I admit that I humored Pete when he said he wanted the Road Trip to stop in Death Valley. He had grown up in California and had never seen it. I imagined a boring, flat, scorching, dusty wasteland hardly worth the detour. Boy, was I wrong. Death Valley is dazzling, in the way only an almost unearthly desert landscape can be.
If you’re of a certain age (like me), you might associate Death Valley with the old TV show Death Valley Days and its sponsor 20 Mule Team Borax. Borax is a mineral compound that was, in fact, once hauled out of mines in Death Valley by 20-mule teams. As the Death Valley mines began to wind down, an executive named Christian Zabriskie with Pacific Borax Company, which owned much of Death Valley, got the idea to sell this now non-functional mining territory to the federal government. Brilliant! The federal government made Death Valley first a national monument and then, in 1994, a national park. Mr Zabriskie got the honor of having a lookout point named after him, a place that offers views into this ethereal valley, with its moon-like craters and rippling mountains.
The terrain is so variegated that I wished I could stay and simply watch the shadows slide across the surface, the light continously changing the feeling of the topography. For me there is something about the utter starkness of it, devoid of trees, that seems to offer a window into the center of the earth.
To travel across Death Valley is to cross the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level. And then, just 85 miles to the west, towers Mt Whitney, the highest point in the Lower 48 (14,505 ft), one of the most dramatic gradient changes on the planet.
As if that extreme weren’t enough, Death Valley has recorded the highest air temperature anywhere – 134 degrees (yes, you can die in that in about 10 minutes). Fortunately for us, it was in the 80s, breezy by comparison, but still unfiltered relentless sun.
The only other places I have seen such geological drama are in Alaska and in Chile’s Atacama Desert. The picture below is Valle de la Luna in the Atacama, at 7400 feet above sea level, the very definition of high desert. But, in its equally breathtaking barrenness it could be Death Valley’s cousin.
I’d like to circle back for a minute to Mr Zabriskie. As I stood at Zabriskie Point, I scratched my head trying to remember why the name sounded familiar. I had never read much about Death Valley so it wasn’t that. Aha! it came to me. The 1970 Antonioni film, considered at one point one of the fifty worst films ever made and “one of the most extraordinary disasters in modern cinematic history,” but “still absolutely watchable because of the magic of Antonioni’s eye.” I haven’t actually seen the film, but I imagine that part of the magic was not only Antonioni, but this riveting and unforgettable piece of the Earth.