The fat on my forearm began to render immediately, the skin crackling and puckering, the hairs standing on end. Death Valley feels like one of those industrial heat lamps in a restaurant kitchen that will sear the skin of a human hand. 

As I got out of the air conditioned van the skin on my neck started crawling like it does when my husband blows on my poison ivy.  All of this happened before I could plunk on a hat and unroll my sleeves and the thought crossed my mind that given only a few more moments, my brain might have begun budging around by the slow rolling boil of the juices in my skull. 

People come from all over to experience the heat of Death Valley, because who doesn’t want their fat rendered? 

I prefer vegetation with my heat.  But nothing grows on the Playa. Nothing blooms, wilts, or dies because it never gains a start. Between the heat, lack of moisture, and the low elevation air pressure, the earth is compact and unmoving. There were a few shimmery silver mirages on the road. Everything else was white hot, not a glancing white hot, but a straight on, there’s no escape, Benjamin Moore Decorator’s White, blinding white. 

The ground temperature can be 80° F hotter than the surrounding air. The alternating hard-pack scabbed and pocked earth under your boots looks random, but it’s not. Geometrical hexagons of mud form that are 3-4 inches across and configure in sets of three at 120° to each other. So says the universal language of geometry. 

the hexagons of packed earth on the floor of Death Valley

Geometry of Death Valley’s Playa

There may be an absence of plant life, but the sailing stones make up for the lack of greenery.

The sailing stones of Racetrack Playa are nocturnal.  Furthermore, they only move when no one’s looking.  Stones are the things you skip, or throw, or hide in a snowball. But some of these stones are hundreds of pounds, making them in my opinion, boulders. Aliens have been given the credit for this phenomenon and I can’t argue. I walked upon one and saw the skid marks fade into the distance and stood there for a long time as in observing a tennis match.  Scientists have claimed the explanation that the stones are awakened by a specific combination of natural events —  wind, an icing of water for a skid, and a fair amount of juju that no one fully understands and voilà, they move across the plain of the desert floor. 

Sailing Stone of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley

Racetrack Playa Sailing Stone


the starkness of Death Valley

Stark Beauty Defined




John Batdorff of Batdorff Photography in Chicago, and his wife Staci Prince offer this photography workshop.  If you’re interested in seeing parts of Death Valley that you won’t see on your own, you should go.  The instruction was one-on-one, and everything was top-notch.  They are a delight to travel with and learn from. It was a fantastic trip, and they have a knack for summoning exquisite sunrises and sunsets in a place that seldom experiences the moisture required for clouds.  Thank you John and Staci. 

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