Putting the death in Death Valley

Panamint Valleybw

You know you are a devoted traveler — or a complete idiot — when you go to Death Valley in July. No mere vacationer or tourist would risk it.

But it is the only way to get the genuine Death Valley experience. After all, a cool, refreshing wintertime Death Valley isn’t really Death Valley at all.

No, the real deal is baking hot and glaring with sunlight. The air shimmers, as if uncertain on its feet and about to faint.

That’s the way I first saw it, about 15 years ago in a car with no air-conditioning. It’s the only way to go.

Since then, I’ve been back many times, and always in midsummer. Death Valley National Monument is one of the wonders of the world, and it will disabuse you of any notion that nature is a comfortable place or that wilderness should be equated with warm, furry animals with big brown eyes.

Even before reaching the National Monument, I was astonished by Nevada. The road north from Las Vegas passed the Sheep, Spotted and Pintwater ranges, and bordered the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, though it doesn’t look like the land could support any wildlife aside from sidewinders and scorpions. Zabriskie Point

I passed the Joshua trees in the flatlands of the Nellis Bombing and Gunnery Range. The armed forces have used Nevada to test weapons, though how they can interpret the results, I’ll never know. How can a bomb crater look much different from a soda wash?

The names of places in the area are trying to tell you something: Coffin Peak, Ash Springs, Last Chance Range, Valley of Fire State Park, Furnace Creek, Chloride Cliff — each geographic name serves as a warning sign.

The heat, as I descended the Funeral Mountains past Corkscrew Peak, rose even higher. At Stovepipe Wells in the center of Death Valley, the air temperature was more than 120 degrees and the ground was cooked to 150. The average high temperature in July is 116 degrees, and the highest ever recorded was 134 — on July 10, 1913, the highest temperature ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere, just over 100 years ago. That is serious heat.

The air rushing in through the open car window could have roasted a Christmas goose. It was literally like the blast of heat you get when your face is too close to the oven door when you open it. It singed my eyebrows. badwaterroad deathvalley

In Death Valley in July, you are alone in an area 1 1/2 times the size of Delaware, and all you can see are baked rock and the laser beam of sunlight. If you falter, no one is there to rescue you. And there are no Circle-Ks, no Slurpees, and most of all, no shade.

At a rest stop, I picked up a park brochure titled ”How to Survive Your Trip Through Death Valley.” And they weren’t kidding.

Even at rest in the shade, the brochure said, you can perspire away a quart of water in an hour. It admonished me to drink water frequently.

I had been getting a headache; I thought it was from driving hundreds of miles, but the brochure said it was more likely the first stage of heatstroke and I should down great quantities of water. I drank a half-gallon immediately and began to feel better. By noon, I had drunk well more than a gallon. Strangely, no matter how much I drank, I never needed to pee.

The high point of any trip to Death Valley has to be the lowest point: Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level — another record for the hemisphere.

From your car, you look out on a vast sea of blinding white. You might mistake it for snow, but a closer look shows you the spiky, lacerating surface of evaporated salts, like the pavement of Hades. If you walk across it, it crunches under your boot sole like plaster, which it very nearly is.

Road to Dante's View

Road to Dante’s View

But the best vantage point on Badwater is more than a mile directly above it. Dante’s View is a scenic overlook on the crest of the Black Mountains at the end of a 12-mile road. It gives you a panoramic vista of Death Valley and its surrounding mountains, the Amargosas and Panamints. The flat basin stretches 100 miles north to south below you, glistening with the white of the salt pan.

You can see it over the shoulder of a soaring vulture a thousand feet below you, wondering what it will find to eat, and knowing it could have been you.

There are many roads through the park, but, for mortification of the flesh, none beats the West Side Road, a gravel route designed by Torquemada.

I love to drive my little sedan where sensible people fear to take their Range Rovers.

I’ve driven through dust, sand and slop, spinning my wheels and sliding back and forth through icy clay and spitting gravel. I always come prepared with a military-surplus entrenching tool and a Hudson Bay ax, though I have only had to use them twice. Once was on a dirt road near Dynamite Road in north Scottsdale, Ariz., as I got caught in the deep sand of a stream bed and had to dig the car out. In fact, I had to dig until I hit bedrock before I could muster any traction.

The second time was on the Navajo Reservation after a rain when the wheels sprayed so much mud on my running board that the Toyota weighed a good 50 percent more than it did when it came fully equipped from the factory. I had to use the ax to hack off layers of mudpack. I couldn’t get it all, and by the time I got back home, the remaining layer had so dried that it took a pneumatic drill to peel off the stucco. The whole thing looked like a gigantic corn dog with windshield wipers.

So, the thought of going down West Side Road had a certain martyrish appeal.

I packed a picnic lunch at Furnace Creek and headed south to the 36-mile West Side Road that would take me along the western edge of the valley. It is a hypocrite of a road: As you leave the solid pavement of Calif. 178, the gravel looks well graded and flat. Don’t believe it.westsideroad1

It turned out to be the worst piece of washboard driving I’ve ever suffered through. Usually, you can either slow down or speed up and escape the resonance of the corrugation, but not here. No matter how fast or how slow I drove, my teeth turned into castanets.

Every mile or so, there would come a smooth spot, just long enough to delude me into believing the rough part was over and dissuade me from turning back. But in a hundred yards, the bumping would begin again in earnest.

In fact, the rattle was so bad, it turned my pint of milk into butter. And when I stopped to make my sandwich, the bread had had the leavening shook out of it. So I buttered my matzoh and when I reached for my bottle of water, the vibration had turned it into seltzer. I received the benefit of sparkling water without having to pay the premium National Park price for Perrier.

There were several sights on the way, including the ruins of an old Borax works, which were now nothing more than a few mounds of dirt covering the archeology. The road flirted with the foothills of the Panamint range and every so often, a subsidiary road would head out perpendicular into the mountains. Most warned that they were recommended only for 4-wheel drive.devilsgolfcoursedeathvalley

They would have had to be better driving than the road I was on.

And the worst was the last bit of it. As I could see on the horizon the junction of my road with the main, smooth, paved road, the corrugation took a turn for the nasty.

The last bit looked especially smooth; it was white dust and gravel and promised a change from the rattle-bone right of way, but in fact, it was the worst lie of the day. When I got to that part, it was the equivalent of a speed bump every eight inches for a half mile. I had to take it in first gear.

When I finally made it back to the pavement, I made a solemn promise to the Toyota that I would not venture out onto the gravel again for the duration of the trip. The car had made it through with its only damage being a dangling muffler.

It took me a good half hour of driving into Nevada before my eyesight regained control of its vertical hold.

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3 comments
  1. Jorge Luis Oyola said:

    Awesome post…

  2. Love this post! Although I like the cold north better than the heat. 😉

  3. Stan Robinson said:

    Hi Richard!

    Nice piece! As a non-native to Arizona, I’ll never think of Death Valley in the same way ever again!

    All the best!

    Stan :~)

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