What keeps me going back to Death Valley
What a beautiful, serene, solitary desert this one is. It is also the driest, hottest and largest national park. People have indeed died here although not in recent years.
My first trip to Death Valley was on a Thanksgiving weekend. We had started from Bay Area a little after ten. Nearly 12 hours later, we drove into Stovepipe Wells Village. They had given our room away. We had called at least twice that evening to let them know we would be arriving late!
Their first suggestion for us was rolling beds in a hall attached to the kitchen. Hello…are you even thinking? Their second suggestion that we agreed promptly to – an employee room. We slept in the back of the lodge in an employee’s bed that night. Of course we were given fresh linen, the room came free of charge and a free lunch was added to our stay to make up for our inconvenience.
We had seen so many photographs of the salt flats before but nothing had prepared us for it. It was stupendous. While the view from Dante’s Peak gives a complete view of the salt flats, it is the closeup that is enchanting. What is interesting is that it is a constantly changing landscape. The geometrical shapes change. Sometimes the edges of these shapes are crisper and more pronounced than at other times. At dusk, you can catch the shadows on these formations. And at noon, the whiteness of the flats take your breath away. It is like being surrounded by snowon a hot day. And it can get as hot as 130F. There is a badwater ultramarathon where people run from the salt flats, which is the lowest point in US all the way up Mt Whitney, the highest point in continental US – all of 135 miles. That is not all, they do it at 130F in the middle of summer. And then there are marathoners, who go up the mountain and then down the mountain and then up again – just for the heck of it.
On our second visit, we found crazy Marta of Amargosa. She is the good kind of crazy. Town of Amargosa used to be the center of activity in the old mining days. Nearly abandoned now, time has stood still at Amargosa Opera house and hotel. It is probably not a place to stay if you are expecting a comfortable hotel experience. It is like an old machine that creaks a lot and barely get the job done. Marta was a Broadway artist who fell in love with the Amargosa and adopted it in 1967. She revived the opera house and gave her first performance in 1968, a tradition she continues to this day. She no longer performs regularly, only on Saturdays.
On yet another visit, we found ourselves looking at nothing in the ghost town of 23 Skidoo. This town was at its height between 1906-1907 and had petered out by 1917. It was the longest standing and most productive mining town in Death Valley! Now there is nothing. Just some broken beer bottles and chicken wire covered holes in the ground – presumably old mine shafts. On this particular trip, we nearly didn’t make it out of Death Valley. We had a rented Ford car. At Stovepipe Wells Village, the car thought it could go 120 miles before it needed refueling. After 10 miles of driving uphill, it claimed it had only 30 miles left. Sure enough, it had only 30 miles left. We barely made it to the gas station on Hwy 395. Moral of that story is – always get a full tank before departure. Or is it – never rent a Ford.
On these numerous trips, we have done the usual touristy drives, poked around the old mining knick-knacks in its museums, gone on short hikes on its Martian landscape, seen the stars at night, and bought T-shirts with catchy slogans like “Hike or Die”. And still we haven’t done so many things we really want to do there. What would it be like when the mercury reads 130F? How would it be to watch the ultramarathoners? Is the valley as pretty as they say it is when carpeted with wild flowers? How about camping? And, walk the rim of Ubehebe crater? Surely, we have to make it to Amargosa on a Saturday to watch Marta perform pantomime horse.
Travel Notes: It is a crazy drive from Bay Area. And a reasonably tiring one from Southern California. Best option is to fly to Las Vegas and rent a car. Be sure not to rent a Ford. It is a bare 2 hour drive from Vegas. Death Valley is an impossibly large park. So, one can either stay at the center, Furnace Creek, and spend long hours driving. Or alternately, break up the trip in several and explore regions around your hotel e.g. Amargosa, Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells and Beatty.