Dystopian and apocalyptic stories are often set in bleak places. James Dashner’s Maze Runner series, or Frank Herbert’s legendary Dune series, are great examples. We don’t have to go far to find models. Our planet’s diverse topography has no shortage of places that qualify as bleak. South Pole comes to mind, or the mountainous wasteland bordering Afghanistan. My pick for the perfect post apocalyptic setting … Death Valley … 3000 square miles of extreme nothingness. It holds the record for highest reliably recorded temperature, 134 degrees F. Hard to imagine it used be part of an inland sea during the Pleistocene age.
Any fan of National Geographic or the Discovery Channel will tell you there is a lot of life hidden beneath Death Valley’s bleak terrain. It’s just not hospitable to a class of bipedal mammals, which is why it’s my poster child for a destroyed earth. Some storytellers might insist the inclusion of skeletal buildings is a must, but I prefer the valley’s lunar-like surface and hints of man’s former existence buried beneath eons of dust.
It isn’t just the heat and alkali dust that makes this place the model for what earth could look like. It is the silence. We are so used to a background of noise, it becomes unearthly dead when standing in the middle of the desert. Hiking boots against hard tack soil, and the sound of your own breathing is all you can hear at first. I suggest finding a rock, preferably shaded, and sit still. It takes a little time for ears to adjust. Then you hear it. A distant chirp. Shifting pebbles. The sigh of a breeze we normally would not notice. Then you look down at a dab of color, out of place against the mineral grayish sienna at your feet, and wonder how it could survive the harshness of this bleak environment.
Every year, a few clueless people wander into Death Valley in summer with inadequate water, and the Park Service has the sad duty to retrieve the desiccated body, that is if there is one to find. On a recent visit, I stumbled on the marker of one poor fellow who died from the elements a century ago. He was luckier than most. Someone memorialized his fateful sojourn with a weathered board. Most who wander unprepared in bleak places and succumb, become a part of it, no one the wiser of their passing.
Humans and animals have adapted to an innumerable diversity of ecosystems through the eons. Ice ages, jungles, mountains, arctic, tropical, the list goes on. Most of our human adventures had time to adjust. Changes in the earth move slow, like a periodic ice age … unless something happens to hasten the change, such as comets, asteroids, super-volcanoes, rising sea levels, solar flares, and the very possible result of our own environmental meddling, to name a few. We have evidence of such events. The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, or the K-T event that took place some 65 million years ago, killed off the dinosaurs and other species in a very short period of time. Popular theory has a cataclysmic event in the form of an asteroid-like object that clouded the planet with dust, not unlike Death Valley.
In my current story, 95% of humanity is wiped out in the span of a few years by a pestilence hiding for millions of years in our own genome. My bleak landscape is a world reclaimed by the elements of our time, its soil packed with the bones of billions, and no weathered board to mark their passing.
What’s your favorite apocalyptic setting? Better yet, what would be your definition of a bleak place?