Travels in the American Southwest

Yosemite to Death Valley

I guess it was Thursday morning. I know it was Thursday but the morning part had me puzzled. Where's the bright sunshine lighting up Yosemite's granite faces? Instead, low gray clouds made it hard to tell where the soaring granite ended and the sky began. It looked like our unbroken string of good weather had ended. The air was cool, heavy and moist; Warm, long sleeved shirts were to be the preferred apparel. Sipping my hot mug of tea, I emptied the spent coal from the grill. Our neighbor was up and about, coming over to thank me again for the fire-making assistance from the night before. He and his campmates were off to go kayaking, not the best of weather but they were well prepared with foul-weather gear. They were camping here for another 2 days and hoped the weather might break.

I started breaking camp, putting the camping chairs in the under-RV storage area. In went the now cleaned grill and charcoal. Decided to check the LP tank didn't want to run out on our last full day outside Las Vegas. We had plenty of propane but I discovered still more wood stashed away. Hauled it all over to our neighbors. They had already left but I was sure they'd appreciate it! MSO was giving the inside of the RV a pre-departure cleaning. She asked what I planned to do with the eight-foot 4x4 on the RV floor. After stepping over it for two weeks, I'd pretty much forgotten about it. I'd picked it up when our trip began. Originally, it was to be used as a pry bar but thankfully was never needed. Carried it over to our neighbors. They'd know what to do with it!

A couple of raindrops hit the windshield as the RV pulled out of the campsite. Better today than yesterday! We know that the drought has had a devastating effect on the area. As we headed back east toward Lee Vining, we could see the smoke from the fire near the White Wolf campground. It was burning when we arrived and continued as we left. Perhaps the light rain would help extinguish it.

The rain also provided us a ready excuse to skip hiking to Devil's Postpile. I was surprised at how stiff my legs were from yesterday's hiking. Well, it was really more than stiffness, I was downright sore. I broached the subject with MSO who readily agreed that hiking in the rain wouldn't be a lot of fun. Maybe next year. Picked up US395 at Lee Vining, our long-term goal was Panamint Springs just west of Death Valley National Park. There were a number of things to see and do before we got there.

Gassed up at the Indian casino on the outskirts of Bishop, then stopped at the local grocery. MSO was pleased to see corn on the cob was still available. It would be a nice addition to our last dinner on the road. Also stopped at Keoghs Hot Springs. The hot pool coaxed the stiffness out of the legs and back. The $7.00 admission fee entitled us to access the hot and warm pools, shower and bath house facilities. Keoghs is a great place to visit if you find yourself on this stretch of US395.

Cruised through Big Pine, gateway to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. I visited there last year seeing the gnarled, bent Ancients. Trees, thousands of years old, dot the park's hillsides. One, named Methuselah had been dated through core samples. As I wrote last year, "4,560 years ago, construction began on the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops). The Oldest of the Old, a tree known as Methuselah had begun its life 200+ years earlier. This truly Ancient One lives to this day. In 2001, at the age of 4,767 years old, it well may be the oldest living thing on the planet." Even if MSO and I wanted to detour and visit, we couldn't. SR168 is much too narrow and twisting to be safe for vehicles over twenty-five feet long. Warnings signs are posted at the entrance in Big Pine.

On and on we went, the odometer clicking away the miles as we headed south on US395. The long sleeved shirt, which made sense at 4,000 feet, was quickly changed for more appropriate attire as we dropped thousands of feet closer to sea level. We cruised by Manzanar War Relocation Center and the little towns of Independence and Lone Pine. It kept getting warmer and warmer, the clouds breaking enough to give us bright sunshine and really warm things up as we neared our exit off of US395.

Just south of Lone Pine, we headed east on SR136 to SR190. As expected, traffic was virtually nonexistent. Only two vehicles passed us as we set our sights on Panamint Springs RV campground. One was a minivan, the passengers waving to us as they eased by. The second vehicle was an F-16 jet fighter , precision flying a couple of hundred yards to our right, maybe three hundred yards up. The pilot knew he had an audience. He flipped the fighter on its side, wings up and down. He straightened the $26.9 million dollar aircraft, hit the afterburners and disappeared leaving only an exhaust trail. The pilot didn't even utilize half the power the aircraft is capable of. He never broke the sound barrier (Mach 1). At full throttle, the F-16 fighter can do Mach 2, twice the speed of sound. Mouths gaping, MSO and I looked at each other. What a way to welcome visitors to Death Valley.

For the nth time during the trip, we were spellbound at the vista we beheld heading east on SR190. While not convenient to visitors from the Las Vegas area, the West entrance to Death Valley is the visually preferred way to arrive. The roadway shimmers as you look down into the depths of the valley, at the very bottom the white alkali salts contrast with the Funeral Mountains rising in the distance. MSO summed it up with " wasn't "drop dead, strain your neck" gorgeous like Yosemite but more "relax and be in awe" gorgeous...". The desolation was numbing. I couldn't fathom traversing this patch of Hades on foot or in a covered wagon as was done only decades ago.

An hour later, at around 1,000 feet above sea level, we spotted our stop for the night. Panamint Springs RV Park. Pulled into the park, seeing only one RV in the large lot. Rather than park and register, I just pulled in to space 8, a respectful distance from the other party. Elbow room and all that!

Hooked up, killing the generator and switching to the park's AC. The temperature, a toasty 97 degrees outside and a cool 70 within the RV. MSO provided the afternoon cocktails as another RV pulled in, parking in space number six. This family was on their way to the coast, coming from Iowa. It was dad's first time west of the Rockies. He was coming from Las Vegas and was curious as to what lay ahead. His rig had overheated forcing him to pull over three times as he crossed the mountains southwest of Pahrumph. He wasn't heartened at the news that another long rise was in store for them. He mentioned one thing that seemed to confuse him. "Every time we'd see a northbound car on the highway, they waved at us. I thought there was something wrong with the trailer or something." I suppressed a smile, telling him that such things were common, particularly on the more remote roads. That out here, elbow room is nice but one's survival can easily depend on a stranger. "Just wave back," I advised.

Meandered over to the store to register. No air conditioning here. Instead, a ceiling fan circulated the hot air. Felt real badly for the short-order cook out back! No problems registering; we are assigned, coincidentally, to space 8. Lady Luck was still our co-pilot! When I got back, MSO had started getting the inside of the RV presentable. I was responsible for the outside, cleaning pounds of dust and dirt off the RV. Two weeks on the open road tends to accumulate a rather sizable amount. While cleaning, I found still more wood. Yeah, the temperature had dropped to the upper 80's as the sun set but any old excuse for a campfire will do! We ate and ate well but it was obvious that I'd over-bought again this year. I had no doubt we'd find willing recipients for our extras eventually.

With the AC on full, we called it a night. Tomorrow, we'd be back in Las Vegas but we'd be traversing Death Valley first. The plan was to cross Townes Pass by 10:00 before it got too hot.

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