Death Valley National Park, the place where all things come to die. Just kidding, but I know what you’re thinking: there’s nothing out there. And technically, that’s a valid concern. There really isn’t anything out there, unless you’re with someone who knows exactly what to look for.
Cue Scott Rivers from Big Horn Hummer Tours and the Lone Ranger theme song. He hopped out of the truck at 6 a.m. wearing a cowboy hat, a belt buckle and a smile. The Hummer itself is anything but inconspicuous; it’s painted to look like the American flag. “This should be good,” I said to myself.
Our first stop was Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park. That name probably won’t mean anything to you, but you may recognize it as one of the filming locations for “Star Wars.” At 8 a.m., it felt about as isolated as the Tatooine Desert. That is until a Wolf Blitzer look-alike came running up the 45 degree incline in Birkenstocks with more enthusiasm than a tweaker on Fremont Street.
“All this time I thought my MacBook was impressive with all its semiconductors, but nature is mind-blowing.” I have no doubt his breakfast came in a little plastic baggy, but he was right. It was pretty cool. The jutting terrain was mixed in burnt and bleached stripes against a cerulean sky.
We stopped at the welcome center to “visit the porcelains” as Scott put it, to take advantage of the last little bit of modern amenities that didn’t involve digging your own hole and filling it with sand. By the way, you may as well put your phone on airplane mode otherwise you’ll be as annoying as the Verizon Wireless guy. You really are in the middle of nowhere so save your battery for the cool photos you’ll want to take.
We faced a few staring tourists as we got back into the starred and striped Hummer to head toward Badwater Basin. I had the faint desire to hang my head out the window and scream ’Merica before attempting to belch the alphabet. Seriously, the only thing missing from that Hummer was a case of Budweiser and some NASCAR T-shirts. The funny thing is — it’s damn good branding. You can’t possibly miss such a vibrant vehicle in a scorched and crackled landscape. Everybody knows who and where you are, which is a great thing in a place like this.
Here are a few of my favorite stops:
Badwater Basin: The lowest point in North America and the water there is three times saltier than the ocean. At 282 feet below sea level, I think it’s safe to say we’ll have ocean-front property when California slips into the Pacific. The salt is crystallized and looks a lot like cauliflower bobbing above the surface of huge puddles.
The Devil’s Golf Course: With razor sharp salt crystals, it’s a lot like a coral reef and not the place you want to lose your footing. Against my better judgment, we tiptoed across 50 yards of jagged terrain with the concentration of tight-rope walkers. Somehow, our guide knew exactly where an underground aquifer was located, despite the complete lack of visual indicators. Not one to shy away from a dare, I carefully bent down for a sample. Twenty four hours later I’m happy to report my tongue has not rotted off and it does taste surprisingly like regular old Morton’s.
Artist’s Palette: The blue and green streaks reminded me of smeared toothpaste and are caused by the oxidation of different metals in the rock. I quietly pocketed one of the cool volcanic rocks and now I’m sure I can expect a call from the National Park Service.
Twenty Mule Team Canyon: Down a pockmarked dirt road where we squeezed through blind canyon corners. We scaled what looked like a colossal white cheddar-cheese puff to get a better view. The volcanic ash is still there a bazillion years later, and is sprinkled around the canyon like crumbled-up Oreos.
If there’s one thing I learned; it’s that Mother Nature is a huge show off. There were so many unique landscapes it felt a lot like landing on the surface of different planets. If it weren’t for our supremely awesome tour guide, we would’ve had no clue what to look for unless we were geologists, scientists, historians or a group of intellectual fancy pants.
Another great thing about going with a guide is that they know just how much trouble you can get into and will stop you when your common sense stays behind in the Hummer. Since I had no intention of ending up on the 6 o’clock news, we didn’t venture too far off the beaten path. Remember “127 Hours?” I do. We all know what happens when you wander away. But if that’s how you get your rocks off, Big Horn Hummer Tours can accommodate your adrenaline cravings too.
[flagallery gid=138 name=”Gallery”]