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Of Death Marches, Rain, and Misdirected Envy in Death Valley National Park


The picnic table was piled high with box lunches. Would they have shared if we asked them? Bob Janiskee photo.

My cousin Barb and her husband Jim were kind enough to bring me along on their trip to Death Valley National Park. I was a first-time visitor, but they were old pros. They would show me the ropes. They would make sure I saw lots of Neate Stuffe. They promised to take me on something called a “death march.” I was really stoked.

It was January, the weather was mild, and we were having a great time. There is so much to see and do in this incredible park. I had a list to work through. Borax museum – check. Golden Canyon hike -- check. Badwater visit -- check. Artist’s Palette – check. Sunset at Zabriskie Point, dinner at Furnace Creek Inn, starlite stroll – check, check, check.

The day before, we had visited the Harmony Borax Works (check), Ubehebe Crater (check), and Scotty’s Castle (check). At the latter place, a real highlight of my DEVA visit, we had taken both the upstairs tour and the basement tour. Double check.

In the course of enjoying a picnic lunch in the little picnic area next to the parking lot at Scotty's Castle we had met a busload of really nice people. I was happy we didn’t have to compete with that busload for tour tickets. I was sad we couldn’t partake of the sumptuous box lunches they spread out on the table and devoured before our covetous eyes. Wouldn’t it be nice if they shared?

Now it was morning at Furnace Creek Ranch and the three of us had just eaten breakfast and were making our way back to our motel rooms. It was raining, by golly, and I couldn’t have been happier if I had won the lottery. Now I was going to be able to tell my friends back in South Carolina that I managed to get rained on in the driest place in the coterminous 48 states. Score!

We made our way to the 900 building, where I had a decent room facing the golf course. The weather was pleasant, so at night you could leave the sliding glass door open a crack for fresh air. You got coyote music for a bonus.

As we neared the building we became aware of an unusual hustle and bustle. Whoa! What was that ambulance doing there by the door? Where did all those patrol cars come from? Why were those little knots of nervous-looking people gathered here and there? Was the damn place on fire?!

No smoke, no sirens, no fire trucks. Nope; not a fire.

Then what?

Full of questions, I advanced on the nearest of the many rangers on the scene. Seeing me, he abruptly threw up both hands and warded me off. He was wearing a concerned look and a pair of latex gloves. He warned me not to come near him. He said he didn’t yet know what the hell was going on. This did not look good.

I noticed some things and I heard some things. My anxiety eased as the crux of the matter unveiled itself in a cascade of new information.

I noticed that the tour bus we had seen at Scotty’s Castle was idling in the parking lot. I noticed that those little knots of whispering folks were people from the bus. I heard that some of the bus people had overnighted in our motel unit. I heard that four of them needed medical attention.

I listened in on the chatter swirling from the little knots of bus people. I caught only a few words, but that was enough. Yadada, yadada, yadada, FOOD POISONING. Yadada, yadada, yadada, BOX LUNCHES.

Be careful what you wish for.


I remember camping in Death Valley with my parents and brother and sisters back in the very late 50s, early 60s. We always went over Easter vacation from our home in the bay area. I can say that I have checked off most of the sight as you did but we never ate at the hotel. I clearly remember the frost that covered the folks car in the mornings but the afternoons were nice and warm...great for sighseeing.

In Death Valley, the months from November through March are best for cooler temperatures because all of the other months have daily maximum temperature averaging 90 degrees or higher. As you've pointed out, Easter vacation is not a bad time to be there. Easter falls on different dates from year to year (it was most recently April 12), but it's usually before uncomfortably hot weather sets in. If you make it back to DEVA, consider taking an evening meal at Furnace Creek Inn. It's a tad pricey, but a very memorable dining experience. A cheaper, but still very satisfying experience is to grab a comfortable seat in the lobby and enjoy a glass of wine or mixed drink from the bar.

The only time I'd been to Death Valley was for less than 3 hours. It was 126 deg F at Badwater late afternoon in late June. I got a couple of Icees at the Furnace Creek Store. You wouldn't believe how fast they started melting.

I will return one of these days when the weather is more conductive to hiking. I've heard every year they find some tourist who dies from heat stroke while hiking. For some reason, European tourists seem to want to trying summer hiking in Death Valley. Especially Germans.

If you go to DEVA in the spring, be very careful where you camp if you use a tent! Strong daily heating & cooling produces strong morning & evening winds, especially near the moths of canyons. Mesquite Spring up by Scotty's Castle has some sheltered sites.

It's too bad those tourists got sick, but I bet they still went home with some memories that overshadowed their bout with a bad box lunch. Death Valley is an incredible place -- that rainy day you experienced probably set the groundwork for beautiful wildflowers a few months later. Magical!

Good point, WordWire. The bloom at lower elevations generally begins in mid-February and runs until early April. At higher elevations it can run through to late May or early June. A year with unusually good precip can yield spectacular blooms. This year, late season rains set the stage for a darn good bloom, though not nearly as spectacular as 1998 or 2005.

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