At Play in the Valley of Death

National Geographic Adventure

Summer 1999

by Robert Earle Howells

It’s 126 in the shade, and since I’m not in the shade, I’m the hottest damn fool on the face of the earth. Have to be. It’s the eighth of August, and no one else is walking out into the middle of the lowest, hottest place in Death Valley National Park, which is the lowest, hottest place in the Western Hemisphere. At, of course, the hottest time of day (about 4 p.m.), when the mirror-bright white salt-pan floor of the valley is blasting back a day’s worth of absorbed heat: A 1,000-watt blow-dryer wind whirls up from the floor into my face, the glare maxes out my polarized shades, and I draw steadily on a 90-ounce Camelbak with lifeline urgency, as a diver to a tank of oxygen.

The miserable scenario is weirdly seductive. Simple curiosity, a sort of “let’s watch the tsunami roll in” desire to add to my experiential quiver, had brought me this far. Honest: I hadn’t intended to go any farther. How hot could “hot” get? I’d singe myself briefly and turn back. But I’m finding this alfresco kiln  surprisingly alluring. I continue out across this pancake-flat spot called Badwater. I can now barely see through the heat shimmers the tourists back at the roadside turnout making the dutiful pause at the photo-op sign: “BADWATER: ELEV. –282 FT.,” the engines, i.e., air-conditioners, of their Avis-red cars still running. They’re dipping fingers into the eponymous puddle—“yup, tastes bad” and attempting to coax the reluctant, sane member of the party out for a commemorative pose.

I walk about 45 minutes, probably three miles, across the salt. It looks slippery, but the traction is great, the sensation pleasingly like walking across perfect chocolate-chip cookies (crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle)—a three-inch patina of densely packed salt overlays a sea of thick mud (moisture trickles up from an aquifer), so every step yields both crunch and resilience. The only sign of life, sort of, is a windblown omnipresence of desiccated grasshopper hulls. The poor sots had touched down on the frying-pan earth once too often. I’m too infatuated to regard them as any more ominous than anything else here: the jigsaw patterns of the salt crust, or the wind that feels to the eyes like getting too close to a bonfire, or the movie-cliché waves of mirrored heat. High above the tourists on a sheer palisade of the Black Mountains a small sign reads “SEA LEVEL.”

I know extreme heat has a way of causing misfires among those synapses that normally govern common sense. I know that Summer in Death Valley has a ring to it like “winter in North Dakota” or “crawl space in the slimy depths of some bat-dung cavern 500 feet below the earth.” Like any place at any time that anyone sane would avoid. And right now I feel like I’m on the cusp of combustion, like those poor potato bugs I once fried in a convergence of solar rays beneath a magnifying glass. Yet it’s just that intensity that makes summer in death valley so compelling. I’d visited before in fall and late winter, when the air was giddily pleasant. It seemed wrong somehow, a false overlay of Eden on the geography of hell. Really, what’s Death Valley without at least a hint of the possibility of imminent demise? I’m well aware that the air-conditioned sanity of my car is less than an hour away, but for now I’m reveling under a crushing thickness of troposphere and the hyperfocused beams of the hottest sun it’s possible to experience. It’s like holding your breath for a second too long. You won’t die, but you’ll taste the beyond for just a smidgen of a moment and feel the more alive for it.

And hear this: I’m far from alone. My hotel (Furnace Creek Inn) is full. Sixteen foursomes played 18 on Death Valley’s golf course this morning—101 degrees at tee-off, and rising. The visitor center is abuzz with tourists (all asking, according to park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg, the same three questions: “What can we see in one afternoon?” “What can we see without walking too far?” and “How hot is it?”). A digital thermometer behind the information counter answers number three, as it blinks back and forth between Fahrenheit (120s) and Celsius (50s). The metric temp is for the benefit of foreign visitors, which happens to be everyone but me. The Park Service has brochures printed in German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, and Japanese, and they’re all here today, but for the recession-strapped Asians.

