The plan was to camp at Furnace Creek, the point holding the record for highest recorded temperature on earth. We pulled into the parking lot at the Furnace Creek ranger station close to six in the evening, and the thermometer out front read ninety-eight degrees. We caught the ranger just in time; he was just closing up. He told us that the Furnace Creek campground was closed, apparently due to flooding. He sent us to Texas Springs instead, maybe a half-mile away, and told us we could camp up for free.
When we pulled in to the site that looked like it had the most shade, there was only one other group of campers there. The Texas Springs campground was as nice as any in the Valley, I suppose… perched on a west-facing hillside, it was a patch of well-maintained pebble strewn ground ringed with mesquite trees. There was a trench dug into the ground behind the campsites, presumably to divert flood waters. The ground was so hard that even with a rock cupped in my hand, I could only drive the tent stakes halfway into the ground. They were predicting more storms, so I wanted to make sure the tent didn’t roll over on me in the night.
We heated some sausages in my cast iron skillet on Phil’s tiny propane camp stove, and ate potato salad with our fingers. We each drank a couple of the beers that we had bought back in Tonopah. It was hot… so hot that a swallow of cold beer seemed to evaporate as it poured over your heart, never reaching your belly at all, but leaving vapors that drifted upward and stung your brain in that delightful way. The wind in the valley played chords on our open bottles.
The sunset in Death Valley was an amazing thing… it was slow, but active. The light seemed to change every time I blinked, moving across the hills and peeking from behind clouds in glorious spreading rays. The quality of the light changed moment by moment as well, to the point that it seemed that the earth itself was moving. A living thing, swelling and falling as though with long, slow breaths.
That night, the ground that had spent so many hours baking in the sun bled heat upward into my tent. The rain fly prevented much circulation, and the tent was an oven. The sleeping bag beneath me was damp with sweat when I woke up at around two in the morning. Restless, I pulled a shirt on and unzipped the front of the tent.
I don’t know what I was expecting, some kind of cooling breeze or something… it was cooler outside, but only by a few degrees. I lit a cigarette and looked up at the sky, with all its multitude of stars. So many stars that parts of the sky looked smudged with all of them. A falling star streaked across the sky. The night was silent; there were no crickets or cicadas.
I woke up early the next morning, remembering having dreamt of coyotes and knowing that I had dreamt of them because I’d heard them singing. They sounded so close.
The sun crested the hill as we were breaking camp, and within mere minutes the temperature started to climb again. Sunrise painted the mountains to the west in layers of pink and magenta. We ate a breakfast of granola bars and bananas, and got back on the road, ever aware of the fact that we were still roughly twenty-four hours behind schedule.
The plan had been to take the highway south through to the other end of the park, and then head on to Mojave, but the highway was closed; washed out, apparently, by flooding. This was not too much of a surprise, on the way through the valley, we had seen several sections of valley floor filled with water, and had seen flooded areas like ponds in the open range land of Nevada.
Out at Badwater, the rain had dissolved the pretty, lacy crystals I’d expected to find and had left behind a few green brine pools in the salt. I walked out on the flats for as long as I thought was wise, ten minutes out and ten minutes back again, and even then I had little stars in my eyes from the heat. I wasn’t that devoted to marching out to try to find the low point marker. Badwater is an incredibly isolating place once you’re out on the flats. Silent and seemingly endless, with the sun glaring at you from the sky and from the salt on the ground. The smell of the salt was stronger than I’d ever smelled before; a minerality one normally only expects in the background.
The yellow gate with its road closed sign was just to the south of Badwater, so we turned around, headed north and eventually east, to leave the park near Zabriskie Point. A member of the park staff had told us that the road was blocked by a debris flow as deep as your waist. I fumbled with the map to find the best alternate route.