I “did” Death Valley only haphazardly, and that was unfortunate because, for the sheer expanse and weirdness, Death Valley deserves one’s best attention.
I think I was recovering from emotional burnout, having just spent two weeks on the central California coast with my West Coast children. I camped across the street from my son’s community college. ($30/night. Yikes!), so he could stay with me. I hadn’t seen him for a couple years, so we hung out during breaks in his class and work schedule. I also took the train to San Diego to meet my daughters (one having flown in from NYC for a conference). That, too, was special and delightful as we planned a baby registry, and I felt my feisty grandson practicing field goals in his mama’s belly.
In these situations, leavingtaking is utterly wrenching. The weather mirrored my weepy frame of mind as I drove over the coastal mountains toward Bakersfield, literally encountering blasts of rain, hail, sleet, and driving snow as I topped the pass. None of it lasted long, so I kept moving east. East for the first time in months.
By the time I drove the long and lonely highway into Death Valley, I think I was too emotionally distracted to put much energy into exploring this last, massive desert in California. Another spoiler was the price of gas in the park. At $5.50/gal. I wasn’t motivated to drive my thirsty Durango too far afield.
Death Valley is different from the other major deserts I visited in southern California, each of which has a distinct character. It feels more massive—encompassing huge gorges and miles of rocky landscape where, literally, nothing grows. Its beauty lies in the varigated colors and contortions of the rock and in the oddities, such as Devil’s Golf Course. This vast landscape of salty hummocks is formed when underlying water is sucked up by capillary action and quickly dries, leaving dirt mounds topped by sharp salt crystals.
At 282 feet below sea level, Death Valley is the driest, hottest, and lowest spot in North America. (Although at -227, the Salton Sea is close.) But now it is April, and I am beginning to experience the killer heat that makes Death Valley famous. After a morning hike through the Golden Canyon, I sat out the rest of the day in the shade of my trailer until the sun set.
The next day I continued east, crossing the first state line since I came to California in December. It was only a white line across the highway with “Nevada” written below it.