Land of Great Extremes
If nothing else, Death Valley National Park sure has a catchy name. In 1849 gold rushers seeking a shortcut through the California desert dubbed the pass Death Valley, and the name stuck.
In 1913 Death Valley recorded the hottest air temperature ever at 135°F (56.9°C).
Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America at 279 feet (85 m) below sea level. Death Valley is the driest place in North America with an average annual precipitation of 2.4 inches, but you already knew all that. What you may not know is that Death Valley also claims the 11,043 foot Telescope Peak which is 3/4 the height of the tallest mountain in the Lower 48 States, Mt. Whitney (It’s interesting that Mt. Whitney lives only 85 miles northeast of Death Valley).
Odd as it may sound, there are a number of endemic species of plants, fish, rodents, and reptiles living within Death Valley.
They exist because they have evolved to fill a niche that other, less specialized animals can not. For these plants and animals the desert is essentially an island bordered by other species which would out compete them if they wandered too far.
I entered the park from the southeast stoping at Zabriskie Point before continuing north to Furnace Creek Visitor Center. The digital thermometer outside of the visitor center read 105°F.
There was heavy rain and localized flooding a few days earlier, and some of the roads I wanted to drive were still closed for repair. Artists Drive loop and the road down to Badwater Basin were both closed off. There’s always next time.
People are drawn to the physical challenge Death Valley presents.
The Badwater Ultramarathon is held each year in the middle of July when the average daytime high is 120°F. The course is 135 miles long, and it gains 8,600 feet of elevation from the depths of Badwater to the Mt. Whitney trailhead. The winner of the men’s division completes the course in approximately 24 hours.
I didn’t do much hiking through the park.
I had arranged to stay backcountry at the Panamint City ghost town, but I couldn’t bring myself to follow through with that plan. The park ranger strongly recommended that campsite because it’s one of the few hikes in the park which has consistent running water, but apparently that wasn’t enough for me. I could tell you that I decided against camping out there because the ranger said he saw four rattlesnakes on his last hike through, but the truth is at this point in my trip I was simply too strung out and homesick to put in the effort. However, I did muster the energy to drive out to the dusty little ghost town of Ballarat, population: Rock.
I was still debating if I was going to backcountry camp when I pulled into Ballarat.
Shutdown in 1917, Ballarat used to be a supply point for the mines in the Panamint Range. It is now a ghost town except for a single resident named Rock. I went back and retrieved my pen and notepad from the dashboard, and we said his name back and forth a few times before I wrote down what I knew I had heard.
For the last eleven years Rock served as caretaker of Ballarat. He manages a trading post stocked with beer, soda, chips, and candy. The walls are adorned with the sun bleached wood frame photographs of past caretakers. Hung above the photos was an NRA flag with the rallying cry “Stand and Fight” painted on it. No two of his chairs were the same, and they floated around the open floor without a table to belong to. Above the fridge was pin-up poster with a retro bikini and big hair.
I don’t think he gets too many visitors out there.
He insistently asked if I wanted anything to drink. Since he was patient enough with my note taking I conceded to buy a soda. The $3 price was only revealed after I had snapped the top. Perhaps feeling guilt-ridden he offered me a swig of the hard stuff before I left. Rock liked the desert, didn’t mind solitude, and didn’t like crowds.
“I’m happy summers over.. ‘cus of the heat. Yeah .. it’s hot .. and there’s nuthin.”
I don’t doubt it.
Side Note: Ballarat has some funny history to it. Apparently, in the 60’s Charles Manson lived nearby and left graffiti there, and it made an appearance in the movie Easy Rider and on the TV show Top Gear. Who knew.