As brand marketing exercises go, being called “Death Valley” is a masterstroke. It certainly adds a frisson of excitement for visitors planning a trip out to eastern California. Would we be as willing to buckle up and speed away from our health-and-safety-obsessed lives if our goal was “Sunny Valley”?
Even the most risk averse among us subconsciously wants to shake the dice of life every now and again: to escape from the everyday, the flat-pack, the school run, the grocery store, tennis lessons and taking the dog to the vet.
Just go. Crank up the air-conditioning, pack plenty of water and drive to the lowest, driest and hottest point in North America. Take the I-15 north out of LA, skirt round Mojave National Preserve, past Tecopa, past sand dunes and mountains, and set the GPS for Furnace Creek.
Crank up the air-conditioning, pack plenty of water and drive to the lowest, driest and hottest point in North America
Into the inferno
Things weren’t so easy for the pioneers travelling through this part of California in the 1840s, rushing to find gold. They thought they were about to meet their maker in this desolate, godforsaken landscape and bestowed upon Death Valley its uplifting title.
Who can blame them? At 282ft (86m) below sea level, Death Valley holds the record for the highest reliably-recorded temperature in the world at 56.7°C (134°F), set over a century ago.
Let’s not be flippant: people die in Death Valley and the headlines regularly scream the story: “Body of Las Vegas woman found in Death Valley National Park”; “Harry Potter actor found dead in Death Valley”; “French man dies in Death Valley after leaving tour bus in 115-degree heat”.
It pays to use common sense here, so bring plenty of fluids, sunscreen and a hat, avoid being out in the middle of the day, and make sure your car is in good condition, especially your tyres; changing a wheel here at midday in August would not be the most fun time you’ve ever had. And bring sturdy shoes; the ground temperature can melt your soles… and your soul.
Changing a wheel here at midday in August would not be the most fun time you’ve ever had
Reinvention and redemption
America is a country built on myths, heroes and the possibility of escape, and a drive through Death Valley reinforces that idea, passing by places with names like Badwater and Devil’s Golf Course, where salt piles into jagged, undulating peaks on the valley floor. (Near here, take the Artists’ Drive loop in late afternoon when the sun is glinting off the exposed volcanic ash and minerals. It’s a place that seems to have been designed by Mother Nature specifically for Instagram.)
It’s a place that seems to have been designed by Mother Nature specifically for Instagram
The US is a land of wide-open spaces, where a man could saddle up his horse, head west and build a new life. Now the car has replaced the horse, and it’s no surprise the motor vehicle still reigns supreme as one of the foundations of America's self-image. A drive across country is a rite of passage, a coming of age – with no parents and no worries. For many young Californians, a trip to Death Valley after getting their licence is especially so – en route to or from Las Vegas perhaps.
In the car park of the Inn at Furnace Creek, I meet 21-year-old Cole, who is driving from college in Boulder, Colorado, to Irvine, California, in his mom’s Toyota. “I could have flown, it would have been cheaper,” he tells me, languidly, swatting away a persistent buzzing insect. “But when you fly over, there’s a disconnect. I wanted to stop and explore, to hike and feel the earth, to experience the heat. It’s out of my comfort zone. I think it’s out of everyone’s comfort zone.”
Feel the heat
He’s not wrong. Just a few minutes away from the reassuring comfort of the hotel’s air conditioning and my throat is already bone dry. I can almost feel the skin on my legs cracking. I’ll wait till later this afternoon to go for a hike in Desolation Canyon. Even though the water in my bottle is warm, I gulp it down like a man who’s been trapped underwater taking his first new life-affirming breaths.
Was that a gust of wind before you shut the car door or the rustle of a sidewinder rattlesnake?
And despite its name, life does thrive here, especially outside of the gruelling summer months. Snow can coat the mountain peaks, while spring rainfall makes wildflowers blossom and replenishes water in scattered oases. As you drive off, perhaps heading for the bright lights and untold fortune that lie ahead on the blackjack tables of Vegas, you may see coyotes, jackrabbits and wild sheep. Was that a gust of wind before you shut the car door or the rustle of a sidewinder rattlesnake? Let’s just hope the noise was coming from outside. Drive safely now.