by Bob Sparrow
When I told people that I wanted to go to Death Valley, they asked why? I wasn’t really sure. I had heard that it had recently reclaimed the honor of the hottest place IN THE WORLD, wresting the title from Libya – 134 degrees! As I prepared to make the trip I knew from watching the temperatures that it wasn’t going to be that hot, but I wondered what life in Death Valley under such extreme temperatures was like. I thought it would be interesting to write about the extreme heat and how the flora, fauna and humans survived it. I thought I’d be using the term ‘buzzard hot’ many times. I was even going to bring an egg along to fry on a sidewalk. To be honest, I thought I would mostly make fun, or at least make a number of ‘hot jokes’ about this seemingly god-forsaken place. Those who have been there know the reality I was about to learn.
I hit the road at 5:00 a.m. and got into Baker at 7:30. I used to think that Baker was in the middle of nowhere, until I turned onto Highway 127 and headed north – Baker became a thriving metropolis. After driving less than an hour, I thought I was in that giant warehouse in New Mexico where they filmed the ‘fake moon landing’. There was nothing in the distance but Mojave Desert for as far as the eyes could see – no other cars, no road signs, not even a shoulder on the road, just a narrow two-lane road winding through the desert. It’s a place where you really have to trust your car not to break down.
I soon came upon Dumont Dunes (left) – real live sand dunes, just like you see in the movies, but without the camels. My car is not an All-Terrain Vehicle, but I pretended that it was and drove off the road to get a better look at the dunes. (photo below, yes that little speck is my car). At the junction of Highway 127 and Highway 190, I arrive at the bustling burg of Shoshone, population 31, I didn’t see one of them. I was hoping to get gas here, but as you can see from the picture below, the car in front of me was taking quite a while to fill up, so I moved on .
As I got closer to Death Valley the names of the towns and points of interest reminded me of just how hot it was getting outside – Furnace Creek, Hell’s Gate, Dante’s View, Stovepipe Wells, Charcoal Kilns, Burning Wagon Point. I arrive at the Death Valley Visitor Center to get recommendations for what I should see and do. At the top of the list was Scotty’s Castle (top photo) – another 50 miles to the north. I got back in the car and got back on the road – it was 11:00 and the temperature just broke 100.
The story surrounding the building of Scotty’s Castle in the middle of nowhere is a fascinating one. Built in the 1920s, this architectural wonder featured a one million gallon swimming pool, an elaborate heating and air conditioning system which was way ahead of its time, an innovative hydro-electric power system driven by a desert spring that still delivers 300 gallons of water per minute, AND a solar panel, yes a solar panel built in the 20s! Just as interesting as the house itself is the story of the two key characters responsible for its construction – Albert Johnson, the wealthy, Cornell educated engineer who longed to be a ‘cowboy’ and Walter Scott (Scotty), a con man who left home at the age of 11, moved to the desert as a teenager and eventually started selling shares of bogus gold mines to wealthy easterners, Johnson being one of them. How they formed a life-long friendship is something you’ll have to read on your own.
After Scotty’s Castle I had to get to Badwater; it’s just a field of encrusted salt, but it’s the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere – 282 feet below sea level. Part of the reason I wanted to get to this historical location was just to breathe the air; I thought if high altitude creates thin air which is hard to breathe, then low altitudes must create ‘thick’ air – which logically would be easier to breathe. I’m here to tell you I couldn’t tell the difference between sea level air and below sea level air.
My most memorable drive was coming back from Badwater; a loop off the main road appropriately called Artists Palette, it is a narrow, one-way drive cut through the mountain that shows colors you’ve never seen before – it is surreal. It underscored to me the most surprising part of my desert experience – the sheer beauty of the place, and I was told that the springtime is really beautiful. Everywhere I drove there were beautifully colored mountains on each side of me – chocolate brown to cream-colored, cobalt blue, sage green, every shade of red and orange. And they all changed hues from sunrise to sunset.
Death Valley – why? The shapes, the textures, the colors can be seen nowhere else on the planet; it should be renamed the Painted Desert – it is truly magnificent.