Travels in the American Southwest

Death Valley 1994

It was my first time visiting Las Vegas. I was spell bound by the neon and noise. What an amazing place this is, but after a couple of days, I felt sensory overload setting in!

Like any American boy, I grew up hearing tales of Death Valley and itsdesolation. I'd seen the old black and white movies of the pioneers battling oppressive heat as they slowly inched their way over the parched earth towards California. My folks tell me I first visited Death Valley with them when I was ten months old, so I guess it was only natural that I rent a car and return to explore and reminisce.

The Cute Kid and Dad

(Wasn't I a cute kid?)

Left downtown Las Vegas before sunrise and headed up route 95 making excellent time along a well paved highway. I'd decided to use U.S. Route 95 rather than go through Pahrump as I wanted to see Devil's Hole. This small water hole, just north of Death Valley, is home to a species of pup fish found only here.As I traveled northeast on US 95, I saw a bright flashing yellow light far in the distance. "What could that possibly be?" I wondered. For miles and miles I watched the light flash, never seeming to move. But eventually, the light grew closer and I discovered that it was a small airplane landing strip for a business unique to Nevada. As I recall, the establishment's name was"Lotus Blossoms" and it had a bar in a separate building. Wanting to verify where I was, I passed the bordello by and walked into the deserted bar. When I asked the bartender if I was on the right road for Devil's Hole, he smiled and asked the question I suspect most locals ask the tourists who stop for directions, "What the hell do you wanna go there for?"

Well, I was on the right road and after stopping and exploring Devil'sHole,I had to agree with the bartender...What the hell did I wanna come here for! The hole is surrounded by a high chain link fence that not only prevents access but even prevents the visitor from peering down at the water level well below the surface. What saved this portion of the trip from being a total waste was the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge which is just south of Devil's Hole. It is a true oases in the middle of the desert. This Wildlife refuge is home to dozens of species of birds and fish as well as being a stop-over for birds following the Great Pacific Migratory Path. The roads toDevil's Hole and through Ash Meadows are either gravel or graded dirt which could become quite slippery when wet, I suspect.

Ash Meadows

Hooked up with route 210 in Nevada and crossed into California passing the town of  Death Valley Junction. Got on route 19 and thirty miles later I entered Death Valley National Park. Somewhere along this road, you will notice a vein of coal discovered when the road was blasted out of the surrounding mountainside. Many visitors stop and dig a small chunk of coal out of the seam. (Hint: Use your lug wrench!)

My first stop was Zabriskie Point. Rolling dunes of sedimentary rock laid down millions of years ago gives the area an other-worldly air. Traces of color can be seen running through the rock dunes indicating mineral deposits. A large sign provides history and geology info.

Zabriskie Sign   Zabriskie Sign zoomed

I continued north passing the famous Furnace Creek Inn and across the street, Furnace Creek Ranch until I reached the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. It's the squat one story building on the left with a thick green lawn. I paid my admission fee and gave a cursory review of the museum and collection of artifacts paying special attention to West Side Road,a gravel and dirt road which runs parallel to route 178, the main north-south road through the park. I had gotten it into my mind to take this rough unimproved road so that I could really experience Death Valley.

Left the Visitor Center and headed south on 178 until I reached Artists Drive leading to Artists Palette. Various minerals have colored the rocks of this area green, red, purple and white providing colorful photo opportunities.

West Side Road

At 10:30 am, after finishing a roll of film at Artists Palette, I left the safety of paved route 178 and started south on a one lane, rather roughWest Side Road. I wasn't worried. The car was in fine shape and I had plenty of non-alcoholic beverages in an ice filled cooler. When I met a pickup truck coming in the opposite direction, we both squeezed way to the right and gingerly passed each other. Well, at least there are other folks traveling this road, I thought and continued creeping along the now rut-filled road.

West Side Road

Hmmm. The car seems to be riding a little "heavy" on the right. Probably just the slant of the road. A couple of miles further; Hmmm, the car's rear end still feels funny. It's probably nothing but let's stop and take a look. Hmmm. Looks like the right rear tire fell into a Cuisinart. Well, it wasn't quite that bad...sliced but not really diced. "There's a dry wash,"I thought. "I'll just back in there in case another car comes by; That way I won't be blocking the road." I backed in until the front tires left the "roadway"...The front of the car starts to sink. Not good. I pop the car into drive, step on the gas as the front bumper comes into contact with the ground and the wheels spin merrily around kicking up clouds of dirt.

I knew I said I wanted to experience Death Valley, but this was a bit more than I had bargained for. It was 11:00 am as I surveyed the wide expanse around me. I was looking for a Park Ranger. Hey, I just knew that burying my car up to the front bumper in the dry wash was illegal! I gazed longingly at the traffic zipping by on route 178, a "short" six miles away, then chuckled at my foolishness. One doesn't go for a six mile jaunt through DeathValley, especially alone. People die doing that!

I took stock of my situation. I had two days supply of liquids and food for at least that long plus half a tank of gas, warm clothes and yesterday's newspaper in case this little adventure became an overnight excursion! Fortunately, an inspection of the trunk revealed a spare tire and a jack.Not wanting to wait for rescue, I pried off a hub cap and started using it to dig a hole under the car's frame. Placed the jack in the hole and once the left tire wasout of the hole, I took a break. For the first time I noticed the fluffy white clouds gathering in the sky. Normally, this would be very pretty, I thought as I gazed at the car sitting in the dry wash. Hope it stays dry. Hopped in the car for a ten minute "cool down", putting the newspaper in thewindows to keep the beating sun out of the car. After the break, I started collecting rocks to place under the front wheel, kicking each rock to make sure there was no crawling stinging type desert residents beneath. I piled the rocks under the front wheel. Lots of rocks...deep rut! I lowered the jack, pleased that the front bumper didn't return to the ground, took another break then proceeded to do the same thing to the right side of the car. Dig hole. Break. Jack up car. Break. Gather rocks. Break.Change tire (remember the flat?). Lower car. Throw jack and flat in trunk.I got into the car figuring the front wheels were about two feet from the roadway. I slipped the car into drive, gently stepped on the gas and I made it...about eighteen inches. The front wheels sunk into the desert and the front bumper rested comfortably on the desert floor, again. But I had gotten real good at this! Retrieve jack from trunk. Dig hole. Break. Jackup car. Break. Gather rocks. Lower car. Break. Go to other side of car. Dig hole.Break. Jack upcar. Gather rocks. Break. Lower car. After two hours and twenty minutes, I wasfinally free!

The temperature was around 115 and during the entire time, not one car drove by. I was only a little concerned early on in the fiasco. At everybreak I'd drink some water or soft drink, just to stay hydrated. I was jacking up the car for the first time when it dawned upon me...I wasn't sweating. Not a drop. The air is hot, the car is hot. Heck even the jack painted black was hot, but I was dry! Momentary panic. From training in years gone by I remembered...Heat Stroke. Dry skin? Yep. Hot to the touch? Well, no.Confusion? Not really, apart from being there in the first place! Skin flushed? Nope. Then I remembered. The constant desert wind whips away moisture from the skin's surface, so no perspiration! I drank a little extra each break,just to be on the safe side.

I was dirt streaked. I was tired. I headed back to Las Vegas, taking time tocall my gambling buddy and let him know that although I'd be late, I was fine and would be back in a few  hours. "Oh, you mean you really wanted me to notify the Park Rangers if you didn't show up?"

Moral #1: Leave your itinerary with a dependable person.
Moral #2: Never, ever, ever drive off the roadway in Death Valley.

More Information
National Park Service-Death Valley
Death Valley Visitor's Guide

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