Travel Journal: Fournace Creek

Like migratory birds we escaped the heat in search of cooler lands. Furnace Creek, twenty-five miles away from Stovepipe Wells, felt like we had left Death Valley. Away went the sand dunes and the dark brown mountains. In came an oasis surrounded by colorful mountains, salt flats and abandoned mines. Out went the outpost, the no-brand gas station and the rough bikers. In came Chevron charging almost $6/gallon, a golf course (only golfers allowed; no biking, no jogging, no walking; please check in at the reception), a playground, a stable, tennis courts and tour buses loaded with francophone explorers. French? Belgium? I could not tell...

The strong winds brought in giant, menacing dark clouds. Like a huge jellyfish with long, wavy thin tentacles, it covered much of the landscape. We could actually see the blue gray rain falling on the mountains and on the valley below. And with the rain, temperatures dropped considerably: by almost 50F! We now needed a light sweater for our morning hiking. 

 Zabriskie Point sunrise

Zabriskie Point sunrise

Our first destination in the area was Zabriskie Point, famous for its beautiful sunrise. We arrived there in time for the spectacle but not early enough to secure one of the better places to take pictures. Those spots were already taken by dedicated photographers who probably had arrived there in the middle of the night. The sunrise had nothing to be critical about. Gorgeous! Particularly some 20 to 30 minutes after the fact. The sun, now in full sight, throws a golden blanket of warm light on the yellow and beige mountains bringing them to live. On the background, as if by magic, the brown mountains on the other side of the valley glow a salmon-pink sparkle. Wow! 

At the bottom of Zabriskie point, Golden Canyon offered a nice hike and a different perspective of the landscape we had just enjoyed from above. As the name indicates, most of the canyon walls are yellowish. Some of them looked like multi-layered cake, more precisely like sponge cake with layers of crème brulé, coffee and chocolate frosting. Sometimes a pistachio layer showed up too, breaking the monotony of the earth tones. I do not know why but I kept having these food visions. Not too far from the hotel at Furnace Creek there were these round mounts which looked like custard pudding topped with dark chocolate sauce. The famous Artist Drive was walled by mountains that reminded me of those tutti-frutti ice creams (pure food color, I suppose) that children love. Other places looked like vanilla and chocolate fudge marble cake. The landscape was delicious! 

 Golden Canyon

Golden Canyon

The Valley brought other images to my mind. The devil’s golf course looked like a dead coral reef, while the beautifully shaped white salt crystals that crowned the rock formations seemed like snowflakes. From the distance, it looked as if it had snowed on Death Valley in May. Badwater, some 85 meters below sea level, made me think of the salt flats or "salares" of the Atacama Desert in Chile. It was interesting to see that the salt concentration in weird shapes and patterns occurred in both deserts despite the huge difference in altitude. The Chilean salares happen at 3,500-4,500 meters above sea level. The bleaching power of water seems to be unaffected by altitude. There were other similarities between the two deserts: the various oases, and the impressive mountains containing the valleys, though the Chilean mountains are much higher. No volcanoes in Death Valley. No date trees in Atacama. In all, the Atacama setting felt more overwhelming as a place, more intriguing, desolated and untouched.

 Badwater Flats

Badwater Flats

One site that impressed me quite a bit in the Valley was the Harmony Borax Works, the sad remains of this borax mining that operated in the 1880s. There is not much to see: just rusting machinery and a few still standing walls of the buildings that once belonged to this mining complex. Borax had to be transported to the "near" train station 165 miles away in wagons pulled by teams of 20 mules. High transport costs implied that the ore had to be processed locally and the borax extracted before being shipped on its mule pulled journey. We can still see the big caldrons where the ore was processed. At full capacity, the mine employed some 40 miners. Most of them were Chinese workers earning $1.30/day (corrected by inflation this is roughly $35/day today) minus the cost of lodging and food bought at the company's general store. It felt like slavery, or at best some sort of semi-permanent indenture. I kept looking at those ruins and trying to imagine how awfully difficult the hopeless existence of those men might have been. Harmony Borax Works ceased operations five years after entering production. It had become uncompetitive as new mines were developed closer to transport routes.   

Indeed, there is more to Death Valley than striking vistas...

 [First published on May 9, 2014]