As we descend into Death Valley National Park, I watch the temperature on the dashboard begin to climb.
It’s mid-June — when visiting the Mojave Desert is considered unwise. The thermometer slows and then settles at 48°C. My wife casts me an uneasy glance.
Looking for a map, we pull into an abandoned parking lot at the ranger station in Stovepipe Wells. A hotel stands silently across the parking lot in one of Death Valley’s only settlements. The swimming pool sparkles in the sun, inviting but useless. Inside, a park ranger looks up from a computer, genuinely surprised to see us. He implies that a smarter traveler would visit during the spring or fall but hands us maps and pamphlets nonetheless.
We approach the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes just as the sun reaches its highest point. Signs warn visitors that walking after 10 AM is ill-advised. And should they decide to leave their vehicle, they should do so for no longer than fifteen minutes.
This time we share the parking lot with one other vehicle. A brightly painted rental van slides open and college-age boys spill out, racing for the sand dunes. Standing astride the nearest dune, we imprudent travelers gape at the waves of sand before us. Comments on the natural wonder of it all are shared, but not heard. A hard, hot wind sprays particles of sand into our eyes. On a sudden gust, the hat of a sightseer is blown off his head and sent rolling into the dusty expanse. He begins chasing after it but is stopped firmly by one of his friends. Signs of a debate are thrown up. The victim gestures frantically to his head and then to the vanishing dot rolling towards the horizon. The other gives a slow shake of his head and the words “too hot” can be read from his lips. The hatless one slouches in defeat. He turns and watches as his hat disappears like a tumbleweed over a distant hill.