Death Valley California, United States 21 Mar 10
Odometer 59,282 m 95,405 km

One hundred thirty-four degrees Fahrenheit (56.7 C). Just try to imagine it. That’s the hottest it has ever been--anywhere on the planet--at anytime in recorded history. And it happened not in the Amazon’s equatorial rainforest, not deep in Australia’s desiccated outback, nor even amid the windblown sands of the African Sahara. No, the inferno’s much closer than you think.

Frozen in an endless Rocky Mountain winter, I’m ready to sell my soul to the devil--if only to feel the heat. Months of snow and icy winds have taken their toll. My body’s defeated, my mind numb; only torpor remains. So much so, that hot-as-Hades places in the bowels of Death Valley, with withering names like Furnace Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, Badwater and Dante’s View, start to sound, well,

A quick look at the map reveals that my home in Colorado is only 13-hours from this, the world’s hottest spot. Digging further, I see it’s deep in the earth, below the sea, a place where winter itself is forbidden. So, why am I here still plowing snow when only half a day separates me from summer? The answer is an epiphany: to escape this polar-like prison I need only go straight to hell.
To Hell and Back
Though the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it’s still a perilous journey. From the east, I’m forced to transit Sin City (sometimes called Las Vegas), before passing Beyond Hope to breach Hell’s Gate. I couldn’t make this stuff up. Once inside the 1.3 million acre Death Valley National Park, it’s all downhill from there, literally, since the “valley” is actually a
basin. Water, what little there is of it, flows in, not out--similar to patrons of the Hotel California.

Descending into the abyss is akin to my avatar blasting through Google Earth. Only it really is 3D and everything’s in focus. The color’s better too. Glands react to intensifying heat. Ears pop. A flowery fragrance wafts through the breeze. OK, forget the illusion to virtual reality; there’s
nothing like actually being there.

But the sunny Promised Land, at least as I had envisioned it back in my igloo, is a whole lot drier and dustier than I thought it would be. Where are the apple trees, the waterfalls and lush gardens, the buxom naked ladies? In fact, it seems the only part I got right was the heat and the snakes! Hmm, perhaps in my frostbitten delirium I took a wrong turn--or simply misunderstood the direction I was heading.

Wherever I am, the physiography is stunning. Words like raw, stark or brute fail to describe its enormity and bleakness. Massive and beguiling dunes lie at the foot of rough-cut-mountain peaks, each individual grain of sand once a part of the latter. I’m urged to sit, mesmerized by their organic geometry as they dance in the katabatic winds that flow down from the heights every dusk to dawn. It’s the world’s most captivating hole in the ground.

It's the world's most captivating hole in the ground.

The valley floor is infrequently dotted with strange botanical life-forms grown accustom to austerity, like mesquite, creosote bush, prickly pear and Joshua trees, named by Mormon pioneers for mimicking Old Testament prophet Joshua waving them toward the land of plenty. A lesser number of critters, like kangaroo rats, tarantulas and sidewinders, feed on these plants and/or each other. It’s a Spartan existence, where striking the mother lode means getting a single drop of rainwater--instead of none.

Sufficient seasonal rains do occasionally fall, however, permitting seeds, often lying in wait for years, to explode in a profusion of wildflowers. Like kaleidoscopic fireworks in an empty midnight sky, Eve’s delicate and colorful petals briefly adorn Adam’s austere and otherwise monochrome world. God’s finest jewelry never looked so good.

People have been here for at least 10,000 years, though the climate and environment have changed dramatically during that time. The Timbisha Shoshone, and much later prospectors and borax miners, all dared to do what I can hardly fathom: call this place home. With modern infrastructure and equipment, and an abundance of imported food and water, it’s easy to think it less extreme, but without human life-support this valley would quickly live up to its moniker.
Growing up Catholic, I often wondered from which spring holy water sprung. Was the Pope, like hillbilly Jed Clampett, “out one day just shootin’ at some food?” Or is the blessed liquid from a singular, anointed place? Either way, one thing’s certain: this isn’t it.

Sometimes boatable, never potable, Badwater is what’s left of meager rainfall washing down naked mountainsides. In its race to the basin it picks up an assortment of minerals. Most of the water then evaporates, leaving an inhospitable, though photogenic, saline brine behind. It forms a white, pasty mud puddle at the very bottom of the continent. And at 282 feet
below sea level, it hosts our nation’s lowest point and hottest air--although Washington D.C. vies hard for contention.

