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A Hot Spot for Vacationers : Foreign Travelers Flock to Death Valley to Experience Its Extreme Temperatures

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A hot wind buffets Peter Schulze and his girlfriend, Ingrid Luedke, as they read a digital thermometer. It’s 120 degrees at 5:30 in the afternoon, and these Germans wonder why they’re vacationing in this blistering, blowing heating duct known as Death Valley.

“I was afraid of coming here, because of the heat, and because of the name of this place,” Luedke said. “This is like standing in a hair dryer. This place is very impressive, but it’s not very nice.”

Welcome to Death Valley in the summertime, an alluring and unparalleled draw for thousands of foreigners because of the heat, spectacular barren scenery, expansive desolation, striking geology and place names like Furnace Creek, the Devil’s Golf Course, Badwater, Funeral Peak and Dante’s View.

It might seem an odd summer vacation venue to Californians, what with its notoriety as the hottest place on the planet on any given day. But foreigners are not so easily scared away.

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Schulze and Luedke were among a dozen international travelers who, with cameras, maps and water bottles in hand, mopped their brows last week at a viewpoint alongside a brackish pool known as Badwater.

Two miles out on the valley floor, at a point hard to distinguish through the shimmering distortion of the desert air, lies the lowest, driest, hottest scab of earth in the Western Hemisphere. It’s 282 feet below sea level. Three years ago, an Ohio man perished out there, trying to traverse the salt pan without carrying enough water.

But on this afternoon, Frenchman Guy Leprince headed that same direction, bare-chested and in jogging shorts. After several hundred yards, he turned back, satisfied by his abbreviated hike. His was the kind of bravado that causes local rangers to cringe.

“I like the heat. I like the desert,” he boasted, beads of sweat shimmering on his tanned face.

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As inhospitable as this place is, at the most inhospitable time of year, the foreign tourists still come.

The 224-room Furnace Creek Ranch is booked solid in the summer with a steady flow of international visitors who want to encounter Death Valley at its extreme. Several thousand others pass through daily in August, finding it a fascinating and incongruous transition between Yosemite’s forest and Las Vegas’ glitter.

“I ask visitors why they want to come to Death Valley in the summer. I think they may be psychotic,” laughed Martha Watkins, director of the Death Valley Chamber of Commerce. “I live here, and if I could, I’d leave here in the summer.”

One day this month, temperatures reached 126 degrees at the official reporting station here. Back in 1913 it reached 134 degrees.

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“It is good to experience the limits,” mused Canadian John Stephen, “so you can picture the spectrum of the Earth. And this is one of the limits.”

Britain’s Colin Carmichael, squinting against the wind, was struck by the swatches of pastels inlaid in the naked mountainsides, warming to the sunset. “There is no place hotter on the planet today,” he said. “And still, this is so beautiful.”

Others marvel at the pinnacled crystalline salt formations that sculpt 200 square miles of valley floor near Badwater, and the 14 square miles of rippled sand dunes that, at dawn, display the tracks of sidewinders and kangaroo rats before they are erased by the day’s winds.

Travel agents specializing in foreign business have long understood the magic of Death Valley in the summer and include it on their two-week tours of the American Southwest that feature the Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion national parks, Las Vegas, Yosemite and the coastline between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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About 120,000 people visited Death Valley National Monument in April, the most popular month of the year. Most of them were Americans. This month, nearly 90,000 people are expected to visit, estimated park Supt. Ed Rothfuss. The vast majority are foreigners.

“Most come here in the summer because it is their holiday period back home,” he said. “Americans have options of when to come--and a lot would rather come in January than the summer.

“But what’s amazing,” he said, “is how many foreign visitors come back with friends. Europeans hold a fascination with the legends of the Old West, and they want to see Death Valley.”

Edie Behler, of Go America Tours in Los Angeles, agreed. “They’ve seen the pictures and heard the stories and so they want to see it for themselves,” she said.

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Do the travelers know what they’re getting into, heading into Death Valley this time of year?

“All the travel publications mention the heat--we say, ‘Listen, guys, the temperature is 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) and warmer.’ But it’s one thing to read about it, and another thing to experience it,” Behler said. “At least, this is a much drier heat than they experience in Europe.”

