousness. This is the eternity where nothing really matters.
Except one thing: that it is.
Back home, we have covered all evidence of the timeless with layers of illusion. We have hidden what really matters under the quilt of cancer-like world-class cities and populated them with infernally complicated machines that ultimately do nothing. With words that say nothing, with actions that achieve nothing, with thoughts that arrive nowhere.
And through all of it, we worry ourselves to death, perennially striving for power and money and promotions and status and beauty and, of course, the last word. But when we ultimately die and fulfill the prophecy of birth, we do so without really having lived at all.
Imagine, this creation that spreads out in front of me in its fullest glory; in its pristine, fierce, colorful, brutal, lifegiving beauty.
A mere century-and-a-half ago -- that is, in the last 150 years of its 3 million years of current existence -- a handful of gold-seekers stumbled through this valley, found it seething hot and inhospitable to their needs.
So, they named it Death Valley. Blind to everything it had represented, it is now damned by humankind as the devil's domain. Ergo, Dante's name on the peak that overlooks it all.
They didn't stop there. Since man could not live in this valley, it was to be condemned eternally. Furnace Creek. Devil's Golf Course. Hell's Gate. Devil's Cornfield...
Hop over the Funeral Mountains, jog south a few miles, and you'll arrive at mankind's most celebrated creation and encapsulation of its credo: Las Vegas!
Its unabashed worship of wealth and man-made beauty. Its unique wedding chapels. Its brand of generosity: "Cash your pay-check with us, and you get a free shot on the slot-machine!"
It's notion of charity: free food and accommodation for those who're willing to gamble their life away.
It's vision of bliss: instant unions and instant freedom from relationships.
Ask any man or woman living it up on the Strip, and you'll be told: This is Life!
This is one view: shaped by human limitations and the incapacity to imagine eternity.
But, if anything, it is when one looks into places like the Death Valley -- deep into its jaws -- that we learn about life. About meaning. About truth. About reality.
And yes, a bit about eternity.