Richard and I both have only limited memories of Death Valley from our childhood. After today, I kind of wonder if that actually was Death Valley where my dad took me camping. The first thing I most definitely do not remember is the terrifying hairpin turny, super steep decent into the valley. Now, I would have been less than ten and not driving a car towing a trailer, but I still think I would have some memory of thinking we were all going to die around at least one of those corners. And the next thing I do not have a memory of is how much it is a valley, like with mountains running along each side. It’s like the Hell version of Yosemite. All I really remember is some ghost town, stuffing fool’s gold into my pockets until it lined the inside of my jacket, and having my dad tell me to “listen for water” as we were going to sleep because we were below sea level. He was a kidder, that guy. But man, I do remember lying under the stars in my sleeping bag, not sleeping, because I was listening for sea water to rush in at any second.
Our adult experience has been memorable indeed. I had the benefit of looking at a relief map in the Visitors’ Center in Lone Pine before starting the day’s drive. I saw what looked like a windy, steep decent, but what it did not fully capture, was the way the whole world just disappears from view every so often and you have to trust that the metal railing would somehow catch you if you ever needed it. I went so slow that I’m sure any sorry people behind me now have a bad impression of Altos. In actuality, there weren’t that many people who ended up behind me. And I took any turn out that was extremely well marked, paved, and wide. I’m not kidding, I think my average speed down that thing was 25 mph. And there were two passes to go up and down before falling into Mordor. Have I mentioned engine braking before? I think I have, but it bears repeating that engine breaking is a good thing. So are Acura MDXs with towing packages and transmission coolers. I love Bruce so much.
Once we were down onto the valley floor, we stopped at Stovepipe Wells for lunch, a gift shop, and a chance for me to unclench my hands. At this point, it was around 97º outside. We gathered information on campgrounds in the park. Our plan A was to get a site with hookups, but we knew this to be unlikely given our spontaneity and lack of reservations. Our plan B was to get a site that was not a parking lot and see if we could survive without air conditioning. Plan C was to drive back to Lone Pine at the end of the day and use that as our jumping off point. After the drive down, I was only looking at plans A&B. So we did try to find a site with hookups and the first campground guy was nice about not laughing at us. We heard multiple reports that the weather was going to be “much cooler” the next day, rain likely, so we decided to tough out one warm night and hope for cooler weather.
We grabbed a site with a great view at Texas Springs campground and went to the Furnace Creek Visitors’ Center. It was air conditioned and had movies narrated by Donald Sutherland about Death Valley. And it was air conditioned. Crazily, after watching the movie, I was greeted by a school colleague who had seen my Facebook post and came to find me. That was fun! Then we headed off to the lowest point in North America in Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level.
The highlight of the day came after that, when we took a drive on a one way, winding little road through something called “Artist’s Drive”. This is amazing. It is exactly like a Disneyland ride and I would totally wait two hours in line to do it again. The road curves through narrow cut out passages and goes up and down dips until suddenly it opens up to a spectacular, other worldly view of these multicolored mountain faces. The most impressive is called “Artist’s Palette”. There are geological explanations for why there are so many different colors here, and surprisingly, none of them include copper. I would have thought the greens came from copper, but no. Instead it comes from something called Green Chlorite and Red Hematite. Pictures don’t capture it. But you’ll notice I took a lot.
Last outing of the day was to go to a place called Salt Creek where there are little pupfish who somehow manage to survive in very little, and very salty, water. Here we took about a mile of unpaved road to get to a boardwalk interpretive trail along the water. Sure enough, hundreds of tiny fish dart around in shallow streams, surviving against all odds.
Tips for hot nights: the Fantastic Fan works great unless there is so much gusting wind you are worried the cover might blow off. Next tip: have a 12v portable fan as a backup. Clip the privacy curtains up to allow for a breeze.
Friday we woke up to a battery at 50%. The Trimetric alarm even went on like it’s supposed to. We did run the fan all night because it was so crazy hot, but the draw was all the fridge. There has been extensive discussion on the Altoistes site, but I believe once you get over a certain temperature outside, you’re not going to be able to keep ice cream and ice cubes frozen without depleting your battery pretty significantly. We turned the fridge down to its lowest setting and hoped some solar would come through the clouds to boost it back up during the day.
The weather could not have been nicer on Friday and we even got “rain”. I put that in quotes because it was more like a preponderance of tiny droplets appearing every now and then; somewhere between a misting and a sprinkle. Still, the clouds overhead were wonderful and the 70s are far more pleasant for hiking.
