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Saturday 5 Oct 2013
Death Valley, USA

Centurions, shooting stars and the elusive giant cactus

Verity and I left our pyramid behind in favour of breakfast in a medieval castle, followed by a stroll through the streets of Ancient Rome.  Only in Vegas!  Excalibur was as tacky as we expected, but Caesar’s Palace was as impressive as its reputation suggests.  The details in the Forum and the shopping streets was incredible, including full sized marble fountains and a sky that changed colour from day to night, even going as far as to light up with stars.  However, they did have an aquarium in one plaza, which I found disturbing after all the diving I’ve done this year. I was quite upset to see an eagle ray swimming helplessly round in circles in a space clearly far too small for it.  Outside, we caught a taxi by the Trevi Fountain and picked up our car for the final farewell to Las Vegas. 

On our way out of town, we spotted something that had eluded us throughout Arizona – a giant cactus! We pulled something akin to a handbrake turn into the car park and took the photos we’d wanted for so long.  It must have looked ridiculous to any onlookers, seeing two grown women taking photos with a cactus, a clapperboard, a Taz and a Thomas, but we were in our element!  And so, with a full tank of gas, a solid block of ice in the coolbox, a 4-gallon bottle of drinking water and a large bag of Cheetos (our new guilty pleasure), Verity and I set off into the ultimate wilderness of DEATH VALLEY. 

With the Government Shutdown now into Day 6, we had called ahead to confirm our accommodation at Furnace Creek Ranch, to be told loudly and proudly: “This is private land, they can’t shut US down!”  I had expected Death Valley to be one enormous barren desert of cracked earth, but was surprised by how much the scenery varied.  Part of the Mojave Desert, it is the lowest, hottest and driest area in North America.  Furnace Creek is aptly named, having recorded the hottest air temperature on Earth in 1913: a balmy 56.7°C.  The area was once an inland sea, but the water has long since evaporated. Without going into specifics that I will undoubtedly get wrong, the sun’s heat radiates back from the barren ground in the valley, trapped by the steep mountains on either side and accentuated by the heavy atmosphere, which serves to heat the ground further and create the hot winds which maintain the drought-like conditions.  All I know for sure is that it was like nowhere I have ever been before.

As with Zion and Capital Reef, the main highway through Death Valley was open but side roads and trails were closed off.  Verity had been here before and had vivid memories of sunset at Zabriskie Point, so we were relieved to find its car park still accessible.  The toilets were locked, but the short trail up to the viewing area was open and at least ten other vehicles had already arrived.  This was one place we were willing to risk a ticket.  The sun was already low in the sky was we walked up, casting long shadows across the unusual terrain.  Behind us, across the road, the dark wall of the distant mountains was lined with gold as the sun lit up the rocky dunes that lay before them.  We stood on a large mound, levelled off and surrounded by a low wall, looking down on a rippled valley of gold and brown.  The texture and colours looked – and I know this will sound odd – like chocolate vanilla marble cake – laid out in deep grooves, as if water and wind had once flowed freely away from us.  I took a short walk down onto these dunes and was surprised to find them sandy and crunchy, like the crust on the beach where wet sand has dried out, when from above they looked like solid rock.  As the sun dipped below the mountains in front of us, the bright gold and dark shadows muted into softly glowing colours. 

Most people drifted away after the sun had set, but we remained talking to a German couple and a group of Scots until the light faded completely and the stars came out.  I have been fortunate enough to see some amazing night skies on my journey so far – Fiji and Mount Cook in New Zealand still stand out for that reason – but the stars in Death Valley were so clear they might just take the night sky prize. Wherever I am in the world, the Plough reminds me of home, so I was happy to see it sit contentedly on the horizon to the North, while the Milky Way stood out boldly in a diagonal slash above us.  The German couple left us to it after taking their star photos.  We tried to spot other constellations and I showed Verity how to recognize a satellite.  We even saw a perfect shooting star at exactly the same moment – I am usually the one looking the other way, so I was thrilled to see this one.  The Scots had mentioned seeing a desert wolf cub in the car park earlier on, but it was only when we heard a rustling noise nearby that it dawned on us that we were standing in the dark, on our own, quite literally in the middle of nowhere, and we suddenly got very spooked.  My imagination went into overdrive and we hastily scrambled back down the path and got into the car, locking the doors and giggling nervously at each other.  Thankfully, it was only another couple of miles to the Furnace Creek Ranch, where a hot meal and a nice room awaited us.


Mileage: 2030

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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #1 America

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