Waking up to the sound of generators and crying children in a puddle of sweat wasn’t high on my list for the trip. 75 degrees at 7am does weird things to me, I get irritable and frustrated. It was becoming increasingly clear to me that my plan of spending the day kayaking in Lake Mead wasn’t really going to pan out. I needed to get the hell out of the desert, as soon as possible. I had my fan blowing hot air in my face, the window down with hot air hitting my side, and the blasting sun glaring down the left side of my body, stuck by the adhesive force of sweat to my shirt and seat. I wasn’t happy.
The fastest way out into the Sierra Nevada – my van’s namesake – where elevation, sweet sweet pine trees, and shade were waiting for me, was through Death Valley.
I didn’t know much about the valley, but it was May and the summer hasn’t hit in earnest, and I’m just going to blast through the damned thing anyway, my baby’s got this, Sierra can make it. Or so I thought.
Little did I know that the heat wave hits hard and fast in the valley. Little did I know that this was the weekend it hit. Little did I know that the valley was a valley because it was surrounded by 5,000 ft mountains. Little did I know that Sierra would have to struggle, at 25 mph, up a steep hill, for half an hour. Little did I know that Sierra, at 2,000 feet, after two and a half hours of driving in the noon sun, would start dipping its RPMs, Little did I know that Sierra as a matter of fact, wouldn’t be able to make it.
Well, here I was. Heat unlike any heat I’ve ever felt. The only saving grace was that my cowboy hat was just wide enough for its noon-shade to cover my body. Only my feet were exposed, and if I leaned just right, the shadow of my body covers those as well. It was a good look, as you can imagine.
Out of options and signal range, I flag down a car, ask them to take me to the visitor center so I can call AAA. This awesome Swiss couple stops for me, gives me a ride to the nearest gas station, drop me off, where I proceed to find out that the phones are down. Ok, cool. I described my situation to them and they tell me I broke down not 200 ft from a ranger station I didn’t see ’cause I was monitoring my RPMs.
Ok, time to hitch a ride back. I got this, I don’t look like one of those bums who hitch rides on the side of the highway. No, I’m an educated professional from a good family, people will stop.
You never empathize with hitchhikers until you find yourself stranded looking for a ride. I’m sure if any of the people just stopped for me to tell them what’s up they’d realize I just needed a lift 15 miles on the single road I know they’re going to go on (there are no turns on the 190).
I walk up the road to a restaurant, where I found my first thermometer of the day. 116 degrees. In the shade. One of the employees gives me a ride back to the car, I give him $10 for gas money, put the van in neutral, and roll back down the hill to the ranger station.
Ain’t no ranger in the ranger station, pay phone doesn’t work. Ok well, I have only one option: Hope that the breakdown happened because of the build up of heat, hope that the evening will cool down enough for me to attempt to cross the pass the next day. Off to the campground 100 feet away I go, I turn right, I’m the only car in the 12-spot gravel campground. I park the van so it provides shade for me, sit down, and start reading.
In pulls a couple of cars, a couple of people walk out, and I strike a conversation with one of them. Solitude doesn’t seem to have the effect of introspection on me, it seems to just make me more likely to approach strangers and have a conversation. The urge to talk apparently doesn’t leave me when I’m in the wild. After I talk to one of them, he goes back to join the other, and proceeds to tell him in detail everything that just happened. Huh, they’re being pretty loud, I can hear everything they’re saying 70 feet away.
They invite me over to chat, I sit down and find out they’re writing a book together on the mines around Death Valley. Turns out this place is chocked full of late-19th and early 20th century history dating from 1849 when the first white people came and gave it its name, till the 20’s and 30’s toward the end of the gold rush era. It also turns out that they’re called Richard and Bob. I immediately find out the cause of their conversation volume: Bob is old and bad at hearing. Bob gingerly drops the fact that he first started coming to Death Valley as a teenager in the mid-30s. The Middle of the 1930s! He was a teenager! That means he’s in his 90’s! The man has seen the development of the national park system, World War II, The Korean War, Vietnam, The Internet, the raging 60s, The growth of cars and the highway! And at his old age, he’s still backcountry camping in the desert. Man oh man, what a guy! He drinks his water from a tin cup, he wears wool pants, his shoes are worn down to his socks, his wrinkles tell the story of more than 80 years of ceaseless exploration. It was like sitting next to John Muir, I had so many questions to ask, I was overloaded and just stared in admiration.
When I asked him what his story was, he started “I’ve been single all my life” – No wonder he still has his vitality. When I asked him what his secret was, he said “I eat right, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, and I am thankful for the creator, you gotta do right by the creator”. No kidding! I asked him what the biggest change he’s seen in society, and immediately he replies: “Divorce! And Graffiti! And Tattoos!”. Huh, didn’t expect that. I was expecting him to say something about how technology is separating us and people don’t interact with each other anymore, to which he replies: “I love the internet, I use it, and I keep in touch with Richard over email and share photos with him”. My god, this man is my idol.
By this time, the sun began setting, the valley started taking on a pink hue, the cloud took an orange glow on their underbellies, and the setting sun through the shadows of the mountains down into the valley, 2000ft below us. When you stop and clear your head, Death Valley really is an amazing place. There was not a single sound to be heard in the middle of the park, other than the whooshing of the leaves in a nearby tree. Richard tells me the moon won’t show up tonight and we’ll get to see The Milky Way. I get excited. Richard has been stargazing all his life and knows all the constellations and points them out to me, I corroborate on my iPhone, and sure enough, there’s Mars, Saturn, Venus, Scorpio, and on and on. At about 10:30, the Milky Way glows in its majesty, we all grow quiet and think about the reality of what that milky white strip is, what it represents, and watch it grow from a small bow near the horizon to a large strip above our heads. I set my alarm for every hour, sleep outside my van on my sleeping bag, glad for life, glad for my new friends, inspired by Bob, and respectful of Sierra, who once again taught me that the landscape is only a setting, not the story. The story is with the people who know the area, who can point out its history and know it like a good friend.
I woke early at 6am by the light of dusk, packed quickly, turned the key, backed the van, and out I went, Sierra now satisfied in my lesson for the day, took me up and over the first pass, down the second valley, up the second pass. On one of the last turns, I find a Joshua Tree! Around the bend, about twenty more Joshua Trees! As I crest the top and tilt back down, I see the mountainside spiked with these gorgeous trees, lifting their arms up to the sky, thanking the sky for the water and the sun that gives them life. I’m out of Death Valley now, ahead of me, The Sierras shoot out from the valley floor. I’m looking at Mt. Whitney now. It’s rocky and barren on this side, but I know what’s on the other side. Home is on the other side.