As I was driving from Las Vegas to Death Valley National Park, I realized that going someplace called “Death Valley” the day after my birthday might send the wrong message about how I view my aging.

It didn’t stop me from going, though.

Early this morning (well, early for Vegas), Choppy and I set off down the road for Death Valley. As a faithful reader of the weather section of the newspaper as a child, Death Valley holds a special place in my heart, appearing as it did so many times as the place where, the day before, it had been the hottest in the United States. I held Death Valley in this special place, even though its coldest place counterpart – International Falls, Minnesota – was somewhere I had visited regularly as a kid, and mostly held in my heart as the smelliest place I had ever visited, thanks to the paper mill that straddles the border between International Falls and Canada.

Entering Death ValleyA picture of Choppy and me at the entrance to Death Valley, taken by a random person who was stopped at the sign as well. I was happy to find out that it doesn’t seem much easier to get a good picture of both of us without a timer.

I think the best adjectives I have to describe Death Valley are “stark” and “bleak.” Once you are actually in the valley, there is very little vegetation. While the mix of strange rocks, salt formations, and scrubby vegetation (when it exists) is certainly different than anywhere else I have been, I’m not sure I would describe it as pretty. While the mountains rising up from the lowest point in the United States were stunning, the valley itself was, as I said before, stark and bleak.

That said, the temperature in Death Valley was in the 70s, and, having recently been snowed on in Tucson and spent a very cold day at the Grand Canyon, I can enjoy a lot of bleakness if I also get perfect weather. So, Death Valley, you are saved from being just some bleak dot on a map by the same hot weather than fascinated me as a kid.

Choppy in Death ValleySalt flats, and a lack of vegetation as far as the eye can see. But don’t discount those blue skies. And warm weather. They can overcome a lot of otherwise insurmountable negatives. Such as a place where there is no water, and it was once so hot that sparrows supposedly fell from the sky, dead from heat.

And despite the rather stark nature of the…nature, it was great to visit a place I had been reading about for almost as long as I can remember.

Find the Sea Level SignSee if you can find the sea level sign, somewhere on the rocks! It was a long way up. 282 feet, to be exact, as I was at the lowest point in the United States.

Road CoyotesOn my way out of the park, I came across what I thought were some dogs in the road.

Coytes ChillingTurns out? Not dogs. Coyotes. The boldest three coyotes I have ever seen. Like the ravens at the Grand Canyon, these guys seemed like they wanted to be fed. And, again, I didn’t feed them. Though Choppy did bark up a storm at them, which did not faze them in the least.