Things get weird at one hundred and twenty-seven degrees. Heat becomes a physical force, with its own specific gravity that pushes against your every move. The air is ablaze, charged—it shimmers with energy. The ground itself is scalding; equipment fails. Deep in the martian terrain of California's Death Valley, the hottest place on the planet, that truth can have mortal consequences.
Naturalist John Muir wrote that "most people are on the world, not in it." I am damn sure in it now, bouncing a 2018 Buick Regal TourX up a 4x4 trail high in the region's Panamint Mountains as we flee the suffocating late afternoon heat below. We need to reach the Mahogany Flats Campground, a comfortable 8,100 feet above the roasting lowlands, and set up shop before the sun goes down. It's slow going, with rocks clawing at the undercarriage and pinging off the plastic cladding, but the wagon maintains its forward creep on a path that's likely never seen a Buick before. Then we see the washout.
This was always a Hail Mary pass for the lightly-lifted Regal TourX, whose twin-clutch all-wheel-drive system is probably its biggest advantage in the kind of aspirational adventuring-lite captured in most car commercials. Less than six inches of ground clearance is usually not going to get you very far on excursions like this. But back down in the broiling cauldron at Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level and the lowest point in North America, it seemed both natural and vital to gain as much elevation as possible for the night. We had to try for the peak.
We had to, I remind myself as I stare at the mess ahead. Runoff from a recent storm had bisected the path and carved a small canyon, cutting it off entirely. The lip on the far side is at least a foot and a half high—a Wrangler could beast it, but the Regal TourX just doesn't have the articulation or angles for advanced off-roading. We're 50 miles from anyone; it's 7:30 pm and still well over 100 degrees. I glance at my wife, who's eyeing the setting sun from the passenger seat. Trying this would be irresponsible. It's over.
There's a moment of worry, a small part of me clapping with concern. We don't have much time before darkness settles to retreat to the last campsite we passed 45 minutes ago. It was hard enough to pick a line going forward, and with no room to turn around and a cargo bay full of camping gear, I have to rely on the backup camera and side mirrors for a tense mile in reverse. But there's a comforting clarity to a situation like this: either you do what needs to be done, or you don't get home.
Death Valley's Life
Death Valley is flooded with mystique—its history of human folly; the apocalyptic vistas. It's a scarred wilderness, beautiful in its geologic violence and legendarily hostile. There are weeks in the summer where the daily high regularly tops 120 degrees and the mercury never slips below 100, even at night. It hardly ever rains, and when it does it usually evaporates before reaching ground. Life, it seems, is not meant to happen here. There are few places more accessible—it's a national park, after all, the largest in the lower 48—that feel less of this Earth, and I desperately wanted to take a spacewalk out here.
Of course, Death Valley was christened such by European prospectors who had no practical idea how to survive in an utterly alien place. In fact, it teems with life. Badgers, bighorn sheep, and wild burros wander the mountains; red-tailed hawks catch huge heat plumes rising from the desert floor. Even the salty, almost toxic marshes at its lowest elevations support small populations of endangered pupfish—lone survivors from the great Ice Age lake that once covered the land. The Timbisha Shoshone people have made the valley their home for centuries, calling it Tümpisa: "Rock Paint." They're not fans of the current name.
But why go in the middle of July? I never had a great answer when people asked me, a look of incomprehension clouding their faces. There's something about taking in a place in its totality and actually experiencing the extremes often consigned to textbooks. Death Valley holds the most widely-accepted record for the world's highest air temperature, at 134 degrees Fahrenheit. What does that even physically feel like? What does it do to the mind? It's a rare combination of wonder and peril at the world's extremes—a beguiling mix, hard to resist.
Regal TourX: a Surprising Steed
General Motors offered up a 2018 Buick Regal TourX and a trunk full of camping gear to take along the journey. The rebirth of the American station wagon, slightly lifted and Subaru Outback-ed in spirit, is on the surface an odd choice for an adventure like this. We're fans of the TourX in general, and that torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system is pretty trick, but it's got the kind of long wheelbase and generous overhangs that don't mesh well with large rocks. Trail-rated vehicles don't usually come with a Buick tri-shield on the grille.
But Death Valley actually has more miles of roads than any other national park, nearly a thousand in all. That's partly a function of the climate—an air-conditioned car is by far the safest way to see it in the summer—and partly a relic of time. Its transformation from a loose network of mining camps in the late 1800s to national monument in 1933 to national park in 1994 roughly traces the rise of the automobile. Decades ago, Death Valley's asphalt skeleton would have been teeming with families on a Great American Road Trip. Its extreme heat would wash over like a novel aberration, not a dire warning.
Today's world is different. It's less bound by tradition, more concerned with its own survival. It's warmer and drier out here in the American west. Perhaps it's that underlying fragility that has Death Valley more popular than ever, with nearly 1.3 million people passing through in 2017, though foreign tourists make up a lot of that count. How many still roll out of Los Angeles or Las Vegas and make for the desert's vast emptiness in a station wagon? And how else has this ancient experience changed?
Heat Builds in the Valley Below
Whatever that small number, add one to the count. We set off from Hollywood on a gleaming Tuesday morning in July, making fast work of the four-hour trek from the city to desert as the TourX motored along. The Mojave spans a vast region on the border of Nevada and Arizona, broad, pale plains of scrub and sand dotted with jagged mounds of rock. Approaching from the southwest, Highway 14 winnows down to a series of undulating two-lane roads that seem to carry you further towards nothingness.
