Saturday, July 6-Monday July 18
When we told people that Death Valley was on our itinerary, the typical response was, “Death Valley? Are you nuts?”
But we are in search of the Real America. How can you search for the Real America and not go to Death Valley?
We start our journey to Death Valley by visiting the two alpine lakes giving Mammoth Lakes its name. At an altitude of around 9,000 feet, we begin our descent, which will take us today to elevations below sea level. We slowly make our way down to the flat, arid valley below and turn south. The giant Sierra Nevada are on our right and a smaller mountain range with no vegetation on our left. U.S. Highway 50 is like an interstate, and there is very little traffic. After a hundred miles we turn left onto a two-lane road near the foot of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Lower-Fort-Eight. Actually, the mountain itself is a bit of a disappointment since you really can’t tell which of the high peaks it is. At 14,400 feet it is the tallest but only by a few hundred feet. The narrow road is straight and flat and seems to extend into infinity with hazy, gray mountains in the distance and no sign of any cars. We will drive almost another 100 miles before reaching our destination for the evening—the Furnace Creek Inn.
Actually I had no idea to what to expect. I envisioned Death Valley to be a flat, sandy plain with weary prospectors, staggering around in search of water. I knew that Death Valley has the lowest point in the U.S. at almost 300 feet below sea level. I did not know that it is actually part of the Mojave Desert or that Death Valley National Park is the largest in the U.S. (excluding Alaska) with over three million acres—about the same size as Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite combined. And the park is not just flat desert. It includes several tall mountain ranges with peaks as high as 11,000 feet.
We drive slowly up and down three mountains before finally reaching Death Valley. There is practically no traffic, but the drive is a nail biter nonetheless. Very little vegetation is visible, and the endless rocks of varying shades of beige and grey are quite beautiful. As we creep uphill, a sign reads, “Don’t overheat your vehicle. Turn off your air-conditioning.” I observe from the dashboard that the outside temperature is 102 degrees. Fat chance.
We arrive at the Visitor’s Center around five. We open the car door and immediately are hit with 40 mph winds that feel like a blowtorch, almost taking our breath away. The only equivalent I can think of is opening the door in a blizzard. All you can think of is getting to shelter. The temperature gauge at the Visitor’s Center reads 119 degrees, and that is in the shade. Now it occurs to me why there was some skepticism about coming here in the summer. The odd thing is that the parking lot is more than half full, and plenty of people are milling around the museum in the Visitor’s Center. Who are these people? Are they nuts?
The Furnace Creek area is the only oasis in Death Valley. Clumps of trees provide a modicum of shade and minor relief from the oppressive heat. A cluster of structures associated with a hotel –restaurant, general store, bar, post office, golf shop and a few modest houses for the workers– are situated under the trees like tired cows on the edge of a hot pasture.
The first glitch occurs when we ask the park ranger where the Inn at Furnace Creek is, to which he responds that it is closed for the summer. He suggested we might be confused and should check the other hotel, the Ranch and Resort. Perhaps our reservations are there instead. We gulp and immediately head to the Ranch Hotel, only a few hundred yards away. We are told we do not have a reservation at the Ranch either , but the clerk says the ranger does not know what he is talking about. The Inn is open and they have our reservation. Whew! Another close one. The nearest inhabitable hotel would probably be in Las Vegas, another hundred and fifty miles away.
The elevation of Furnace Creek is 190 feet below sea level. Getting out of our car, my eyes burn, my lips dry out, and I feel dryness in my throat as I stumble back to the car. What the oppressive and dangerous dry heat really does to you, however, is suck the strength out of you, leaving you completely exhausted.
The inn is perched on a cliff about a mile away and several hundred feet higher than the Ranch. It is another one of those classic historic structures, constructed in the Spanish Colonial style in 1927 and quite charming in an understated way. Offering 65 rooms, most looking out on the valley, the inn offers a 30 meter swimming pool on a deck overlooking the valley,a fitness center, quaint dining room and lobby, and best of all, fireplaces in every room and men and women’s saunas, perfect for the summer weather (though handy in the winter).
