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The heartbeat of Death Valley

Chaos Ridge… Devil’s Cornfield… Breakneck Canyon… Poison Spring… Coffin Canyon… Funeral Mountain… With names like that, would you want to visit such a place? Oh yes you would.

Death Valley is a 3.4-million-acre wilderness of unspeakable beauty in the heart of California’s southeast. It is the hottest and driest spot on the planet, and is one of the most intriguing and mysterious landscapes on earth that knows, quite literally, how to bake time to a halt.

The climatic extremes of Death Valley’s daunting desert are brutal. Freezing in the winter, flash floods can rage through its canyons and ravines. Its summers then desiccate the land through searing heat when the mercury regularly reaches 49°C. Death Valley (technically, a basin) also holds the world record for hitting a blistering 57°C (in July 2013). Steep mountains spiral hot air towards the basin’s floor where it remains, vacuumed and heating further. But it’s exactly these extremes that attract visitors from across the globe who arrive with bewildered and romantic curiosity. I am one of them, and I’m thirsty to see, hear and feel the soul of this place.

Gold diggers

The California Gold Rush arrived in 1849. During that winter, hardy prospectors set off in search of riches. With their 100 wagons, ‘The ‘49ers’ journeyed overland from Utah’s Salt Lake City, to cross the vast valley. A group of the men broke away to follow a rudimentary map marking a shortcut over Mount Misery. But it had errors. After venturing offcourse, they became known as ‘The Lost ‘49ers’.

After getting stuck at Walker Pass, the party ended up burning the wood of their wagons and slaying their oxen to avoid starvation. They survived, and successfully found their way out. But another group were not so lucky after one man perished on the trip. “Goodbye Death Valley!” shouted back a survivor of that group upon leaving. And so the name Death Valley was coined.

Between 1883 and 1889, the ‘20-Mule teams’ (two horses and 18 mules) along with their wagons took 10 days to travel 165 miles hauling tonnes of mined minerals and supplies from borax works to railhead. The 20-Mule team became the slogan and logo for the packaging of cleaning products produced by the Pacific Coast Borax Company. Mining of the product led to road and railroad construction, and soon dominated literature, radio, television, and the big screen. Many movies were shot in Death Valley, including Spartacus and Star Wars, whetting the appetite for the curious tourist.

From mining to tourism

Many old mining dormitories have since been converted into modern accommodation. And historic hotels and resorts continue to welcome guests, such as the 1926-built Stovepipe Wells Village Hotel and the Furnace Creek Inn that was completed the following year (which is today the exquisite Inn at Death Valley). The world-renowned valley earned its national monument status in 1933, but it was Christian Zabriskie of the Pacific Coast Borax Company who oversaw the valley transitioning between a mine site and a tourism destination, which became protected as Death Valley National Park in 1994.

Lacing up my boots, I set out to find the spot named after Zabriskie himself. Joining an ascending zigzagging path towards Zabriskie Point in the heart of the famous Badlands, the world soon becomes a dizzying striated canvas of geological mayhem. Tilting and shifting from every fractured angle is a maze of variegated fissures and folds, gullies and rills, and scarps and ditches. They carve jagged inclines and gouge tributaries into the mud hills and chasms of Golden Canyon below, where only the most adventurous of hikers venture from the safety of trailheads.

I’m not entirely confident that before me aren’t pieces of giant Toblerone pieces, half melted and dusted with cinnamon by the clumsy hands of a giant, who later baked them into pottery for an edible multimedia artwork. But so magical is the setting, I’d be inclined to believe almost anything right now. How those early prospectors kept their eye on the job is beyond me. Perhaps the hunt while tunnelling for borax, dubbed ‘the white gold of the desert’ kept their focus, with their true distraction being more the black widow spiders, scorpions and rattlesnakes waiting to strike from beneath these sinuously seductive rocks.

Beyond the polychromatic canyon is Red Cathedral: a backdrop of eroded cliffs formed from ancient alluvial fans. But for me, the most delicious geological candy is Manly Beacon. This striking and surreal slice of precipitous mountain steals my breath entirely. Its sheer scale makes sense only when I spot two miniature humans in the distance beneath it. The tantalising topography of the sandstone and clay walls are imposing yet delicate, barren yet beautiful. Their inclines swirl vertically and horizontally like a drunken artist’s palette trying to brushstroke a dance of ochre-hued ribbons.

