She Tried to Kill Me: Death Valley’s Claim on My Life

Hold on Josh. Hold on. You’ve got to, or you’re going to die. I could feel myself beginning to slip from consciousness. I was in a desert canyon in Death Valley National Park in southern California. It was 122 degrees outside this summer day without a single cloud in the sky. The sun beat down harshly. I was out for a hike, not a long one, just a few miles, but I was competing with nature. I thought it wasn’t going to be a challenging match, but Death Valley was winning. I began to experience lightheadedness. My hearing began to sound muffled. Then there was the dreaded fading of colors. Hold on. Don’t let yourself go. If I were to pass out, it would only be a matter of minutes before Death Valley would dry me out and bake me in its inferno. I was hiking uphill on jagged triangular rock and badland formations on the Badlands Loops Trail, trying to make it out of the canyon. Normally this would be easy, for I’m fit and capable, and this wasn’t even very steep, but here in the harshness of the desert, with the oppressive heat, my body was giving up. Am I dehydrated? Or am I lacking salt? Or is it heat stroke? The body could be overheated, no longer having the ability to cool down to a life sustaining temperature. Maybe my body just could not keep up with the extreme heat of Death Valley. 

My heart began to race rapidly. Oh no, I know how this goes. Soon it could beat out of control, bringing me to the ground. I’ve fainted before, at Big Bend National Park, but luckily I was inside around other people. Here I was completely alone, except for with her, Death Valley. We had met before. She caught me in a sand storm summers before. 

The Badlands Loop

There was a little bit of shade just up against the short canyon wall. There were fragments of broken rock down by my feet, which seemed, in my present state, so far away and unreachable, but there was one big enough for me to sit upon. I lowered myself slowly and cautiously. Any quick movements, any exertion whatsoever, could cause me to black out. I crossed my legs, the most comfortable position to keep myself up from complete collapse. My vision went blurry for a moment, but I still had a grasp on it. I focused on breathing slow, deep breaths.  

I had water, but I wasn’t sure if that’s what I needed. If I was salt deprived, this would worsen my symptoms. However, it could be life-saving as well. I took a sip of my water which had turned hot from the all-consuming heat. I poured the rest on my head. Although hot, it was not as hot as the air around me. It could cool me off just a bit. And if salt was what I needed, there was one thing I could do. Sweat contains salt. I began to lick my arms. It’s not that I was particularly sweaty, for one doesn’t sweat in Death Valley, as sweat immediately evaporates in the extremely dry climate. But even this being the case, there should still be leftover salt deposits on the skin, I thought.

I had overestimated my strength in the desert. It didn’t help that I did this hike shirtless. I like the feeling of the desert sun on my skin, and I thought that in the heat the less clothes the better, but actually if I had worn something to cover my torso it could have provided shade for the body and maybe I wouldn’t have overheated as quickly. 

I had not yet cried for help. I was only about a mile from Zabriskie Point, a popular lookout point, where people would be present, marveling over nature’s artistic display of giant jagged rock formations, but I was so far down in a canyon with a sea of rock formations before me that I could not hear any of them, and I don’t think they would hear me. If I were to exert my voice loudly, this might take too much energy and cause me to lose my consciousness. I could not make a phone call. My phone was in the car. I left it there, for there was no service out here anyway. It was just me and her, Death Valley. I’ve always said she is my favorite park. She is so different and unique from all the others. Her views are so astounding, Her mountains are so tall. Her valley is so wide. She is rich in history of gold, silver, and borax mining. She’s the keeper of abandoned mines and ghost towns. She’s so strong and so dramatic, and this was one of the many features I liked about her, but she was also ruthless. She lures people in with beauty and mystique, as in the past she tempted with her riches of gold and silver. She’s a masterful artist, skillful at manipulation, luring man in to choke and turn him back to the very sand from which formed him. 

