“Death Valley,” noted our guidebook, “is an inhuman environment: barren and monotonous, burning hot and almost entirely without shade or water.” In short, the ideal antidote to Japan’s rainy season, which is why we went.
Humidity? Forget it. Mold? Hah! Rain? Just enough for the odd life-threatening flash flood, but, by and large, unlikely. Interesting things to see and do? Lots. Boulders that walk, abandoned mines, ghost towns, fish, volcanic craters, salt flats, the Devil’s Golf Course: Death Valley is the largest national park in the contiguous United States. It could keep you busy for days. A lot of its features have the added attraction of being considerably below sea level.
Before proceeding, the following points need establishing.
Point one: If you can’t take the heat, stay out. This is the ultimate hot kitchen, with the highest mean summer temperature on the planet. Summer Death Valley air averages 44 C, with a recorded high of 57 C. That’s just the air, remember. On a good day, when actual ground temperatures creep ambitiously close to boiling point, eggs don’t fry on the rocks. They evaporate.
Point two: If your car breaks down, runs out of petrol, overheats, or, indeed, melts, don’t wander off in search of assistance. Remember how wary U.S. institutions are of lawsuits. (“Your honor, my late client’s estate is suing Death Valley National Park because she was unaware it could be fatal!”) Stay by the car. Evaporate an egg on a rock or something. Help will come.
There are probably some other points that we’ve forgotten. Crucial ones, essential to your survival, but all will go well if you just pack common sense and water. The park authorities recommend a minimum of 4 liters to be consumed per person per day. Eight liters, they suggest, would be better.
Safety lecture over. The Valley!
It has several hotels and even (ugh!) a golf course (two, if you count the one allegedly owned by the Devil). Pitch a tent in the remoter campsites if you want to actually see and hear the desert of the night. Smell its scent. Relish its loneliness.
If it’s a soak in volcanic water spiked with revivifying arsenic and lead you want, Delight’s Hot Springs is the place to stay.
Delight’s atmosphere is distinctly 1940s — not because the owners have designed it that way, but because that was when it was built. Not a whole lot seems to have occurred since. We loved it. Cabins clustered around a collection of natural hot springs and a duck pond. I particularly liked the way one of the baths had no roof (not a deliberate feature — the original one collapsed and the management didn’t get around to putting a new one up). There were some Korean families singing wistful patriotic songs at the desert moon, a bunch of RV retirees there for the waters, and not much else beyond a superb soak. Our skin gleamed for days therafter. The lead, in all probability.
Delight’s is near Shoshone, a small Death Valley gateway town, noteworthy for its good cafe, a supermarket, the spiralling dust devils that sweep clean its streets, and its man-made caves. These were, until recently, the homes of Shoshone troglodytes. If any American ever bravely claims his country is not completely wedded to the automobile, fire back this stunning fact: One of the Shoshone cavemen burrowed out a hole in which to park his car. It’s bigger than his residential cave.
Mind you, out here you need a car. Death Valley park is the size of two Delawares: 1,334,400 hectares.
Apart from the immensity of the shimmering landscape, the extravagance of the geology, and the loneliness, all of which combine to serve as their own recommendation for a Death Valley visit, here are some highlights.
Badwater, set among mirage-haunted salt flats and mysteriously populated by ladybird beetles, is the lowest land point in the Western hemisphere. The Devil’s golf course is a plain of rock-salt pinnacles. Putting would indeed be satanic. The Devil’s Cornfield wouldn’t grow corn if you watered it. Dante’s View, 1,967 meters above Badwater, offers hellish sunrise views across the Valley to Telescope Peak.
Death Valley Dunes, by contrast, are heavenly at sunset. Half-buried mesquite trees somehow survive on the dunes. If size matters, Eureka Dunes, towering to 275 meters, are as big as dunes get in California. They also, and I like this particularly, “sing.” Not grand opera, admittedly, but the miniature avalanches of sand particles near the summits produce a tranquil tinkling which makes for a far more complex, and satisfactory auditory experience than, say, Snoop Doggy Dogg or New Kids on the Block.
Scotty’s Castle, an odd mansion with an even odder history, is the single most visited attraction in the park. You actually have to queue to get in. Sometimes.
Then there is borax. Borax, or sodium borate, is versatile stuff, used among other things in embalming fluid, eye drops, camera film, silly putty, Dr. Scholl’s Soap ‘n’ Soak Instant Foot Bath and rocket fuel. Death Valley replaced Tibet as the world’s key borax supplier and if you look hard you may eventually find a small borax museum that explains how and why.
Nine hundred species of plants survive Death Valley, some by sending down taproots eight times the height of an average man, others by dispensing with leaves and resembling dead sticks for most of their lives. There are even forests on the higher canyon walls and, some years, gorgeous carpets of spring flowers.
There are mammals, mostly nocturnal. Scorpions and snakes of course. And there is the pupfish. You have to make a special effort to see a pupfish. They’re very small, terribly rare and the parks staff are admirably protective. Quite how a fish got here in the first place, then liked it enough to stay, is a bit of a puzzle.
Last but not least, the walking boulders. These leave distinct trails behind them as they mysteriously meander about the Racetrack. Watch from an outcrop called the Stadium. No need for fast film, incidentally. This is one race no rock is in a hurry to win.