Cleveland New Mexico: Where Cars Go To Die

A shabby peach convertible hogged the front yard. It stretched out like a sunbathing teenage girl would – at a long diagonal, facing the street, just begging to get picked up.

I walked right up to her, crouching down at the battered grill, where both headlights were missing, like gems pried out of a ring’s bed. I’d forgotten how much headlights, when you’re squarely in front of an old car, look like eyes. In this case: doe-eyes, blank and coquettish.

I had just a moment to photograph; the dogs would soon bark. Whose dogs? Anyone’s dogs. Everyone’s dogs. In Cleveland, a one-street town deep in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains, I could count on two things: rusty cars, crowding front and backyards, and dogs, roaming said yards, ready to bark at me.

I’d first chanced upon Cleveland on a road trip from Taos – a long, meandering ride through fields and hillsides where the chipping hoods of old sedans kept peeking out of the sagebrush. New Mexico, I’d decided, was where cars go to die.

But nothing prepared me for the Mora Valley. Here was a place with more dead cars than living people. They filled pastures and slumped down ravines, their tires folded over in rolls, windshields cracked like lightning bolts. Two hours southeast and many mountain passes from Taos, I found myself in the true rust belt of America, wondering what joker named it Cleveland.

%Gallery-171373%In fact, this town was originally called San Antonio, founded in 1835 along a skinny river, 7,000 high in the sierras, in the northern reaches of what was then Mexico. Only in 1892 did San Antonio rechristen itself Cleveland (after Grover, the American President), for the purpose of getting a US post office. Still, Cleveland belonged to the Wild West, a town of mills and saloons, murders and feuds, hidden in the mountains and guarding a culture all its own.

I tried to find out more about Cleveland by asking around Taos. All people seemed to know, though, was a story about a bear. They told it like a tall tale. Once, not so long ago, an old lady was cooking in her kitchen. A black bear let itself in and attacked the cook. One Taos man had this to add to Cleveland’s lore: “It’s the Appalachia of New Mexico.” Back in high school, he was afraid of Cleveland guys. Something about shotguns.

Still, Cleveland called me. Those cars. All that rust. I’m no automobile expert; it’s antiques – the kind not at all in mint condition – that get me. I love the earth-tone palette, history’s whisper, the wear and tear of a couple lifetimes. But it was the way these old cars mingled and merged with the desert that so pleased my eye. The once-shiny work of the factory, reclaimed by the tan earth.

So I went back to Cleveland with a simple plan: I’d walk into the yards most dense with junkers and start photographing. I counted on four things happening. One, I’d get to admire the rusty beauties up close. Two, someone would come outside and ask what on earth I was doing. Three, I’d smile, give a wave, and dial up the charm before anyone could pull a gun. Four, they’d tell what was up with Cleveland.

There’s no pretty sign welcoming you in cursive letters to Little Cleveland. Instead, a mangled white Ford sits atop a hill like a giant lawn ornament. I’d taken no more than three steps towards it, hardly lifted my camera, when the barking began.

I didn’t look at the dogs, well able to imagine their teeth. Instead, I watched a silhouette fill the doorway of the trailer just behind the car. A man. Shirtless. I waved at his fluid silhouette and hoped he’d take my side.

Rick wore just jeans, plus a great mane of black hair that would make many women jealous. His body was lean but sinewy. I was pretty sure he could lift that dead Ford with two hands.

Why so many junk cars in Cleveland? I asked.

Rick widened his eyes at me. “Because people don’t want to get rid of ‘em!” he cried, like my question was all wrong. Like maybe I should be asking why anyone throws anything away in this world, certainly here, deep in the mountains, where even a humble man has plenty of room.

Rick told me about a nephew, in Colorado, who’s real handy with cars. One day, Rick hoped, the nephew would turn these pieces back into a car. We stared at the hunks of Rick’s dismembered Ford, most of them stuffed in the open trunk. A side door bent outward like a giant metal wing. The sunroof was wide open, ready to collect rain. Yes, it was raining. A little, then a lot.

Rick pointed up his steep, dirt driveway. “That’s about to be a river.”

Rain soaked the valley of dead cars while I took cover in my living car. It was a borrowed sedan with Texas plates, which could be a liability in this town. The first settlers here built their homes in a tight line to protect against attacks. The Comanches were a threat, but so were nearby Texans, who led a raid here in 1843.

