Death Valley National Park 2005 Set
"I stand 282 feet below sea level. There isn’t a living creature visible for miles on the white salt flats apart from my fellow visitors, who seem as wary and unsteady as I do before the barren, desolate waste.

"We seem to be trespassing on forbidden ground. The breeze sweeps pantingly across our faces as if exhaled from a fierce and fetid furnace. On the ground crystals of minerals form patches of sickly cauliflower growths. They poke through the scum of a shallow pool that looks like sewage seeping from the River Styx.

"It is 122 degrees, the heat so profound and air so parched that you only know you sweat if you lean against a railing, or hold something for a few seconds in your hand. This is the lowest and driest point in North America and one of the hottest in the world. Badwater Pool, it is called, but the suggestion of a pool, however bad, does nothing to prepare you for this scaly, scalding, green-brown liquid. It may have begun as pristine ice water in the central Nevada mountains and journeyed underground through limestone bedrock, but it emerges from a fault line here as if it were the earth’s primal secretion.

"A century ago even mules wouldn’t drink here, which is how Badwater got its name. One 19th-century visitor, hearing perhaps the cracking of salt crystals over this expanse, swore he could discern the condemned of Hades, gibbering under the brittle, sharp protrusions of minerals. That field of pockmarked earth spreading out in the distance has become mischievously known as the Devil’s Golf Course. Nearby in this desert valley 20-mule teams hauled borax out of the mines in the 1880s, as Chinese immigrant workers earned a meager keep in hellish heat.

"No mere history, this. The National Park Service literature tells the story of one foolhardy visitor who decided to take a two-hour hike in this valley’s landscape one recent June day. He carried only a liter of water; after five hours he was found dead in Gower Gulch. How many hundreds of such corpses have been transmuted into mineral deposits here before rangers started keeping count?

"A million people now visit each year. . . ."

Read the rest of this critic’s perspective on arts and ideas by Edward Rothstein in the New York TImes . . .
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