July 22, 2014 – Death Valley
About three weeks ago, over the July 4th weekend, I decided to take a trip out to Death Valley, a place, according to Wikipedia, which holds the record for the highest “reliably reported” air temperature in the world which was 134 degrees.
Given that it was the middle of summer, it is fair to say that a number of people questioned the sanity of my judgment to drive out to the desert and wondered why, if I had a free weekend, I wouldn’t have decided to stay home and enjoy the beach in Southern California.
The truth is, I hadn’t been to Death Valley in over 23 years and thought it might be an interesting place to take my camera, my new light-weight carbon fiber tripod, and shoot some pictures of the desert during, what arguably might be, the hottest time of the year.
I had originally planned to go by myself but at the last minute, a good friend decided to join me for the two-day journey despite knowing that I would be stopping constantly to try and capture something interesting with my camera.
We got on the road at about 6am, taking the 14 freeway through Mojave and then headed up to the entrance to the park, taking the non-traditional route driving up through the Searles Valley which, in part, is filled with old towns that now show signs of virtually being ghost towns.
We arrived at the Park and headed to the large sand dunes in the middle of the day where the temperature in the car showed that it was 117 degrees outside. There was a light breeze blowing through the flats, which probably made the temperature feel a little closer to 125 degrees. After taking a few photos in what was unbearable heat, we headed to Furnace Creek (an appropriate name) where we would spend the night. On arriving at the hotel, we were shocked to learn that the hotel was running at 80% capacity and that by the end of the following week would be almost at full capacity. Apparently this is a popular time of year for Europeans to come and visit the park.
After a swim in the pool, where the water was surprisingly pleasant, we decided to grab a quick bite to eat before heading out for some afternoon hiking. From the time we decided to take a shower and head to the restaurant/bar at the hotel, a sandstorm started to blow creating extremely limited visibility, certainly not ideal for taking pictures and hiking. The barman said that it was only the second time since he had been in Death Valley that he had seen a storm of this veracity.
In the hope that the storm would blow through within a reasonably quick period of time, we headed in the direction of the storm deciding that this would be the area that would hopefully clear first and were pleasantly surprised after about 20 minutes that the sky did start to clear. We were heading in the direction of “Badwater” which is the lowest point in North America, when a ranger forced us to pull off to the side of the road and tell us that we would have to get off the highway as there were flash flood warnings that could generate massive amount of rain and flooding in the space of an hour.
We did eventually get to see the lowest point, and an area called “Devils Golf Course” and hiked up the short path to Zabriskie Point which offers spectacular views of the desert especially late afternoon and first thing in the morning when, if you are lucky as a photographer, you can catch the “golden hour” of sunlight.
The next morning we hiked below Zabriskie Point starting at around 7am and were confronted by two hikers who had just found a dead body on the trail. It seemed that a hiker had passed out from heat exhaustion, possibly with a lack of water, and then never recovered. Several days later, the papers reported that it had been one of the English actors from “Harry Potter”. This tragedy made me reflect that I would have been foolish to have hiked or even travelled out into the desert alone. Apart from the fact that in many places there is no cell phone coverage, if you are hiking and were to twist an ankle so that you couldn’t hike any further, it could be days before someone finds you with the outcome not particularly positive.
When I first thought about shooting pictures of the desert, I wasn’t sure, given the hazy light conditions what I would find but if you are patient and look carefully, especially in the later afternoon or early morning when the sun can create some wonderful shadows, there is great beauty in the desert, even when the temperature is 117 degrees that is definitely worth seeing!
(Photos taken in Death Valley – July 5 and 6, 2014)