7 November 2012 Our first morning in Death Valley we wake up to the sound of activity outside. A gentle chattering of voices, and someone doing a mike check. We're on the ground floor, and our door opens onto a field, which is already bustling. Soon enough, there's a small band tuning out some wonderfully cheerful country music. With the sun shining in, and a gentle breeze tugging at the curtain, the day doesn't take long to pull us outside. Death Valley was first officially discovered in 1849, when a bunch of prospectors en route to the gold fields in California thought they had stumbled across a shortcut. Unfortunately Death Valley is nothing of the sort. The national park these days comprises nearly 3.4 million acres of desert wilderness, and is definitely not what you could call hospitable. Death Valley is a long, narrow basin 282 feet below sea level. The combination of the sparse plant life, dry air and being flanked by high mountain ranges mean the valley rarely cools down. It holds second place for the highest temperature recorded in the world, at 134 degrees fahrenheit (56 degrees celsius).
Two to four thousand years ago there was a 30-foot lake in the valley, but all that remains today is a thick layer of salt on the valley floor, known as Badwater Basin. From a distance it looks like water, and there even is water a short distance below the surface, but this isn't the kind of water you want to be drinking. Those early pioneers had it hard - many of their horses died along the way, and the wagons were near to impossible to move through the mountain passes. The valley floor is nothing more than a barren wasteland. The pioneers did miraculously survive - by the efforts of one of their number who went ahead to find help, while the rest, too sick and too tired to carry on, waited behind.
Today, those '49ers are still celebrating their survival - we were lucky enough to be there while their annual reunion was going on, and were treated to art, costume and antique fairs and shows. The Furnace Creek Ranch was bustling.
How cool is that? Today the valley is a very different place from all those years ago when those pioneers struggled across it - there are tarred roads, signposts, and refreshing saloons. There was even a pool at our ranch - something you definitely don't expect to see in a desert! It might be a barren wasteland, but it is beyond beautiful. Death Valley completely kicked the Grand Canyon's ass.
We spend the day visiting a few of the tourist spots - old abandoned mines, great views of the valley, the salt pan and an unbelievably twisty road known as Artist's Drive.
8 November 2012 We drive out of Death Valley after one last yummy lunch at the 49er Cafe - this place serves up some good grub considering its in the middle of nowhere! The road runs like a long stick of liquorice lain out across the landscape, left in the sun to melt, so that it forms perfectly to the ground, dipping and diving over the once-molten earth. Reaching the next valley basin, we turn due south, straight into the sand. It feels like it's raining down on us, the road is barely visible, as the sand grains bristle up against the car.
All good things come to an end right? We reach our last destination (for now), mount endless trips back and forth from the car to gather the myriad of road trip possessions we now seem to own, and do our best to fool ourselves, and our hosts, that we really do not have that much stuff. Never mind the other full suitcase that's due to arrive from New York by post next Friday. We'll keep that on the down low for now. Shhhh.