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for people who care about the West

Ode to a very hot spot

 

Despite its sensationalistic cover, John Soennichsen’s book, Live! From Death Valley, is a serious look at this unpredictable corner of California’s Mojave Desert. That’s not to say the author doesn’t have fun with his subject: He dives into the area’s bizarre geological history and its eccentric local characters, and tells plenty of self-deprecating stories about two decades’ worth of visits here. By Soennichsen’s account, it’s his "final love letter to an ill-tempered yet incredibly candid mistress."

More than a million visitors drive through Death Valley National Park each year, but as Soennichsen notes — without being snide — few bother to get off the paved roads and explore the park’s nooks and crannies. And really, it’s hard to blame folks for staying in their Subarus: With an average rainfall of less than two inches per year, a record high temperature of 134 degrees, and flash floods that can sweep away vans, Death Valley isn’t all that inviting.

But Soennichsen is enthralled by it. He writes of the Devil’s Hole pupfish that live in warm waters more salty than the sea, and the park’s population of wild burros. He describes the "Indy 500 of rocks," where unknown forces push boulders across the desert floor, and tells us of early California-bound emigrants who ended up slogging through Death Valley.

This is a place full of myths and legends, home to incredible plant and animal species, and rich in solitude — something not easily found today.