It's a learning experience to see, and feel, the wild places. The Earth is the source of our water, our food, our material resources, and sometimes our inspiration. It's easy to take it for granted if we don't understand how it works. Which, in a nutshell, is why I teach, and why I take people to the wild places. And there are few places as wild and isolated as Death Valley National Park, the largest national park outside of Alaska.
visit the park every year, but they spend almost all their time at three places: Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and Scotty's Castle. They venture forth to Dante's View and Badwater, but invariably head back to the small outposts of civilization where they sleep in hotel rooms, RVs, or tents, and eat in the few restaurants. But there are those moments that people do experience a sense of the wild.
Badwater is one of those places where it is at least momentarily possible. People go there in droves because it is the lowest point in the western hemisphere (-280 feet; 86 meters), but they often step away from the parking lot and the interpretive signs and start walking onto the Death Valley salt pan, 110 square miles of barren salt and clay. It doesn't take but a few moments before the cars shrink to insignificance, and there is only the silence, or maybe just a bit of wind. Nothing lives there. One is standing in the bottom of a valley more than one hundred miles long with only a thin artery of pavement, and two little outposts of civilization thirty miles apart. It's about as close to the primeval Earth as one can be.
The salt and clay of the valley floor record two million years of climate change. Dry warm periods alternated with colder glacial ages that sent meltwater coursing down the Owens Valley, through China Lake, Searles Lake, Panamint Lake and finally into Lake Manly, the freshwater lake that once filled Death Valley to a depth of 500 or 600 feet. Mineralized lake deposits cling to the cliffs above Badwater.
Standing for a brief moment in the middle of nothingness can bring the incredible history of the Earth into sharp focus. But it's not long before our schedule tears us away from the solitude of the moment and we climb into the vehicles and move on towards the comfort of camp, and bathrooms, and dinner. In 1849, a band of travelers had a completely different experience. They were stranded in the valley for several months, having traveled an untested route to California's gold fields. Although only one of their party succumbed during the ordeal, the reputation of Death Valley as a dangerous place was set in stone. The dangers can be real.
It is the hottest and driest place on the continent. It is indeed the hottest place in the world. But in the right season, Death Valley is a delightful place to visit. And it is one of the best places in the world to learn geology in the most dramatic way possible. And a place where one can learn the value of solitude, for a little while at least.