Magazine article Sunset

The Hotter They Come: A Hundred Years of Triple-Digit Temps Can't Keep the Daring Away from Death Valley

Magazine article Sunset

The Hotter They Come: A Hundred Years of Triple-Digit Temps Can't Keep the Daring Away from Death Valley

Article excerpt

I APPROACH THE WORLD'S hottest acreage through the scrim of the six o'clock news story I imagine--the abandoned vehicle, the grim-faced reporter, hopefully some weeping loved ones. Theirs would be that puzzled kind of grief: "Seriously? Death Valley at the height of summer?" I'm feeling puzzled myself. The dashboard thermometer reads 112[degrees]--and it's only 11 a.m. I keep rolling down my car window and quickly rolling it up again, unable to believe the heat is as intense as it is. Leaden and dry, it doesn't feel like a condition so much as an error, a switch set wrong. I pull into a gas station and buy all the bottled water I can carry. The cashier does not openly mock me. Maybe she pities the burden of my paranoia. Maybe she is simply pacing herself for a season full of crazies.

I drive and drive until the nothingness all around becomes official, per a smallish sign by the side of the road. Death Valley National Park--the largest in the Lower 48--is entered with suspiciously little ceremony. You know these Si million acres are remote. You do not feel they're remote until you witness the helpless scanning of your car radio, underscoring what no road map can: You've left somewhere and entered nowhere. To my left and right: distant canyon walls. Ahead: distant canyon walls. Drive a half-hour and the distance doesn't change. And then you see Them.

Busloads of them, literally, voluntarily rising from comfy seats and trudging through the oven air up to Zabriskie Point, a popular vista overlooking the parched, fabriclike wrinkles of the Amargosa Range. I park the car and trudge after my fellow travelers. Of all the dramatic views on this searing plain, Zabriskie Point is the most breathtaking. I fall into conversation with Soren and Signe, a young couple from Copenhagen. They're fit and blond, each with a set of impossibly sparkly eyes. What on Earth are you doing here? I ask politely.

Because the strange truth about Death Valley is that the savage temperatures are a siren, not a deterrent. Summer here sees the mercury hit 120[degrees] and higher; by rights, the chuckwallas and whipsnakes should have the place to themselves. Instead they watch a wave of sweat-soaked travelers descend on their park--and in larger numbers than at any other time of the year--not only undeterred by the beat but drawn to it. Of all the exotic species that roam these parts, we humans are perhaps the most curious.

Soren explains that they've come because they are fascinated by extremes. "Death Valley in the summer," Signe replies, a little no-duh. "It's like Paris in the spring. You have to do it then."

Over the next three days, my water-bottle collection and I wander the park, taking in the freakish beauty and the heat pilgrims who flock to experience it. For a place so American-looking--that Western palette, that frontier open-ness--I learn that actual Americans are in short supply here during summer. Europeans, however, can't resist the triple digits. Locals call winter "American season" and summer "European season." Sure enough, 95 percent of the people I meet have crossed an ocean to get here.

By 1 p.m., it's 114s[degrees] and climbing. I pull my car over on a gravel road outside of Stovepipe Wells, miles from tourist traffic. The sand dunes in the distance call out for inspection, and so I wander out to some nearby rocks, then a bit farther. Only later does it occur to me that I could've set forces of calamity into motion without ever knowing it. "Death by GPS" describes the trusting soul who relies on technology unequal to the park's remoteness. Just a few minutes too long, with perhaps an elevation change I hadn't noted, and I could've come to the wild realization that I was instantly and royally screwed.

Still, the region was inhabited for millennia without the whiff of doom. It was 19th-century prospectors who finally produced the morbid sobriquet, after a single fatality in their midst. …

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