Painting the Valley Superbloom-The Problem with Bucket Lists

March, 2016

A few years ago in a conversation with artist friends, I was stunned to discover that none of them had painted in Death Valley. “What would you paint in Death Valley?” was the question they all had. I invited them to join me on a paint out, they all fell in love with the valley and begged to return. We returned the next year and the year after with groups twice as large. This year they kept asking me, “When are we going back?”

I have seen the movie, The Bucket List, and have been in bucket list discussions, i.e. lists of must-do items before leaving this world for the next. I have attempted making a bucket list and eventually after observing my own passions and realizing the fundamental flaw in making a bucket list.  This epiphany came to me during this year’s trip to Death Valley to see and paint the ongoing super bloom. Deserts that typically get less that one inch of rain per year, do not get enough water to bring about life from most of the available seeds lying on the dry ground. A super bloom occurs when rains in larger amounts come to the desert at the right time to awaken billions of flower seeds that have been lying in wait during all of those dry years enabling more of them to grow and bloom. The phenomenon happens about once every 10 to 15 years. Because of the rarity, short life and critical timing, few people ever observe a super bloom in person.

I have visited and painted in Death Valley for over forty years and have seen wild flowers. I thought I knew what a super bloom is but had never witnessed one. More correctly, I know how a super bloom is defined, why it occurs, and have even seen pictures; however, I cannot now, after having experienced one, describe the experience in words, pictures, and paintings. If I could have known what the experience is like, painting a super bloom would have been on my bucket list. Therein lies the fundamental problem with bucket lists.

Desert Five-point

Along Highway 190 at Immigrant’s Pass

Through the pass to Stovepipe Wells and on to Mesquite Sand Dunes, the Desert Gold flowers lined the highway, mixed with colorful rocks making a beautiful combination.

There are some amazing, indescribable experiences that would be on my bucket list if I could only know they should be and I cannot really know they should be until I have already had the experience. Some of these will be better than anything I can possibly put on a bucket list simply because they are indescribable. These fall into one of two general categories of knowledge, 1) those things I don’t know I don’t know and 2) those things I think I know but really don’t.
To complicate things even more, experiences that may seem heavenly to one person may be boring to another. I like flowers but I am not passionate about flowers. I cannot explain why a super bloom in Death Valley proved to be such a special experience for me; I can only speculate.  I think it is a unique combination of things that made it so special.  To begin with, I always had a special attraction to the desert and especially Death Valley.

The valley is dry, peaceful, desolate, and quiet, yet colorful and magnificent and filled with extremes. It can get unbearably hot and also uncomfortably cold. It can be completely dry and after a rain dangerously wet with flash floods roaring down canyons sweeping large boulders along and wiping out long stretches of highway.  Next to the lowest point in the USA lies one of the highest peaks. The valley can be dangerously hostile; people have been lost forever in its expanse and have died in the heat. Now take such a place and fill it with millions of flowers, mile after mile, a beautiful contradiction.

I sent out an email to artist friends to tell them Pauline and I would go for three days, and I would love for anyone to meet up and paint with us. However, I added, the focus would be on wildflowers and only would be planned ad hoc, day to day. In other words, there was not a plan and no promises. Since I had no specific knowledge of where the best painting or how good it would be, this was a crap shoot.

Colorful Rocks, Flowers, Shadows and Sand 

Pauline in a carpet of desert gold

We began to see our first signs of carpeted desert floor after passing Stovepipe Wells towards Furnace Creek.
It had taken us five hours from home to reach our night quarters at Furnace Creek. We quickly checked in and headed for Zabriskie Point to photograph and paint the sunset.

To my delight and surprise, eight artists showed up.

Pauline and I had our first real excitement after passing through the mining town, Trona, near the ghost town of Ballarat. Here lay our first field of flowers, not a full carpet but enough to stop, sketch, and photograph. We saw half dozen varieties of wildflowers including the Desert Five Point.

Zabriskie Point at Sundown

We had agreed to meet the others at the Corkscrew Saloon at 8 PM for drinks to be followed by a critique of the day’s work in our room afterwards. Beer never tasted so good after a day in the desert. Everyone brought at least one piece from the day and a couple produced several.

Mike Hilford and Jennifer Gustafason produced these masterpieces in Mosaic Canyon.


Steve Nakamura produced one of his signature pieces (left) incorporating a studio figure piece into a desert scenario. Sharon

Rawlins (right) couldn’t resist the challenge of capturing a super bloom.

Jesse Fortune was inspired by the interesting trees at Furnace Creek incorporating a studio figure painting.

The sun was sinking fast as I painted this impression of Zabriskie point.

The second day we painted at two locations along Badwater Road. One has to make the difficult choice to focus on the  foreground, where all the flowers are or the background, which contains the beautiful atmospheric perspective against distant mountains. Since the flowers are unique, I avoided the temptation to concentrate on the mountain scenery which is always there.

Atmospheric perspective in the background with flowers in the foreground. It was a difficult choice to move on beyond this

scene, which I think would have made a wonderful painting, but with two focuses.

Choosing places to stop is a challenge since the scenes seem to get better and better around each new curve. The artist team was spread over a few mile section of the highway. Pauline was happy trekking through the flowers and photographing the scenery while I painted. We all met for a picnic around noon and then moved on to other painting sites.

Driving south on Badwater Road, the flowers got better and better around each curve. This location was my first choice.

Death Valley Superbloom, a few miles South of Badwater



Looking Southeast from Badwater Road, 15x22, watercolor on paper

Study in Desert Color, 15x22, watercolor on paper

We ended the day with drinks at sunset on the patio of the Furnace Creek Hotel.

Sunset from the patio of the Furnace Creek Hotel

The buffet breakfast at Furnace Creek is a good way to start the day, and after over eating, a walk in the Borax outdoor museum provides some relief. I always find interesting things to sketch amongst the stage coaches and equipment. We then headed off for our third and final day of painting.

Steam Engine in the Borax museum at Furnace Creek

Shortly after passing Badwater the flowers begin to peak.

This scene interested me because of the flower coverage of hillsides and plateau.

Sharon also painted in this location

Death Valley Superbloom, 15x22, watercolor on paper

Jesse and Steve had to leave early to make a commitment back in Orange County. Jesse loaned me his chair sense I had

forgotten my stool and had been using the hotel trash can as a stool

Possibly the most peaceful place in the world for me

I have been to Death Valley many times in different seasons, but this was a first for me. As always, I am never ready to leave Death Valley, and I always promise myself to return.