Death Valley, CA: Visiting during its hottest summer in 100 years
Have you ever smelled heat? The musk of molecules bumping into each other in a frenzy? Have you ever felt the rim of your nostrils prickle, the short, thin hairs along its walls catch fire? The nerve endings in your lips fire up, tingling even more than the last time you bit into something spicy that shook your palate awake? Well, if you ever venture out to Death Valley during the summer, you will.
Situated in the northern Mojave Desert in Eastern California, Death Valley ranks among one of the hottest places on earth. (A week after our visit, Death Valley will record the highest temperature measured on earth in 100 years at 130 degrees.) Over 1.5 million visitors schlep here every year to experience the national park’s many otherworldly and diverse landscapes. But to come here in the summertime is brave. Which is why we prepared. We decided to make it a point to spend no more than 10-15 minutes at every point of interest, pack enough food and water to last us for two days (if our car were to, say, break down), and just, you know, be smart about it.
Still, they told us it was a bad idea. Terrible — the worst. Were we crazy? “You don’t go to Death Valley in the summer,” our friend told us. (She also added that we’re probably just going so that we have a good story to tell friends over dinner. I wonder if that’s true.) I’m not entirely sure why we drove four hours to chase anything with “death” in it, when the reality of the word is just around every corner in this new world. I didn’t really have an answer other than: “It would be cool?” Which sounds silly — arrogant, even. I still can’t answer that question. But it keeps twisting and turning in my brain as I take my first step out of the car and into the 117-degree air.
This isn’t your typical summer heat. No, no. This heat comes after you with a vengeance, as though you’ve just emptied its bank account, shot its best friend and slept with its wife. An unexpected, almost animalistic grunt escapes my throat as the hot air hits my face like a well-intended, well-calculated power punch. “Oh, my God!” I scream out the obvious. “It’s so hot!” I’m standing near the edge of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a silky sea of sand that gleams and glistens under the 3 p.m. sunlight. (It’s also known as Tatooine in Star Wars.)
The landscape in front of me looks like the typical image most people would associate with the word “desert.” Sand mound after sand mound, rippling and undulating across the horizon. The tallest ridgeline, which towers at 140 feet high, is shaped like a crescent, and I can easily spot it from a distance. From where I’m standing, it looks close enough. We’ll make it there and back in 15 minutes, right? “Let’s get to that,” I say, pointing to the dune and charging forward. During the first few minutes of climbing up and swooping down the slopes, I feel like a child. The humidity is so low that I’m not even sweating a drop; the weather feels tolerable enough; and the sand — well, it’s just so much fun. For now, I seem to have some authority over the situation.
But the more I trudge my way through the hot sand, the farther the dune gets. I drag myself to the top of a steep mound and pause for a breather. It’s then when it hits me. I don’t think I’ll make it to that dune. Even though I seemed “OK” just a minute ago, the heat snuck up on me like a freight train without headlights. No warning, no tap on the shoulder, no anything. My mouth is as dry as a handful of cotton balls, and a headache comes down on my brain like a thunderstorm. My body’s cooling system suddenly feels overwhelmed — jammed even. I realize that it’s time to turn back, and I make my way to the car as fast as possible, step by crooked, sinking step.
By the time I’m almost close to the edge again, I feel as though I’m walking on coal. The sand has seeped into my shoes and inside my socks, where it settled like an unwelcome guest. In fact, my shoes are so full of piping hot sand that they start to feel too small for my feet. When I finally get to the car and plop down in my seat, the first thing I do is take my shoes off. Lifted by an unexpected wind, a cloud of dust shoots straight into the car, flying horizontally and covering every surface in a sheen of grit. Ugh, this is going to be a pain in the ass to brush off, isn’t it? I think. Anton will be so mad.
He is — but he’s even more concerned about the fact that the two one-gallon bottles that we froze so they would stay cooler during our trip are refusing to melt quickly enough. We can only squeeze out about a cup of water, which we drink up immediately. I feel life flush back into my body. My skin, which was dry before, instantly starts glistening with sweat. In extreme heat, your body can easily sweat up to two liters of water in an hour. (This obviously depends on weight, age and several other factors). I feel as though I’m sweating it all out in a minute. Lesson learned: if you’re going to go through the trouble of hauling so much water on a trip, make sure it’s drinkable. Another lesson? When at Death Valley, don’t ever, ever think you’ve somehow got the upper hand.
The turn-off to Mosaic Canyon is deceptively short — just under two miles. It’s an illusion, though, especially if you’re attempting to trek it in a sedan. I mean, sure, you can still do it if you’re determined (which we are), but you’ll have to go at the crawling speed of a snail. “We can turn around if you want,” I tell Anton, to which he shakes his head. We made it this far, he argues — we’re going to see the damn canyon.
