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Death Warmed Over

By Tom McNichol
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 7, 1999; Page E01


As you drive over the Funeral Mountains, past Dante's View and the Devil's Corn Field, you may begin to discern a subtle theme emerging. Your suspicions may be heightened as you creep past Hell's Gate and the Last Chance Range. Just when you think things may be getting downright unfriendly, you come across a sun-bleached sign hammered into the desert sand:

DANGER! Abandoned mine hazards: Unsafe mine openings. Deadly gas and lack of oxygen. Unsafe ladders and rotten structures. Unstable explosives.

Welcome to Death Valley, Calif., where the motto should be: "You Can't Say We Didn't Warn You." The hottest and driest spot in the Western Hemisphere, Death Valley is one of the few tracts of federal land that the National Park Service's chocolate brown interpretive signs haven't been able to tame. Drop in on the visitors center at Furnace Creek and you're just as likely to hear travelers telling park rangers about a recently washed-out trail or newly discovered shortcut rather than the other way around. It's not that the rangers don't know the area; it's that there's so much area to know. With more than 3.3 million acres of land, Death Valley is the largest national park outside Alaska, comprising an area 1 1/2 times the size of Delaware and even more desolate. (In 1994, President Clinton signed the Desert Protection Act, which added 1.3 million acres to Death Valley National Monument, and changed its official status to a national park.)

Merely driving through Death Valley is flirting with danger. Roadside signs instruct drivers to turn off the car's air conditioner while climbing hills to avoid overheating the engine. For those foolish enough to ignore the warnings, buckets of emergency water are positioned on the shoulder of California Route 190, the lonely two-lane road that snakes through the park. Before long, you develop an intimate relationship with your car's temperature gauge; you may even find yourself shouting at the needle as it inches toward H. (If the needle shouts back, it's definitely time to pull over.)

In the summer, Death Valley has the kind of weather Al Gore keeps warning everyone about. From May through September, the average daytime high is over 100 degrees; in July the average high is a sizzling 116. (Yes, it's a dry heat, but so is the surface of the sun.) Last summer Death Valley was even more hellish than normal. On July 17, the mercury topped 129 degrees, the second-highest ever recorded in the United States. (The highest reading was 134 degrees, recorded in 1913 at--yes--Death Valley.)

But in winter, Death Valley is less death and more valley, with a climate that almost passes for pleasant. Daytime highs are usually in the seventies and eighties, with the nighttime lows in the forties. The winter sun is strong and not to be trifled with, but the air is crystal clear and the sky is heartbreakingly blue. It's a splendid time to explore the ethereal beauty of this desert landscape without worrying about being devoured by vultures just because you wouldn't turn off your car's air conditioner.

Still, that leaves a few stray hazards, such as the deadly gas, lack of oxygen and unstable explosives found around the dozens of abandoned mines that litter the area. It was mining, in fact, that first brought white settlers to Death Valley. (Native tribes such as the Shoshone have inhabited the region for thousands of years.) In 1849, a ragtag group of adventurers bound for the California gold fields made the ill-advised decision to take a shortcut across the desert. Since the party was led by men, they refused to stop and ask for directions, and three people died in the desolate area they would name Death Valley. In the decades that followed, prospectors came to the valley to dig for gold, silver and borax, with their finds transported out of the valley by wagons pulled by 20-mule teams. Many of the mines weren't productive enough to offset the high cost of doing business in Death Valley, and in 1976, Congress passed a law that closed the valley to the filing of new mining claims.

With a little effort, you can still see what's left of one of the more successful operations, the Keane Wonder Mine, which was abandoned in the early 1930s. After a nervous three-mile drive down a rocky dirt road (the desert's a nasty place to change a flat tire), you come upon the ruins of a turn-of-the-century gold and silver mining and milling operation. Shards of rusted mining machinery litter a dry gulch, a tetanus shot waiting to be administered. The wind-blasted remains of a mile-long aerial tramway run up the side of a hill; the wooden tramway once transported ore from a hilltop mine to a mill for processing on the valley floor. Several spooky-looking mine shafts dot the surrounding hillsides, cool, inky passages that lead nowhere. Not even the dream of striking it stinking rich, which has conquered many a hostile area of the globe, managed to make much of a dent in Death Valley.

