128 in the Shade

Death Valley
A view of Devil's Golf Course in Death Valley National Park. (Death Valley Chamber Of Commerce)
By John Deiner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 31, 2005

A few miles down the desolate strip that leads into California's Death Valley National Park, visitors can drive up to an automated kiosk, dash from the car and buy a $10 park pass. Insert cash or a credit card into the machine and out pops your receipt, with the request that it be prominently displayed on the dashboard.

But two weeks ago, when the words "Excessive Heat Warning!" are headlining the park's daily report, prominently displaying anything on your dashboard proves folly. Within 30 minutes, the pass has been rendered useless. It has fried in the midday sun, its edges charred, its text blackened beyond recognition.

"Your pass burned up? Well, that's how I know you paid," says park ranger Vicki Wolfe, tittering as she hands over a map. "The only ones who complain about that are the ones who actually stuck it in their windshield."

Lessons like that come quickly in this outpost of Hell, the hottest, driest, lowest spot in North America. Maybe the cruelest, too, but certainly not the loneliest. Even during the height of the July and August scorchfest, when temperatures regularly top 113 degrees, tourists stream into the park, about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The majority come to simply experience the effects of triple digits on the psyche and to drive around snapping photos rather than strenuously hiking the arid canyons, mountains and dunes that make up the 3.3- million-acre park.

"We get a lot of Europeans this time of year," notes Wolfe, explaining that while February through mid-April is Death Valley's peak season, many foreigners enjoy the thrill of being in the desert Southwest at its nastiest.

Nasty it is, though in an exhilarating what-the-heck-am-I-doing-here kind of way. Yeah, it's a dry heat, but who cares? The continent's hottest temperature ever (134 degrees) was recorded July 10, 1913, at what is now Furnace Creek Ranch -- a series of cowering motel buildings and cottages where most summer visitors are sequestered. The tony Furnace Creek Inn, about a mile up the road, wisely closes for the summer.

On this day, the temperature hits 128, one degree off the record for the date. Two days later, the mercury will stretch to 129, a high for the year. Evidently, there's not much difference.

"After 120 degrees, it's all the same to me," says park ranger Athena Siqueiros, who proclaims she's used to weather extremes. "That's when I feel it in my eyelids, which quiver in the heat."

Eyelid-quivering heat indeed. If you've ever wondered what a Cornish game hen goes through in a convection oven, this is it. Waves of stultifying air bombard from every angle, with skin, hair and clothes hot to the touch in seconds. Mouths reflectively open at the shock (ravens -- or are they buzzards? -- at Furnace Creek Ranch routinely circle the parking lot with beaks ajar). Walking at such sites as the Harmony Borax Works, a once-thriving mining operation, grows tiresome after a few minutes. Appetites wane.

The heat of Death Valley is an unwieldy byproduct of its otherworldly geography, a low, narrow basin framed by mountain ranges. The sun blasts the desert floor, and the hot air rises. After it becomes trapped by the valley walls, it descends, only to be heated to an even greater extent.

The effects are far ranging, and the learning curve can be painful. Besides the general discomfort of sucking in superheated air, taking a picture leaves a welt if you touch the exposed metal on your camera. You can swim at the low-key (and entirely too sunny) pool at the ranch, but you sometimes must take your shoes off at water's edge to avoid burning your feet. Want something out of your car? Grab the wrong handle and you'll realize you've been wheeling around in the equivalent of a solar flare on Firestones.

Oddly enough, no one seems to be complaining.

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