Adventures from Back of Beyond

Friday, July 03, 2009

Furnace Creek

This was a road trip that wasn't especially pre-planned. While that does offer at least the possibility of finding some real adventure, the long lost art of adventure, lack of planning can also mean some unintended consequences.

On this trip, we explored during the day, stopping wherever and whenever we wanted, checking things out as we found them. We sought out serendipity, adventure; we slept basically wherever we ended up that night.

So it wasn't exactly our intention to spend a night in the hottest place on the continent during the hottest time of year. But that's the way it worked out.

Most of this trip was spent on the California coast. Cool, at times foggy. We headed east to the Cascades and high Sierras from there. Even in late June, we found plenty of snow on the highest peaks.

On this particular day, we dawdled until afternoon in high alpine meadows with crystal clear, cool bubbling brooks filled with trout. We found acres of colorful wildflowers amid the high green evergreen forests of huge and aromatic trees.

Then east we went, which from the Sierra Nevadas basically means directly down into the Basin and Range province, and quickly into one of the world's hottest deserts.

The transition is remarkably abrupt -- only about 80 miles separates Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the conterminous United States at 14,491 feet, from the continent's lowest point in Death Valley at 282 feet below sea level.

We found ourselves dropping into Death Valley at dusk. A beautiful scarlet-orange sunset lit up the sky. The lighting gradually transitioned to deeper shades of blue as we drove the unrelentingly steep downgrades the floor of the valley.

Temperatures, pleasant and comfortable in the 70s and 80s in the mountains, climbed just as relentlessly as we dropped in elevation. In complete darkness at 10 p.m. when we finally arrived on the valley floor, we got a 106 reading. That day in late June, the hottest time of year, Death Valley peaked at 121 degrees. The overnight low would stay in triple digits.

Step out of your air conditioned car, and bam! It's like walking into a hair dryer -- a stifling hot, extremely dry atmosphere envelopes and encloses you.

Life is basically intolerable at these temperatures. The place is basically uninhabitable by human beings, unless you somehow, someway adapt. Yet, startlingly, we found Death Valley to be remarkably full of life, and remarkably diverse at that.

For us, life at these temperatures basically means you move from one air conditioned space to the next. You travel by air conditioned car to get between air conditioned rooms. It's air conditioning 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

In a sense, extreme heat like this is more intolerable than extreme cold. Even in the coldest temperatures of the Antarctic, people can go outside and work, survive for extended periods if they have to, providing they have sufficiently warm gear to protect against the cold.

But in extreme heat, no amount of protective clothing will cool you off, unless you have some sort of air conditioned body suit. Even with sun protective clothing, the opposite will occur. You could walk around buck naked in fact and still the ambient air temperature will not lower sufficiently for your body to cool itself for survival. Being in Death Valley during the heat of the summer is almost like being in outer space, where one is 100% dependent on an artificial environment for survival.

I found this fascinating. And as always, the people were the most fascinating part.

We were fortunate to find availability at the appropriately named Furnace Creek Inn. The pretty young woman who checked us in, for instance, had wild strawberry blond hair, obviously dyed, and beautiful blue eyes. What kind of summer would she have, knowing you basically can't go outside for more than a few minutes? But she seemed happy enough. In fact all the staff there, and there were plenty, seemed happy enough, and went about their work busily.

We checked into a cute little yellow cabin with a sheet metal roof. A large wall mounted air conditioner blew cold air steadily. It never turned off. Ran 24/7. We also needed the service of the large ceiling fan in that little room to move the air around as well.

With those in operation, we were comfortable in our little cabin, and slept soundly.

Next morning I made the rounds early. Basically, you've got to be out by the crack of dawn and done by 9 or 10 a.m. before it goes from miserably hot to intolerably hot.

We had breakfast in the busy dining room of the Inn. I expected it to be empty, but the place was jumping with people, amazingly. Which brought up the question -- who, besides us, would actually want visit this hellhole in summer?

Europeans would, strange as that may seem. We found mostly Europeans on holiday, and eager to experience something they probably never could back home -- 50 degrees celsius.

I first talked to some Germans in the swimming pool. Furnace Creek has a great pool, a large lap pool, sparking clean and spotlessly maintained, fed by warm natural spring water. In late June, you might say hot natural spring water, but the water was very refreshing. They were enroute from Las Vegas to Lake Tahoe. Death Valley is "on the way."

In the dining room we heard many languages, including various English accents.

We used the morning to explore the park, which, not surprisingly, is far more conducive for interesting hikes and drives during the winter. At Zabriskie Point, for instance, one of the very best and most scenic views of Death Valley, to minimize exposure I ran from the car up to the point and back, sweating profusely, but confident I would soon be cool enough back in the air conditioned car.

Such is the experience of the heat of the lowest desert in the hottest part of the year. Although this trip was mostly to cool, wet, pleasant destinations like mountain meadows and coastal beaches, Death Valley during the extreme heat was one of my favorite places.