Feeling the burn in Death Valley

America's hot spot: The reason many come is the reason many don't.

D. J. Haynes knows a hot that not many people in the world will ever know. His is a slap-in-the-face hot, an up-the-shorts hot, a down-the-shirt hot – a hot that burns sweat so quickly people don't know it's pouring out of them. It's a deadly hot.

It also may be the only hot in the world so brutal it has become a tourist attraction, a place people visit for how it feels as much as how it looks.

For nine scorching years, Mr. Haynes has lived and worked with this heat in Death Valley National Park, one of the hottest places on earth many days of the year, and the absolute hottest place in the world on others.

Death Valley is hotter, drier, and lower than anywhere in North America. On July 10, 1913, the temperature here hit 134 degrees F., making it the hottest day recorded anywhere, ever. Since then, only the Sahara Desert has been hotter, by 2 degrees, in 1922, according to most records. Even the average low temperature here in July and August is nearly 90.

Home and office for Haynes, a souvenir and grocery store manager, are on opposite sides of California's Highway 190, near the main entrance and exit of the park. The air on his commute to work and home these days regularly soars to more than 120 degrees – the average for August is 113, a reprieve from July's 115 average.

To Haynes, and to many visitors, though, this place is about more than heat.

"I've been here long enough to know what this place really is," says Haynes. "It's not a valley of death. It's a valley of life. It's a living lady you fear at first because you know she can kill you.... And then you see all the life here and you appreciate it more and respect it more."

Or, as Death Valley ranger Terry Baldino puts it: "The heat attracts some people here, but when they get here, that's not why they go, 'Wow!' "

* * *

Visitors discover that the 140-mile long valley is many different places, not all of which they anticipated. Death Valley, in fact, is neither strictly a valley nor a place of absolute death. It is a quilt of extremes. Strands of scorched blacks weave with slabs of glittering whites. Disorderly splotches of dead green shrubs contrast with sand dunes, randomly placed but immaculately combed. Whole areas of monochrome are bordered by mountains in various hues of black, purple, and green.

"We could not say we decided to come for exactly this reason and this reason, but it was more than the heat," says Wendy Bastiansen, who traveled here last month from Antwerp, Belgium, with her husband for a second honeymoon, of all things. They brought 10 other family members with them. "Sometimes you just know you want to go somewhere, but there is no real reason except you have this feeling that it's a place you would like to go. Maybe you are wrong. Now I see it, and it's like I know where I am – I am in Death Valley – but I also feel like I am somewhere that's not real."

Indeed, her husband, Paul Heylen – wearing a cap with flames drawn on it – adds, "I think there is no way not to feel different and see things in a different way when you are here.... I see parts here and think they look not normal, but they feel normal here."

But they don't discount the heat as part of the intrigue. The ground here reaches 200 degrees in the summer – so hot that even feet with shoes can't stay still. The air itself gets so hot that large patches of it can become distorted with the waviness commonly seen over glowing charcoal. While it's a key reason so many people visit here, it's also why so many don't.

The Grand Canyon drew 4.2 million visitors last year. Bryce Canyon National Park, a few hours away, drew more than 1 million. This place drew less than 800,000 last year and is projected to draw even fewer this year. If not for foreign visitors, Death Valley's attendance would be even more dead: About 70 percent of summer visitors come from outside the US. Most come from western Europe. But why not go to the Greek Islands? Hot, but at least there are beaches. Prague? Gorgeous, and a lot closer to home. And if the object is to see what the US is like, is Death Valley a place to draw conclusions? The Rocky Mountains come with a valley or two and water and shade. And they're cooler. Anywhere is. So, why fly over an ocean and drive up and down mountains to get here?

"It's breathtaking and beautiful, but I know some people say it's just weird or ugly, like a wasteland," says Carolina Bautista, a Spaniard in long sleeves and kerchief. "I think those are people who have never been here but think they know what it is. I'm here, and I think that even when I say it's beautiful, I can see how it's ugly in a way. It's so different in different parts, but that's part of the beauty to me."

She has parked in the center of the valley between Highway 190 and a drop of 1,000 feet that extends forever, as far as the eye can tell, overlooking undulating humps of earth that appear like a million hunched-back men, tightly packed right up to a range of small mountains in purples, blacks, and greens. Drive farther, though, and Death Valley becomes tall daggers jutting from the ground. At first sight, from both of these places, the valley indeed looks dead.

But look at some of the 1,000 species of plants hanging on, or a lizard on the valley floor, or a rare glimpse of a coyote in the brambles, and maybe this place looks like hope.

"To me it simply looks breathtaking," says, Carsten Johansen, a vicar from Copenhagen, standing before Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. "I see all the stages of life here, and death, yes. But isn't that one of life's stages?"

The vicar overlooks mounds of gleaming salt, some 10 feet deep, stretching miles outward, remnants of a long-gone river, now dead but very much part of the living landscape of Death Valley. This is where temperatures tend to get hottest in the park, where breezes cut rather than soothe, where the air feels like needles.

It is remarkable the amount of life, sizeable life, even, that lives with the sear of nature here: coyotes, ravens, roadrunners, ground squirrels, lizards, and even big horn sheep. The only life in Death Valley that may be more remarkable is back where Haynes lives.

"This is where I learned about life, in this so-called valley of death," says Haynes, who arrived here nine years ago a refugee from drugs, alcohol, and gambling. He'd hopped on a bus that brought him here from a street corner in Las Vegas, where those wanting work were informed to wait for a ride. He's worked his way up from making hotel beds to being head of retail in the park store here.

And while each year he gets it in his head to leave, Haynes says that looking at the canopy of stars above keeps him here: it reminds him of the beauty when the temperature is a few degrees less hot. The beauty of the valley is in its message, he says: "Appreciate life because it's tender, and be inspired by it because it's so tough."

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