Death Valley

Padre Crawley point, a small view of the vastness of Death Valley. All Pictures courtesy of Picasa.

by Don Stec

Recently, when I mentioned to friends that I am going to Death Valley for a short vacation, the reply I usually got was, "Why? It’s so hot there.”  People seem to be shocked that I would consider going to a place where the heat is often over 120 degrees in the summer.  Some say it's desolate and there's nothing to see.

My first trip to Death Valley was when I was about 9 or 10 years old, in the late 1940’s.  A new product had just been made available to the public.  It was called a vehicle bumper water bag. It was made of canvas and had a strap to hang it from the front bumper guards. It was advertised to cool the water by the air from the moving car.  This would provide emergency water to drink, and water for the radiator should the cars overheat. Overheating in those days was common.

There were very few travelers in Death Valley in the 1940’s, yet many inclines had overheated vehicles stopped on the shoulder of the road.  Some had steam coming out from under the hood.  Many just were stopped waiting for the engine to cool down.  The unfortunate ones suffered a boil-over from the radiator and had no water.

A common saying at the time was, “If we can just make it to the top, we can coast until the radiator cools down.”  This was the situation for this trip.  My father decided we had come so close to a boil-over several times, we could not proceed during daylight hours. We stopped on the road shoulder to wait for the sun to go down and temperature to drop. At least we could now have a cool drink from the water bag before trying to sleep during the day.  The temperature I’m sure was over 120 degrees.  “PHEW,” the water tasted disgustingly like dirty canvas.  If it was cooler than the outside air it was not noticeable.  

Sleep was impossible.  We were drenched with sweat as the inside of the car became hotter from the sun than the outside air. I remember the door handles being so hot we had to use a cloth to touch them.  

Nights in Death Valley can be cool to cold depending on the time of year.  We finished our trip during the night.  We never used the water bag again and eventually my father threw it in the trash. I still remember the salesman’s pitch. This bag will make the water so cool there will be no need to carry jugs in the car.

It was not unusual to see the next car so far away that it could only be noticed when the sun reflected off the windshield or back-glass. It is still sometimes that way today.  

I took a trip to Death Valley again in 2016.  After all the years that passed, I admit I had some apprehension, but I did want to see the “Valley” again. I felt confident because a modern vehicle should be able to handle the heat.  I have to say, my wife and I enjoyed the scenery while not having to worry about overheating.  The engine temperature gauge never got above normal. Plus, the air conditioning kept us cool.  We knew the heat was around 120 degrees, but we were not even affected until we stopped at a roadside attraction and opened the car door.

As we walked to see what the attraction had to offer, I could feel the 120 degree heat blasting my body.  It felt as if I was walking into a furnace. I touched the steel hand rail carefully; I knew it would be too hot to handle. I was not a novice, I had survived the “Valley” before.

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