Over the past week and a half, we had been steadily traversing the US on ‘The Mother Road’ (better known now as Route 66) – starting in Chicago and driving into the sunset towards Santa Monica. But before we reached the west coast, Dad wanted to take us to Death Valley. He had been before over 30 years ago and nowhere else had left such a long-lasting impression.
Location: Death Valley, California
Words & Photography by Katherine Heath | @wildgreyskies
A slight detour from America’s famous Route 66 led us across the Californian border into a place so far removed from the California that the Beach Boys sing about that it was hard to believe we were in the same state. It’s easy to forget that California is mostly desert. Those surf towns we hear so much about make up a tiny percentage of this well-known state. Miles of seemingly never-ending road stretched out in front of us, hazy in the midday sun and unnervingly empty–the silence was impossible to ignore.
We slowly climbed just over 7000ft before descending into the infamous dust bowl disconcertingly known as Death Valley. The heat rose steadily showing no signs of stopping until our temperature gauge read 118°F (48°C) as we reached our destination – Furnace Creek. It is said that the highest atmospheric temperature ever recorded on earth was recorded in Furnace Creek, which is 190ft below sea level, on 10th July 1913 and hit a terrifying 134°F (56.7°C). Dad mentioned that the last time he was here he had slept in the car. That must have been similar to settling down for the night in an oven!
To me, this is an environment that deserves our utmost respect. Like the sea, it is impossible to control and it would be disrespectful for us to even try. Danger lurks only a broken-down engine or a misread weather report away in this unforgiving landscape and we witnessed just how quickly things can go wrong shortly after we arrived.
We had only one night in Death Valley and spent our first afternoon exploring as much as the smothering heat would allow. Our first stop was at the entrance to a place called Golden Canyon where a short walk winds along the dried up riverbed and comes out at the famous Zabriskie Point. We decided just to see the beginning of the trail before heading back to the car – it wasn’t the right time of day for a hike. On our way back we came across a couple attempting the same walk with very little water and with clearly too much time spent in the sun already that day. The girl had collapsed and her partner was hopelessly trying to get her to stand up and get back to the road. They had only come 200ft, if that, but were ill prepared. They had a lucky escape. We helped carry the girl back to their car where they had water and were able to cool down. Thankfully the valley did not live up to its name on this occasion but it just goes to show how a lack of respect for this merciless place could be fatal.
After an unexpectedly dramatic start to the afternoon, we made our way down to Badwater Basin via The Artist’s Palette. A narrow, one-way road winds itself amongst the aptly-named landscape following deep channels cut out by floodwater. Taking photos was a challenge as each time we slowed down too much the car immediately began to overheat.
Badwater Basin sits at 282ft below sea level making it the lowest point of Death Valley and North America. Fish still live in the saltwater pools at Badwater but the species differ from pool to pool due to variations in their evolution. I couldn’t quite believe it was possible for anything to live in these extreme conditions.
It must be the photographer in me but I couldn’t help but think it would be a crime to miss the sunrise when you are somewhere like Death Valley so we rose before dawn and drove to Zabriskie Point. The glow in that half an hour window between very first light and sunrise outdoes, in my opinion, any sunset. Zabriskie Point looks out over Golden Canyon and the peaks and troughs draw the eye towards the rocks on the other side of the valley. The viewpoint actually faces away from where the sun rises which was a little confusing, to begin with, but all became clear as the landscape before us transformed into a work of art. Dusty blues developed into glowing pinks demanding our attention – it was impossible to look away.
Death Valley, from the outside, appears an arid void incapable of supporting life but from an insider’s perspective tells a story of unique survival in what are, for most, unfathomable conditions. As we left an unexpected wave of disappointment engulfed my thoughts. I had not expected to fall quite so hard for somewhere I had not dreamed of visiting but Death Valley will forever hold a place in my heart.