The twelfth day of our summer vacation began with our eighth National Park of the road trip. Death Valley straddles Nevada and California, a vast expanse of desert on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Of all of America’s National Parks, it is the furthest below sea level and also holds the records as being the most dry and the most hot. It actually holds the record as having had the hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet. That temperature was 134 degrees. Not my ideal environment but we could not complete our horseshoe route around the southwest without taking the boys to such an (in)famous place as Death Valley. It gained its name from some folks travelling to California as part of the Gold Rush took what they thought was a shortcut from the trail and ended up staggering their way through the valley, barely surviving. Ideal place for a wander then!
Our first stop was at Zabriskie Point. This area was once an ancient lake so its geology is all about sediments. I assume that these sediments along with ashy layers from volcanic activity account for all the variations in colour in the tooth shaped peaks there – but I have a brain that doesn’t do geology so I may be wrong. The elevation gave us a great perspective on the parched landscape and was useful in helping us point out to the boys area of salt flats and places where mines had once operated.
When we pulled into the Visitor Center at Furnace Creek, the building’s thermometer announced it was 114 degrees and climbing. There were also signs posted all over the place warning people not to hike as it was simply too hot to be safe. You know it’s bad when the National Parks Service is warning people to not use its resources. The first thing we did there was to avail ourselves of the cold water from their fountains to glug down and refill our water flagons. Refreshed, we decided to take full advantage of their air conditioning so we had a thorough nose around the museum. This was an exhibition about life in Death Valley – its geology, of course, but also its wildlife, the Timbishu Shoshone way of life and their legal victories to reclaim land rights, the history of European settlement and of borax mining. What my younger boys most enjoyed was an interactive exhibit that challenged them to design, using various body parts, the uber desert creature by thinking about adaptations that would be advantageous in such a harsh environment. We had to burst a gut laughing when most of their imaginary animals either looked distinctly phallic or like winged testicles.
We left the air conditioned sanctuary of the Visitor Center and continued along the road. Only I, however, opted to get out of the car at the next stop. I thought it was an easy hop, skip, and jump to snag some interesting photos but it was so searingly hot by that juncture that even my twenty minutes round trip walk felt incredibly uncomfortable. The spot in question was the Harmony Borax Works. This was where borax was mined from the early 1880s and for just that decade. The works were famous for its “twenty mule team” that hauled the borax overland to the railroad at Mojave. On a day when I could feel myself slowly turning to dust in the intense heat, it was hard to believe that people had actually managed to live and work in such an inhospitable place. It must have been particularly gruelling for the Chinese immigrant workers who lived in tents in the surrounding landscape. I was able to see the ruins of the works and an example of a mule wagon before scurrying back to the car and being ever so grateful for water.
The heat was even more intense by the time we reached Stovepipe Wells and the sand dunes of Mesquite Flats. It was actually unbearable and again I wondered how anyone – whether indigenous people or mining immigrants – had ever managed to survive in Death Valley. Clearly they were much hardier than I am. Though we didn’t spot any mesquite plants, there were creosote bushes galore. There was also a large, dead-looking tree that my kids were longing to climb up but a coach load of tourists were doing just that very thing, taking turns to pose for photographs, and the kids were too hot to wait patiently for a turn. Instead, they kicked around the dunes for as long as they could stand the heat – which was not very long. It was time to leave Death Valley before we cooked.