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Death Valley
November 2007
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Death Valley
By Tim Cahill

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The valley wants to be a lake, but the heat and constant winds cause water to evaporate and leave behind a residue of minerals, mostly salts. The ground temperatures can rise to 200˚F (93˚C), and the earth itself is baked hard and flat, like concrete. But out toward the center of the valley, the would-be lake asserts itself. It is covered in only a very thin layer of minerals that would not hold my weight. I crunched through to lukewarm water and mud, sinking up to my calves, then my knees. It was like walking on crusted snow: With each step, you think the crust will hold, but when you put your full weight on it, you crash through. It was hard, sweaty work, postholing through the salty bog located in the lowest place in North America.

Worse, my mind was occupied with tall tales told by prospectors and desert rats. It was said that a team of horses or a man may have been swallowed up by the bog, never to be seen again. One fellow said he'd found a dead man, buried to the neck. "He was a Swede with yellow hair," the man said, "and he died staring at the sun. He sank standing up."

The stories are surely apocryphal, but the bog on that hot moonlit night seemed endless, and I kept thinking of the scalded and surely spurious Swede, staring at the sun.

"You want to go ahead?" I asked my partner.

"Shut up and walk," he said.

And so we did, eventually summiting Mount Whitney, which was a walk up. If we'd gone in the winter, it would have been a technical mountaineering expedition, which is why we walked across Death Valley in the summer.

At which time, according to Christopher C. Burt in his book Extreme Weather, Death Valley is "far and away the hottest location in North America." The valley's absolute maximum temperature of 134°F (57°C) the highest ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere and second only to a reading of 136°F (58°C) measured in Al Aziziyah, Libya. Because of the high July temperatures, however, Burt is willing to say that Death Valley is "perhaps the hottest place on the planet."

So my stroll across the valley wasn't as pleasant as it might have been in, say, February. The hot mud clung to my boots, and as the sun rose and the temperature approached 120°F (49°C), the boots baked themselves into odd punishing shapes. But the slopes of the Panamint Range were a revelation. I limped through labyrinthine canyons that gave way to mazes of strange, spooky rocks of the type Westerners call hoodoos.

On the upper slopes, there were green trees and small streams, even a waterfall. That kind of contrast in less than 24 hours of walking excited a wonderment in me. I wanted to go back and explore Death Valley when it was relatively cool, and that took 25 years.


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