Heat was on the agenda. Graham wanted to get to the heat, and Trish was terrified. But it needed to be done. Death Valley in July.
Staying the night on the outskirts of the desert in Olancha was hot enough. We had to post up at an RV resort (random tidbit – every single patron there was French except for us. No one could tell me why. Just … weird), just to use their electricity to run our aircon, a nearly futile endeavor when it’s 102 degrees out, and you’re trying to cool down a giant metal box in the direct sunlight. We cranked it up, but it did nearly nothing until the sun set. Fortunately, the resort had a pool to cool off in during daylight hours.
The next day was when the fun was set to happen.
Furnace Creek in Death Valley is the location of the hottest recorded temperature on earth: 134 degrees Fahrenheit. I wanted that, but I knew I wasn’t going to get it. The forecast for that day was a paltry high of 116. I guess I should just hope for the best.
Trish was busy preparing for the worst. She had been absolutely dreading crossing Death Valley. She is a certified heatophobe, married to a certified heatophile. She was reluctantly willing to endure crossing through, so long as I didn’t make her get out of the running car if she didn’t want to. Compromise.
As we inched closer to the park, the thermometer on the dashboard barely crept above 100. I was getting sorely disappointed. I’ve felt 100 before in North Carolina. I came here for the HEAT. Bring me the HEAT.
Trish, on the other hand, grew more and more enamored with every passing mile. Her antipathy gave way to fascination the further we got into the park, watching the landscape change from arid desert fringes, to almost completely plant-free, sun-scalded rock formations. The rainbow of earth tones popped and oozed from every angle and corner. Every slanted mountain stratus jibed wonderfully with the layers around it. Every possible shade of brown, red, gray, and white saturated every vantage point. It was a truly remarkable and unique landscape.
It was the uniqueness that captivated Trish. She oohed and ahhed constantly from the comfort of the thoroughly air-conditioned car cabin. The vastness of the Panamint Valley, on the edge of the park, is enough to impress any nature cynic, and we managed to take a short 4×4 side road to get some even more impressive views than from the main road.
I loved the scenery as well, to be sure, but I had my eyes on the temperature in addition to the landscape. It wasn’t hot enough yet. I had come into the hottest place on earth in July with big expectations, and they weren’t being met yet.
We drove further, past Panamint Valley, and into Death Valley itself. The landscapes kept right on paying dividends of beauty, and much to my joy, the temperature kept climbing as well. 106, 109, 112. When we finally got to the Visitors’ Center in Furnace Creek, the giant thermometer readout they had out front read 118. Finally, I thought, the heat! All I wanted was to feel something hotter than anything Phoenix deals with, and 118 fit the bill.
After we milled about the displays there, we went to a nearby cafe to eat. The walk from the car to the cafe lasted maybe 15 seconds, and nearly defeated everyone (except me, the human heat-seeker). After we ate, I had one more question for the rangers back at the Visitors’ Center. While I was there, the thermometer flipped up to 120. OF COURSE I got a picture. Oh, I was on cloud freakin’ nine. I was so happy to see a 2 on that board. 119 was all well and good, but it wasn’t 120. I was so glad to say that I have experienced 120 degrees. 119 is insufficient. I was giddy.
Back in the car, we had all had our fill of Death Valley, and were set to make our way towards Vegas, but with a minor but significant detour to see something I have wanted to see for ages: the Devils Hole pupfish.
What is the Devils Hole pupfish exactly? So glad you asked. The Devils Hole pupfish is a species of fish with the smallest range of any known vertebrate species on earth. It occupies a deep aquifer pool just on the outskirts of Death Valley, in the Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge in Nevada.
For the longest time, I have for some reason been fascinated with animals with very small ranges. I think it may stem from my youthful infatuation with cryptids like the Loch Ness Monster and Champ, that occupy single lakes respectively. Over the years I have had passing fascinations with critters like the Hoan Kiem Lake turtle and the Barbary macaques of Gibraltar. Small populations living in very small areas. Naturally, I learned about the Devils Hole pupfish, and it became my Graceland. And I was finally going to see it with my own two eyes.
The reason it is classified as having the smallest range of any vertebrate has to do with how they classify animal ranges. The range of an animal is considered to be the geographical extent to which the animal ventures to both breed and feed. And for the pupfish, both of those things happen to occur on the same small, rocky shelf in the pool they occupy. A 2 meter by six meter shelf, submerged in perhaps six to twelve inches of water, is the entire area of the lifespan of this fish. It ventures deeper into the cavern, but it feeds exclusively on algae that grows on the rock surface, and it lays its eggs right there on it as well. The entire life cycle of the entire species takes place on a rock smaller than your living room. That, to me, is fascinating.
With the kids all napping and Trish sufficiently cooled, we made our way down the dirt roads towards Devils Hole. The ranger lady back at the Visitors’ Center gave me some great info about them, including the fact that there are some related species in other parts of Ash Meadows that I could get much closer to, and see even better. They had slightly larger ranges, but as I could get right up to the pools they lived in, it would be a cool and worthwhile detour.
I stopped at one, and took the short boardwalk through the still brutal (for commoners) temperatures of 104-5 to see these similar pupfish. And I’m glad I did. I could get right up next to the pool, which was a beautiful crystal blue spring right in the middle of the desert, adjacent to the hottest place on earth. The little oasis there in the scorching desert, surrounded by greenery, and absolutely teeming with fish, was a beautiful sight to behold. They weren’t the pupfish, but it was a great detour anyway.
Finally, though, just down the road, were the tiny little fish I had been seeking. I had been advised by the lady ranger that I would not be able to see the fish themselves, but I vowed to prove her wrong.
As Devils Hole is a pretty steep and deep sinkhole, and vandals have harmed fish there in the past, the entire area was heavily fenced off and surveilled via cameras 24/7. But, thankfully, they built a caged-in walkway out over the entrance to the site, so curious tourists like myself could still see the hole without the risk of drunkards ruining things. I stood out in the heat for a good 15 minutes, staring endlessly at the hole, in the hopes of defying the odds and seeing through the cloudy, murky water and catching a glimpse of my precious quarry. Finally, I caught the unmistakable glimpse of a shimmer just below the surface, near the rock shelf, of what could only be a pupfish turning on its side to feed, in much the same manner as I had seen numerous other pupfish in the nearby spring do as well when they were feeding. Finally satisfied that I had indeed seen a Devils Hole pupfish, the rarest of fish, I sprinted back to the car, grinning ear to ear, railing on about how it wasn’t a mirage or heat-induced hallucination, I actually saw it. Trish was happy for me. Or just patronizing me. Didn’t matter. I was happy. We drove off.
We had done our research and found a place outside of Vegas where we could camp for free, and as it was way up in the mountains, the weather was much cooler than down below. It turned out to be a slog to get up there, but the spot was well worth it. It cooled down so much at night that we all got chilly. Basically, it was the perfect place to stay, and the perfect cap to an awesome day for everyone.
Next up: fourth of July fireworks in Vegas.