Death Valley – the hottest place on earth. Where temperatures have reached 134°F and where one summer it didn’t get below 100° for 154 days. It sounds ominous, doesn’t it? You expect to see vast stretches of white sand; crusty old salt flats; drab, bone-dry mountains devoid of vegetation; and piles of sun-baked bones scattered across the desert floor. You expect to feel uncomfortable, possibly bored, and certainly underwhelmed by the lack of life in the driest desert in North America. At least I did before Eileen and I arrived there with ten other hikers on the second to last day of 2013.
My expectations weren’t completely off. After all, we did find a shriveled-up bobcat carcass that had remained in place for at least five years. And, the vast salt flats – called the Devil’s Golf Course – went on for miles. The rocks were rough and sharp to the touch, scoured by wind, not softened by water. Most of the plants were small shrubs with grey or whitened leaves that crackled upon touch, and signs warned visitors about dehydration and sunburn. That said, temperatures reached a comfortable daily high of 65°; the canyon walls and on mountain slopes glistened in subtle shades of red, yellow, tan, green, grey and dark black; and millions of years of geologic history displayed themselves shamelessly on multi-layered cliffs of rock. Views included snow-capped peaks, windswept sandstone, and even a few wildflowers daring to bloom in mid-winter.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t really know what to expect when we booked a five-day hiking trip to Death Valley with REI Adventures. I just knew that I wanted to go somewhere warm – somewhere different from my usual tropical forest, coral-covered island, Appalachian mountain or coastal New England retreat – and I wanted hike. Eileen didn’t want to have to drive or plan activities, so we joined a tour. We had no idea that we’d have an award-winning guide, with 26 years of experience. Nor, that our group of late 40 and 50-somethings would be among the most in-shape, well-traveled, highly compatible and easy-going travelers than I’ve ever been with. In fact, everyone was so good-natured that by the end I felt I had to file a complaint: “I haven’t heard one complaint on this trip.”
While amazingly compatible, we had some distinctive individuals. One man, with a stable home in Virginia Beach, travels for a week or more every single month, and has been to 79 countries. Another recently accomplished his goal of visiting all 59 National Parks in the U.S. and its territories, including the one in Western Samoa. The Ohioan wears her hair in spikes in honor of her profession – volleyball coach and club owner – and colors daily it to match her clothing. And, a surprising number of us could spontaneously break out into yoga poses – Utthita Hasta Padangustasana and Utthita Parsvakonasana, in particular – on any scenic mountaintop or precarious rock outcrop.
So what kind of hiking did we do in this death-defying place? Most every kind. On the first day we did ten-mile, downhill walk that started at Hole in the Wall where we found 500 million year-old fossils indicating the presence of an ancient sea. Our walk took us from Mars to Venus – at least that’s how our guide described the different surfaces we walked on – past sand pillars and rock spires, ending with a canyon lined with red and yellow mudstones. The next day we scampered up a canyon to go rock climbing – as in real rock climbing, where you need to belly up along a rock face, search for hand and foot holds, and pray that the one centimeter-wide ledge will, indeed, hold you.
Then there was the ridge walk beginning at Dante’s View (at 5480 feet above sea level) with views of the great salt valley, snow-capped Telescope Peak (the highest point in the park at over 11,000 ft.) And another day, a steep climb to Thimble Peak where we could see both the lowest point in North America – Badwater at -282 ft. – and the highest point – Mt. Whitney at 14,505 ft. And finally, so as not get bored with walking, we tramped out to the sand dunes – not an easy endeavor – and went sand boarding. As I had never used a snowboard before, I chose the toboggan technique, which was neither less fast nor less sandy when I tipped and crashed. I ended the day with grains of sand in my mouth, nose and ears, as well as beneath the insoles of my shoes and in every seam and pocket.
Our guide Steve was not only fun-loving – playing tricks on us whenever he could get away with it – but knowledgeable. He related stories of the Timbisha Shoshone Indians who have wintered in the area for over 1000 years, but whose homes and spiritual sites were repeatedly razed by government officials. And of the 49-ers who got lost in Death Valley on their way to the California gold rush and, upon their departure, gave the place its name by saying, “Goodbye Death Valley.” (The 400 extant Timbisha refute the name, as they found life, not death, in the valley’s spring waters.) Then, there were the 19th century borax miners who eventually made the place famous and alluring. Do you, perhaps, remember those 20 Mule Team Borax containers sitting next to your mom’s washing machine? Death Valley is where the white odor-eating, stain-removing stuff came from.
We heard tales of rogue miners who made millions on false claims of lead, silver and gold. And of one who conned his millionaire boyfriend (that’s the rumor, at least) into building a $2 million castle (we’re talking 1920s dollars) in the desert and naming it after him. Then there was the story – or should I call it an admonition? – of Jerkyman, who tried to walk across the salt flats and was found totally desiccated, as light as a feather, with half a bottle of water by his side. On a happier note, we learned about the beginnings of Death Valley tourism in the late 1920s, promoted by the Pacific Coast Borax Company who, when the mines dried up, built the Furnace Creek Inn – now a quite fancy but tasteful resort. To ensure the success of their hotel, they did what any big company would: they used their political connections to lobby the government to establish Death Valley National Park. Success was slow in coming. In 1933, Death Valley was given National Monument status and then, 61 years later, it finally became a National Park.
And, this is only the human history of the area. The geology, which Steve was equallyconversant with, spans over 1.5 billion years and includes ancient seas, compression and uplifting of tectonic plates, faulting, volcanic activity, more faulting, erosion, and salt deposition – much too complex for me to grasp. The cool thing, though, is that you can see it all, unencumbered. There are no trees, and few shrubs or herbaceous plants to get in the way – at least in the wintertime. Only a few brightly-colored lichens and some cryptobiotic soil, that crusty desert-loving mix of algae, fungi and other primitive life that retains moisture in the soil and allows higher plants to take root. Mostly what’s before you is rock and its byproducts, displayed in fantastic swirls, layers, pinnacles, and canyon walls of varying shades, colors and textures. It’s the Earth exposed, a demonstration of how alive our planet is – all in a misnomer of a place called Death Valley.