To this day – and even through sheets of summer rain – you can see traces of Hispanic influence all down the main drag. The busiest restaurant in town makes a single promise outside – TAMALES – and down at the gas station, you can’t miss the assurance that red and green chilies are in stock. Sure enough, I found the local pepper for sale in little pouches, easier to reach than a Slim Jim.

The woman working the counter is the daughter of a serious junk car collector. “He’s got a ’29, a ’48, a ’49 …,” she rattled off the make of her dad’s prized vehicles, pausing to remember some year in the 1970s – the youngest of her dad’s other kids.

But why so many? I knew that New Mexico had a long past, that people here hung onto its relics, and that rust was more of an aesthetic than an eyesore. But why so much of it in Cleveland?

“They’re waiting for an offer,” the man in line behind me said.

That’s just how it looked across the street, where the peach convertible showed off her curves, top down. I’d just risen to my feet to peek in the convertible’s open (and garbage-stuffed) cabin, when the dogs began again. Yipping this time, sounding safely puny. It was just enough noise, though, to tip someone off.

“Hi there,” a next-door neighbor appeared. He was built like a cop, bulky up top, but rather than kick me off the property, he lead me right into his neighbor’s backyard, where the real beauts were – the junk cars nobody was angling to sell.

I followed my guide through weeds, over woodpiles, past an ochre van with a bedroom’s worth of clothes creeping up its intact windows; past a long black hearse of a car with a tree branch resting across its windshield like a third wiper; past a white sedan, so mottled with dust it looked scaly.

I nearly missed the car tucked behind the house, reachable from someone’s bedroom window. A tree had risen through it, wedging between car body and bumper, climbing straight towards the clearing sky.

You can look at a car and more or less tell from its curves or angles what era it’s from. There are certain giveaways: rocket-like taillights, airplane hood ornaments, grills like gangster teeth. But behold a car that a tree has grown through and you get a sense of how very long it’s been junked.

Back on Route 518, I set out to crown a junk car king. The guy with the old Wagoneers, preppy misfits in their green and navy stripes? The school bus junkie, his property overtaken by giant metallic bees?

But I knew the junk car kingdom when I saw it; anyone would. Picture an automobile show, with one classic car from the past ten decades, left to rot in a field. Both sides of the main drag were edged with old sedans and vans and one truck whose crooked grill looked punched in, like a hockey player’s teeth. And behind it all, like an afterthought, a big barn of a house.

I smelled grass – freshly-cut – as soon as I cracked the car door. Strange, I thought. In the rare places where grass grows in New Mexico, people aren’t much into mowing. Just across the two-lane road, I spotted a couple men in work gloves doing something even stranger than cutting grass. Something I didn’t think happened in Cleveland. They were throwing things away.

Luis seemed relieved to take a break from clearing junk. Dressed from head to toe in black, he wore glasses with a glare so strong I couldn’t look him straight in the eye. The whole time we talked, Luis never quit rubbing his sore, gloved hand. “You wouldn’t believe how much we’ve cleared!”

But I did. To our left was a heap of garbage the size of your standard cabin. It wouldn’t disappear until many trucks took many trips.

Luis told me how many whiskey bottles he’d chucked today, how many rattlesnakes he’d scattered today, and how the owner of this house would bristle if he knew about today’s junk clearing. Raymond was in a rehabilitation hospital, after a bad fall. If he recovered and came back, he’d find only his house here, decades of garbage taken out.

“Have you heard about the bear attack?” Luis asked.

I nodded. In fact, I’d been meaning to ask someone whether it was true.

“That happened here,” he said.

By “here,” I thought Luis meant Cleveland. He meant the big barn of a house at our backs. The bear broke into Raymond’s kitchen, attacking and killing his mother.

The scrape marks across the front door were, in no uncertain terms, the work of a large claw. The door’s glass pane, which the bear pushed through, still hadn’t been replaced. Like so many of Cleveland’s scars and bruises, these were left raw and legible – indefinitely so.

The story Luis told me got more and more bleak. The bear attack was gory, and Raymond was the first on the scene. He didn’t take care of himself, drank too much, hardly washed his clothes. I felt like I was hearing the tale of the town’s fallen man. Until, that is, we got back on the topic of junk cars.

Raymond did one thing right. He invested in old cars, rare cars, cars other people scrapped without thinking twice. He parked them on both sides of the road, behind the woodpile, between crab apple trees, and just waited it out. Recently, a couple from Oklahoma was driving through Cleveland. They made an offer on one of his junkers. From the sky fell $6,000.

