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Field Trip: Badwater

We ride into Death Valley in late afternoon, careening down the winding road through the Panamint Range. Down again past the graceful sand dunes of Mesquite Flat, and then down even more towards Badwater, elevation: 282.2 feet below sea level, the bottom of North America. The last golden light bathes the undulating desert hills before slowly giving way to the spangled night sky. Sparks from our campfire rise to join the glittering stars.

In the pre-dawn chill we crawl from our sleeping bags and hike out onto the vast salt pan in the dark to wait for the sunrise. Coyotes, somewhere off in the indiscernible distance, harmonize on a free-jazz motif, heralding the first light which finally appears, spreading across the bare mountains like syrup. Like a lightshow at the Fillmore, the hills shift from blue to purple to magenta to pink. The coyotes stop on a dime.

The silence cannot be described.

Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America, only 85 miles from Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. As its name suggests, the water that pools here is undrinkable due to a high concentration of salt. During endless freeze-thaw and evaporation cycles, the salt crust is formed into hexagonal shapes, creating the surreal landscape for which the area is famous.

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