Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Real Desert Experience

Entering Death Valley from the west

Death Valley, it's on the bucket list for tourists when doing the tour circuit out west. If you come in from the east and land in Furnace Creek first, you would think you had arrived at Disneyland, make that EuroDisney. You hear more foreign languages being spoken in Death Valley than English! There are heaps of tourist buses and tourists swarm the small resort at Furnace Creek. They pile off their air-conditioned buses (that go for $250 a seat) and line up to go into the air-conditioned buffets at the two restaurants in town. You look at them, and they don’t even seem phased by the heat or notice the fact they are in the hottest place in the United States and one of the hottest places in the world! Logically you would think the tourist season would come to an end during the summer, after all, temperatures can get as high as 120F to 130F. In fact, the government campsites close down in the summer, they know it is not safe to be camping in the extreme heat. Ironically, tourism in Death Valley starts to pick up as summer approaches. The park gets the most visitors during June, July, and August. Crazy, right? Why would that be? Everyone wants the real Death Valley experience! People travel from all over the world to see just how hot it can actually be! Needless to say, every year, about 10 tourists die due to heat exhaustion. It’s no joke; it’s hot out there and hard on the human body!

Artists Palette, Death Valley, California

My ride through Death Valley, however, was totally different than the typical tourists experience, but I’d argue that what I encountered here in the desert was the real deal. There’s a whole other world out there in Death Valley simultaneously living their normal daily life as the tourist buses and motor homes whiz by. 

Everyone pile in to the lunch buffet!

This is a "light day" of tourism

The buses and camper vans drive right past the turn-off for the government offices, 3 miles west of Furnace Creek, which is where Death Valley Elementary School is located. It is one of two elementary schools in Death Valley, along with a middle school and a high school. These four schools with a total of 17 students make up The Death Valley Unified School District. Incredible, right? I had more students in a single class at my school in Barcelona than the entire school district in Death Valley. While tourist buses come and go out of this National Park in mass crowds to experience the heat, there are people here who make it home day after day regardless if it is 120F or 70F. I contacted the elementary school to organize a visit, thinking it would be a unique way to experience the desert. Susan Wilson, the principal, teacher, bus driver, and food server at Death Valley Elementary School, pleasantly welcomed me. She is an “all-in-one” kind of teacher and it was fascinating to hear about the world that exists inside Death Valley, invisible to the eye of the tourist!

Susan with her 4 students who welcomed me to Death Valley Elementary

A unique school visit at Death Valley Elementary

Susan has been teaching at Death Valley Elementary for four years now. She lives in the valley during the week and goes home to a small town about 100 miles away on the weekend. She has a total of 4 students, 2 boys and 2 girls, ranging in age from 5 to 8 years old. She teaches each student at their level, yet they constantly work together and learn from each other. Entering the classroom and from the first glance it seems like any other school. But when you see the four desks in the middle of the room and circled up together, you realize there is something missing…....the mass number of little bodies filling the space. What they lack in bodies, they make up for in unique character! It seems like you are visiting a family rather than a school classroom.

A student drawing of the class, with all the animals (2 dogs, 2 cats, and 2 chickens)

School in Death Valley starts very early, you have to, in order to beat the heat. In fact the morning bus driver begins his route leaving from the district office 70 miles away at 4am to start picking up students. They arrive at school at 6:30. Susan does the meal preparation feeding them breakfast and lunch during the day. Fresh fruits and vegetables come from the head district office on Death Valley’s southeastern border. Like all students, they have recess, art, PE, music. Again, Susan she is responsible for leading those activities as well! For recess duty, lots of time she is constantly on the guard to make sure there aren’t any scorpions out on the patio area. She also brings her animals from home, it has been a tradition with the teachers at this school in years past. Susan has 2 dogs, a kitten, and 2 chickens who come to school with her every morning. Pets here in Death Valley are easier to care for than plants and become part of the kid’s curriculum. It made me smile to see a drawing of the student’s class hanging on the wall. You won’t see many classrooms in the world that have more animals in the room than students!