Reaching a new low

Driving towards my next destination, alluvial fans pinch and press the roadside cliffs like emptied cake tins. And the panoramas just keep on giving. Reaching Badwater Basin, between the Panamint and Black Mountains, I learn that I’m now standing on one of the region’s giant fault blocks: faulted on each side by compressional and extensional plate tectonics through millennia-old seismic violence.

“STOP Extreme Heat Danger. Walking after 10am not recommended” is the red warning sign that yells at me from a blindingly white saltpan. But that only entices me further. Here is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level (Lake Eyre sits 49 feet below sea level).

I join the boardwalk, with just a handful of other tourists. It’s only mid morning, but the furnace caused by the rising mercury toasts my face. Every breath becomes a saliva-sapping battle, but I walk forth, my black camera fast becoming a hot iron in my hand. Beads of sweat roll down my forehead, but fail to reach my brow — its mere seconds before Death Valley’s outdoor oven evaporates them into a haze as I venture deeper into the saltpan that fries the soles of my boots. But I press on. I feel wildly adventurous. I’m a brazen salt lake addict.

The terrain crumples into welts of millions of circular and half moon-shaped sparkling crusts. It’s where the mudflats have cracked and spat up brittle crystals of sodium chloride. I’m fired up with excitement. These ever-changing sheet white landscapes stimulate me. They energise me, glistening from their impenetrable crust. They glitter under sunlight, and glow under moonlight, and evaporate and reform in stealth mode.

A couple of kilometres in, deathly silence begins to sing as the crunching salt beneath my feet fades. I halt, in the heat, and actually hear the blood pump through the swelling veins around my temples. I can almost taste the salt as I suck insatiably at the parched air. Standing in the exposed and unfamiliar, I feel the raw energy of the place. Here is where stillness resides and time hides. It’s both calming and alarming, to surrender to such an unforgiving yet peace-steeped world — a desolate landscape bleeding its bare beauty from its inhospitable harshness. Is this a moment I’d label as life affirming? I’ll tell you tomorrow…

When the wind arrives, it’s a blowtorch to the face, so I turn back, returning to the mountain-flanked car park. It’s only then that I notice the large white sign high up on the cliff. Gazing up from the surreal salt-encrusted cauldron, the sign bellows: ‘SEA LEVEL’.

Life in Death Valley

Belying the desert’s histrionic name, not all is dead in Death Valley. Even in this salt lake, life thrives. Patches of succulent pickleweed greens its glistening whites. And the Badwater snail lives in the lake’s spring-fed pool of ancient waters that have trickled here thanks to porous limestone bedrock and extensive aquifers.

Beyond the arid landscape of the region’s luminous lakes and crumbling canyons is other fascinating fauna and flora. Reptiles include: chuckwallas, desert iguanas and the dune-loving Mojave fringe-toed lizard. Other critters include: the western blind snake and the endangered devil’s hole pupfish.

And microcosmic desert vegetation includes the alluvial fan-dwelling desert holly, the fern-like honey mesquite and the pungent creosote bush. These wild warriors are born hardy; annual rainfall in this saline-rich desert averages not even two inches. Some years, raindrops don’t even get to fall at all. However, if enough slow autumn drizzle continues through to spring, dormant seeds mature to buds and their petals get to unfurl, when Death Valley bursts into a sea of wildflowers (February to July). It’s hard to understand how, but more than 1000 species of plant grows in this eerie place they call Death Valley.

You see, there is much life in Death Valley. It’s all around you in this painfully handsome timeless land. You just have to look and listen. Only then will you actually feel the power of its presence.

Where to stay

The historic AAA Four-Diamond property, The Inn at Death Valley, is a historic collection of Spanish mission-style rooms and casitas set around soaring natural spring-fed palms, and a spring-fed swimming pool: www.oasisatdeathvalley.com

For more information visit www.visitcalifornia.com

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