Darrell Huckaby - 06/05/09

A little word association this morning.

"Death Valley"

Quickly now. What came to mind? If it's a bunch of orange-clad football players running down a hill and rubbing a rock, kick-off is in about 92 days. If it's a stadium a few hundred miles to the west, where cute coeds write "Geaux Tigers" in purple and gold on their pretty tanned faces - same 92 days.

But if you thought about Ronald Reagan hawking soap and introducing cheesy westerns on black-and-white television, you're getting warm. Actually, burning up would be more like it.

I went to that Death Valley this week and the most appropriate thing I can say is, "Wow!"

OK. Let me get you oriented.

Death Valley National Park is located in the southern part of western California and, believe it or not, is the largest national park that is not in a state governed by a hot chick who can see Russia from her back porch.

And you thought Yellowstone was, didn't you? It was, back when Death Valley was simply a National Monument, but when Bill Clinton was president he thought the place deserved an upgrade.

Death Valley lies between two mountain ranges and is, in some places, more than 200 feet below sea level. Because of the prevailing wind patterns it seldom gets rain - we're talking 2 inches a year, average - and the hot California sun causes the temperatures to soar. Day in and day out, Death Valley is the hottest spot in the nation, and one of the hottest in the world.

It was 117 Sunday. Let me give you a little perspective. Think about how miserable it felt outside earlier this week when the thermometer hit 90. Ninety is 27 degrees hotter than 63. Think about the difference between being outside on a 63-degree day and on a 90-degree day. Got it? Good. Now take the way you felt when it was 90 and tack 27 degrees on top of that and you've got what we felt.

Told you it was hot!

And I don't want to hear, "But it's a dry heat," either -117 degrees is hot, wet or dry.

For you youngsters out there - which is anybody younger than 55 - I probably need to explain the Ronald Reagan reference. Back in the day, there was a television show called "Death Valley Days." Ronald Reagan introduced the show and did live commercials for a product called 20 Mule Team Borax.

It was a cleanser, of sorts. I really never knew the whole story behind the borax deal until Sunday. Death Valley, you see, is full of mineral called borax, which is what the product the future 40th president hawked was made of. Borax is apparently very, very heavy and they used to mine it in Death Valley and haul it out on two-wagon "trains" pulled by a team of - you guessed it - 20 mules.

We saw lots of the old wagons but there wasn't a mule in sight.

The place also had a lot of gold at one time and they tell me there are 6,000 abandoned gold mines scattered through the park. If the economy gets any worse I might grab a pick and shovel and head back out there and try my chances. There is also lots and lots of salt there and in some places there are large "lakes" of exposed salt, which look just like lakes of water from a distance.

Think "mirage" here and the old cartoon drawings of prospectors crawling across the desert while buzzards circle overhead.

Death Valley hasn't always been a dried up tourist destination. Ten thousand years ago it was a large lake, and there are still plenty of fish fossils to be found, if you know where to look. I don't know exactly what happened to all the water. I guess when humans arrived they just destroyed the atmosphere and caused the area to heat up. Isn't that Al Gore's theory?

In 1913 a temperature of 132 degrees was recorded at Furnace Creek, which is where the park's visitor's center is located. That is the second highest recorded temperature on earth, if you keep up with those things. It got up to 134 in the Sahara Desert once.

Henry Ford had yet to begin mass producing Model T Fords in 1913 so I don't know who or what people blamed for that particular spike in temperature.

My favorite part of the visit to our largest national park was a 13-mile drive up into the mountains, called Artist's Drive. It takes you through the Badlands, an area that is completely devoid of plant life, but one that contains earth of every imaginable hue. Hundreds of shades of brown, green, coral, vermilion - it is breathtakingly beautiful.

We stopped to take a picture at one spot which is so rich in color that it has been named Artist's Palette. I struck up a conversation with a gentleman from England who was as overwhelmed by the beauty as was I. He said to me, "I suppose a geologist could explain why there are so many beautiful colors concentrated in this one area."

I thought about his comment and replied, "I'm sure. But I think a theologian could explain it better."

America the beautiful really is. I thank God that I've had the opportunity to see so much of it.

Darrell Huckaby