Crazy from the Heat in Death Valley

Perched on the western edge of the park atop the Argus Mountains, Father Crowly Point dishes up an extravagant panorama. Photo by Steve Rengers.

Perched on the western edge of the park atop the Argus Mountains, Father Crowly Point dishes up an extravagant panorama. Photo by Steve Rengers.

By Roger Naylor

It’s not yet mid-morning and the sun won’t shut up. It screams at me like the crazy beet-faced neighbor from upstairs. The sun rages, roars and bullies. My liver sizzles and my bones droop. It’s middle of July and while normal people fire up the grill, I’m walking across one. I’m hiking through the stark badlands near Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. And heaven help me, I couldn’t be happier.

In the summer of 2012, I met with the folks at Rio Nuevo Publishers to discuss a Death Valley book and before the ink was dry on the contract I was zooming towards the thin strip of California desert that qualifies as the Earth’s oven.

Anyone can appreciate the desert in its mild winter moments when the sun is soft and buttery. But it takes a special kind of idiot to love it when the mercury punches through the top of the thermometer with a blood red fist. It’s a sneering, disdainful heat. A heat that stalks you with a knife in its teeth.

When I first came west from Ohio, I never expected to swoon for desert but that’s what happened. So naturally I can’t resist Death Valley because it may be the purest, most complete and certainly the most dangerous desert in existence. And yes, there are also mountains, canyons and even wetlands in the park. But let’s be honest—you don’t end up with the word “death” in your name because of pine-covered slopes and grassy meadows.

And if you think I’m the only one dim-witted enough to travel to the hottest spot on the globe in the middle of summer, you would be sorely mistaken. The park was packed. Folks travel from all over the world to brush up against the extreme, experience the biggest and baddest the world has to offer.

 

Death Valley Ultramarathoner. Photo by Roger Naylor.

Death Valley Ultramarathoner. Photo by Roger Naylor.

For serious edge junkies it’s not enough just to experience the blast furnace, they want to dive right in. I arrived in time to witness the most grueling footrace on the planet, the Badwater Ultramarathon. Every year in mid-July, a group of elite athletes run 135 miles across Death Valley from Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America up the slope of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States. Suddenly, my 4 mile hike didn’t seem quite so macho.

I came to Death Valley to experience the desert but something happened along the way. I fell in love with the diversity. At 3.4 million acres, Death Valley is the largest national park in the lower 48 states. Over the next few months, I sampled the staggering range of what this remarkable place has to offer.

 

The salt flats of Badwater Basin lap against rocky slopes of the Black Mountains. Photo by Brian Rueb.

The salt flats of Badwater Basin lap against rocky slopes of the Black Mountains. Photo by Brian Rueb.

I hiked through slot canyons and scrambled across rolling sand dunes. I poked around amid the crumbling remains of ghost towns, explored gaping volcanic craters and toured a lavish castle. I jeeped into backcountry so distant it felt like I tumbled off the edge of the world. I sat beside a waterfall eating dates grown just down the road. I dined on succulent salmon after golfing on the world’s lowest course. I watched the sun set in a fiery pool beyond craggy mountains and I watched a full moon rise, big and bossy, and splashing a liquid light across gleaming salt flats.

Hard to believe but before I started writing the book I actually wondered if I would find enough subjects to include. Ha! I must have been crazy from the heat. The possibilities are endless. Death Valley moved me in ways I never expected. The joint surprised even an old desert rat like me. Of all the wild country I wander in, all the national parks I visit, I never before experienced a silence so profound, an emptiness so complete or textures so seductive. Death Valley somehow makes the infinite intimate.

I tried to capture that sense of wonderment in the book, while providing all the information and background the reader needs to plan their trip. And of course we had to pack it full of oversize photos because everything in Death Valley is oversize. It turned out to be a really cool book for such a hot place. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a sun-blasted trail calling to me.

Death Valley: Hottest Place on Earth by Roger Naylor is now available.

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