Death Valley

In these days of global warming, I thought I’d visit the hottest place on earth….. (although obviously arranging to do so in winter, rather than summer!). The current record-holder is a 1913 reading in Furnace Creek, California — within Death Valley — where it reached 134.1 degrees F (56.7 degrees C) on July 10th of that year. There was a slightly hotter reading in Libya in 1922, but that was decertified by the World Meteorological Organization a few years ago. Although some folks dispute the Death Valley reading as well, any place that has 154 consecutive days above 100 degrees F (38 degrees C) — as happened in 2001 — gets pretty damn hot!

Salt flats at Badwater basin

I headed over from Owens Lake (see posting below) to catch the sites. Not only is Death Valley the hottest place on earth, it is also the lowest & driest of all the U.S. National Parks. Badwater basin marks the lowest point in North America, at 86 meters (282 ft.) below sea level, and the salt flats there — making the water undrinkable — gave the place its name.

Zabriskie Point is another well-known Death Valley landmark…. & I’m old enough to remember the controversial 1970 movie with the same name. That movie offered a European view of American violence, capitalism (paving the desert with housing developments) and the 1960s counterculture…. made by a highly-regarded Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni. I had never seen it, & decided to check it out — knowing in advance that its young protagonists used Zabriskie Point to do what young protagonists often do in Italian movies. Despite such promising themes; and despite Sam Shepard being listed as a contributing screen writer; and despite an early (un-credited) appearance by Harrison Ford in a prison lockup scene (although I couldn’t find him); and despite the film now having a certain, limited ‘cult’ status…. I’m more inclined to agree with the critic who wrote: “the worst film ever made by a director of genius.”

But I’ll admit that the scenery in it — both the movie & reality — is stunning!

Zabriskie Point

Finally, my thinking about Death Valley has been influenced — like so many other Americans — by Death Valley Days, a TV western (& Ronald Reagan’s last acting gig), that was sponsored by 20 Mule Team Borax (a cleanser). The history of collecting & processing borate crystals in Death Valley is somewhat complicated, but two things caught my attention: first, the Harmony Borax Works was an early operation, and its relics are still evident in Furnace Creek (see photo below). It pioneered the use of 20 mule teams to haul the product to the rail junction at Mojave, and that later became a major marketing feature for its successors; and second, not surprisingly, Harmony & other firms had trouble finding recruits to work in the blistering temperatures in Death Valley….. & so they ended up relying upon Chinese laborers. There’s a picture of Chinese workers raking borax from the Valley floor at Harmony in the 1892, and that’s also how nearby China Lake (home of the Rhode Island-sized Naval Air Weapons Station) got its name.

Harmony Borax Works and 20 Mule Team wagons

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