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Desert Companion

Travel: Book

Death Valley? Ha, ha, ha!

With a size and format that makes it about as unwieldy as an outsized wall calendar, Death Valley: Hottest Place on Earth isn’t exactly a handy guidebook. You won’t be tucking it in your jeans back pocket when you visit the valley famous for being, like, really really super hot. But maybe that’s the point. Death Valley: Hottest Place on Earth (Rio Nuevo, $12.95) is an eye-poppingly gorgeous coffee-table/guidebook for serious dirtheads who look upon the brutal washboard ripple of a hellish desert outland and feel their hearts flutter. It’s written by one guy, Roger Naylor, and his monomaniacal love for Death Valley — its plains, pits and peaks, its ghost towns and unlikely attraction for eccentrics, entrepreneurs and desperadoes — has its own magnetic quality, and it’s not just in his intimate knowledge of the backcountry trails and dusty backstories. Death Valley isn’t exactly known as sitcom material, but the frequent humor in Hottest Place on Earth makes you realize how precious and self-consciously grave writing about the desert often is. Not in these pages. Sure, Naylor does a fine job in giving Death Valley its writerly due — “Desert rolls away in all directions, stark and epic, subtle and hypnotic.” But he never takes himself, or Death Valley, too seriously. Baffled by its magnitude, he sums up “the big bad boy of deserts” best when he writes, “Death Valley inspires me to admit something I never thought I’d say: I wish I had stayed awake more often in science class.”

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