I was awake before dawn, shivering in our tent. I hated crawling out of my warm sleeping bag into the chilly air and quickly put on every article of clothing I could. But as I stepped out of the tent, the cold breeze passed through my fleece and base layers as though I were wearing nothing at all. The other women were much more prepared than I was, dressed in down jackets and thick gloves. I pulled my wool hat down over my ears and walked towards the cars, moving swiftly to try and generate some body heat.
We were traveling to Zabrinskie Point to watch the sun rise over mountains. The overlook is part of the Amargosa Range, the mountain range along the eastern side of Death Valley. U2 fans may recognize the view from Zabrinskie Point as the cover of band’s album, Joshua Tree.
There is a large parking lot at the Zabrinskie Point overlook, which is fortunate because it a popular place to watch the sunrise in Death Valley National Park. There was a small crowd gathered on the concrete platform. Photographers were set up with tripods, cameras and telescope lenses. Others were snapping away on their phones.
From the overlook, the canyons and gulleys don’t seem real. It is like an alien landscape, a foreign terrain shaped by hands that have clawed the ground to leave high ridges and deep gouges in the earth. The sunrise is an incredible moment of transition in the desert, a mirage that shimmers and shifts so the view is never the same from one moment to the next. The rocks glowed pink in the soft morning light, turning brown the sun rose higher, until the landscape was transformed into a golden mountain range against a clear blue sky.
We hurried back to the cars and turned the heat on full blast, even the more prepared campers were feeling a bit chilly. One woman described how it felt like the warmth was forming inside her and pushing the cold outward. I hadn’t thought about it before, but it was a very true description. Steadily, my shivering subsided and hands stilled. I watched the mountains pass outside my window and cold finally left my body.
But not for long. Back at camp, I was back in the chilly, early morning air. I crawled into my sleeping bag to take notes about what I had seen. The following is taken directly from my notebook: “It’s cold. I don’t understand why it is this cold in the desert.” Clearly, slight physical discomfort brings out my inner poet.
While Death Valley is famously the hottest place in North America, it can actually get quite cold in the winter. We were visiting in February, when the average low temperature is 46 degrees Fahrenheit though it can get down into the teens during colder months. I had planned well for the warm, sunny days. I had planned very poorly for the cold, dark nights.
Fortunately as the sun rose high so did the temperature. I was able climb out from the protective cocoon of my sleeping bag to join the other women sipping coffee, preparing breakfast, and packing lunches for the day’s hike at Golden Canyon.