|Are we going?
|Don't know. Wife is sick.
|Okay... Take care of your wife.
|Maybe we are... She says go pound sand.
|So... Areeee weee going???
|Is it this weekend or next weekend?
|Can we go next weekend?
|So... when are we going? This weekend or next weekend?
|That's kind of how it went for a while.
One would think a weekend camping trip should not take a lot of deliberation. You plan well in advance, tell your friends and relatives that you are unavailable for
weddings, birthdays, bar mitzvahs, trips to junkyard or shooting range, pack your things, and spend your week leading up to the trip in misery of anticipation.
Except for when you don't.
It certainly helps a lot to have a vehicle fully ready for a trip - with the assorted camping stuff packed up. However, if the tentative camping destination is about 300 miles away,
and it is where one does not expect pavement, gas, water, fuel, towing service, or even any hint of cell phone coverage, it gets complicated.
It helps to keep a vehicle ready for a minor Armageddon: engine and transmission oil, gear oil, antifreeze, brake fluid, and the like should all be in place and in required quantities (and not on the driveway).
A fifty-pound plastic case behind the driver's seat can house spare parts ranging from a fuse to an engine computer, with spare alternator, starter motor, CV joint, seals, hoses, gaskets,
bearings, U-joints, and whatever you may never think of. Another is useful to fill with recovery gear - hopefully, it should not be needed. The collection of garage-sale-sourced
items with brand names like Craftsman, S&K, Matco, or Snap-On., merits yet another case. Finally, the last one for a full kitchen - stove, pots, pans, knives, utensils, garlic salt, pepper,
mixed dry food, vegetable oil, coffee... More often than not, some of the latter kitchen supplies are thoroughly mixed together during the previous trip - but in a true weekender spirit, you'll
only learn about it at a dinner campfire.
Did I mention maintenance? Yesss, maintenance. A quick glance under the truck reveals completely shredded front radius arm bushing on the frame end, and in process of its replacement the axle-end bushings
are also found pretty much done in. Rear axle pinion seal is leaking, and one of the exhaust hangers is broken.
Things like that are helpful in distracting you from travel dreams.
All preparations do not spare you the frantic search for missing camera tidbits, charging cables, and last-second-thought items in the dark the next morning. So you kiss your sleepy wife good-bye,
plop down in the driver seat half an hour later than planned, and hope to make up time. It doesn't help having to wake up a sleepy 90-pound, 14-months-old Airedale, and hoist him into the truck.
Fast forward an hour.
Matt, Jordan, and I meet at a dimly-lit gas station North of Escondido. Matt is the only "family man" on the trip - and his lovely wife Thao is the only one smiling. Jordan's alone, and I am with a puppy.
We check our comms (Jordan has none, so he's literally left in the dark about what takes us so long), and sail out at the crack of dawn.
Fast forward two hours.
We're at a Pilot truck stop near I-15/US 395 split. We head straight to the section with CB equipment, and persuade Jordan to procure a radio, cable, antenna, antenna mount, and assorted connectors and such.
Soon Jordan is busy with installing his new link to civilization. I take Jules the Airedale for a walk. We buy a bunch of useless crap and junk food, top off the tanks,
and head North on 395.
Time to Olancha Junction passes quickly - in checking and adjusting the radios (how much fun that is!) and commenting on the lifestyle and habits of people of Mojave Desert.
Ridgecrest and China Lake get our nod; in many hours spent over the years at the old hangar at Inyokern Airport I learned that Inyokern was a "Hub of Southern California" - take that, Los Angeles and San Diego!
Indeed, Inyokern is nearly equidistant from any center of the first-world civilization.
Someplace near Coso Junction, Jules the Airedale decides that the shotgun seat is not for him, and climbs into mine - rather, on top of me. In case you never had this experience - having a 90-pound dog draped over your neck is not
the most-desirable distraction while driving.
We top off the gas tanks in Olancha, and gather for the last-minute trip planning meeting. The original vague idea included taking Lippincott Trail from Saline Valley to the Racetrack, and return via either Northern route
skirting Eureka dunes, or Hunter Mountain Trail back to Saline Valley. Matt inquires about whether we'd be interested in visiting Cerro Gordo (a near-ghost mining town)- which was one of "why didn't we think of that?" moments.
Highway 190 crosses the floor of Owens River Valley - which is always spectacular in its "man-made desert" sense.
In about 20 minutes, we pull off Highway 136 to the dirt parking area - to stretch out a bit and to air down.
Airing down is something I rarely do. Last Summer, we drove more than a thousand miles on dirt in the deserts of Northern Nevada and Idaho with 45 psi in our tires - but this is Death Valley, folks.
Home to the most brutal washboard that makes you hate everything around, more so than dust or heat.
After one memorable trip up North Death Valley Road when several nylock nuts went AWOL on my Range Rover, I gladly trade a risk of a sidewall failure for a little sanity.
The knowledge that "All parts and pieces falling off this vehicle are of the finest British craftsmanship" does nothing to soothe you - because in a few miles, you know they ARE falling off.