But good water flows in Death Valley too. A one-time ancient lakebed, fresh water still manages to burble up to the surface here and there, though salinity grows as the sources ebb. Adapting to this challenge is the tiny pupfish, so named for its habit of digging for food in the creek bed like puppies dig for bones. But don’t let their diminutive size and cuddly name fool you--they’re one of the toughest creatures on earth--able to withstand salt concentrations several times that of seawater, and water temperatures from near freezing to 100 degrees F.
INSET: A male Pupfish (Cyprinodon salinus salinus) digs for food in Salt Creek. BACKGROUND: Badwater's saline brine collects at the bottom of the continent.
Not lost on me was the irony of slowly pounding out mile after bone-crushing mile on the park’s worst “road” en route to the--wait for it--
Racetrack. This dry lakebed is home to one of the universe’s great mysteries, continuing to confound those who study it. Here, perfectly inanimate rocks move across the flats, change course, and move again, sometimes over great distances.
beyond hope
Past Sin City, Beyond Hope, and through the Gates of Hell I ride.
Often called “sailing stones,” they’re thought to fall from the not-so-nearby cliffs onto the hardpan lake by natural, erosional forces. From there they plant themselves on the fine alluvium of the waterless plain and await enigmatic forces to set the game in motion.

I think the lakebed acts like a giant Ouija board on which God exercises his sense of humor. Clearly, he enjoys making up the game as he goes: moving the rocks this way, then that, sometimes back the way they came and in directions contrary to neighboring stones--as evidenced by long, twisting trails in the dirt. Then, to befuddle the minds of his netherworld’s deserving-souls he shouts, “Hey you, Smarty-pants,
analyze this!”

But it’s hard to win against the guy who writes the rules, so some enterprising lowlifes have taken to stealing the game pieces instead. That’s right, they’ve literally picked up the rocks, though many of the larger ones weigh hundreds of pounds, and hauled them off--presumably to serve as cosmic-energy trophies. For destroying millions of years of geologic history, and preventing others from bearing witness, I hope the perpetrators rot somewhere far hotter than this, the sailing stones forever hung from their worthless necks.
A sailing stone "speeds" across the Racetrack.
Ko, short for Kokaku, a self-described handyman photographer from Berkeley, can hardly bear the news that the sacred stones were stolen. We meet by chance at Stovepipe Wells the next evening, and I can’t help but see parallels between the moving rocks he finds so spiritual and the “kar” he calls home. YOMUDME reads the California license plate, and from the looks of it, it too moves in mysterious ways.

Like his ride, Ko’s toothy grin can use an alignment and his shocks aren’t quite what they used to be, but their tanks are full and headlights shine bright. He describes his beloved kar as a work-of-art-in-progress, covered in liberally slathered, epoxy-hardened, three-dimensional
mud. Interspersed are stickers and hand-painted signs, mostly pro environment and against the war-for-oil that feeds his machine--never mind the incongruity. Eschewing GPS, Ko simply follows the family of ceramic turtles affixed to his hood; they apparently know which way to go, because they’re always out in front.

As he assembles his backpack for what looks like 40 days and 40 nights of wandering in the desert, he laments the Racetrack’s demise and admonishes me to put the annual and eccentric Burning Man event on
this year’s calendar. It strikes me that Ko’s mud-mobile is as emblematic of him and Berkeley as Hummer is of Detroit, Toyota of Japan, and Mercedes of Germany; they just fit. And in some transitive way, I hope that as he and his kar move through the cosmos, the movement of the rocks will continue.
Endemic chuckwallas, large lizards uniquely adapted to Death Valley’s harsh environment, can live their entire lives without so much as a sip of water. I can’t. But even though I came here to escape all things frigid, what I’m really coveting is that kid’s ice cream. You heard me correctly. With superlative foresight the geniuses at the National Park Service appointed a single concessionaire to provide this remotest place with its rarest sustenance.

A simple cup of Soft Serve is exorbitantly expensive, but what are you going to do out here--shop somewhere else? After a quick and completely perfunctory cost/benefit analysis, I hastily cough up the cash.

Then, on a warm but shady bench outside, I close my eyes and blissfully savor each and every spoonful. As the cool, creamy, vanilla flavor slinks dreamlike down the hatch, the texture, the coldness, the whole heavenly experience feels sublime, even miraculous. It’s as if angels are transporting me up and out of the torrid desert heat and into the refreshing chill of high-mountain air. It reminds me of home. Of all the good things I left behind. Of how I said I wouldn’t go back “‘til hell froze over.”

Copyright © 2010 • No reproduction of any kind without prior written permission