The map says Death Valley is in extreme eastern California, but it might just as well be on another planet. The rules are different here. For one thing, cellular phones don't work because no cellular company thinks the area warrants coverage. (In my opinion, the Park Service should play up this feature of the park: Come visit the only place in America guaranteed to be free of idiots yapping on cell phones!)

Death Valley has no local newspaper; a few villages sell day-old papers shipped from Los Angeles, 300 miles away. When showering in Death Valley, you're supposed to adjust the water temperature with the hot faucet, not the cold. Tap water usually runs about 80 degrees year-round. It's best to buy bottled drinking water, because even the purified water in Death Valley has a distinctly salty flavor, the result of vast salt deposits on the valley floor left behind when a Paleozoic sea evaporated.

Sounds in Death Valley seem to obey their own laws. Since the valley is bowl-shaped and virtually featureless, sound travels improbable distances. While hiking across the valley floor one day, I heard what sounded like someone walking just behind me. When I turned around, I was amazed to discover that the sound I heard--gravel crunching under someone's shoe--came from a man at least two miles away.

The absence of sound is similarly exaggerated. When there's no one around--and there often isn't--the silence in Death Valley is so utterly complete it seems to take on a physical presence. True silence is something 20th-century humans almost never experience, and in Death Valley, the quiet envelops you like a blanket. Many times, the only thing that passes for sound is the faint pulse of blood in your ears.

Vision is also not what it seems in Death Valley. In the clear, dry desert air, distances are greatly telescoped. That tall sand dune that appears to be only a few miles away can in fact be 10 or 20 miles distant. And not everything you see in Death Valley is actually there. Mirages--that mainstay of TV westerns--are quite common. Sometimes it is water that you're seeing, but the water is far too salty to drink. Moisture rises to the surface of the shallow water table and mixes with salt deposits on the valley floor. From a distance, these vast pools of wet salt look like shimmering sheets of ice, a tantalizing mirage on a scorching day.

Once visitors get adjusted to the fun-house physics of Death Valley, most head straight for Badwater, which at 282 feet below sea level is the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere. Over millions of years, the earth's crust shifting along fault lines has thrust up a series of mountain ranges in Nevada and California, while collapsing the floors of the valleys that run between them. The floor of Death Valley has collapsed more than any. The same forces that made Badwater so low in altitude also produced the highest point in the continental United States, Mount Whitney, which is less than 100 miles away.

There is actually water at Badwater, and it is in fact bad. The spring-fed pool, while appearing to be as clear as the water in a beer ad, is loaded with large amounts of sodium, chloride and sulfate. When you dip your finger in the pool and put it to your lips, it tastes like gargling water mixed with rotten eggs, which may explain why there is no Death Valley brand bottled water. Badwater's desolate moonscape has a distinctly weird vibe, but I found it somehow reassuring to know that no matter what else happened, I couldn't sink any lower.

You can get a more inspiring view at nearby Zabriskie Point, which provides a breathtaking panorama of the sunken valley floor surrounded by uplifted hills. The palette before you subtly changes colors during the day, with the mountains shifting from pink and blue-gray in the early morning to a burnished gold by midday. Zabriskie Point, incidentally, is semi-famous for being the title and chief locale of a nearly impenetrable 1970 art film by Michelangelo Antonioni. The other-worldliness of Death Valley makes it a perfect film set, and works ranging from the Erich von Stroheim silent film classic "Greed" to the original "Star Trek" TV show were filmed here. In fact, practically every time the Starship Enterprise landed on an alien planet and Capt. Kirk asked, "Where the devil are we, Spock?" the real answer was Death Valley.