“Pretty smart, right?” Luis asked, eyebrows lifting, finally catching my eye. I couldn’t disagree. And I got the sense that this story – more than the bear story – hovered over this town, fueling the hopes of car collectors. You could call the men of Cleveland hoarders; you could also call them dreamers. Keeping a junk car in view, right out your window, I realized, feeds a vital fantasy: that one day, you might just have more.

I was about ready to drive off, but wanted a moment alone with the old cars of Cleveland. Spotting an isolated lot, I gunned it down a gravel road towards a cluster of tanks, cranes and the most beautiful old cars I’d seen all day: a pair of pastel ’51 Pontiacs.

What nature had done with these two Pontiacs was about to make my click finger sore. Purple blossoms sprayed out from the open engine. Tan brambles claimed the steering wheel. A riot of weeds hid the seat cushions. And on the round, red-speckled hips of both cars, the silver insignia with a Native American profile, shone like a day-old coin.

Any minute now, the sun would find an opening in the lavender clouds cottoning over the valley. It was the perfect finale, save the sound of car wheels on a gravel road.

“Can I help you?” asked a man riding shotgun in a modern SUV. His son was driving. I sensed more people in the backseat. Jacobo, owner of this tank yard, had brought the entire family to find out what I was doing here.

“I’m just photographing old cars,” I said, ready to put two hands up. I had, though, one thing going for me: I loved Jacobo’s Pontiacs, and so did Jacobo. Fiercely. That’s probably why I hadn’t gotten shot in Cleveland today. The old cars were the town pride, and I was framing them. So I was cool, I was let in, and before I knew it, I was following Jacobo down muddy roads, past dead tractor trailers, so he could show me the army green truck just like on “M*A*S*H.”

Propped on wooden planks like a washed-up boat, the “M*A*S*H” truck was hidden behind a barn. You could still make out the Red Cross insignia, but not for much longer. Side mirrors hung on by bent twigs of metal. Just like on “M*A*S*H,” but phenomenally beat up.

Jacobo’s entire family waited in the running truck while I crept around the dead one. What else, I wondered, was hidden off route 518? A first edition limousine? Train cars? Some Rolls Royce entwined by cacti? How much potential were the people of this town sitting on?

The climb out of Cleveland was steep; my view was aerial within minutes. I looked down over the pristine expanse of green, unlittered from this height. The Mora Valley could pass for a Promised Land up here. It dawned on me, foot pressed hard against the gas, that no one had given me the most practical reason to let sleeping cars lie in Cleveland. Your grandfather’s old Chevy probably wouldn’t make it over these peaks, and any truck that dragged it would have to work mighty hard.

And yet I found an old school bus trying its best, pulled over at a scenic overlook where I, too, paused for rest. A scruffy man in oil-stained jeans sat on the bottom step of the bus he’d just bought at auction. A chiropractor, he rides through Cleveland every now and again, ready to buy. A lot of guys, he confessed, turn him down.

“They say no?” I was as amazed as amused. All those guys talking potential, quoting me numbers: I loved the image of them shaking their heads when the moment of sale came to pass.

“It’s complicated,” he told me, gazing into the clean panorama of pines. “You have to understand the psyche of New Mexico.”

I ran through all the answers I’d collected in Cleveland, reasons for the abundance of junk cars. “The laziness,” said the gas station cashier, the only woman I’d spoken to all day. Another person said sentimental value: “might be the first car their dad drove.” A shy man watching me photograph by his barn brought up scrap metal; he would one day scrap his broken bus, but first, wanted to build a shed for it (yes, a shed to protect what he planned to scrap).

As for Jacobo, whose Pontiacs are allegedly worth $35,000 a piece, he chalked it up to liberty. Old cars keep a man free, he said, unlike the computerized cars of today, which authorities can track. He preferred a car no one could follow, and that any good mechanic – a friend, preferably – could fix.

I’d given up hope that any two Clevelanders would answer alike. People seemed to use the junk car question to just tell me about their town, their ways. I wondered whether we could all do this – define ourselves, quite well, by the things we won’t give up. What other people part with – easily, ritually – and we cannot.

Talking junkers, Clevelanders painted themselves sentimental and hopeful and suspicious and proud. They like to sit on potential, uncommonly patient. They’ll wait for decades, ready for someone to make an offer, ready to cash in, or ready to say no, and keep what’s always been theirs.

