The Badlands of Death Valley spread like crystallized sugar for miles toward the horizon. The ground stretched, dried cracks like wrinkles on a spinster’s face pulled outward, trying to connect to anything within its grasp. A fine dust covered the earth in places, kicked up by the occasional hot breeze. My throat stiffened with each breath.
If a place could be a hyperbole, then Death Valley would win. it is the hottest, driest and lowest point in the United States, and by any common sense accounts, those things would make it a nightmare to visit. It is a place where a person can sweat profusely without showing any signs of moisture depletion. A place where lips stay chapped and hands are void of moisture. A place where most living things have escaped or died out, never to return to such a harsh environment.
At Badwater, 282 feet below sea level, I drain my water bottle, eager to refill it when I get the chance. A murky puddle is roped off, a delicate ecosystem that can easily be damaged by wandering feet. Along a short walk into the desert landscape, we find yet another puddle called Devil’s Hole, where a few pupfish swim in it. The fish has lived in isolation in Death Valley for an estimated 25,000 years, surviving and thriving in water that is 93 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the evening, a short rainstorm moves in, dropping a few scattered sprinkles across our picnic table and campfire. In its wake, the scrub grasses look just a bit perkier than before the rains. In the springtime, arguably the best time to visit Death Valley, the rains bring the oasis to life, and desert flowers pop up in canary yellow, royal violets and Crayola red. They last while the rains do, then hunker down through the heat of the summer.
During the day, we venture off the paved road to dirt roads that lead to hiking paths. These paths lead to caverns and sand dunes and abandoned mining shacks. Occasionally a lizard skitters out of our way. Every once in awhile a bird flies overhead. Many people are surprised to learn that there are 51 species of native mammals living in Death Valley National Park, and while we don’t see any bighorn sheep or mountain lions, we hear coyotes in the distance. Almost anything living finds shade when the sun is out, but footprints in the sand and feathers that have been shed are evidence of living creatures.
Death Valley goes on for hundreds of square miles and is one of the largest national parks in the United States. We drive, the horizon never getting closer, the temperature rising outside. On the west side of the park, the road climbs in elevation and we find ourselves among bristlecone pine and other sub-alpine species. After the searing heat of Badwater, we find ourselves scrambling for warmer clothes and anything to cover bare skin. Hiking trails lead toward Telescope Peak, located 11,049 feet above sea level, and before long we’re trekking in flurries.
Stopping at a saddle in the trail, we look out at the dry, desolate land below while shivering beneath our poorly chosen clothing. Life is all around us, if we choose to look beyond Death Valley’s reputation.
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