The American West is littered with literal place names. Big Rock, Black Rock, Lone Pine, Big Pine, Topaz Lake, Big Bear Lake, and a thousand others. All describe the most distinctive feature of each place, and a lack of imagination of the person naming them. It has to be assumed that Death Valley got its name for similar reasons. Having visited, it’s easy to see why. This is not a place to take lightly, even today.
The legend is that in 1849 two groups with around a hundred wagons, heading to the California Gold Rush, took a wrong turn into Death Valley. Unable to find a route out after weeks of stumbling around, they were forced to kill their oxen and burn some of their wagons to cook the meat. All their wagons gone, they eventually walked out of the valley. It was then that a woman in the party is alleged to have looked back and said, “Goodbye Death Valley”.
The name stuck and was popularised in a book written by one of the survivors. To underline the dangers of the place, inside Death Valley names are also synonymous with the suffering and struggles of the first Europeans to see it: Badwater, Furnace Creek, Saline Valley, Burned Wagons Camp. It’s a ferociously inhospitable place, where the highest temperature on earth was recorded, a mere 134 °F or 56.7 °C.
We had a small slice of our own Death Valley misery driving from Eureka Dunes on a rough gravel road that had formed a washboard surface. Forty miles of Death Valley Road washboarding, and near permanent bone rattling, mind numbing misery.
It’s a pretty amazing journey regardless, passing through some incredible scenery without seeing another vehicle. Dotting the landscape are the signs and sites of former mines, and occasionally you’ll see bits of machinery and buildings on hillsides. At one point we reached a real landmark on the road, Crankshaft Junction. Here you can turn left to Gold Point or right to Death Valley.
Crankshaft Junction marks a remarkable stretch of the road, it travels straight as an arrow for perhaps 15km. It’s an extraordinary experience, although the washboard road was a killer. A small lifetime later the washboard finally gave way to a smooth paved road when we joined the Ubehebe Crater Road.
We’d been on the road for a long time, and the sun was beginning to set as we reached Highway 190 and drove into Stovepipe Wells. We were hot, dusty and shaken not stirred, but some air conditioning and a cold beer in the hotel bar quickly revived us. We had dinner and did some star gazing before getting an early night. We had plans for the morning.
Having missed the sight of sunset over the fabled Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes the evening before, I clambered out of bed before sunrise and headed the short distance down Highway 190 to where you can walk into the dunes. Watching the sun rise over the dunes and illuminate the mountains behind was magical. The highest of the dunes is only around 100 metres, but they extend over a huge area.
Walking through and up the dunes reveals their true nature. Wide half moon shapes curve magically up into the air. As the sun rises, their colour changes from reds to oranges and then to a silvery white. It was brilliant but, with the sun risen, the temperature also rises, and being stuck in the middle of some sand dunes is no place to be. I headed back to Stovepipe Wells ready to explore some more of Death Valley…
* The line comes from The Charge of the Light Brigade, a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson