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Like moths to flame, visitors drawn to Death Valley heat


FURNACE CREEK, Calif.

Craig and Jeannine Parrish drove 7½ hours from Phoenix to set up their camp chairs under a patio umbrella in Badwater Basin.

They weren’t there to beat the heat.

As they sipped icy red Gatorade from insulated cups festooned with jaunty paper cocktail umbrellas, the Arizona couple explained why they wanted to be as close to Hell as they could get on what was forecast to be the hottest day ever recorded on the surface of the Earth.

Death Valley holds the world’s record temperature at 134 searing degrees, set on July 10, 1913. It was supposed to be hotter still on Sunday.

“It’s an historic day, so we’re making history,’’ said Craig, a 58-year-old manufacturing plant manager who climbs mountains and runs triathalons for fun.

Behind him, Jeannine silently twirled a finger near her right temple, making the international “this is nuts” sign.

“I had to talk her into it,’’ Craig continued. “It wasn’t easy.”

Jeannine, a nurse, offered a professional assessment when her husband told her of his plans.

“I said, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ But he said he was coming, and I didn’t want him to be here alone.”

So they piled into the car and drove all day to sit in hard-packed salt and dirt at Badwater, which at 282 feet below sea level is often hotter than Furnace Creek, where the official weather readings are made.

“If it gets to 130, I’m going to go for a run,’’ Craig said, wincing a bit as a white-hot gust of wind swept across the barren salt flats. Nuts or not, the Parrishes weren’t the only ones out to experience history in Death Valley.

At the Furnace Creek Visitor Center, Ranger Carole Wendler said Death Valley gets the most visitors in July and August. There weren’t any official counts, but Sunday was surprisingly busy for the last weekend in June, she said. She wasn’t necessarily happy about that.

On Friday afternoon, rangers had to rescue two tourists who decided to go hiking in the dunes, she explained. They had to be flown out for medical treatment. One nearly died.

“We tend to have more problems when it’s a little cooler than this,’’ she said. “People think that they can hike then, but it’s still dangerous. We don’t encourage hiking.”

There was a lot of little problems Sunday, but no near fatalities, she said.

Most people aren’t as prepared as they should be, Wendler said. The most common mistake is failing to carry enough water, she said.

Over at the Furnace Creek General Store, Darius Alexander, a stock broker, and his pal Darius Vosylius, an attorney, were wondering what to do next. They had rented a Dodge Challenger back home in Los Angeles (“We figured if we’re going to drive to Hell, we may as well go in style,’’ Vosylius said) and tossed their clubs in the trunk to play a round at the Furnace Creek golf course, just to say they had done it.

At the deserted driving range they found a bucket of balls tipped on its side, abandoned. Soon they understood why. After hitting 25 or 30 balls of their own in 125-degree heat they decided it would be best to just walk away.

“This is the hottest day of my life — maybe even my afterlife,’’ Vosylius said.

The golf course closed a few minutes later, in the interest of public safety. Vosylius said they planned to drive home Sunday night, “if we don’t die here.”

In front of the visitor’s center, an overly optimistic Park Service thermometer briefly read 131 degrees mid-afternoon, but those hoping to see a broken record went home disappointed. The National Weather Service’s official high was just 128 degrees, which ties the record for the hottest June day anywhere in the country, if no threat to the century-old record here.

Even without a new record, many who came to fry left feeling a sense of accomplishment.

Justin Bronder, a computer scientist who drove down from San Jose, Calif., wandered in the heat, turning a remote-sensing thermometer on things.

“It’s kind of like shaking a president’s hand,’’ he said. “Now I can go to a dinner party and say I’ve been in 130-degree temperatures.”

Bronder paused to measure the heat of the asphalt at his feet — 195 degrees. Really hot, but not enough to fry the egg that Nathan Allen had brought with him from L.A. for just such an occasion.

“There’s always someone with an egg,’’ muttered a man walking past.

Back at Badwater, a tourist trudging past the Parrishes said his car’s thermometer read 131 as he pulled into the parking lot.

Craig Parrish, true to his word, put down his drink, handed his wife a stopwatch and started his run. One mile out, one mile back. Not a great time, but he made it back alive, if winded and drenched in sweat.

Jeannine stayed under the umbrella.

“I’m a little embarrassed because this is really stupid,’’ she said.

Contact Deputy Editor James G. Wright at jwright@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0249.

 

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