Extreme Attraction Image Credit: Backpacker
Extreme Attraction Image Credit: Backpacker

Extreme Attraction

What draws us to the planet’s outer edges? On a trek from the Lower 48’s lowest point to its highest, MARK JENKINS looks for answers.

Mark Jenkins

Even the coyotes are desperate in Death Valley. Descending into Badwater Basin, we see four of them limping across a stretch of burning sand called the Devil’s Cornfield. They’re emaciated, ghostlike creatures—ribs poking out of their thin coats, eyes blank, tongues drooping. The temperature is a suffocating 106°F. If coyotes can barely survive in this place, clearly humans don’t belong.

Which is exactly why my wife Sue and I are here. Death Valley ranks near the top of the planet’s most inhospitable environments. At 282 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest, driest, hottest place in the United States. The highest temperature ever recorded on Earth, 134°F, was registered in Death Valley in 1913.

Heat isn’t the only hazard. Hiking away from Badwater, we enter a stark, lunar landscape. The soil has fractured into hexagonal plates of white salt the size of car hoods. It resembles pack ice; where the plates’ edges meet, jagged, foot-high ridges jut up like saw blades. A slip would mean stitches. And yet, the terrain is oddly uplifting. Extreme environments bring clarity to the essentials of life: air, water, shelter, food. Temperate environs attenuate the truth. They lull you into laziness. But wherever it’s unbearably hot or cold, high or dry, wet or windy, complacency is not an option. You must respect your surroundings and adapt to the conditions or you’ll wi

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