Death Valley is on The Circuit. It’s in the guidebooks, the guidebooks must be obeyed, and no 120-degree heat is going to keep the Euros from visiting it. Everyone I speak to has been to Canyon de Chelly, the Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas, and they’re on their way to Sequoia, Yosemite, and San Francisco. The trend began in the early ’90s, when the park concessioner that runs Furnace Creek Inn (lovely, circa-1927, three-diamond, 66 rooms) and Furnace Creek Ranch (the more motel-like spread beside the visitor center, 224 rooms) began shilling their digs in Europe. Then, in 1994, Death Valley scored a coup: It got upgraded from national monument, whatever that is, to national park, which earned it iconigraphic status in the European consciousness, even if the average American missed word of the promotion. In 1996, the first year that the inn remained open during the summer, guess how many Americans showed up? (Toni Jepson, manager of the inn, put the question to me.) Answer: Zero. None. The odd American does wander in nowadays, but summer visitors to the inn and to the park are still 80 percent Europeans. Most amazingly, summer has overtaken winter and is catching up to spring as the most popular season in Death Valley.

OK, so maybe this has more to do with blind Baedeker obedience than enthusiasm for ogling geology under the world’s fiercest sun (Toni Jepson tells me that virtually no one stays more than one night in summer), but I contend that the Euros are onto something. If Death Valley is fascinating any time, it’s more so when at its most severe. It’s compellingly freakish to walk out before sunrise into near-100-degree heat. Not pleasant, but intensely interesting.

I know this because I’m up before 5 a.m. for a sunrise rendezvous. Ranger Van Valkenburg had tipped me off: Sunrise at Zabriskie Point is an obligatory experience per all the European guidebooks. Sure enough, at least 100 Germans, French, and Italians are milling about the bluffside parking area, wearing tank tops, setting up tripods, speaking in hushed voices. We’re looking westward across the deeply textured folds of a bare-rock badlands, hills of ex-mud left solidified by the recession of a onetime lake that covered Death Valley’s floor. Like most of the rock in Death Valley, the badlands are earth-tonish drab in the flat light, but when the sun finally hits from behind and a hundred cameras click, the lighter rock goes lambent yellow, the darker stuff blares rich reddish brown, and the shadows seem like absolute darkness.

Beautiful, but the appearance of the sun seems a little anticlimactic to the throng, which quickly dissipates. Were they disappointed? I breach the language barrier to ask a couple from Belgium. Not at all, they assure me. It’s just that the guidebook says to move on now to Dante’s View. When I join them (and nearly everyone else) at this higher overlook (it gazes down upon Badwater from 5,475 feet) and later at breakfast, they offer their explanation for Death Valley’s Euro allure.

“It starts with the practical reason that our vacation is in the summer,” says Jean-Louis Baudoin. “But it’s more than that. Nowhere in Europe do we have your vastness or the geographical extremes you have in America and in Death Valley, or the temperature extreme of Death Valley. It’s like your basketball players: They’re 20 feet tall. Your obese people weigh 500 pounds. All this creates a great fascination for us.”

Nonetheless, I’m left to myself after breakfast: The fascinated Belgians move on to Sequoia, and the other Europeans have the good sense to retreat to their rooms, cars, the visitor center, or the very busy general store. Resuming my perverse resolution to do Death Valley by summer, I head out alone, the sun approaching high noon and my Radio Shack thermometer registering 117. (Monitoring the readouts of this high/low, indoor/outdoor jobbie has become an obsession. Last night’s low was 98, and it was barely cooler than that in my room: Even with the AC on full blast and a ceiling fan churning overhead, my room languished in the upper 80s. The highest read is upon an afternoon return to my locked car: 147.)

I’m not totally foolish: I restrict my drives to paved roads and my hikes to a couple of miles. But I seem to have the run of the joint. The lower 48’s largest (3.3 million acres) national park belongs to me.

At Salt Creek, I walk out on a boardwalk to see if I can spot any of the famous Death Valley pupfish, a relict critter about the size of a tadpole that inhabits a few remnant puddles of the long-gone Death Valley lake. It’s a bit worrisome: The little guys are endangered, and most of the creek is dry. I spot nary a pup, but I trust that they’re used to hot summers. They must hole up somewhere. I opt then to exit the boardwalk and head up a broad, sandy wash that cuts through a series of miniature Grand Canyons of dry mud. The footing is good on the crusty sand—not quite sandstone, but a sort of a Moab-in-the-making. I scramble out of the wash onto a plateau to regard a disconcerting sight: My wash is a clone to dozens more, each bordered by the same 20-foot mud cliffs. Wander a few washes away from your route, and you’re certain to die of thirst in a nightmarish labyrinth. Not me, though; I’ve marked each of my junctures with a small rock cairn, and follow my back-bearings to the boardwalk.