[Photos by Colleen Kinder]

Steins, New Mexico: The Ultimate American Ghost Town

It concerns me that the gas station attendant has never heard of Steins. We are one stop away from Steins on New Mexico’s Interstate 10. It’s basically this gas station, flat desert, some yucca plants, then Steins. I could walk to my destination from here. Granted, I might get sunstroke and also scary close to the vultures on the fences, but the point is we’re that close. “Sorry ma’am,” he shakes his head. “I don’t know that town.”

I keep calm, knowing Steins doesn’t fit everyone’s definition of a town. Not since the mid-1940s has Steins had much street traffic. That was when the Southern Pacific Railroad switched from steam to diesel, shutting down this depot town virtually overnight. It’s the classic ghost town tale – a settlement of transients and dreamers who fled as abruptly as they came – except that Steins was never completely abandoned.

There was always someone hanging on: first, the bordello madams, and later, a lone man who got his pick of the cluttered homes. For over 40 years, the adobes slouched and the barns blanched to gray, but Steins, unlike so many of the old boomtowns that dot the map of New Mexico, was never left to the elements, and never looted.

It’s no small relief to see a woman on the porch of the old town store, under the chipped white letters, STEINS MERCANTILE. There’s a cattle grate to bump over, and just past it, an outburst of prickly pear cacti, holding their pert needles up to the desert sun. It’s just after 9 a.m. and already, the desert’s cooking.

The woman stands and watches me pull up – apparently, I’m today’s first guest. Steins, after a full year of closure, just reopened in May. I scoured the web for an official site to confirm its new hours, but all the search results led me instead to the story of Larry Link.

%Gallery-161412%A rattlesnake farmer, Larry Link got to dreaming about the abandoned train town deep in the southwest corner of New Mexico, and persuaded his wife that they should buy it. This was in 1988, when Steins wasn’t even listed in some regional ghost town guides. From the highway, it looked like a junkyard; up close, like a trove of Wild West artifacts. Larry’s vision was simple: it didn’t involve historical reenactments or tour guides in period garb. He just wanted to clear a path through Steins and to invite the public in.

“He didn’t want to entertain people,” says Melissa Lamoree, Link’s granddaughter, who just took over the family operation. A year prior, Larry Link walked out late one night to investigate a noise on his property. He was shot and killed. The murder, which remains unsolved, devastated the Link family. As for the ghost town, it looked as though history was about to repeat itself, with another sudden folding, until 30-year-old Melissa stepped in. It bristled her to think her grandfather’s death might overshadow the place he’d spent years reviving. By the end of his life, Link had cleared paths in all but a few buildings. “He just wanted the history of this place to speak for itself.”

Melissa stands off to the side as I duck through the low doorway of a pink brick house, into a room so thick with dust it has the murky feel of pond water. In a long slice of window light, I see what a commotion our entrance causes. A dust storm rises and settles. My first concern is knocking something over. My second concern is where to look.

Imagine an attic where your parents and their parents, and about four more generations of parents, have stacked lamps and novels and cowboy boots and old license plates. Imagine that no one, in this long line of hoarders, believes in spring cleaning. No dusters in the family, either. Imagine spider webs as thick as gauze. A few you mistake for cocoons.

My gaze settles first on a boxy wooden suitcase, cracked open to reveal the record player within, its needle resting partway across a grimy album. Next, I make out a pair of silver roller skates, sitting like a pair of toy cars on the counter. That’s a horseshoe, I think; that’s a tin for tobacco. I lift the cover of a children’s book and what sounds like a pinch of sand hits the floor.

I turn around and cringe at Melissa, not because I’ve broken something, but because I haven’t heard a word she’s said since coming inside. “Could you start over?” I have to ask, hoping Melissa believes my reason. “I’m overwhelmed.”

She smiles – I must not be the first dumbstruck guest – and rewinds. “Thirteen hundred people used to live here … ” In the early 1880s, Steins was a workstation for the railroad company aiming to connect California and the Gulf of Mexico. When a stone quarry was built nearby, 1,000 Chinese laborers arrived to lay gravel bed. “Only one Chinese man was allowed to live right here in town,” Melissa tells me. “The cook.” On the wall behind her, a half-corroded company sign warns townspeople “to avoid being struck ... by trains or cars.” The railroad gave life to this town, and just over a half a century later, took it away.