Jules refuses to be put back in the truck, and runs around - it takes me some time to round him up. Got to train that dog, better sooner than later.
With half the air out of our tires, we continue up a brutally steep grade to Cerro Gordo.
The road gains 4600 ft in elevation in about 7.7 miles, making the average grade close to 11%. The air temperature outside is in the low 50s, yet the engine warms up to 200F in a hurry - and stays there the entire climb.
I stop a few times to take pictures of Owens River Valley behind - and beneath - us.
We are not alone in town - so it takes us a few minutes to find a place to park. Cerro Gordo wins us right away - by not being really ghost town. A caretaker lives in town, and offers tours of the buildings.
You can walk into the buildings, sit on the chairs, and can get a much better feel of the place than in either completely ran-down places, or over-protected by the state like Bodie.
We head straight to the American Hotel - what a gorgeous place it is!
Bob, the cheerful caretaker of the town, ambles in and tells the story of the town, all the way from the "injuns" to the most-recent litigation related to health insurance of the town employees (was it plural?).
We pursue a bit of deeper immersion in Cerro Gordo lifestyle by having a shot of rye in the bar of American Hotel - I wish most ghost towns were accomodating to that extent!
The general store must not be skipped - Bob's explaining the peculiarities of lead bullets and ingots, and we keep taking the photos.
Some time is spent discussing the finer points of four wheel drive with Bob and generally loitering about; then, we have our fill of photos, and head up the road - and across the ridge - into Saline Valley.
The road is a little bit rougher than the one leading up to Cerro Gordo; we stop for lunch at 8500 ft, and try to pretend we aren't cold. Sculpins fresh from the fridge aren't really helping.
The dog is allowed to roam free, and he calms down instantly. We eye the views - and our watches; it is already mid-afternoon, and yet we're nowhere close to any reasonable destination.
We wrap up the lunch, pack the trucks, and head downhill.
At about the same time, the Airedale discovers a nice and wide padded seating area (that he refused to acknowledge up to this point), and the road opens up to Death Valley proper.
This isn't the grandest of all entrances to a National Park.
Cerro Gordo Road continues downhill to White Mountain Talc Road, where we turn right (South) towards Saline Valley Road. It takes us a while
to get even there; the air dries up, and the trucks kick up quite a dust trail.
Soon, we climb out of Lee Flat, and stop at the turn-offs to Hunter Mountain to ponder our options.
It is already about 6 pm, and while we can reach the Racetrack, we'll be descending down either Hunter Mountain Road or Lippincott in the dark. Nothing particularly bad, but we'll miss all the fun.
At this moment, I seize the opportunity to see yet another corner of Death Valley where I have never been before, and nearly impossible to come by by an accident - Saline Warm Springs. I offer this option
to our crew, and it is accepted. The destination is found by Garmin, yet... it says it'll take us about two hours and a half to get there. It can't be that far, can it?
No, it isn't that far, really. Only 37 miles, give or take some.
But that's one of the places where the Death Valley gets you.
Out of these 37 miles, about 7 are on a winding shelf road descending into Saline Valley proper.
Then you face 22 miles of brutal washboard, and you're almost there - all that remains is 8 miles of insane whoop-de-doos, which reduce your progress to the pace of an ox-driven wagon.
But this knowledge came later. Now, the Garmin prediction did not quite faze us, and we headed downhill into Saline Valley.
I have to admit to having an "aren't we almost there?" feeling once we hit the valley floor.
The chatter on the radio tapers off as we are trying to keep the speed up and float over the washboard.
It has some perils - every now and then, there's a large and deep washout crossing the entire road, but there's no way to slow down - any brake pedal input locks mostly-airborne wheels, and ABS promptly disables the brakes.
I am too lazy to stop and kill the ABS - have to remember to do it in the morning. Jules is terrified - he keeps standing on half-bent legs trying to balance himself; he breathes what seems to be a hundred times a minute, and his tongue hangs
five inches under his jaw.
Not always I have enough time to recover from a washout and shout on the radio to warn Matt and Jordan.
In a few miles, Jordan slams on brakes - in that cloud of dust, he somehow manages to spot a reptile. Jordan's that way - how the same dude loves dogs and snakes amazes me!
The snake later turns out to be a rather rare Panamint Rattlesnake - a separate and seldom seen species. Jordan finds a stick, and carefully relocates the critter to the bushes.
The snake is not impressed, and it lets us know it in its perfect manner - with a loud hiss and rattle.
Soon, the views of the shallow lake open up at the right:
On the other side of Saline Valley, We can already see the opening where the warm springs should be, and where Steele Pass Road takes off to Eureka Valley.
So close and yet so far... We'll drive another six miles on Saline Valley washboard before turning sharp right (East) towards Saline Warm Springs.
The sun is already setting behind the mountains, but we have eight miles of the roller-coaster to work on. Jules enters into another advanced phase of dog misery.
I find myself taking more pictures than necessary - in some anticipation of the arrival. It gets darker.
