Ramble On

Friday, October 21, 2011

Death Valley: Badwater Salt Flats

Visiting here, the baby boomer of my generation feels some vague connection to that old television show Death Valley Days, and the Borax commercials with the twenty mule teams – all of them part of the history of the place, but it is the glowing white stretch of old sea bed, the Badwater Salt Flats, that first comes to mind when I think of when I think of Death Valley.

I arrived here and realized that I had caught up with the tour buses I’d seen earlier over at Zebriskie Point. I recognized one group as Germans, both from the language and because of the naturalist behaviors they immediately fell into once they got out into the salt flat proper – wearing shorts and sandals with wool socks, the men immediately took their shirts off for their walks.

After leaving the parking lot, there is a boardwalk to start the visit. This part of the area needs that protection – there was standing water in the pools, clearly building those little salt formations I’d seen earlier at Devil’s Golf Course.

After getting my picture taken for the Tech-watch Geek post I made last Friday, I decided to walk on out into the desert on the trail surface. However it was done, there is a salt layer that is a couple of inches thick that is smoothed out from the traffic – either the footsteps of thousands of tourists or some kind of construction vehicle had prepared the surface for hiking. There was residual moisture on the surface, making a sort of greasy solution that left footprints, belying what appears to be a glassy smooth area from a distance.

Back to the German tourists for a moment: the salt flats are very much like a snow-covered ski slope, with all the glare. Fortunately the trek out is only a mile each way, maybe less, and I’m sure the bus kept a tight schedule, so sunburn was minimized, even with shirts doffed. Considering this, there was another point of amusement for me with the Germans encountering this environment – so much curiosity and exploration – one fellow knelt on the boardwalk to reach down into the salt water, and brought his hand back to his mouth for a taste!

This is an area where the drama of the extremes is truly evident. As I mentioned in the earlier post, this is the lowest elevation on the continent of North America, officially 280 feet or so below sea level. The sheer cliffs that rise from just beyond the parking lot reach to more than 5,700 feet; across the valley, they reach 11,000 feet, and they are still rising from geologic forces.

I was in the park on a fall day. I’m reading in my guidebook that during the summer, when air temperatures exceed 100 degrees, the ground temperature – those salt flats underfoot – can exceed 180 degrees. And those Germans were wearing wool socks!

The visit to Badwater was my final stop in the valley, as I needed to begin heading back to Las Vegas to return the car. I guess I walked four miles or so all totaled, but the elevation changes were negligible and I’d kept hydrated, so I didn’t feel tired. Quite stimulated by the new environment, one I’d never seen before. There’s quite a list of sights I didn’t make it to – perhaps next time I’m in Vegas.

No comments: