In 1978, Al Arnold became the first person to run the 146 miles from the Badwater Basin in Death Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney in the High Sierra. Since then thousands of runners have completed a “crossing” in one form or another.
Contemporary runners face epic challenges in Death Valley: brutal temperatures, fierce winds, and endless mountains – valid reasons for the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon to tout itself as the “toughest footrace in the world.”
Runners take on these challenges to show the world that we still have the physical endurance and strength of spirit of our ancestors. That we haven’t lost their determination and grit. That in a world of wondrous technology, we haven’t gone soft.
In reflecting on his experience in Death Valley, Al Arnold once said, “If reincarnation is true, then I must have lived before as some kind of scout with an army or with pioneer settlers. I really feel that you could drop me almost anywhere in the world and, barring human adversity, I’d survive.”
Interestingly, it was a scout who undertook the first documented crossing of Death Valley and the High Sierra. The year was 1849, and the scout was named William Lewis Manly. He was leading a group of pioneer settlers, or “emigrants” as they were then called, on an ill-fated shortcut from Salt Lake City to the California goldmines.
Arnold might well be Manly’s reincarnation, as they share the qualities of endurance and commitment. Yet their experiences were quite different. Arnold’s crossing was an achievement of training, discipline, and audacity. Manly’s crossing was a venture gone wrong, a lesson in hunger, thirst, and fear, and a quest for survival.