“Doing” Death Valley: A Travel Memoir

January 29, 2014

in Travel Essays

  • SumoMe
Sun

(JMF1007 Flickr Photo)

Mad dogs.

Englishmen.

And nine-year-old kids from Seattle.

That’s who goes out in the noonday sun on a summer’s day in Death Valley.

Every child’s dream world came true when the Disneyland amusement park sprung to life in Anaheim, California on July 17, 1955.

During the two years leading up to that momentous event, my mother and I had lived in a rear apartment in the home of the Seattle family from whom we rented. After Disneyland opened its doors, that family moved to Seal Beach, California, on the coast, a short drive from Walt Disney’s “Magic Kingdom.”

In the summer of 1956, my parents, grandmother and I headed south to pay a visit to our former neighbors, Disneyland, and nearby Knott’s Berry Farm.

The Seattle-to-Seal-Beach leg of the journey took us down U.S. Highway 101, along the rain-sogged Oregon coast, and through now long-gone orchards south of San Francisco in what is known today as “Silicon Valley.”

But instead of returning home the way we had come, or traveling up California’s great Central Valley before crossing Oregon and eventually rolling into Washington state, we headed east across the Mojave desert to Death Valley, and on to Reno, where my parents wanted to make a gambling  “pit stop.”

Reno Sign

(Paraflyer Flickr Photo)

A family album from that era shows me posing for photos in Disneyland, and hanging out in the “Old West” section of Knott’s Berry Farm.

Disneyland

(Ray Tsang Saturnism Flickr Photo)

Although not memorialized by Kodak film, an image of Death Valley that was burned into my brain during that trip: A gas station thermometer that read 120 degrees in the shade.

A dripping-wet burlap bag of water, designed to slake the thirst of our car’s radiator if it began to boil over, hung from the hood ornament on the 1947 Cadillac that my stepfather owned when he married my mother.

Somehow, perhaps by resting in the shade drinking ice-cold soda pop from the gas station vending machine, Death Valley didn’t melt my brain that day. And I lived to tell about my 1956 travels through Hades-Above-Earth, and write about it today, nearly sixty years later.

Coke Machine 2

(Sodachest.com Photo)

We probably lingered for an hour or more, waiting for the temperature to begin to dip. I remember the shadows deepening as the car climbed west across the mountains, out of Death Valley to Lone Pine, and night falling as we traveled up Highway 395 to Reno.

Death Valley Hwy Sign 2

(Ken Lund Flickr Photo)

I knew from watching the TV series Death Valley Days, which ran from 1952 to 1970 and was hosted for a time by Ronald Reagan before he came Governor of California and later President of the United States, that crossing Death Valley could be a perilous, and perhaps fatal, trek.

The idea was to get in and out as fast as possible, without becoming a rotting carcass picked over by vultures and coyotes, leaving behind only your bleached bones to testify to your fool-hardy decision to tempt fate when the sun was at its zenith and hot air could quickly desiccate every part of your body.

In the summer of 1956, Furnace Creek, compared to all it around it, would have seemed lush and verdant, like my hometown of Seattle.  But at that time, and when I first returned to Death Valley decades later, summer was “low season” with only minimal visitor facilities operating. You could buy gas for your car, and overnight at Stovepipe Wells, but Furnace Creek would have been shuttered.

In years the years leading up to my last trip in February of 1998, winter and early spring were when most tourists arrived in Death Valley. If the timing of storms and the amount of rainfall was just right, the abundance of blooming wildflowers would dispel the notion that it were a completely lifeless place.

From atop the mountains on the west side of Death Valley, Furnace Creek stands out like a huge gardener’s green thumb. A swatch of emerald cascades down the hills to the east, spills across the highway, heads east beyond the motel with its Olympic-size outdoor swimming pool, through a grove of palm trees, and past the golf course and air strip before disappearing into the desert sands.

Furnace Creek Palms

(Ken Lund Flickr Photo)

On either side of this wide, lawn-like patch nourished by life-giving water flowing underground, there is nothing but dun-colored rocks. Furnace Creek is an oasis in an otherwise arid landscape.

Death Valley Brown Rocks

(Bust It Away Photography Flickr Photo)

Death Valley was still denominated a National Monument in 1956. In 1994, it was a full-fledged national park with visitor facilities run by a park concessionaire.

In some U.S.national parks, concessionaire employees migrate like waterfowl from jobs in one park to those in another. When I went to Everglades National Park in late March of 2000, winter was already becoming summer and many workers were packing their bags, ready to “close up shop” and mosey northward to places like Yellowstone or Yosemite.

One night at dinner at Furnace Creek during my last trip, the waiter mentioned that this was his last season at Death Valley. After he and his wife quit their “day jobs” some years back, they took wintertime jobs at Death Valley, leaving for work at parks in the eastern or mid-western states when the days became too hot and Furnace Creek shut down for the year.

But by 1998, European visitors had begun to relish the thought of being fried alive in June, July and August. And so the park concessionaire planned to operate Furnace Creek year-round, turning what had been seasonal-only jobs into ones requiring employees to decamp in the desert for months on-end, something our waiter and his wife were unwilling to do.

In the summer of 2013, tourists flocked to Death Valley to have their photos taken next to thermometers showing record-high temperatures in the park. And as the mercury rose, the park’s rangers dissuaded visitors from trying to discover if it really is possible to “fry eggs on the sidewalk.”

Mad dogs.

Englishmen.

Nine-year-old kids from Seattle.

And short-order cooks frying eggs just the way you like them.

That’s who goes out in the noonday sun on a summer’s day in Death Valley.

(Click here to read more about Dick Jordan’s 1956 journey and other road trips with his stepfather.)

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