July 25, 2014 13:40 UTC

Audio / Explorations

Death Valley: A Beautiful but Dangerous Place

Sand dunes in Death Valley National Park.
Sand dunes in Death Valley National Park.

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PHEOBE ZIMMERMAN: This is Phoebe Zimmerman.

STEVE EMBER: And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program Explorations.  Today we visit one of America’s great national parks.  It is a place of strange and silent beauty.  As beautiful as this place is, its name provides evidence of very real danger.  Come with us as we visit Death Valley.

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PHEOBE ZIMMERMAN: Death Valley is a land of beautiful yet dangerous extremes.  There are mountains that reach more than three thousand meters into the sky.  There is a place called Badwater that is the lowest area of land in the Western Hemisphere.  If there were water there, it would be eighty-six meters below the level of the ocean.

Death Valley can be dangerously cold during the winter months.  Storms in the mountains can produce sudden flooding on the floor of the Valley.

The air temperature during the summer has been as high as fifty-seven degrees Celsius. The extreme heat of Death Valley has killed people in the past.   It will continue to kill those who do not honor this extreme climate.  Death Valley does not forgive those who are not careful.

STEVE EMBER: Death Valley is a good example of the violence of nature.  It contains evidence of several ancient volcanoes that caused huge explosions.

Evidence of one of these explosions is called Ubehebe Crater.  The explosion left a huge hole in the ground almost a kilometer and a half wide.

In many areas of Death Valley it is easy to see where the ground has been pushed up violently by movement deep in the Earth.  This movement has created unusual and beautiful rock formations.  Some are red. Others are dark brown, gray, yellow or black.

Other areas of rock look as if some huge creature violently broke and twisted the Earth to create unusual, sometimes frightening shapes.

In other parts of Death Valley there are lines in the rock that show clearly that this area was deep under an ocean for many thousands of years.  Much of the Valley is flat and extremely dry.  In fact, scientists believe it is the driest place in the United States.  In some areas the ground is nothing but salt.  Nothing grows in this salted ground.

PHEOBE ZIMMERMAN: However, it would be wrong to think that nothing lives in Death Valley.  The Valley is full of life.  Wild flowers grow very quickly after a little rain.  Some desert plants can send their roots down more than eighteen meters to reach water deep in the ground.

Many kinds of birds live in Death Valley. So do mammals and reptiles. You might see the small dog-like animal called the coyote or wild sheep called bighorns.  Other animals include the desert jackrabbit, the desert tortoise or turtle and a large reptile called a chuckwalla. Many kinds of snakes live in the Valley, including one called the sidewinder rattlesnake.  It is an extremely poisonous snake with long sharp teeth called fangs.

Death Valley is a huge place.  It extends more than two hundred twenty-five kilometers across the southern part of the state of California, and across the border with the state of Nevada.  Death Valley is part of the Great Mojave Desert.

What it looks like at a place in the park called Dante's View.
What it looks like at a place in the park called Dante's View.

STEVE EMBER: The area was named by a woman in eighteen forty-nine.  Thousands of people from other parts of the country traveled to the gold mining areas in California. They were in a hurry to get there before other people did.

Many people were not careful.  They made bad choices or wrong decisions. One group trying to reach California decided to take a path called the Old Spanish Trail. By December they had reached Death Valley.  They did not have to survive the terrible heat of summer, but there was still an extreme lack of water. There were few plants for their work animals to eat.

The people could not find a pass through the tall mountains to the west of the Valley.  Slowly, they began to suffer from a lack of food. To survive, they killed their work animals for food and began to walk out of the Valley.  As they left, one woman looked back and said, “Good-bye, death valley.” The name has never been changed.

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PHEOBE ZIMMERMAN: Almost everyone who visits Death Valley visits a huge house called Scotty’s Castle.  The building design is Spanish, with high thick walls to provide protection from the fierce heat.  The main building is very large.  It was built in nineteen twenty-nine in one of the few areas of the Valley that has water.

The castle is named for Walter Scott, called Scotty by his friends.  He was a gold miner.  He told everyone that he built the house with money he made from his gold mine.  Many people believed him.  But it was not really the truth.  Scotty was not a very honest man.  Some years earlier, he had asked several people to invest in a gold mine he had in Death Valley.  One of the men he asked to invest was a businessman from Chicago, Illinois named Albert Johnson.

Mister Johnson invested in Scotty’s mine.  In nineteen-oh-five, he traveled to Death Valley to see the mine.  Scotty put Mister Johnson on a horse and took him far into the mountains.  Many people believe that while they were on this trip, Scotty told Mister Johnson the truth: There was no mine. There was no gold.

STEVE EMBER: Albert Johnson suffered from extremely poor health.  He had been in a severe accident a few years before.  Doctors did not believe he would live much longer.  However, something happened on his trip with Scotty.  When Albert Johnson returned from the mountains, he felt better than he had in several years.   Perhaps he felt better because of the clean mountain air. Perhaps it was the good food Scotty cooked. Or it may have been the funny stories Scotty told that improved Mister Johnson’s health.

Whatever it was, Albert Johnson fell in love with Death Valley.  He and Scotty became lifelong friends. Soon after, Albert Johnson began building a home on the western edge of Death Valley.  He did not live there all the time.  But Scotty did.  And, he told everyone the huge house was his -- bought and paid for with the money from his gold mine.   Scotty told everyone that Albert Johnson, his friend from Chicago, came to visit sometimes.  Mister Johnson never told anyone it was just a story made up by Death Valley Scotty.

PHEOBE ZIMMERMAN: Albert Johnson lived another thirty years -- many more years than the doctors thought he would.  Some years before he died, in nineteen forty-eight, Albert Johnson signed documents that said Walter Scott could live in the house until he died.  Scotty died in nineteen fifty-four.  He is buried on a small hill near the house.

In nineteen seventy, the National Park Service bought Scotty’s Castle.  It has since become one of the most popular areas to visit in Death Valley National Park.

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STEVE EMBER: More than one million people visit Death Valley each year.  Many people come for just a day.  Buses bring visitors from the famous city of Las Vegas, Nevada.  They ride around the park in their bus, visit several places and are back in their Las Vegas hotel by night.  However, many other visitors stay in the park. The most popular area to stay in is Furnace Creek.

Furnace Creek is the largest area of human activity within Death Valley National Park.  There is a hotel.  There are also camping areas where people put up temporary cloth homes, called tents. Visitors who arrive in huge motor homes can also find a place to park their vehicles.

PHEOBE ZIMMERMAN: The famous Furnace Creek Inn is a beautiful hotel that was built of stone more than seventy-five years ago.  The inn is built on a low hill.  The main public room in the hotel has large windows that look far out over Death Valley. Hotel guests gather near these large windows in the evening to watch the sun make long shadows on the floor of the Valley and on the far mountains.

This beautiful image seems to change each minute.  The sun slowly turns the Valley a gold color that deepens to a soft brown, then changes to a dark red.   As night comes, the mountains turn a dark purple color, then black.

Usually, visitors are very quiet when this event takes place.  A few try to photograph it.  But the Valley is too huge to capture in a photograph.  Most visitors watch this natural beauty and leave with only the memory of sunset at beautiful Death Valley National Park.

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STEVE EMBER: This program was written by Paul Thompson and produced by Caty Weaver. This is Steve Ember.

PHEOBE ZIMMERMAN: And this is Phoebe Zimmerman.  Join us again next week for Explorations, a program in Special English on the Voice of America.

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