Into the Valley of Death


It’s 11am on a very hot morning. I’m in Death Valley, the national park that reaches out from California to Nevada. They call it a park but I’ve never really understood why. There isn’t any nature here at all; just mile after mile of deserted nothingness. The sky is so blue that it looks faked. The thermometer reads 108°F and I’ve been told that it’s going to get hotter.

On the other side of the road it’s looking at me, I can feel it. I think it’s suffering from the heat. It’s craving some rest. The silver Ford Mustang convertible is mad at me. I stopped 30 minutes ago and just one car has passed by in that time. Going in the opposite direction, by the way.

That is one great car to cross a desert in. A quintessentially American muscle car in the American desert; although I must concede that the engine is made in Germany, and the gearbox is French, and the stereo is Japanese, and the tyres are Italian. All technological details aside, this is as American as you’re going to get, like driving an Aston Martin in Britain, or a Fiat 500 in Italy.

There is something surreal about driving on a straight road in the middle of the desert; you don’t know where you’re going, you lose an awareness of time and space, you can almost see the curvature of the earth. After a while I reach the road sign that tells us we’re going in the right direction: Welcome to Death Valley National Park. I still don’t understand why they call it a park. A couple cuddling on a bench, ducks swimming in small lakes and lots of green and leaves; this is what springs to mind when I think of a park. All I’ve seen here is a ground squirrel, stones and a rotund man smoking a cigarette beside his truck.

Death Valley stretches for 160 miles, or at least that’s what the guidebooks say. It looks like it’s much longer than that. My first stop: Zabriskie Point. It’s a sort of huge raised natural square, a vantage point for the marvel of rocks shaped by the wind. If you ever happen to go to Death Valley you must stop at Zabriskie Point. Not doing so would be like going to the South of France without enjoying a glass of wine.

After having parked my car, I can’t help but notice a group of Italian tourists emerging from an enormous bus, and judging by their faces and shirts I can only assume it is actually hotter inside the bus than it is outside. Thank God I rented a car. It’s almost 2pm, the temperature has risen and it’s now grazing 112°F.

I really struggle to leave the natural beauty before me, but my trip must proceed. I don’t have a road map, I’m not following any particular path, but I’d read in the hotel the night before something about a place called Badwater, the lowest spot of the Valley, some 282 feet below sea level. I want to go there.

The further and deeper I drive into the Valley, the lower I go, the more unbearable the heat becomes. Every 100 yards I can spot a sign that reminds me to turn the air conditioning off and that it’s hot. I swear I wouldn’t have noticed if it wasn’t for the signs. In fact I’ve never turned the air conditioning on and I’ve driven with the top down ever since I got going this morning. The thermometer now reads 118.

Badwater is a natural lake. Well what’s left of it, it evaporated a long time ago and now all you can see are puddles and salt flats. The skin of my arm is burning; I could actually fry some eggs on it. I’m running low on water too, the only half a bottle I have is now like hot milk. I’m also running out of petrol and during the trip I’ve only found one petrol station, and frankly I can’t even remember in which direction it was. Perhaps it’s time to head home.

I can’t be 100% positive, but I’m almost sure that when I finally find a petrol station and turn the engine off, the car says “Next time you’re walking 200 miles with nothing to drink, you big daft utter idiot”. I can hear it gulp the petrol as I fill the tank.

Before going back to the hotel, though, I feel compelled to stop once again at Zabriskie Point; the sun is now setting and there will be no tourists around. I park the car again and walk up the hill that leads to the square. I sit and watch the Valley. I’m overhanging this natural work of art. Time seems to have stopped; I’m convinced that I’m in a part of a world that doesn’t actually exist. There I am. Witnessing what nature, God or whoever else you like, did.

I was trying to think about something else but there was nothing that could compete with that amazing sight, so I decided for a moment, not to think of anything.

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