Death Valley. The name alone makes you start to sweat. It was 134 degrees here once, the highest temperature ever recorded in the hemisphere. Last week it was 110, but today it will only reach the high 80s. The elevation, near Badwater, is also the lowest, at 282 feet below sea level. But despite the severity of the land, Death Valley hosts 900 kinds of plants and 98 species of animals. And the vast emptiness creates an utterly beautiful place. There are snow covered peaks, rugged canyons, and beautiful sand dunes.
Iím on the road early, hoping to get through here before it gets too warm. I stop for the stamp at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center (160 feet below sea level) and then head over to Zabriskie Point. Here an overlook offers views across the badlands of Twenty-Mule Team Canyon and the ancient lakebeds beyond.
The map shows no quick route to Las Vegas from Death Valley. Going north or south from Death Valley Junction will get you there, eventually. But when I reach the junction, thereís a big sign that says "Direct route to Las Vegas, 85 Miles" and points down a road thatís not on the Rand McNally. But when I zoom in on the GPS, the road shows up. Iíll take it, saving about 50 miles.
Itís only 11:30 AM when I reach Las Vegas, but this town is ridiculous any time of day. If you havenít here lately you wouldnít recognize the place. I was last here two years ago for the second Tyson/Holyfield fight, and I hardly recognize the place. There are gigantic hotels sprouting out of the ground, growing faster than weeds. Thereís the enormous Mandalay Bay, and then the Bellagio. And of course, New York, New York, and now even Paris is here with an Eiffel Tower thatís almost as big as the real thing. Itís fun to ride down the strip, even with all the traffic. But Iím glad to just be riding through. 15 minutes is about all of Vegas I can take right now.
Just down the road is the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Hoover Dam. More than 5,000 men worked around the clock for five years to complete the dam, taming the violent waters of the Colorado River. Finished in 1935, the dam rises over 700 feet and provides all the electricity Vegas could ever need. Behind the dam is Lake Mead, and a 290 square mile boating paradise twice the size of Rhode Island
I head south to Needles, back into California, hoping to get the stamp for the Mojave National Preserve. But the information center there is closed Mondays. Dam it. OOPS, I mean DAMN IT. But as I head north again, up towards Kingman, I see something that makes me glad I went this way. A high flying jet airplane, with a short contrail, is passing in front of the rising moon. For a split second the moon looks like it has a ring around it, like the planet Saturn. Itís amazing, and Iím the only person in the world who just saw that. Cool.
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