“When things shut down, people were offered a ride on the train,” Melissa pauses by an upright piano that looks straight out of a saloon.The piano’s roof, like most surfaces in this 16-room maze, doubles as a display – in this case, for clocks, peacock feathers, a tarnished watering can. “They were told to take whatever they could carry.” There was a lot the people of Steins could not carry – hence the attic-feel.

If Steins is haunted, it’s by what was left behind – things too heavy or impractical to carry forward, pieces of this town’s life that were never the starting ingredients for someplace else. The pie safe is crowded with still-full spice jars. A typewriter sits heavily on a table, spider webs bridging its blank-faced keys. Overhead, a cowboy hat hangs on a pair of elk horns, lanced right in its dimple. The handle of a dresser dangles off one hook, like it was yanked hard and quick.

It’s the arrangement of things, more than the condition they’re in, that makes the interior rooms of Steins so astonishing. You get the sense, creeping across the swollen floorboards and into the silent bedrooms, that these lanterns and suspenders and saddles are right where someone left them. That was why Melissa, when she was a little girl, trailing after her grandfather on summer visits, refused to go into the bathhouse. Everything by that cobwebbed, claw-foot tub looked left by someone.

Preserving that trace of the town’s last settlers was the work of Larry Link. He wasn’t precious about keeping the antiques in mint condition (the only relic I inspect through glass is the delicate skeleton of a horny toad), but seemed to believe that the way we leave things – however messy or unruly or vulnerable – tells a story.

Take the mason jars of Steins. Everywhere you look in this ghost town, there are long families of glass jars, their shoulders uniformly dusted. I see mason jars over doorways, across the piano, bloating cupboards. From the look of it, the people of Steins were America’s first diehard recyclers. “The sheriff warned people not to throw away glass,” Melissa tells me. “Because the Apaches might use the shards to make arrow heads.”

I’d planned to weave through other old mining towns on my long ride home from Steins, but anywhere else is bound to feel like a Disney ride set after a place this heavy with history. At a nearby ghost town, reenacted saloon fights remind visitors of the lawlessness of the Old West. At Steins, that hint is in the bottles, every shade of sea glass, glowing in the corners of dim rooms.

“Every time I come through here,” says Melissa, “I notice something new.” I know she’s not exaggerating; later, when I study my photos, I see all I missed. Completely different things pop: not the chipped white bed post, but the hanging silver scissors, their legs kicked open, gleaming in the backdrop. Not the broken china plate, but the sewing machine off to the side, looking somehow poised.

One thing, though, is impossible to look past in real time: the stuffed warthog.

“That’s a javalena,” Melissa corrects me. She sounds excited to introduce us: New Yorker and giant rodent of the desert. Her grandfather hung the javalena for precisely this occasion: so outsiders could learn about the desert habitat. Though I doubt it’s the cactus-eating beast that’s exciting Melissa. She brightens every time her grandfather comes up. I’ve heard about Larry Link in just about every chamber of this ghost town. Steins starts to feel like a layering of dreams and losses, all of them raw, but none more than the Link family’s.

A train passes, its whistle like a pipe organ – all keys pressed down, let go. It’s gone by the time we step outside, into the brightness. I follow Melissa through a yard where rusty barrels and wash pans look as organic as the barrel cacti. Steins has a fence but no real perimeter; it spreads and mingles with the desert scrub, as far as I can squint. This place refuses to let you get your bearings. It tugs at and teases your gaze, onward and deeper, into the next rusty puzzle. Off in the distance, a splotchy red truck that probably drove through the Great Depression rests with its hood popped open.

“Antique people sometimes come and tell me our most valuable things are out here, baking in the sun,” Melissa says, sounding amused, not worried.

I squint over her shoulder, wondering what the high-ticket treasures are. The disintegrating wheelbarrow? The drooping stagecoach?

I give up, realizing it doesn’t matter. Melissa may one day have to dismantle the dusty chaos of Steins, but for the moment, she’s sticking to the vision of the rattlesnake farmer who put Steins back on the map. She’s keeping a path clear, and stepping aside.

A Journey To The Hottest Place On Earth: Dallol Ethiopia

No one travels alone to the hottest place on earth. You need, for starters, a driver and a Jeep stocked with water bottles and four days of non-perishable food. And because that Jeep is bound to sink in the fine sand of the desert, you need another Jeep (and another driver) to tug it out. There are no places to lodge or dine in this desert, so you’ll need space for cots, a cook, plus a few armed guards, because the hottest place on earth is also somewhat lawless. And finally, because an entourage of this size costs many thousands of dollars, you’ll need some fellow travelers to split the bill – the sort of people who like to fry themselves on vacation.

