Death Valley is a self-described land of extremes. Surrounded by snowy peaks, it’s home to the lowest point in the United States, and characterized by steady drought and record heat. History tells us that the name came courtesy of a group of gold rushers who took a shortcut from Salt Lake City to Sutter’s Mill, California. Four months later, as they crested the west side of the Panamint Mountains, someone is said to have proclaimed ‘Goodbye, Death Valley’.

It was knowing none of this that we drove out of Joshua Tree on a boomerang road trip a few years back and thought, let’s skip Los Angeles and drive north through the Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America, before heading west to the coast. 

We entered the park at it’s southern tip. I don’t remember if there was a sign, but it would have read – check your brakes. The road took us down, and down, and down some more for the better part of an hour. Hitting level ground, we did a temperature check. Forty-one degrees. And climbing. 

The landscape was what you’d expect. Brown. Barren. Broken only by salt flats and weird fields of crystal that I would later learn was borax (think green box with red block letters). We made the requisite tourist stops to walk along wooden paths, but the heat would quickly beat us back into the truck. Every few minutes, the temperature gauge would click up another notch. I took pictures for posterity. Despite having spent time in Africa, this was the hottest place I’d ever been. When it hit 50 degrees, we pulled over and checked the tire pressure. 

By mid-day we were starting to notice that every campsite we’d passed was closed. It was September, so I chalked it up to a drop in visitors after the summer. I was wrong. The ideal time to visit Death Valley is November to May. Miss it, and you’re in for an experience.

The visitor centre is located right in the middle of the park, in Furnace Creek. It boasts an inn, a pub and one of the only campgrounds open in the off-season. As daylight began to fade, I wandered up the steps and casually asked about getting a room. He delivered the news with a trace of pity. The hotel was fully booked, but we were welcome to tent. 

There were five of us. Two trucks, three cars and just over a dozen dazed travellers. We registered a variety of accents. No Americans. After two weeks on the road, this was a first. Every park we’d visited to date had been stuffed full of them. It meant we’d done something wrong. Missed a critical detail in the planning of this leg of our journey and there was nothing we could do about it now.

Out came the camp stove. Steak and potato salad. But, as it hit our plates, the first whiff of wind stirred up some dust. It was gentle at first. Warm air swirling around our legs. Then it raged. Imagine standing in front of a giant hairdryer, on high and set to hot. We found ourselves in the truck with the engine running and the air conditioning wide open. Dinner by the dashboard light. 

We’d sit it out. Wait for the wind to die down before popping the tent and packing it in with what we assumed would be cooler temperatures. It kept on. Dishes were done with eyes barely open to avoid airborne sand. Cutlery dried immediately and within feet of the sink, was burning hot to the touch. So, being the problem-solving travellers that we are, we decided the only course of action was to hit the pub and stay there until it closed. If things didn’t get better outside, at least we’d be drunk enough to get some sleep.

When you’re the last patrons in a bar, there’s a delicate dance. Drink fast enough that they want you to stay, yet slow enough to drag out the minutes. We walked back to the truck around midnight. The wind might have eased, but the temperature had only dropped a few degrees from the day’s peak and stalled there. I’m not convinced I slept. It was more like a sweaty, semi-consciousness.

We packed up at sunrise and headed for the hills. The ones that lead out and on to California’s coast. The decision to forego an off-road expedition to see the sailing stones of Racetrack Playa was easy. The thought of puncturing a tire and waiting hours for a rescue wasn’t appealing to either of us, so we stuck to the main road, stopping only for coffee as we headed west.  

We’d learn along the way that they torture test cars in Death Valley. They passed us in a tight group. Three cars shrouded in zebra print covers to conceal make and model. And as we hit the foothills and started to climb, we understood why. Between roadside signs that recommend turning off all accessories, the pavement is spotted with scorched rectangles.

Hours – and an icy dip in Lake Tahoe – later, we crawled into bed, flipped over still damp pillows and reminded ourselves that it’s not the destination, it’s the journey that we remember mo(i)st.