She caught me. She had me right where she wanted me. Though a lover turned hostile, I had done her no wrong, but merciless she pursued me. I focused on breathing and said a prayer. After a few minutes my heart returned to a normal pace, colors in my vision returned, and my hearing was sharp. I was okay. I had to get up and continue. Time was of the essence. I needed to get back to the car. I stood up slowly, and I walked carefully. A peace had brushed over me, despite concern still guiding me. I was able to be calm yet knowing the urgency. I made progress, slowly, calmly, not letting my heart rate spike. 

The trail wound up and down and around wavey rocks and canyon walls, until I could see up ahead the sharp pointed rocks of Zambriski Point. I could see people on the rim taking pictures, and it was a sign of relief. Slowly and methodically, I made it back to the lookout point among the other tourists. They were nonchalantly posing for photos in front of the jagged points spiking up from the canyon. I then was assumed to be another one of them, but no one knew what I had just experienced. I got back to the car and turned the air conditioning on high. I had some hot gatorade, and dry snacks. They seemed to help. I longed for something cold and refreshing, but nothing here would be cold. It was all hot. 

Zambriski Point

I’m done with hikes for the day, I concluded. After resting in my car for a few minutes, I was ready to check out the Furnace Creek Inn, one of the two accommodations in Death Valley National Park. I wasn’t going to stay. I just wanted to see it. I had learned about this historic inn from a documentary about National Park lodges. It was built in 1927 by the Pacific Coast Borax Company before the area was declared a national monument and later a National Park. This inn was once a desert oasis for Hollywood elites, and to this day, it says on its website that it “still pampers every guest.” I had to see it for myself. 

Its a structure that very much fits in with the landscape. Its foundation and lower level walls are constructed with rocks from the very desert. It’s building blocks were formed from the very sand of Death Valley. After I parked my car I walked up the drive. On one side there was a lawn with a tall fountain. Yes, there was a lawn in Death Valley! I could scarcely believe my eyes. On the other side of me was a wall skillfully crafted out of rocks and above it a patio for guests. Up above was the main level of the establishment. To get there there was a rounded tunnel that cut through the rock wall and seemingly went back to a staircase. Lights were affixed in the tunnel to light the way. How unique of an entryway, I thought. It seemed sort of like I was approaching some passageway in a medieval castle, but as soon as I entered the tunnel, a large aggressive wasp darted towards my face. I abruptly moved my head, evading its assault. It buzzed around me loudly and invasively. I ran back out of the tunnel to the drive. I had thought I was alone, but then I saw a lady walking her way around the front of the inn. I must have looked ridiculous, running away erratically from a wasp. I immediately regained composure, stood upright, and walked moderately. I smiled and nodded my head politely. “Hello,” I said, as if nothing unusual had just happened. 

I walked around the rock wall to another staircase that led up to the main lobby of the inn. Inside I was quite impressed. I beheld a beautiful lobby of simple elegance. Intricate tilework spread through the lobby and into the halls. Big rounded windows looked out into palms and the desert mountains in the distance. Oritenal rugs sprawled out beneath wingback chairs and floor lamps. I did feel out of place, however, and began to wonder if this was alright, that I, a mere vagabond of the desert, was welcome in such an establishment. If I knew it was so nice, I would have dressed a bit differently from my gym shorts, cut-off, and hiking boots. But I decided to ignore my attire and just walk about the place as if I belonged. No one had to know I was a foolish young man who nearly died in the desert, who really is not sure where he is spending the night, and could no way afford this place. I could pretend and carry myself as if I knew exactly where I was and what I was doing. Some National Park lodges encourage visitors and are quite welcoming. This seemed just a little bit prestigious and more intimate to me, but I pretended like I belonged the best I could, given the circumstances. I wanted to appreciate its architecture, elegance, air conditioning….and pool?!