My father is the easiest recruit. Dad, who naps best roasting in the afternoon sun, is a lover of extreme heat. He’s also an extreme traveler, drawn to the fringes of places, all the countries where no one honeymoons. Alone, he’s wandered Rwanda, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Sierra Leone. From my father, I’ve inherited both tendencies: I’m known for getting pig-pink sunburns, and also for stalking the edges of maps.

The Danakil desert lies on the fringes of three maps – the maps of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. All three countries claim a sliver of this sweltering, low-lying desert, named the cruelest place on earth by National Geographic. It’s also a tectonic triple juncture – three plates converge here – as well as a major volcanic hub. I don’t have to mention any of this to my father – not the endless salt flats, lakes the color of Listerine, or camels by the thousands. When Dad starts calling this desert “the Frying Pan,” I know he’s in.

On a message board, I find two more people to enlist – a concert pianist and a computer engineer. Both are keen on reaching the Danakil in early December – the mildest time of year in the cruelest place on earth.

%Gallery-156306%We don’t find Omer until the four of us converge in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. He’s leaning against the stone ledge outside our hotel, smoking, when my dad strikes up conversation. This pony-tailed Israeli man, with a dusty backpack and a unicorn tattoo, looks nothing like my grey-blonde, khaki-clad dad. And yet, when they get to talking travel, I feel like I’m watching long-lost brothers reunite. Sumatra, Annapurna, the Andes: the same extreme places have lured both men.

Their travel records are remarkably even (Omer, just like dad, almost drowned white water rafting on the Blue Nile), until Antarctica comes up. My dad only gazed in its direction from the tip of Argentina. Omer, however, touched the South Pole.

There’s a smile on my face when I ask Omer about the Danakil – why doesn’t he come with us? “I hate heat,” Omer shakes his head with conviction. We tease him that my dad will easily even their score by going to the hottest place on earth. Omer looks conflicted. Omer smokes a cigarette. Omer buys a ticket to Mekele at the airport the next morning.

If the Danakil desert is the basement floor of Ethiopia, Mekele is the top rung of the basement stairs. It’s where you pause to gear up – and group up – for this desert voyage. In Mekele, the five of us merge with a carpenter from Dublin, an ironworker from New Jersey and two Israeli girls, fresh out of the army. We fill five jeeps and have nothing in common but a love of travel, and a willingness to sweat for it.

The jeeps plunge down tan mountains for hours, mountains that feel primordial, perhaps because I know Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old hominid, was unearthed near here, perhaps because civilization completely drops off. Every couple miles, we break for a flock of donkeys and camels strapped with thick tablets of salt, and the lone shepherd trailing behind his herd, wearing a Kalashnikov.

The Danakil, unlike highland Ethiopia, whose ancient churches and popular cuisine are drawing more tourists than ever, still wears a KEEP OUT sign. The heat, of course, is brutal. So, guidebook writers warn, are the Afar tribesmen. Legendary for their ferocity, the Afar no longer castrate outside visitors as they were rumored to in the early 20th century, but the Ethiopian government requires all travelers to hire armed guards. I’ll understand this measure better when news of a massacre in the Danakil makes headline news: five people are killed and four more kidnapped in the Danakil, just one month after we leave. And despite the Ethiopian government’s swift move to send more security forces into the Danakil, the region remains dangerous.

For now, I’m too focused on heat to weigh other dangers. The numbers on our Jeep’s temperature monitor continue to rise, even as the sun goes down. I remind myself, as we dip below sea level, that this is just a warm-up. The real heat won’t strike until we reach the sizzling edge of the frying pan, an uninhabited region, roughly 130 meters (426 feet) below sea level, called Dallol.

Dallol holds the record for average annual temperature: 94 degrees. It’s only advisable to visit Dallol in the early morning, before the sun has reached a critical height. So we camp in the nearby village of Hamed Ela, where camel caravans also spend the night. In the morning, the moon is hanging low on the pinky horizon when our guides get us in motion, into Jeeps, and off towards the Eritrean border.

Sand gives way to salt, and soon we’re in a landscape of white crystals glinting in the fresh morning light. The ground is miraculously flat. Our driver, who has been battling fine sand, cannot resist the urge to gun it. We surge ahead of the other cars in what looks like a Jeep race across some frozen Minnesota lake.

