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SPLENDID DESOLATION

YOU SEE SCORCHING HEAT AND VAST, FLAT EXPANSES OF SAND. DEATH VALLEY JIM SEES BEAUTY, MYSTERY AND AN ARID PARADISE THAT MUST BE PRESERVED, REGARDLESS OF WHAT GREEN ACTIVISTS CLAIM
PHOTOGRAPHS BY IVAN KASHINSKY

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, 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 it does exist, Death Valley Jim knows who might know where it is: He interviewed said guy on his radio show (did I forget to mention that, until recently, he was a radio host?). His is the desert visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year, and the desert of hardy desperadoes like Seldom Seen Slim, a place precious and rough, with wildflowers and mine shafts.

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.

DRY, HE SAID: Death Valley Jim, opposite, knows that the stark beauty of the desert, as exemplified by Joshua trees, is alluring. And can be a deadly trap.

“I wonder what society would think if a group of Natives went to a cemetery and starting digging up Civil War vets.”

▶THEY PAID FOR THEIR MISTAKE AUGUSTINUS VAN HOVE and Helena Nuellett had a mission: find the famous Joshua tree on the cover of U2’s Joshua Tree album. The two had recently arrived in Los Angeles from Europe, 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 spiky, spindly trees that look like they were cultivated on another planet before a seedling floated to Earth. The Joshua tree shot 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.

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What If He Wins? As president, would Donald Trump be a fascist? A reformer? A savior? A buffoon? Probably a bit of all that, but much closer to Jimmy Carter than Adolf Hitler, Newsweek asks the question!
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