I walked out into the oasis garden behind the inn. I was so completely surprised that such a place existed in Death Valley. Here was a forest of palm trees on a hillside blanketed in green grass. Small winding stone pathways and stairs meandered around it and over a bubbling brook and rippling pond. Little stone walls held up the hillsides of tasteful landscaping. This place looked so cared for and so astounding to exist in such a barren place as Death Valley. Between the palms, in the distance, I could see the large expanse of the desert and its mountains standing tall. What a contrast! More immediately before me I was faced with a large natural spring fed swimming pool. Its poolside was encased by beautiful stone architecture with arches resting on cornerstones, and it was all in the shade. After being so exhausted in the desert, and strolling now still in the oppressive heat, the thought of being engulfed beneath the water of a swimming pool seemed so perfect and just what I most wanted. I had been successful thus far in pretending as if I belonged at the inn, walking around the lobby and garden oasis. What if I just took it one step further and helped myself to a little swim? I was very close to letting myself walk through the gate and into the pool, but I first noted that it would be quite obvious if anyone was watching, for no one else was at the pool. Then my moral conscience kicked in. This was not for me. It was desirable. It would be so nice, but it was not mine. 

the garden oasis

Back at my car I noted cell service here by the inn and sent a text to my mom telling her about the 122 degree temperature. She responded “You are not going to camp in that!” She knew that was my plan, and it still was my plan. 

I drove thirty minutes to the Stovepipe Wells Village. I remembered the general store here from my previous visit. I bought a Death Valley Black Cherry soda in a long-neck glass bottle here back on my first National Park adventure. Inside I was greeted by a self-serve soda fountain. I got myself the mega jumbo cup, nearly filled it with small nuggets of ice from the dispenser, then poured over it cold refreshing blue Powerade. When I left the store and took the first sip through the straw, it was the most heavenly experience. My body was crying for this so badly: the sugar, the sodium, the electrolytes, and most welcome of all, the cold. I couldn’t take it in fast enough. I may not have made it into the pool at Furnace Creek, but this ice-filled cup of Powerade drowning me was the most perfect thing at the moment. Death Valley had tried to take me, I survived, still weary and war torn, but now I’d just powered up. It was going to be a good night. 

Next order of business: finding a site and setting up camp. There were a number of first-come -first-serve campgrounds in Death Valley. In accordance with my itinerary, I was on my way to the Emigrant Campground when I discovered, along the way, a large sandy lot where others had parked and pitched tents. It sat a little bit elevated on a plain that sloped down into the valley. It displayed a beautiful open expansive view. The sun was setting, and I preferred not to set up camp in the dark. I figured this area would be fine. There were no numbered sites, no bathroom, but I could do without. I pitched my tent, and then went for a walk. 

I passed by a ranger station or some park service building in the middle of the road that looked closed for the summer. Just past it I paused. I deviated from the road and stood up upon a rock looking out. The sun had set. The mountains were a rich dark blue, and the sky a vibrant pink. This beauty was enough to give shiver with goosebumps, even in the extreme heat. Out in the valley there appeared to be a lake, but I knew it was just the giant salt flats contrasting the surroundings. Everything was so giant, so huge- the mountains, the expanse of the valley, the salt flats. Everything seemed to flow smoothly from the Artist’s brush. Even with such an incredibly huge view, the desert was so still, calm, and quiet. This confirmed all the more that Death Valley remained my favorite National Park. She has a unique overwhelming effect on my soul. I love her, despite the fact she tried to kill me. 

With a calmness of the late evening desert seeping through my being, I walked slowly and relaxed back to my tent and shed a few tears in response to such beauty. This was also my first stop of my very first grand National Park adventure back in 2015. I was coming back to where it all started, my following in love with the Parks, where excitement and wonder was so fresh and new. The desert reminded me of all I had seen and experienced since, and I felt extremely grateful. 

Back at my car I brushed my teeth and didn’t bother changing clothes for the night. It would all be coming off in this heat. I checked the temperature from the car before I locked it up for the night. It displayed an even 100 degrees. I noticed I had cell service and decided to respond to my mom’s text over her concern about me camping in the heat when I told her it was 122 degrees earlier. I responded “No worries. It has cooled off…it’s only 100 degrees now.”

I crawled into my tent. Death Valley had spared me and now was as beautiful and captivating as ever.

Read my previous entry here: Monoliths and Stars: Wonders of the Mojave
Check out my book Still, Calm, and Quiet, here:

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