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Read the full version of "At Play in the Valley of Death" in the Summer 1999 issue of ADVENTURE.
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    In the magazine
  At Play in the Valley of Death
By Robert Earle Howells

Excerpts from the Summer 1999 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ADVENTURE

It's 126 degrees [52°C] in the shade, and since I'm not in the shade, I'm the hottest damn fool on the face of the Earth. Have to be. It's the eighth of August, and no one else is walking out into the middle of the lowest, hottest place in Death Valley National Park, which is the lowest, hottest place in the Western Hemisphere. At, of course, the hottest time of day (about 4 p.m.), when the mirror-bright white salt-pan floor of the valley is blasting back a day's worth of absorbed heat. A 1,000-watt blow-dryer wind whirls up from the valley floor into my face, the glare maxes out my polarized shades, and I draw steadily on a 90-ounce [2.5-kilogram] Camelbak with lifeline urgency, as a diver to a tank of oxygen.

The miserable scenario is weirdly seductive. Simple curiosity, a sort of "let's watch the tsunami roll in" desire to add to my experiential quiver, had brought me this far. How hot could "hot" get? I'd singe myself briefly and then turn back. But this alfresco kiln is surprisingly alluring. I continue out across this pancake-flat spot called Badwater. Through the heat shimmers, I can barely see the tourists back at the roadside turnout making the dutiful pause at the photo-op sign—BADWATER: ELEV. -282 FT. [-86 meters]—the engines (i.e., air-conditioners) of their Avis-red cars still running. I walk about three miles [five kilometers] across the three-inch [eight-centimeter] patina of densely packed salt, which overlays a sea of thick mud (moisture trickles up from an aquifer). Every step yields both crunch and resilience; the sensation is pleasingly like walking across perfect chocolate-chip cookies (crunchy on the outside; soft in the middle). The only sign of life, sort of, is a windblown omnipresence of desiccated grasshopper hulls. The poor sots had touched down on the frying-pan earth once too often. I'm too infatuated to regard them as any more ominous than anything else here: the jigsaw patterns of the salt crust, or the wind that feels to the eyes like getting too close to a bonfire.

Summer in Death Valley has a ring to it like "winter in North Dakota" or "crawl space in the slimy depths of some bat-dung cavern 500 feet [152 meters] below the earth"—a place that any sane person would avoid. But hear this: I'm far from alone. The Furnace Creek Inn, my hotel, is full. Sixteen foursomes played 18 holes on Death Valley's golf course this morning—101 degrees [38°C] at tee-off, and rising. The visitor center is abuzz with tourists (all asking, according to park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg, the same three questions: "What can we see in one afternoon?" "What can we see without walking too far?" and "How hot is it?"). A digital thermometer behind the information counter answers number three, blinking between Fahrenheit and Celsius.

* * *

For my last evening in Death Valley I heed a Van Valkenburg tip and head into the sand dunes under a full moon. I walk a mile or so up and down 60- and 70-foot [18- and 21-meter] rises until I claim a perfect skybox under the heavenly klieg light. If you ever just want to do a little cogitating, or join Gaia in rapturous union, or just be way, way far alone, this is the place and the time. You probably won't be distracted by any kit foxes or sidewinders. You won't be distracted by anything. You'll see the world's brightest moon and a lot of sand, and it'll be 100 degrees F [38 degrees C], and you'll probably be the hottest damn fool on the dark side of the Earth.

Get the complete story in the Summer 1999 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ADVENTURE.


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