Come 1pm, the kids pack up and Susan becomes the bus driver taking them home in a small mini-van. Usually it takes her about 2 hours to drop them all off. You see, there are actually other little settlements in Death Valley, besides the tourist resorts, you just have to look real closely to spot them. I got to ride the school bus with her one afternoon down to the main town, which is the first time I encountered all the tourists. There were was a few handful of buses in the parking lot when we arrived, but Susan said that was nothing compared to what she sees at the end of August. Up until now, I hadn’t encountered too many tourists. I had come in from the west and done my riding between 5am and noon. I was worried that I wouldn’t be visible to cars, but at that time in the morning, the tourists must have been hitting the breakfast buffets outside the park before entering. I was almost entirely alone on the roads. In fact the silence I heard was one of the experiences that impacted me the most while riding through Death Valley. The sense of open space at various different elevations and the peacefulness you encounter when the wind stops blowing should be eerie but it’s all the contrary!

Zabriskie's Point, Death Valley on the morning I departed

There was nothing truly flat about Death Valley

Coming down from Father Crowley the first night into Panamint Springs

Death Valley is fascinating! My mental picture of this place basically included me riding through flat sand fields with tumble weed blowing on the ground, frantically pedaling to escape the heat while, looking for a tree or rock to take shelter from the heat. I laugh now, after what I’ve seen, but I actually prefer going somewhere new without any expectation whatsoever. In order to get down onto the valley you have to cross over several mountain passes. There is no true flat land in Death Valley, everything has a slight grade, either up or down. At the highest point I reached just about 5000 ft. (1500m) at Towne Pass, and at the lowest elevation 282ft.(85m) below sea level. In going from one extreme to another you pass through canyons crevices, ride alongside drastically different organic shaped mountains. The colors here are enough to make an artist go crazy! There is a diverse palette of reds, browns, and yellows, from golden brown to purplish red, and even some greens, silvers, and blue coloring from the salts minerals in the rocks. The colors are constantly changing with each bend in the road and the time of the day, which makes riding so entertaining you forget about the heat. And that is just it,……the heat never really got to me riding, because I started so early. I actually ate breakfast wearing my wool hat and down vest, and was cold until I hit the valley floor. The temperatures for me ranged between 50F (10C) to 90F (30C) all in the matter of a half hour!

A 5,200 ft. descent awaited me after climbing this beast!

It's a bit eerie being at such a low elevation

Most people don't come to Death Valley to chill out and take a day off

I actually had a pleasant surprise waiting for me in Furnace Creek on my second day in Death Valley. Some of my biggest supporters and friends from Eugene were on their way back from vacation out west and decided to come find me on the road. It just so happened that Death Valley was the spot for us to meet up. Like me, they hadn't actually visited before so we did some great sightseeing that would have been harder to get to on my bike. After riding in the heat and wind for two days and doing some wild camping, I was treated like royalty by Linda and Gary Christensen and “Babe” their motor home. You know my obsessions with motor homes,… you can imagine how excited I was to see them! Ironically I ended up having a well deserved day off in Death Valley, not the place most people would choose to have some down time. But inside of “Babe” in their company, I was delighted! They also gave me a lot of strategical route advice for the National Parks in Arizona and Utah, which they frequent often. Not to mention, Linda is a superb photographer and did a wonderful documentation of our visit.

Inside Babe with Linda & Gary. Cocktail hour: Route planning with homemade guacamole

Sightseeing in the afternoon included going to Badwater Basin

Badwater Basin with Linda and Gary

As I mentioned before, the foreign tourist which dominate tourism in Death Valley seek the heat and aren't phased by the 100F plus temperatures, while Americans do everything possible to avoid it! If you ask most Americans whether they’ve ever been to Death Valley, they might say yes, but it is almost always followed by the fact that it was at night in the dark or in the wee hours of the morning to avoid the heat. I think the name alone deters a lot of people, but if you ask me, I think it should be called “Valley of Wonder”, or “Mother Nature’s Finest Creation”. I loved riding through Death Valley. Of course my experience was considerably different to riding in an air-conditioned bus and eating at the buffet resorts for lunch. I found the perfect way to experience Death Valley: early in the morning on a bike with time in the afternoon to visit with locals and unique is a better word. I have a whole new perspective of such a vast diverse geographical terrain. There’s a whole desert world out here waiting to be discovered!
Rising early and riding had its rewards in Death Valley


  1. impressionant!! Death Valley és sens dubte el lloc més inhòspid del planeta. Costa imaginar-se un lloc 800m per sota del nivell del mar....
    gràcies Melissa per compartir aquesta gran experiència.

  2. I seriously love keeping up with your adventures! I am so fascinated by Death Valley (especially the school!) and now it's unexpectedly on my list of places to visit, but not without a stop for beef jerky first! That story made me laugh, what an adventure you're having!