I almost can’t believe it when we make it to the large gravel parking lot, and park our ride by a bright-red sign that warns of excessive heat in the area. (Which, by the way, is 119 degrees). Taking a deep breath to mentally prepare myself for a blast of dragon’s breath, I exit the car. Anton swings his CamelBak on his back, and we hit the dusty road. The first 0.25 miles is just a moderate hike through the wide wash, which isn’t anything special. Then, the canyon narrows — abruptly and significantly. And that’s when things get interesting.
The ground we’re walking on is dark gray and blanketed with gravel. Over the years, during episodic flash floods, the fast-passing water scoured the Noonday Dolomite walls of the canyon. The rainwater, mixed with grit and gravel, polished the surface into a smooth, silky marble. Meandering through the tight alley, surrounded by these formations, I can’t help but reach out and touch the slippery, warm stone. The layers are so distinct that it’s impossible to imagine how they could’ve been formed by chance, with no planning, no outlining, no rush.
It’s so beautiful that at one point, I almost don’t believe what my eyes are taking in, and to be quite honest, I’m very tempted to throw our “15 minutes at every location” rule out the window once again and hang out here for longer. But then the thirst hits again. We already sucked out the last of the melted water, and even in this triple-digit heat, the block of ice in Anton’s hydration pack still hasn’t melted. Same story, different landscape. The wise thing to do, we know, is to turn around and make our way back to the car. So, we do.
Back at the car, we take a few moments to hydrate and snack on turkey pinwheels we’d packed in a cooler. Once again, I feel a surge of energy. I’m ready to roll, and by “roll,” I mean crawl back to the main road.
“So, where to next?”
“B-b-badwater B-b-basin,” I respond, my voice vibrating.
As the lowest point in North America, Badwater Basin sits 282 feet below sea level, formed by a buckling of the earth’s crustal plates. Whenever there’s a heavy rainstorm, the area floods. But the place has such a high evaporation rate that whatever gathers there evaporates quickly, leaving behind layers of salt and other minerals. The tiny “pool” that’s there is nasty to drink, so, you know, that’s where the name “bad water” came from.
Badwater Basin is also close-to 45 minutes away from Mosaic Canyon, at the southernmost point on Badwater Road. It would’ve made more sense to stick to sights within the same area — or close by at least — but we have three places we want to check off our must-see list, and Badwater is the last one. Next time, we promise ourselves, we’ll come back and see everything else this place has to offer.
As the day wears on, the temperature gauge on the dashboard begins to drop, and by the time we get to the parking lot of Badwater Basin, it’s almost 114 degrees. At the entrance, we run into a skinny old man with weathered, sun-cracked skin. He’s jogging up and down the parking lot, a white t-shirt tied around his head like an ill-fitting turban. Anton and I gave each other a look that said: This guy must be insane, running in the heat like that! We balk at him so obviously that he can’t help but strike up a conversation.
After a little bit of small talk, he tells us he’s running a 135-mile race the next day. (The Badwater 135 is held every year, stretching from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, and it’s one of the most physically — and mentally — demanding races in the world). This is crazy, I think, but then I glance over to the view behind me, and find something crazier — a shallow pool of water sprinkled with clumps of salt where algae and snails still, somehow, thrive in its harsh, malevolent environment. Beyond that, however, is extraterrestrial land.
We follow the trail to the salt flats, to a vastness that feels too open-ended, almost like a question asked with no one around to hear it. The salt deposits protrude like a network of veins through the ground, and the farther you venture out, the more defined they become (the less people have stomped on and flattened them). We break our own rules this time and decide to walk as far out as we can to watch the sun set behind the mountains in the distance. We’re alone.
The sound of crystals crunching underneath our feet fills the air, but if we pause — if we stand incredibly still and just listen — the sudden silence of the place can be as deafening as the quiet of some grand cathedral. I don’t think I’ve ever heard silence quite so loudly. It feels old, as if there are many layers of it piled on top of each other and formed just like the salty crust over thousands of years.
By this point of day, the weather is not entirely unpleasant. I’ll admit it — it’s kinda even nice. Maybe I’m influenced and haunted by the strangeness of this beauty. Maybe I’m being stupid again. Maybe it’s the fact that I feel oddly small and humbled by this unbelievably deep and endless world that I’m not really thinking about the heat. I’m not thinking about anything other than what’s in front of me.
Our objectives post-pandemic aren’t different from before. Even though we’ve endured one of the greatest shocks to our life systems in modern history, we still want to be surprised, transformed and challenged. And Death Valley is a place for all of these things. We watch the sun dip behind the purple mountain range before turning around. “Why would you go to Death Valley now?” The question turns up in my mind again — but this time, I know the answer.
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