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Burning Men

August 28, 2017

Death Valley National Park

We thought it was hot in Las Vegas. Vegas was nothing.

Sunday morning started with a quick trip to the airport to drop of Sarah so she could fly home and get back to real life.

Down to only two road-trippers, we rearranged the car to make things more accessible, and headed out into the desert.

Two hours later, we had crossed into California and entered Death Valley National Park.

When Sam and I first started planning this trip, the idea of driving across Death Valley was pretty vague. We didn’t even know it was a National Park, and we certainly didn’t know that there was so much to see there. In my mind, I pictured myself spending a couple of hours driving across this:

Death Valley Racetrack

I learned today that the area in the photo is a dry riverbed called the Racetrack. But nobody’s allowed to drive on it, and even getting close enough to see it requires a 4×4 and several hours of driving, followed by some hiking.

We did, in fact, drive across Death Valley, entering from the east (as most people do) and exiting several hours later on the opposite side. But in between we saw some pretty extraordinary things.

Our first stop was Dante’s View, a scenic mountaintop view of the salt flats below.

Dante's View

It is named, of course, after the Italian poet Dante Alligheri, whose poem The Inferno describes a descent through the nine circles of hell, the lowest level offering the most unbearable punishments for only the most despicable sinners. From this mountaintop in Death Valley, one looks down into one of the hottest, lowest, and unforgiving places on Earth. The metaphor of a descent into hell is not the most cheerful of welcomes to the park, but it’s kind of fitting.

In case you’re wondering, it was about 10:30 a.m., and roughly 110 degrees.

From there we took a quick detour to Zabriskie Point, another scenic viewpoint, this one requiring a five-minute walk up a paved hill, which is pretty easy in two-digit temperatures but noticeably less fun in today’s conditions. Nonetheless we made the short climb and enjoyed the view, especially the color striping in the rock formations.

Zabriskie Point

Up next was the Visitors Center, which has a big digital thermometer outside just for fun (and photo ops).

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Inside, we watched a short movie about Death Valley. A helpful Park Ranger customized an itinerary for us that would include four more sites. He also told me that they were expecting the temperature to climb into the 120s and asked if we had enough water in the car (we did). Then he warned me that the road I’d be taking out of the park included a steep decline for about 20 miles; he suggested that I use low gear on this decline instead of my brakes, because sometimes when people use their brakes the whole way down, their cars burst into flames.

Wait, what?!

Yeah. Anyway, after we had a quick lunch in the car (while it was idling, so we didn’t die of heatstroke), we backtracked a bit and headed toward Badwater Basin, a salt flat that is the lowest point in North America.

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Even cooler is that you can walk right out onto the salt.

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Some people walked out pretty far, but Sam and I chose to stay relatively close. We were only out of the car for a few minutes, but that was enough to drench us with sweat. And with the exception of the covered parking at the Visitors Center, all parking areas are in direct sunlight. Even a nice, air-conditioned car heats up pretty quickly when you park it in 120-degree sunlight.

Our next stop was another salt field a few miles away. This one is called the Devil’s Golf Course, because the salt here is crystallized, creating a rocky, jagged landscape where you can barely walk, let alone play golf.

The Devil's Golf Course

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The real fun of the Devil’s Golf Course is the popping sounds. On especially hot days, the salt crystals get so hot that some of them explode, making a tiny popping sound kind of like a bowl of Rice Krispies. It was hot enough today, but we had trouble hearing the pops because the handful of other people and cars that were there were making too much noise. Eventually enough people left that I was able to hear a few pops, but Sam never did.

As we drove, we noticed that we could literally see the heat. You know how the air kind of wiggles right above a hot BBQ grill or above very hot sand at the beach? The air was wiggled everywhere we looked. It was mostly cool, and a little terrifying.

Up next was a one-way road called Artist’s Drive because it takes you past multicolored rocks that look like they’ve been painted but in fact come by their colors naturally. It was extraordinary, partly because of the rocks, and partly because the winding road kept surprising us with new views as we never knew what was waiting around the next bend. (It was also nice to be able to view things without leaving the car.)

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Our final stop within the park was going to be the massive Mesquite Sand Dunes. Our route took us back past the Visitors Center again, and by now the thermometer had moved considerably.

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By the time we got to the sand dunes, it was so hot out that Sam refused to get out of the car. Part of me wanted to hike across the dunes to the top of the tallest one, but that part of me melted in the sun and I took only a few steps onto the sand before retreating to the relative comfort of the car.

Mesquite Sand Dunes

Surprisingly, Death Valley is the largest National Park in terms of acreage, and getting out of the park required almost two more hours of driving. Happily, some of that driving was over the kind of steamy, stark roads I had imagined the entire park to be.

Death Valley National Park

The car, to my surprise, was doing fine at this point, and when we finally got to that long downhill section I made sure to take the Ranger’s advice about downshifting. I am happy to report that my car did not burst into flames. Not even once.

Including Death Valley, Sam and I have now been to 20 National Parks together (plus lots of National Monuments, National Historic Parks, National Recreation Areas, etc.). It was definitely a memorable milestone.

Unfortunately, unlike most other National Parks, we didn’t get out of the car much, which meant I had done hours of driving even though we had really only gone to one place all day. And even once we escaped from Death Valley, we still had hours of driving through deserts to grapple with. We’re going to be spending Monday in Sequoia National Park, and there’s no direct way to get there from Death Valley. After leaving the park, I spent almost five hours driving down one- and two-lane “highways” with traffic lights, random intersections, and shockingly few signs of civilization. I was exhausted.

It was on one of these desert highways, by the way, that a hungry coyote was wandering as he looked for something to eat. Lucky for him and for us, it was broad daylight and I saw him in plenty of time to swerve around him. But our sudden spate of animals on the road has reached disturbing levels.

Meanwhile, we normally have dinner at highway rest stops, but these highways were much too minor for such amenities, and I started getting a bit nervous about finding a place to make dinner. Luck was on our side, though, as our route took us directly through a state park at just about 6 p.m., which was not only a good time for dinner but also let me get out of the car for about 40 minutes at a time when I badly needed to. As we pulled up to the empty picnic area, we noticed a few adorable bunnies resting in the sand. They scurried off when they saw us, but we had a nice dinner of hot dogs and string beans. About an hour later we finally emerged from the desert to see the temperature drop as grass and trees began covering the landscape, followed soon by farms.

All told, I drove about 500 miles today for a total of about 9 hours. But we made it to our motel by about 9:30, a Comfort Inn that is not very nice but totally serviceable and, more important, just 15 minutes from Sequoia.

As I collapsed on the bed, I checked the weather forecast for Sequoia: it’s going to be a mere 110 on Monday. Good thing we’ve got plenty of water.

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