For a place with such a foreboding name, Death Valley supports a remarkable variety of life. Coyotes, foxes, hawks, rattlesnakes, scorpions and lizards have learned to cope with the harsh conditions of the desert, hibernating during the day and staying close to spring-fed water supplies. But the really smart animals have adapted themselves to the trickle of humans that pass through the valley. While exploring the valley's beautiful wind-sculpted sand dunes early one morning, I saw a roadrunner scoot across my path. It looked surprisingly like the cartoon roadrunner, minus the "beep-beep." A few minutes later, I observed a coyote ambling off in the same general direction as the roadrunner. I half expected to stumble upon a truck marked "Acme Tack Co." next.

About an hour later, I got back in my car and saw another coyote, only this one was walking down the double yellow line in the center of the road, occasionally glancing back at me to see if I was still following. As I later discovered, Death Valley is home to packs of beggar coyotes that actually chase down cars full of tourists, block their path and wait for the inevitable reward of high-cholesterol snack food. These spare-changers of the desert ecosystem are fiendishly clever, concentrating their efforts near roadside interpretive markers where cars are likely to slow down. Many tourists are absolutely enchanted to see a real coyote up close and will gladly throw them a tidbit. Only when they come across several other coyotes hitting them up for food does the magic fade a bit.

Needless to say, feeding coyotes junk food has a way of upsetting the fragile desert ecosystem. Like some longtime welfare recipients, the beggar coyotes get lazy and some actually starve to death because they've forgotten how to hunt for real food. Others are squashed by cars that fail to stop in time. The Park Service is trying to discourage tourists from feeding the coyotes, posting several helpful interpretive signs by the roadside. One reads: "Please do not feed the coyotes. . . . Cheetos, watermelon and beer will disrupt the digestive system of this hunter." The sign might have added that that stuff is not very good food for humans either, but the Park Service probably doesn't want to cut into its concession sales.

Still, when you consider how many national parks have become hopelessly overrun by tourists, Death Valley remains for the most part an untamed, and perhaps untamable, landscape. On my last night in the valley, I sat atop a 50-foot-high sand dune and watched the full moon rise over the mountains, ascending as though being lifted on an invisible string. The sky was huge and star-studded, the kind of sky you see at the planetarium, but rarely in real life. The silence was absolute.

It was somehow comforting to be in one of the few spots left where the march of progress has never left a footprint.

Tom McNichol last wrote for Travel about San Francisco's trolleys.

DETAILS: Death Valley

GETTING THERE: Death Valley is about 130 miles northwest of Las Vegas; Los Angeles is 300 miles to the southwest. The easiest thing to do is to fly to Las Vegas, rent a vehicle and make the 2 1/2-hour drive to Death Valley. You can explore the major roads in Death Valley with a standard car, but a four-wheel-drive vehicle will allow you to explore more remote canyons accessible only by dirt roads. Maps of the area and additional information are available at the main visitors' center at Furnace Creek; there's also a smaller visitors' center at Stovepipe Wells. In winter, guided walks and naturalist talks are conducted daily; schedules are posted at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. The entrance fee to the park is $10 per vehicle, which is good for one week.

WHERE TO STAY: Deciding where to stay in Death Valley is easy--there are only three options, two in Furnace Creek and one in Stovepipe Wells.

The most luxurious, the Furnace Creek Inn (760-786-2361), is more like a desert spa, with 66 deluxe rooms, some with balconies overlooking the valley. Winter room rates (through May) range from $230 to $325.

The nearby Furnace Creek Ranch (760-786-2345) offers a more casual family setting and features a somewhat cheesy Wild West motif. Winter rates range from $90 to $130. The village of Furnace Creek has a general store, restaurant, golf course, tennis courts and a stable offering horseback rides.

More modest accommodations (no TV or phone) are available at Stovepipe Wells Village (760-786-2387), 23 miles northwest of Furnace Creek. Winter room rates are $58 for a standard room, $80 for a deluxe room.

The park has nine campgrounds; three are open year-round. Information: 1-800-365-CAMP (1-800-365-2267).

INFORMATION: Death Valley National Park, 760-786-2331,

--Tom McNichol

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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