It's not until you reach State Route 190 and crest the 5,000-foot Towne Pass that the pavement begins its relentless descent. It's around 10:30am at this point, and the TourX's in-dash temperature readout slowly ticks up past 100 as we hurtle down the slope. By the time we reach Stovepipe Wells at the park's rough center, home of a restaurant, hotel, and one of the few gas stations for a hundred miles, it's already 110 degrees.
We carry on down to Furnace Creek, an unlikely resort oasis at minus 190 feet. Along the way, we pass signs marking the dwindling elevation; the one at sea level holds fast in my memory, with nothing but the gnarled expanse of the valley unfurling behind it. The pavement is rough and cracked, but the TourX's five-link rear suspension holds it together at speed until we reach the visitor's center. A big digital thermometer posts an unofficial reading of 118 as reddened tourists pose for pictures beneath. Nearby, maintenance workers water a patchy golf course with Sisyphean endeavor.
It's a dry heat, they say. And so far it is. But its magnitude is revealed when we keep driving another 30 minutes to Badwater Basin, where the great salt pan stretches out a full 282 feet below sea level. The surrounding mountains trap warm, turning the depression into a giant convection oven, and exiting the car into a 120-degree inferno is painful reminder of our own biological limitations. We elect to abandon the grueling walk out onto the flats, where small groups of thrill-seekers stumble past signs warning of the life-threatening conditions.
But touring by car is the way to go in the summer, and the eponymous TourX proves to be a great companion throughout the day. Its Germanic roots in the Opel platform make it far better on the road than any Subaru—think Audi Allroad handling, minus the better engine. The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is plenty punchy at 250 horsepower, but the throttle response is wan. We spend hours criss-crossing the park, drinking in sights like the colorful, impressionistic hills of Artist's Palette, the grotesque rock formations at Devil's Golf Course, the humbling Ubehebe Crater. That such wonders can be contained in a single place is extraordinary.
Feeling Cool Near a Record High
The heat builds. By mid-afternoon the temperature readout on the dash crests 130. Knowing that's not totally reliable, I use the wagon's WiFi hotspot to check the official data from the reporting station at Furnace Creek. It's 127 degrees, making it the hottest day of the year—just a few ticks shy of the record. Damn. Thankfully, the car's had no problem cranking all day with the A/C at full blast. Hasn't skipped a beat.
Using a place like Death Valley as a barometer for our changing planet seems foolish at first. The summer of 1917 saw a record 43 straight days where the high temperature topped 120 degrees. But this scorching July would go on to become the hottest month in the recorded history of the place with a day/night average of 108. There's nothing subjective about how hostile the air itself feels at 127 degrees. There's nothing uncertain about the way the body reacts with a clarifying sense of immediate danger. The day that heat escapes is not one I want to see.
After mucking around on a few of the park's lesser dirt roads—Hey, this sucker can actually slide with the traction control off—we check the time and realize it'll take at least two hours to reach our planned campsite. These things happen in a national park the size of Connecticut. So we're off, steaming up out of the depths at full tilt in a race against the setting sun. The desert comes to life at night, doubly so when you gain elevation. We're suddenly surrounded by green sagebrush and other grasses as the road winds its way up into the Panamint Mountains on the valley's western flank.
The magic hour casts everything in gold. Huge shafts of sunlight spill around distant rainclouds. I have to stop the car and take in the majesty for a few minutes, then again a few minutes later when we round a bend and come face-to-face with a large badger standing in the road. Soon after, a herd of wild burros wanders past. Life atop a place we named for Death.
Finding the Edge
With our mission to the top of the mountain at an early end, I finally get the Regal TourX back down to crumbling pavement. This isn't a failure on Buick's part by any means—it's simply not a high-clearance vehicle—and I'm too busy being thankful for its loyal service thus far to gripe about marketing promises. This white wagon has done everything it needed to, and then some more. It's earned that plastic cladding as far as I'm concerned.
Eventually we return to Wildrose Campground, where we set up our tent in the strange evening heat as the sun sinks below a far-off ridge. The air is gentler now. In fact, it's the perfect temperature to sleep soundly without a blanket.
Camping can be a return to our roots, but night reveals another difference from a century ago. I'm awoken just after 1:00 AM when an alien noise echoes through the canyon from high above, a warbling thrust that hits the ears like a sci-fi sound effect. A fighter jet, probably from Edwards or Nellis. The Air Force and the Navy use the area for training flights all the time. It's one of three I hear through the night, each different and more intriguing than the last.
Day breaks, and true sunrise brings along triple digit temperatures almost immediately. It feels like another warning: pack up and get out. So we do, leaving no trace at the deserted campsite, picking our way back down into the valley to exit through the eastern side. We'll see a less-traveled California on the way home in the TourX. We pass through rough, scratchy little towns with names like Evelyn and Renoville and Baker, in awe of their determination to exist.
I think of Walt Whitman's words as we finally merge onto the freeway and spot a starkly futuristic Tesla Supercharger station at the next exit: "I am large, I contain multitudes." That's certainly true of the planet. Death Valley is a harsh reminder of the elemental forces that underpin our world, and the fragile ways in which the modernity has tried to change that. But the heat is impossible to defeat. It's there, at once a reminder and a warning: Go no further unless you're prepared.
At the end of the day, I wasn't—and truthfully, neither are we as a species. An outsdoorsy wagon was right for the task until the moment it could take us no further, at which point I had to reckon with that truth and act accordingly to stay safe. Whatever solutions we dream up for climate change can't involve such half-measures. They will absolutely have to get us across that washout up ahead. Otherwise, Death Valley may truly earn its name yet.