We first went up to a place called Zabriskie Point, named after Charles Zabriskie, a borax magnate. Again, pictures let alone words do not capture the unique beauty of the geology in this area, but that won’t stop me from trying. Our hike took us mostly down a gulch, like the one where Jawas ambushed R2D2. Then, suddenly, this red mountain appeared in the background, aptly named Red Cathedral. You can tell all of the rock formations are made from delicate, erodible sandstone like material, so there are these striated layers, some paper thin, forming the walls of the gulch.
The hike definitely did me good. I didn’t sleep well Thursday night and felt very anxious most of the morning. It was weird. As we walked, I tried to analyze it and I think the combination of the scary drive, the heat, lack of hookups, and generally oppressive and humbling environment, all combined to make me feel very small and rather trapped. They say exercise is good for anxiety and it definitely worked. After the 3 mile hike, I was back to feeling relaxed and having fun and we visited Dory for Richard’s midday espresso. The solar still was struggling to keep up, but we figured even if we draw down the battery past its happy point, we’re only talking about reducing its long term efficiency. In other words, it’s not like it blows up when it hits 49%.
We took the fun Disneyland E Ticket ride again, but this time Richard biked it and I sagged him. So fun. Man, that has got to be one of the most beautiful places you can go in a car. I took pictures again just to see if it really did change colors depending on the weather. It seemed like it to me.
Last hike of the day was through the other side of the gulch we had come down from the North. That was also very nice and other worldly, like most of this park. It “rained” again while we were walking and we discussed how that was probably a quarter of the annual rainfall and we should try to squeeze any acquired droplets from our clothes onto the ground.
When we got back to Dory, the campground we had mostly to ourselves on Thursday, was almost completely full. Big rigs surrounded us and the place was hopping with families and groups from all over. We saw a Cricket trailer and a funny jacked-up teardrop with huge off roading wheels. And lots and lots of those RV rental units.
As for the battery, it had only recharged to 61% over the course of the day. So we decided to turn the fridge off for the night since it was reasonably cool. We still needed some power to run the water pump, cause no way are we giving up showers, but the little LED candles are a lovely way to light the inside of Dory with no impact on the power.
Our last big traveling day was Saturday and I knew I was going to have to climb at least one of the big peaks we went over coming down. Coming from Lone Pine on Thursday, the first of the peaks was where I was really having a hard time staying calm. That was the route with miles of twisty turns and plummets of death right beside you. The other one was less twisty and more of just a really long climb and/or descent with grades of 8-9% over 20 miles. There was an alternate way out that did not involve going over the steepest peak and the only downside was that perhaps part of the road was missing. No problem. We talked to several people who said yeah, there was a 2 mile gravel part, but it was “high quality gravel”. Awesome.
This route, Highway 178, was in fact preferable to me by about 5000%. The gravel section was no big deal and the climb out at the end of the long Panamint Valley was short and gentle. As a bonus, we got to pass a turn-off for Nadeau Road and that got me all excited. The Nadeaus are the family who make Altos and founded Safari Condo. So I had fun getting a picture of Dory in the shot with a sign for the Nadeau National Recreation Trail.
Once out of that valley, we continued on 178 through the lower end of the Sequoia National Forest and past Lake Isabelle. That road was lovely. It did become quite narrow, windy and a little bit deathy for the last 20 miles, but for some reason, I wasn’t as nervous about it. This road follows the Kern River as it heads out of the Sierras into the Central Valley. And boy, when you leave the mountains, it is like passing through an “all done with mountains now” portal. The mountains part one last time and suddenly open onto Bakersfield. The rest of the drive was predictably straight and flat and fairly boring.
Saturday night we stayed along the road in the Visalia KOA. You know what? We like KOAs! I know they’re cheesy, but they have hookups, laundry, and ice cream all in once place. So we ran the hell out of all the electrical appliances and opened the refrigerator more than necessary on our last night out. Tomorrow is home. Sigh.
Some overall takeaways from this trip:
- Do not go to National Parks on the weekends
- Pre-chopped onions, no matter how well stored, make everything smell like onions
- Even when panicked, follow the checklist when hitching or unhitching
- If it’s hot and we are boondocking, try turning the fridge to 1
- If we’re worried about the battery, turn the fridge off at night
- We are able to be flexible (to a certain extent) and still be ok
Casualties of the trip:
- One blue latte cup
- One package moldy flour tortillas (fridge storage would have been a better choice perhaps)
- Jockey wheels – except that Safari Condo totally kicks ass on customer service and we had a replacement set waiting for us before we even got home!