Jules does not anticipate me slamming on the brakes in front of this sign, and almost relocates to the front passenger seat:
From this sign, it only takes us about 20 minutes to roll through lower and upper warm springs, and find ourselves a suitable camping spot.
We celebrate the occasion with a couple of Sculpins, and proceed with setting up the camp. The wind definitely kicked up a notch, so Matt, Thao, and Jordan
have fun building up their tents. I plan on sleeping in the truck, so my only business is to set up the "dining facilities." The camping chairs don't stay put,
and get blown onto the side quickly.
Jules observes our ritual, then wanders off to scout the surroundings.
Upon our arrival, Matt declares that we have firewood up the wazoo.
We cook dinner, and sit down by the campfire fanned out by the ever-strenghtening wind. Five minutes later, the wood is gone, and we're off in search of anything dry.
Pickings are slim in the desert. We manage to keep the fire going for a while, while enjoying Jameson, then left-over Bourbon.
I pass out in a camping chair. Later, the only thing I remember that not all the liquor fit inside me. Jules, apparently, was tired enough not to wander off into the desert.
Our neighbors stay invisible but very much audible - none of us ventured to the spring, where all of the social life happened.
I wake up in the middle of the night - the wind's nearly howling. Find my flashlight, search for Jules - he's fast asleep on the ground. I wake him up gently and relocate to the truck - he's barely conscious.
I crawl into the sleeping bag and - lights out.
Wake up a few times at night - the entire truck is rocking side to side. Jules is wide awake, standing up, apparently in another fit of terror. I spend some time calming him down, give up, and fall back asleep.
The Morning After
Around five in the morning, Jules is exhausted enough to lay down - and he's asleep the second he crashes. I enjoy another hour of shut-eye.
It gets pretty bright at six, so I quietly crawl out of the sleeping bag, dress up, and get out.
The camp's been under the weather, quite literally.
Matt's tent is flat on the ground, nobody inside. Jordan's tent is still standing, although it looks more like a sailboat's spinnaker in a thirty-knot wind.
The camping chairs are down in sand; pots, pans, and utensils are scattered around campsite, everything coated with a nice layer of fine sand.
The tent campers seem to all have relocated to their trucks - a "told ya" moment for me.
Jules wakes up, but refuses to exit the truck for nearly an hour. I finally convince him to jump out and enjoy the desert; he stays put for a while, and then lazily walks around.
We explore the area - the hot tub, empty in early morning, is magnificent. The wind seems to have died down near the springs, but a look into Saline Valley suggests that there's more of it to come.
The restroom deserves a mention here - not only it is clean, it is fully stocked with toilet paper, paper towels, Windex, and whatnot. Some of the "locals" go literally a long way to maintain the place - many thanks to them.
I meet a "grizzled local," who in a typical "desert-people-muted" terms describes me a pandemonium that unfolded at the tub last night, nearly ending up in a brawl.
We discuss the weather, people, cars, dogs, desert, and everything else worth talking about on a beautiful Sunday morning in Death Valley.
I head back to our campsite, and start resurrection of the kitchen. It takes a while to get the sand out of the grease-stained stove, but by the time my mates wake up, we have a coffee going and generally a grand time.
The guys recount the events from the last night. Thao woke up at 2:30 in the morning when their tent folded; it took her a while to wake up Matt and convince him to relocate to the truck.
Jordan woke up at 2:27, and noticed that he could not see out of one eye - he was that deep in fine sand that got blown into his tent, still standing. Took him a while to regain lost eyesight and hearing in the matching ear, and relocate to his truck.
What a night! In the meantime, I have to stand next to the kitchen table, to keep it from getting blown over. Nothing can be put down - so we juggle with coffee cups, plates, and utensils in our hands while standing up.
Thao, ever so optimistic, keeps cooking stuff - so we can't just call it done.
The food finally runs out, I clean up the stove. Jordan and Matt with Thao depart to the restroom - Jules runs after them. I give up yelling - he comes back by himself
("what? I just wanted to make sure they aren't gone yet!").
Things are packed up, Jules - perched in his seating place, and we are rolling. The hot tub is still unoccupied - so I persuade the boys to jump in (fortunately, there was enough swimming gear in our pile to avoid having to
exersize optional nudity). It was a pure bliss. Just check out the views.
As gorgeous as it was, we took our sweet time getting up, and it was already mid-morning.
Thao still has an the idea of seeing the SuperBloom, so we give up the idea of taking the Steele Pass to Eureka Dunes and head back towards Saline Valley Road.
A grueling hour later, we bid goodbye to Saline Valley.
The road climbs back towards the pass.
Soon, the fun was almost over. Panamint Valley flashed ahead; we quickly covered remaining miles to Highway 190, aired up, and went downhill to Panamint Springs Resort for
a quick two-hour lunch. Filled our tanks with the most-expensive gas in the continental United States, and... gave up on Superbloom, and went straight home.
Even without the detour to the heart of Death Valley, we were home around 9 in the evening.
Remarkably, Jules the Airedale does not hate the Land Rover after the trip!
* * *