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A Few Days in Death Valley

April 15, 2020

When I jetted off to Las Vegas in February for a four-day photo expedition in Death Valley, I had no idea it would be the last trip I would take for the foreseeable future. So in week five of sheltering in place against the Covid-19 pandemic, this post will return me — virtually — to that remarkable place.

Most people know that Death Valley is one of the hottest places in the world, right up there with deserts in the Middle East. The hottest air temperature ever recorded there — and on earth — was 134° F in 1913. It’s also the lowest place in North America, with the salt flats of Badwater Basin sitting 282 feet below sea level. Four mountain ranges hem the valley in, accounting for the rarity of rainfall and extreme heat.

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It rained the day we went to Badwater, and the slick of water on the crystallized salt looked like ice or marble. I kept thinking I was going to slip and fall — until I saw a teenage girl prancing around in bare feet. We were all surprised by the rain, since the average annual rainfall is 1.5″.

Another morning we visited Dante’s Point at dawn and saw the Basin from above — in freezing winds that made it hard to keep the tripod steady.

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While summer temperatures give Death Valley its name, the early spring is lovely, with days in the 70s and nights in the low 50s. Unfortunately, we were too early to see the desert bloom.

The geology of the valley is beautifully dramatic, in a stark, almost other-worldly way. One of the weirder places we visited was the Racetrack, a perfectly flat dry lake about three miles long, surrounded by rocky mountains, reached by traversing a 27-mile rutted dirt and gravel road.

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The site is known for its sailing stones, rocks that are extruded from the mountains when ice sheets melt and are sent “sailing” across the playa, leaving a trail on the surface.

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In contrast to the unforgiving jagged rocks that dominate the landscape, near our hotel we explored a small set of dunes that softly undulate toward the surrounding mountains. I say small, because they can’t match Namibia’s gigantic red dunes, but they were significant, nonetheless, as you can see from the teeny tiny people walking along the crest.

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When I was a kid there was a TV show called Death Valley Days, sponsored by 20 Mule Team Borax, a detergent. Of course, I had no idea what borax was, or the significance of a twenty-mule team. But the Harmony Borax Works, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is the eerie remains of a 19th-century borax mining enterprise in Death Valley. Chinese laborers were paid about $1.25 a day to collect chunks of the mineral from the valley floor and load them onto these double wagons pulled by teams of twenty mules. This was the most efficient way to bring the product to market.

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Perhaps the most spectacular location was Zabriskie Point, a lookout we visited at sunrise one day. Some of the geological formations were created by ancient volcanoes. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Richard, our photographer leader, urged us to think black and white for these monochrome landscapes, but the colors were so rich and diverse that it seemed a shame to mute them. I did convert a few from this shoot, however.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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As our short stay wound down, my friend Terry and I took off in our rental Mustang (think Thelma and Louise) back to Las Vegas. Our last views of Death Valley were along Artists’ Drive, a one-way loop through the unique rock formations dubbed the Artist’s Palette. The vibrant colors come from oxidized metals. I can only imagine how spectacular this would be in early morning light, rather than the harsh afternoon sun.

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Until next time….

4 Comments
  1. This is incredible! I love the photo with the dappled light hitting the desert below. Thanks for sharing. I’ve indulged in some escapism in my latest post – reminiscing about my trip to the Philippines in February…

    https://literarylydi.wordpress.com/2020/04/16/the-philippines-cebu-city/

    Like

  2. Thank you. I read your interesting post about your trip to the Philippines — quite an adventure with your cab driver!

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  3. Your photos are stunning. I like the black and white conversions but I much prefer the colors. The landscape looks as though it was a dreamscape rather than real. Thanks for sharing!

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  4. Simply stunning Diana! Your photography actually had me feeling I was seeing the vistas first hand! Keep posting. 👍🏻📸

    Like

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