Added Mariane DeCupua of Top Tours USA: “Germans have the Alps and they have ocean, but they don’t have anything like Death Valley. When they get off the buses at Furnace Creek, they’re laughing and having fun because of the intense heat. They love it.”

Well, that’s true to a degree.

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Stopping for lunch at the Furnace Creek restaurant, French tour guide Marilyn Negrel said her charges were experiencing Death Valley in quick snippets. “We arrive at a viewpoint, they jump out of the air-conditioned bus, take a picture and get back on the bus. I don’t have to tell them to come back in five minutes because they come back, quickly, quite naturally.”

Some bus companies have stopped running tours through Death Valley in the summer, concerned that the heat will tax not only their passengers but the vehicles themselves.

“It’s not a place you want to go,” warned Melody Amatori, whose Express Tours in San Francisco avoids Death Valley from June 15 until September, because of what happened two years ago.

“It was 130 degrees, I had 48 Germans on the bus, and our fuel pump went out,” she said. “The bus behind us had to go on to Lone Pine, unload and come back for my group. We were out there for three hours and, yes, they were a bit unhappy.”

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Among the few Americans in Death Valley in recent days were engineers and drivers for automobile manufacturers, using the steep grades out of the valley to test how well their vehicles handle the heat.

Indeed, mechanical breakdowns are a nemesis to park rangers, who are spread so thin it takes three or four days to patrol all the monument’s roadways. Motorists are advised to stay only on the well-traveled roads in the summer and to flag down a passerby if they are in trouble.

Of greater concern is visitors succumbing to heat injuries from overexposure, which can sneak up on them, physicians warn.

“Drinking just lots of water isn’t necessarily the answer because your body continues to lose salt,” said Dr. Stuart Porter, an Army physician at Ft. Irwin who also works at Southern Inyo Hospital at Lone Pine, just west of Death Valley. People unaccustomed to the desert should drink sports beverages that replenish the body with sodium and potassium, he advised.

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Sweating is not always a gauge that trouble is near, he said. “In the dry heat, your sweat can evaporate so fast you might not even be aware you’re sweating,” he said. “Or, you can already be so dehydrated you no longer sweat.”

Despite Death Valley’s summertime billing, some Californians still come here for fun in the sun. At the Furnace Creek Ranch pool, Frank and Cathy Brum of Hercules, Calif., lounged in 95-degree water that was pumped directly from an underground river that courses beneath the property.

“We love the heat, the solitude--and, with all the foreign languages we hear, it’s like being in Europe without paying the air fare,” he said.

But mostly, this place is given to foreigners--including about 15% of the resort staff itself. Monika Meixner has left her home in Austria for the past three summers to be here, near her fiance--the summer heat notwithstanding. She bides her time selling dates in the resort’s front parking lot.

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“I drink water,” she said, “and wait for the time to pass. The tourists, they just get out of their cars and laugh, like it’s a joke. They know they can leave right away.”

For some folks, a day or two here is downright therapeutic. Frank Kok, an airport manager from the Netherlands, said, “As long as you have enough water in your cool box, the desolation of this place is absolutely wonderful and calming.”

His companion, Nicolette Waaning, added with a chuckle, “Yes, for a day. Then you want to get very, very far away from here.”

Jeff Hall, who brought his family from England, noted that after washing his hands, he could more quickly dry them by stepping outside than by using the air blowers in the restroom.

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“How people crossed this valley in stagecoaches--that is unbelievable, quite awe-inspiring, isn’t it?” he reflected.

Swiss traveler Francoise Chatton offered this advice, after hiking through the sand dunes: “Walk early in the morning, and sleep during the day.”

Christa Walden left Italy to tag along with her brother and his family on their vacation, and argued unsuccessfully against visiting Death Valley. “I like green forests and water,” she said. “But now I am putting aside my cynicism. I didn’t expect these colors, these shapes, even the hot wind. And now I understand why we came.”

Austrian Peter Rothenender, taking in a panoramic view of the valley, put it differently: “This place is the coolest place on Earth.”

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