Have I mentioned the wind? I contend that there’s some sort of reverse wind-chill thing in effect, that these 20–30 mph winds run up the air temperature to the equivalent of 140 degrees, at least in leaching-of-body-moisture terms. Staying hydrated requires conscious effort: Basically, I drink as much water as my stomach will hold, then squeeze in some more, constantly, the Camelbak hose hovering by my mouth like a pilot’s microphone. The saturation strategy works—the full radiator keeps me from overheating—and I’m able to make a long day of it. I also wander around the ruins of the Harmony Borax Works, where old 20-mule-team wagons doze in the sun. One of the megacarts weighed 36,000 pounds full, and back during Death Valley days, teams hauled them 170 miles—but no, not in summer.

I wrap up my day exploring a slot canyon off a scenic side loop called Artists Drive. Park at the second dip and just walk into the mountain, Ranger Van Valkenburg had told me. I scramble up a low rock face and, like finding the hidden door in a fun house, enter a passage that penetrates the face of the Black Mountains. For the next half hour I continue up a series of scrambles into progressively narrower chambers until the defile is barely 15 feet across, but 150 feet deep. Finally I reach a pitch that’s about 30 feet high, but this one’s pretty sheer—an easy 5.5 if I’m roped, but I’m not—it’s nigh on to sunset, I’m alone…I turn back

Death Valley does have a few logical places to hang in summer, and I decide to spend most of the next day in the visitor center and in the Furnace Creek Inn pool. Toni Jepson tells me that she’s never seen anyone sunburned in Death Valley, and I understand why. The tile-lined pool is lovely, and constantly replenished with fresh water—no need for chlorine here—that burbles out from nearby Travertine Spring at 82 degrees, washes through the pool (and warms to 90-something), and then flows out again to water the golf course. The womb-temp water’s too warm to swim in for long. And once I’m out, any evaporative-cooling effect lasts five seconds. Then it’s too hot to linger.

It’s much cooler inside the VC, where I’m talking summer lore with Alan Van Valkenburg, on break from telling foreign tourists how hot it is. The events that earned Death Valley its name—a party of wayward ’49ers, stranded, starving, but eventually rescued, uttered, “Goodbye, Death Valley” as they left—unfolded during the gentler months of December and January. In July 1996, a German family wandered onto a rugged side road in the Butte Valley (southern) area of the park in their rental car, then clattered up a closed road. The car, with three flat tires, was spotted by a plane in October. No trace of the Germans. Generally, though, summer in Death Valley is fairly self-regulating—witness the lack of sunburn. There’s the odd case of heat exhaustion and plenty of car breakdowns, but it’s just too darn hot to invite much in the way of bone-bleaching adventure.

And why is it so hot? The sub-sea-level valley is so low, and its framing mountains so high (the Amaragosa Range to the east is in the high 5,000s, and the Panamints to the west top out at Telescope Peak, 11,049 feet) that summer heat has nowhere to go. Some hapless summer campers bank on cooler nights, but any dip below 90 occurs only just before sunrise. (The Furnace Creek campground is empty during my visit.) Death Valley has long claimed the Western Hemisphere record high of 134 degrees (it supposedly hit 136 somewhere in Libya once), and made news again last summer when it reached 129 on July 17. Figure it’s 200 degrees on the ground those days.

Which reminds me: The answer to the question you’ve forgotten to ask. Sure it’s hot, Bob, but can you fry an egg on the ground? Sadly, no. My pat of butter melts quickly, but the egg just sits there, not even managing a mediocre over-easy.

For my last evening in Death Valley I heed another Van Valkenburg tip. If you’re going to see wildlife anywhere, it’s in the sand dunes at night—and tonight’s a full moon. Sidewinders, kit foxes, coyotes, kangaroo rats—it should be a fair moonlight frolic. This experience is obviously not in the European guidebooks. It’s just me under the heavenly klieg light, and I walk a mile or so up and down 60- and 70-foot rises until I claim a perfect sky box. If you ever just want to do a little cogitating, or join Gaia in rapturous union, or just be way, way far alone, this is the place and the time. You probably won’t be distracted by any kit foxes or sidewinders. You won’t be distracted by anything. You’ll see the world’s brightest moon and a lot of sand, and it’ll be 100-ish, and you’ll probably be the hottest damn fool on the dark side of the earth.