Death Valley Walk

Sometime around ’bout the spring of ’79, it was, I was a ridin’ the bike through Death Valley on a Saturday night. After having a beer with some people from Luxemburg in the Furnace Creek Inn, I headed south. 11:30 at night found me pulled in to Badwater, the lowest point in North America.

What to do?

Walk out on the valley floor.

Blank, white flat. Check by taste. Salt.

The moon rose above the eastern wall and lit up the salt. Daylight, almost. Simply nothing was alive. Quiet. Very still. No bugs. Nothing. Just bright moonlight, bright ground and a long, long way to anything.

Rode south from there with no headlight for 50 miles until I hit the sack.

Wind the clock forward a few years. Scott’s 2 or so. Craig is 16, 17. We’re in the van and, for some reason, wandered by Death Valley. Full moon again. I say, “Let’s walk out from Badwater. It’s really strange.” We get to Badwater and find water. Lots of water. Seems like the whole valley floor is water. So much for our walk.

But wait! The water is warm. It’s ankle depth, maybe a bit more. What’s to stop us from walking out in it? There sure won’t be any sharp dropoffs in this pancake land.

So we did. I studied the sides of the valley, looking for signs of how far out we were. Half way? No idea, really. Hmmmm. Gleaming eyes from a coyote from the other side. Water climbed to knee height and the ground was getting pretty slick and squishy. Since Scott was sound asleep on my back it seemed like we had gone far enough.

We spent the night on the other side of the water – Lake Manly. We drove there.

Months later, I ordered a topo to find out the real situation. Yes! Looks like about a 6 or 7 mile walk across. That should be doable.

So, for a decade and a half I talked up the idea of walking across Death Valley. How many people can say they’ve done it, after all? Kids and life intervened, though. And Death Valley is not down the street, so the walk never happened.

But, in the late ’90’s Tom Boyle was at a show in Vegas, rented a car, and took a look. “Alex, you’re wrong. It’s not a flat, smooth, easy walk.” Tom described what sounded like the Devil’s Golf Course, an aptly named, rugged mess of land surface. I was so disappointed I didn’t even empathize with Tom’s disappointment.

So, another decade has gone by.

Badwater got a big, paved parking lot, a boardwalk, substantial pit toilets, the works.

Apparently, in Furnace Creek you can get a full-moon horse ride.

What’s the first few words of one of the signs at the big, paved Badwater parking lot? “The salt flats are always changing.”

This time I pulled in after a 14 hour drive at 11:30 under a cloud covered full moon sky.

No one there. I had kind of expected others to be trying this walk. Call it optimistic pessimism.

Toss extra Gatorades and Costco sport drinks in the day pack, put on shoes that can be thrown away, don’t bother checking the flashlight, and head west.

First half would look like this picture

Back pack on salt

if it were at the bottom of the sea. As it is, a flash picture can just show the surface. It can’t show the world. Even behind clouds the light is bright.

First input: Event horizon is 10 minutes. That is, if you see some surface change ahead as far can be seen, you will be there in 10 minutes. Such an horizon puts the lie to the idea that ship masts sinking on the horizon “prove” the absurd assertion that the world is round.

Second input: After a while, I looked up to see the mountains around the valley floor. The shapes and textures were very familiar. Apparently, they had not changed in 20+ years.

Third input: You can’t get lost. Well, duh. But, look at all the ways to orient. You cast a moon shadow. If you make a tube with your hands in front of one open eye, you still see the surface ridges shadowed by the moon. Stars are all over. Wind is blowing. Surface in many places is a flow. The floor is, after all, a large salty mud flat.

Fourth input: 3/4’s of the way over, the surface got a bit soft and slickish. And there were tracks. It had been much wetter some time. By stomping, I left tracks in only one or two small areas. Mostly, the ground may have sunk a bit under my step, but tracks? No.

Anyway, after an hour and 3 quarters, I hit stuff that threatened to turn in to what Tom found. Dang. If this ground were volcanic rock, it would be the shoe shredding stuff.

Press on.

My calculation was that if the valley were 6 or 7 miles across, then 2 hours, maybe 2.5 hours, should get me across to the west side road. At a hair under 2 hours the surface was quite unpleasant, and I began to think of what would happen if I twisted an ankle AND bongoed my other knee. Hmmm. Let’s say it takes 5 times as long to travel, at best. That puts me out on the whitest salt flat under a pretty good sun. That could get interesting.

So I was seriously considering spinning around. There’s really not a lot of purpose to the walk, anyway.

Then I stumbled on a small, dead bush.

On and on. Ah, what looks like it might be a road line.

10 minutes. No. They are big bushes.

5 long, long minutes. Bang. Road.


Drink a little.

Big decision: Do I wait for someone to come by and bum a ride back to the car? Or do I trudge back? Remember, I live in a world in which someone *may* come by. Heck, people probably come by there at 2 in the morning on Sunday nights in April every decade or so. So the odds are good. But, the sky cleared and the moon was free.

Anyway, whoever was coming by was probably hanging out around the turn a few miles to the south, waiting for me to get out of the road. So, it seemed like a good idea to just walk back.

I did.

Long walk. I got kind of tired at the end and strolled. Got back at 5.

As I drove away from Badwater, the moon went behind the clouds. I drove for a few minutes, gave up, pulled off and slept.

Nice walk.

Everyone should have a few Death Valley full moon crossings in their lives.

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