Dantes View, with Death Valley below
I am a puny, insignificant, mildly sunburned, mortal ant crawling on the surface of the earth. I am struck with awe in America's largest national park, gazing down at the hemisphere's lowest, hottest, driest point.
"Death Valley." You think low, hot, flat, 20-mule team, borax, dead 49ers, wear a hat and sunscreen and bring water, right?
What I didn't realize is that Death Valley is basically a rift valley surrounded by rugged mountains. The mountains cast a rainshadow, and also trap the hot air rising from the valley's salty earth and cause it to circulate back down, making it even hotter.
Gazing down at the inferno
The elevation at Dantes View is 5,475 feet above sea level. It was breezy and in the low 80's, maybe upper 70's. The lowest point in Death Valley is -282 feet. It was 96 degrees down there.
But it's a dry heat.
Second hottest temperature ever recorded on earth was 134 degrees at Furnace Creek in Death Valley in 1934. I'm pretty sure you can cook meat at that temperature. (Hottest? 136˚ in Libya in 1922. So close!)
From Dantes View, I could look across the valley at Telescope Peak, elevation 11,049. It had snow on top. To the west a mere 76 miles is Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet, the highest point in the contiguous U.S.
Earth, air, fire, no water
Coffin Canyon, The Devil's Golf Course, the Devil's Cornfield, Starvation Canyon, Badwater, Funeral Mountains, Burned Wagons Point, Surprise Canyon, Hells Gate. You can tell what they thought about Death Valley, those prospectors and ladies in bonnets in covered wagons.
There are all kinds of stories – strange, tragic, amazing. The problem with going west is that you're almost there and then all kinds of mountains are in the way. Think Donner Pass.
Furnace Creek ranger station and museum
This place is a repository of history, geological and climate info, and maps, with helpful rangers who let me charge my camera battery. A ranger I talked to remembered New Hampshire from hiking the Appalachian trail.
The clerk in the small bookstore apologized for asking for my ID with my credit card. "People's Republic of California," he said. "I live in Nevada."
There are date palms growing in the valley, parks and campgrounds, and a Shoshone Indian reservation. I didn't actually make it to the lowest point because the distances are so vast and I wanted to get out of the valley before dark.
I had a lamb gyro for lunch/ dinner at the 49er Cafe.
Many tiny people also visited the park with me yesterday. Cars, rental cars, tour buses. English, French, German, Italian and Spanish spoken here. Plenty of room for all of us.
I also took photos at a touristy ghost town south of Death Valley. Will post later.
At the higher elevations, cactus and wildflowers were still in spring bloom. Here I am crouched down along the side of the road, getting ancient dust on the knees of my blue jeans.
Wish I had rented a sports car because you can drive really fast out in the Mojave Desert. But some of the mountain roads are a little hairy. Also, I was in a cell dead zone most of the time. What happens if I break down, I wondered?
"I was actually starting to get worried about you," said my sister when I finally called her from near China Lake. "How's that for a role reversal?"
Open road, free spirit
Like Steve McQueen, all I need's a fast machine. But the PT Cruiser is like a windup toy going uphill out here in basin and range country. I call her Bonnie. "You can do it, girl," I pat her dashboard.
I listened to hard rock, pop, Mexican, and country music stations, and a little evangelical stuff that was sort of entrancing and seemed to make more sense out here in this Biblical landscape.
Near Mojave National Preserve I tuned into 1610 a.m. and listened to the soothing voice of a lady park ranger describe the wonders and dangers of the desert. "Some people come out here just to be alone," she intoned.
Amen, I said.
The mortal ant, as photographed by the camera on a rock, with timer
The blogger finds she can be alone with herself, in a vast, lonely, beautiful, terrifying place, and not lose her mind. In fact maybe regain her mind, and heart, and return (next week, all to soon) to her family more loving and attentive and less bitchy and fried.
I did talk to fellow visitors agog with the wonders of the West, like a group of young Englishmen on holiday, heading to the Sierras next, and older folks paired in couples, geared up in good sturdy boots and sensible hats, calmly exploring.
I could do this for a month, but I'm in the pretty town of Tehachapi at the edge of the desert (at another Holiday Inn Express), east of Bakersfield, and I've got to race north to meet my sister at Pixar late this afternoon. And everything is so far apart in California.
Sand dunes near Stove Pipe
Crossing this part of the valley it was windy, with sand particles scouring the air, dancing with dust devils, washing ashore against the dunes, beached, and bleaching in the Death Valley sunblast.
All this salt and sun and wind and sand and no ocean. How strange.
Time to consult Google maps and my new California atlas for today's route. Andale!