Exhilaration and Anxiety
September 9/Day 53.

This morning when I wake up my toes are frozen, despite three layers of blankets. It’s 40 degrees inside the camper. I can’t run the furnace because my house batteries are too low; I don’t want to fire up the generator because it’s too early and other campers are asleep in tents nearby. Bundled up in sweat pants, woolen socks and a hoodie, I sit and shiver.

I decide to check out early; my destination, Death Valley. I’m starting at 10,000 feet and will finish below sea level so it should be downhill most of the way, right? Certainly once I’m over Tioga Pass, the road leads steadily down for 12-15 miles to US Hwy 395. Heading south on 395, the Sierra Nevada stand up immediately to my right for the next 100 miles. Rugged and jagged as a saw blade, they easily rival the Rockies in splendor. Across the valley five miles to my left is another long mountain range, of lesser stature, the Inyo Mountains.

When I turn east toward Death Valley, I still have two mountain ranges to cross, the Inyo and the Paramint Range. So for 75 miles it’s pretty much up and down, with a little more down than up each time. I handle the Inyo Mountains with ease. Climbing the Paramint Mountains gives the truck a demanding workout, but she handles it with aplomb.

Somewhere near the summit of the Paramint Mountains is a scenic vista point named after one Padre Crowley, who was a fixture in the area for decades, ministering to people of all faiths and unfaiths. The vista overlooks a narrow V-shaped canyon void of vegetation. Perhaps a half mile down-canyon, the V opens up to a stunning view of Death Valley about 2000 feet below. I’m standing there with a quiet group of 30-40 other tourists who’ve also stopped and are peering over the railing into the canyon, snapping pictures.

What the fight plane did (click for large image showing approximate flight path)

That’s when one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever witnessed happens. We hear a sound we can’t identify, perhaps a gust of wind whistling up the canyon or distant desert thunder. An instant later, without warning, a fighter plane swoops into view, hugging the left edge of the V beneath the crest, right at the level of the little hump you see in the picture below our line of sight. We're actully looking down on him. With a deafening roar he screams up the canyon, passing us barely 100 feet above our heads, the concussive blast of sound and air jiggling our guts like jello. You can’t imagine how close he is! As he passes us he veers sharply upward to avoid disaster at the end of the box canyon. I can clearly see directly into the fiery exhaust of his engine as he disappears into the clouds. I’m certain the pilot is laughing his ass off.

The shock to our nervous systems leaves us all absolutely stunned. We wander around in circles, babbling. Strangers grab strangers by the shoulders and exclaim, “Did you SEE that!”  to deaf ears. We resemble cackling chickens running around in a barnyard when they spy a hawk soaring overhead. Nobody leaves the vista point for at least ten minutes, too disoriented to drive.

I go back to retrieve my camera from the truck so I can at least record the location, if not the startling event. Usually I carry it with me when I stop at a viewpoint, but this time—no. If only, if only….

At last I clamber into the truck to continue the final downhill run to Death Valley, from 4,000 feet to 0 feet in about 12 miles. I start by downshifting into third gear with the transmission in tow/haul mode, but even with judicious application of brakes the truck, with 14,000 pounds of trailer pushing from behind, begins to outrun the road. I shift into second gear. I pump the brakes as lightly as I can, then let them cool. Pump. Cool. But the truck still wants to outrun the road. For the first time on the trip I smell burning brakes. I can’t get the truck to slow enough to downshift into first gear. I’m starting to sweat, in spite of the air conditioner.

Finally the road levels out slightly for a hundred yards and I steer off onto the gravel shoulder, hoping for the best. I manage to wrestle the rig to a stop amid a great cloud of dust. Plumes of blue smoke and the acrid smell of burning brakes billow from the wheel wells. I turn off the engine, then exhale for the first time I can remember. Just inches off the pavement, I intend to wait as long as it takes for my brakes to cool. I can see the road ahead; it runs straight as an arrow, downhill to a vanishing point. I’m still 9 miles from Stovepipe Wells, where I hope to find a campsite.

After 30 minutes, I start the start the truck and pull the tranny into first gear, counting on the engine’s back-pressure to slow my downward momentum. I ease back out onto the highway.

First gear holds. I turn on my 4-way emergency flashers and creep down the hill at 12 miles an hour as cars zip around me on the narrow two-lane road. Tapping the brakes only rarely, gently, so the engine doesn’t rev over 3500 rpm, I slowly descend.

camper parked alone

No neighbors

I finally coast gingerly into Stovepipe Wells, which turns out to be not a town, but a rather charming little one-company resort with nice motel rooms, a saloon, restaurant, gift shop, gas station, and…a swimming pool! The 20-place RV park is brand new and I happen to be their first and only tenant.

It’s been a good day. But the roar of that fighter still reverberates in my ribcage as I drift off to sleep.

Mother Bares All
September 10/Day 54.

stovepipe wells

Stovepipe Wells

Today I treat myself to a resort experience at Stovepipe Wells. Which means I nonchalantly approach the front desk and inquire, “May I have a pool towel, please?”

I had no idea you could swim in Death Valley.

I go to the motel’s small but comfortable lobby and use their unreliable wifi to catch up on my blog and read the news. Nothing much has changed in the world, has it? It seems my absence from the default world has made no difference in the scheme of things. It’s actually been a relief not to imbibe the daily propaganda that assails me from all directions, all the time. I wonder if I can maintain that abstemious habit once I’m back in civilization a couple of weeks from now…oh, too soon.

desert view

I realize that if I had a Jeep and a month I could put them to good use in Death Valley. There are so many backcountry roads that end at trailheads which lead to historical artifacts and awesome vistas that the list is practically endless. Ghost towns; old mine shafts; relics of 20 mule trains; lonely forgotten cemeteries; Scotty’s Castle—as its name implies, a veritable castle in the depths of the valley; wandering rocks that leave mysterious tracks on the smooth desert floor, and on and on….

It suddenly occurs to me that I’ve traveled both the highest and the lowest continuous highways in America on my journey: Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park (+12,183 ft.) and Badwater Road, which traverses Badwater Basin here in Death Valley, at -282 ft. the lowest point on the continent. Is there some significance in that? I don’t know; I embrace both the highs and the lows.

camper parked alone

I’m struck by the authentic character of desert wherever I sojourn on it. It’s in the desert where Mother Nature dares to bare herself completely, hiding nothing, revealing every outline, every crease and fold, every magnificent imperfection of her body. Elsewhere she coyly covers herself in elegant garments, whether tree, grass, water, verdant foliage or even deep, rich topsoil. Here, though—in the desert—she is naked. Fetching. Seductive. Dangerous.

Intermezzo - Out of the Valley of Death
September 11/Day 55.

Before dawn this morning I ready my rig for travel. Then I wait until 7:00 a.m. when the Stovepipe Wells dining room opens for the big breakfast buffet, the first real breakfast I’ve had on the trip.

camper parked alone

Mesquite Dunes, largest in California

Afterwards I drive about halfway to Zion, stopping outside Las Vegas at an RV park named “Terrible’s,” known for being inexpensive but very attractive. Naturally they expect you to come into the casino and throw your money away gaming, but I’m so clueless in that respect that I might as well walk in, drop my money on the floor and walk away.

I make a trip to Albertson’s for food supplies and do my laundry for the first time since Yellowstone. Not much to report; a pretty mundane day.

Tomorrow I’ll be in Zion. No guarantees about internet access there, so if I go dark for several days…not to worry.

next: zion national park