The wintry illusion is broken with a glance at my sweating dad. No one in our Jeep is shivering. I see sunburned calves, emptied water bottles, bites dotting our ankles. The overnight in Hamed Ela gave half of us fleas.

Suddenly, in the pure white expanse, a huge brown mound appears, rising like a cliff from the sea. It’s the only vertical mass in sight, and apparently, our destination. The jeeps brake and park. Nobody tells us this is a collapsed volcano; our guides are coaches in a race against heat, not docents. We’re ordered to find a full liter of bottled water, and to bring it with us up the lumpy brown mountain. Halfway up, I turn around and squint down at the Jeeps, now toy cars, their tire tracks a long S-curve in the vanishing horizon of salt and sand. At the summit, I find my travel mates standing in silent reverie.

Mind you, it takes a lot to hush these guys. Ultra-extreme travelers, they’ve never met people quite like themselves. Our trip feels at times like a Fringe Travel convention, with everyone spouting stories of remote places and “if you go” tips. Already, I’ve learned that the worst predator of the Amazon is the mosquito, that chimpanzees in bad moods will rip your face off, and that the very best way to do Sri Lanka is by elephant.

Dumbstruck now, my comrades crouch down beside pale green toadstools – mineral formations whose glossy tabletops are smooth as marble. It feels oddly like we’ve just walked in on something – a meeting? a moment? Whatever these green outgrowths are, they stop us cold, right at the doorway of Dallol. I see Omer creep ahead, still silent, towards a far more arresting vista.

The hottest place on earth is an assault of color: slime yellow and deep rust, pea green and Barney purple. Some of the formations look like coral reefs, others like egg shells, air-blown from the hot breath of the earth below. It’s a psychedelic plain of sulfur deposits, iron oxide crust, acid lakes, and tiny geysers that gurgle up steaming water. Everyone wanders off alone, crunching over the brittle earth, heads down, heads shaking.

I know the ground is hot – you can even hear the soft throbbing of water boiling underground – and yet I can’t help treating it like ice. A Buffalo native, I grew up skating on rinks and shimmying across slick parking lots. The ground here feels way too familiar to shake the fear that my feet will fall right through. Sure enough, just when I work up the nerve to step with force, the purple ground collapses beneath my foot. The sneaker I pull back out is rimmed in bright yellow goo.

Everywhere we step, things break and splinter. It sounds like a china shop, full of looters. This desert lends travelers so many chances to grasp its remoteness. You feel it in the sudden lime-green oasis of grazing camels, where no one else watches on; you feel it on the rim of the roiling volcano nearby, where nothing holds you back from the luminous caldera; and you feel it here, in this fragile masterpiece of sulfur and salt, where a day’s worth of tour buses would crush nature’s strange design. You start to think: we really shouldn’t be here. This desert wasn’t built to handle a human intrusion, and the human body certainly wasn’t built to handle this desert.

I feel hot, but not to a degree that alarms me. Only when I lift a hand to my chest and feel, beneath the soaked fabric of my t-shirt, collarbones like hot radiator pipes, do I understand what my body’s dealing with. Heat in Dallol doesn’t just beat down from the sun. It hisses up through conical vents, bubbles up in sulfur pools, and radiates from the thin ground with force. I get the feeling that this medley of heat is off the human register – mine at least. I’m not even thirsty. How is that possible? While I wonder, my dad hands me his liter of water and stands there until I finish it. We should go soon.

I see the armed guides – perched on the cliffs above us, their guns set into stark relief against the brightening sky – abandon their posts. The guides are corralling us. Time to go. As we clomp back down the mountain, there’s lots of talk of the moon.

“Patrick!” a guy who’s been to Kabul calls out to a guy who’s been everywhere else. “You don’t have to go to the moon now!”

When I think of the moon, I don’t see trippy colors, or bubbling geysers, or a trail of shattered crystals where past explorers walked. And I’ve never heard that the moon reeks of rotten eggs either. There’s nothing at all lunar about the hottest place on earth. What my travel mates are trying to say is that they’ve never been anywhere like this. For once, no one has comparisons. We’re all, regardless of our travel records, equally awed.

Back in the Jeeps, blazing towards the white horizon, I look down at my sneakers. The fluorescent goo has died and faded into a neutral grime, like that was all just some fever dream up there, a place we made right up.