Death Valley is the hottest place on Earth where the lowest temperature ever recorded in July stands at 69°F (21°C). The record highest temperature is almost twice that: 134°F (57°C). Only mad and Europeans visit outside the high season (November to March). 8am in October is the latest when you want to stay outdoors, and during hot autumn nights swimming pool may seem more inviting than your not-so-cheaply rented hotel bed.
Despite its name and well publicized incidents of vanished Germans, stranded mother and son, marathon speed hiker, Death Valley is not particularly deadly. Despite ample potential for heat stroke, dehydration, rare but destructive and sometimes fatal flash floods, it doesn't make the list of the deadliest parks.
Taking the recommended precautions renders a visit to the Death Valley in the summer not so much dangerous as uncomfortable. Thankfully, the Death Valley - the lowest point in the United States - is surrounded by a mountain range exceeding 10 thousand feet. Telescope and Wildrose Peaks are perfect summer hikes affording amazing views and plenty of cool breeze. Or you can travel by night and stay in an air-conditioned room during the day like a pair of French cyclists that we've met. Then again, if your goal is to pedal in pitch dark, a stationary bike, a pair of black goggles and an occasional trip to the fridge are probably a more economical option.
Having done the obligatory tour of the most popular points from Devil's Golf Course to Zabriskie Point to Mosaic Canyon on our first visit years ago and hiking the Telescope Peak last year, we opted this time around for a drive through the one-way Titus Canyon followed by a stroll into the nearby Fall Canyon. Walking up the canyon on a cloudy day in late November it's hard to believe you are in the place that can harm or even kill you. It gets even harder to believe when, after one of the numerous turns, we meet a group of happy hapless hippies with way too many musical instruments and certainly not enough of hiking boots. They can't be older than 20 and their shoe situation (or lack thereof) ignites my usually well hidden parental instincts: helping them negotiate one of the down climbs is rather like helping a stranded dodo. But all ends well and we leave them to continue enjoying the life devoid of any problems before they share the fate of extinct flightless game.
This time of year the worst that can happen to you in the Death Valley is a dragon lady behind the bar at the Badwater Saloon. She seems to be really unhappy about the unholy European invasion of French, Italian, Spanish and Belgian origin. She demands passports of everyone and proceeds to carefully examine them as if the date of birth was printed on all possible pages with the exception of the one displaying a photo. The fact that you can't legally buy beer in America unless you are 21 is mercilessly drilled into everyone who wants or does not want to listen. She adds 18% automatically to the price of drinks and happily accepts tips on top of that, which turns 2 bottles of Fat Tire into a $20 dollar affair. She grudgingly announces to a frightened foreigner: Well, speak up - I do not know what you want. What do you drink in your country anyway? A moment later she explains to a rather confused German couple that she stopped drinking Budweiser after it was acquired by a German (as in Belgian-Brazilian) company and is not American any more. If it was up to her she would not even serve it. I happen to agree with this sentiment although corporate ownership is not the deciding factor. But I am not trying to make a living selling beer.
We spend the evening sipping our overpriced drinks and waiting for some kind of international disaster to transpire. Patrons, however, seem to treat the entire scene as part of the Death Valley experience: a desert, a salt flat, a canyon hike and a lady who missed her calling as a Stasi interrogator and in a strange twist of fate ended up serving alcoholic beverages. We leave after she starts a loud argument with one of the waiters. It's one thing to be rude to those pesky foreigners, offending your compatriots is where we draw the line.
One stunning, misnamed valley and two faces of America: one too happy to care, one too rude to put up with. Both equally oblivious to the world watching.