There is lots of activity with people checking in and sitting around the lobby. Our plan to avoid heat exhaustion is to remain inside, which is what we do most of Sunday, reading, catching up on the blog, watching a little CNN, and swimming laps in the pool early in the morning before the water is too hot. Late in the day when the temperature drops to around 100 degrees, we visit the famous Mesquite Sand Dunes, which are like those in the Sahara. The buffet-style food in the dining room is especially good, much better than what we had at the Alwahnee. The coldest water you can get out of the cold tap feels like hot bath water, but overall we give the inn very high marks.
The puzzle regarding who these guests are and what are they doing here is partially answered when I meet a guy in the hall about my age taking photographs of the portraits of past presidents of the Forty-Niners Association, the non profit organization that has supported the park since before it was even a park. He is the current president and is trying to determine what kind of portrait would be most appropriate for him. He is very friendly and provides a lot of history about the park. What is perplexing to me, I tell him, is who are these people here right now in this inferno. He shakes his head and says, “Well, there are not many Americans. We Americans know better than to come here in the summer. In winter ,though, it is ideal. In summer—well, it is like it is now. They are Europeans mostly. They come here to discover the Real America, to experience the real West. They love it!”
Discovering the Real America? Sounds vaguely familiar.
We learn the next day that this is a special week for Furnace Creek, which also accounts for the hotels being full. It is the annual Ultra Marathon event, which involves running 135 miles, non stop, across the valley, up the mountains and ending in Lone Pine—a vertical climb of over 14,000 feet. Over one hundred, elite ultra marathoners are gathering for the event, which starts Monday at eight p.m.—unfortunately when we will be in Las Vegas. The winner is expected to finish in under 24 hours.
The runners are an interesting mix of what must border on super-human. About a fourth are women. The oldest runner is 69, the youngest 20; and the average age around 40. They come from 27 different countries and 30 different states in the U.S.
Monday morning we drive 25 miles to the lowest spot in the country at Bad Water, measured at 282 feet below sea level, situated in a part of the valley with a white floor of salt and borax, looking much like the remnants of a snow fall. A tour bus and a few dozen cars are parked at the viewing area, and scores of people are walking out toward the low point, I suppose so they can say they have done it. Embry follows but does not get very far in the 120 degree heat and near gale force winds.
After viewing the low point we are on our way to Las Vegas. Our trusted Google Maps says the quickest way is to continue on the road we are on, which we do for another 30 scenic miles until we come to a sign saying “Road Closed.” There is another option as we study our map— a dirt road which seems to link up with the road to Las Vegas in another 25 miles. However, there is a warning posted on the map saying that the road is subject to drifting sands and at times may be impassable. This option doesn’t sound like a great idea, so we retrace our steps.
No problem since there is no specific time we have to get to Las Vegas. All the confusion causes us to forget about filling the tank with gas before we leave Furnace Creek. It occurs to me that this could be a problem, but I check the gas information on the dash board, which says we have 100 miles to go before we run out. Certainly we will see a gas station before we run out.
I do not start to get worried until we have gone about 70 miles without seeing a single gas station. Actually we did see two, both closed. By this time the gauge is saying we have 40 miles left and the warning light is on. I look at our map again, which shows a town coming up in five miles with a small symbol showing a gas station. If the map is correct, we are fine. If not, it will be at least another 60 miles before we will be in any decent size town. It could be close. I check Google Maps and scan for gas stations in the area. Negative. I am now starting to sweat.
We pull up to the small town and there is a sign for gas. Eureka!
As we pull up to the pump, we note that large oil cans block the lanes. The station is closed.
Desperately glancing across the street I see a large sign, advertising “Brothel,” next to a pink building with a smaller “Brothel” sign offering “free tours, free Wi-Fi, and free restrooms.” (Hey, this is Nevada!) And next to that sign is a smaller one simply stating, “gas.” This little station is open. Saved again.
Now onward to Las Vegas!