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Creek Running North

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August 01, 2005


The ranger assured me that there wasn't much difference between the temperature at Furnace Creek and that at Badwater, 20 miles south. Furnace Creek sits about 210 feet below mean sea level, and Badwater's only 72 feet lower than that, at -282 feet. the lowest piece of dry land in the Western Hemisphere.

So as the thermometer at Furnace Creek on Sunday informed us that it was 117 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, it was almost certainly no more than 118 or so in the shade at Badwater.

If there were shade at Badwater.

Which there was not.

One looks for metaphors to describe walking out onto the playa at Badwater, facing the dazzlng plane of white salt crystals that stretches for miles to the pediment of Telescope Peak. Sticking your face into broiler, walking too close to a blast furnace, that kind of thing. It was nowhere near as abrupt a threshold for me. I had foresight. I took the water jug from the back of the truck, drank a pint - at probably about 90 degrees, the water resisted being drunk, but I managed - and poured another two pints into my hat, which absorbed most of it. I then did the same with my shirt. Dripping, I felt almost refreshed as I walked down onto the playa to catch up with Matthew.

No, my entry into Badwater's hell was a gradual thing. It was a silly hike, a trivial one, no more than a quarter mile out into the flat salt and then back, easy enough that neither of us breathed hard. The sky was hot, and the ground even hotter. A billion crystal facets caught the torrid sun, reflected it straight at us. About a hundred paces out I realized that my shirt had been dry for some time. Another hundred and I felt sick to my stomach. "If I had to face this heat on a non-voluntary basis," I told Matthew, "I think it'd kill me inside of four days."

Out a quarter mile the playa floor is wet. We broke through the salt crust with each step. I found a hole in the crust: water two inches deep covered another layer of salt. Thin crystals rafted around on the open water like thickening rime on an Adirondack pond in November. The water is constantly replenished from artesian sources in the mountains to the east and west. It would have to be: the groundwater evaporates so quickly that it builds salt crystals as you watch. Old footprints in the salt, left a day or so, bear fresh, blinding white efflorescences of new salt crystals.

We had water with us. The truck was right there, shimmering a promise of air conditioned deliverance from Death Valley whenever we desired it, its interior temperature now likely 140. We were able to play with the heat, to measure ourselves against it or it against us. We took our time, lingered leisurely at the edge where the soil became too wet to walk without guilt. Six months ago this was a cool, appealing lake and I cursed myself for leaving my kayak at home.

It doesn't matter how fast you drive in heat like this. Stick your arm out the window of your truck as long as you can, and the wind will never make you feel cooler. At fifty-five miles per hour, doing so was painful after two minutes.

Posted by Chris Clarke at August 1, 2005 10:43 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Ayuh, but it was a dry heat.

Posted by: PZ Myers at August 2, 2005 05:39 AM
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You know, I'm so glad you do this sort of thing, because the way you write about it makes it fascinating and beautiful. And I never want to do it myself. 90 degrees makes me pretty much good for nothing.

Posted by: Stephanie at August 2, 2005 08:33 AM
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