Excursion 7, Day One, Part Two, The Life of Death Valley

by | May 10, 2022 | Locations and Destinations

It fools you. You think, “Wow, this is staggering. Death Valley is cool looking.” But it’s a tease. It IS lovely, but it’s the Bride’s Maid not the Bride

Our Destination for the first week, first phase of the journey, is Minnesota. My family has had a place on a lake there for decades and it is the closest thing I have to a home base from my childhood. I love it there and was excited to see those that always seem so close in my heart but are so far away. It is a long way to the North and East, 2000 miles.

The tail wind became a lovely perpendicular cross wind the second we turned North only Highway 14. Hey, when they park several hundred windmills ahead that are all turning with gusto, you know you are in for it. I thought, however, that the hazard sign stating “High Loads and Campers Prohibited” was a bit much, but I didn’t get more than a second to contemplate what “prohibited” might mean in this case when the first fully unfettered gust hit the left side of the bus and I found myself pulling back off the shoulder.

Ooooooooo kaaaaaaay. Let the games begin!

Through Mojave—where we stopped for gas and I saw a couple, literally, walking backwards down the street in order to fight the wind, they did this casually, as if it was no big deal and even managed to carry on some kind of debate about something—all the way to where topography took charge and we had hills to our West cutting down the wind, it was blowing strong.

Then, like most things, I forgot about it, the struggle gone with the wind, as I tried to make sure I was on the right road and I continually gauged how long Michelle would hold up. She is usually good for two hours and we were over that, but she was still calm, either taking in the scenery or… doing something else she couldn’t explain to me.

This area is gouged, two lane roads heading into various dry canyons amid ranges of dry mountains. These unnamed peaks inhabit the space to the East of the giant Sierras that drink all the water down before it gets here. This isn’t a rain shadow; this is a rain black hole.

We’re cruising along, not much to see, just good old-fashioned, unchanging desert mountains and we pull into the town of Trona that sits in the Searles Valley. Sounds kinda cute, don’t it? Travel Tip: Don’t go there. It’s… unattractive. Not sure what is proper to say here, I mean, perhaps Trona is someone’s child or favorite place. But Trona (I just tried saying it with a French accent and it was not helpful.) is DEPRESSINGLY unattractive. I think the nicest building in town didn’t have windows.

If there were trees, and I don’t think there were, they didn’t LOOK like trees. It’s a Boron mining town and I hoped it wouldn’t touch me. I reached out, patted the dashboard and begged Storm not to break down here.

You leave, hopefully for all time, Trona behind and, many featureless miles later, come down into the Pinamint Valley. It fools you. You think, “Wow, this is staggering. Death Valley is cool looking.” But it’s a tease. It IS lovely, but it’s the Bride’s Maid not the Bride. You zig, you zag, up a bit, down a bit and then we are out in the center of this wide, deep bowl. You turn right to the East on Hwy 190 for the final leg and you are going UP a grade before you get to go DOWN into Death Valley. You go WAY up where the mountains drink the last wisp of water.

And this is a real grade. This is where driving a VW Bus is so different, such a foreign experience to modern day driving. You are at the mercy of gravity, weight, momentum. And, even more wind. You are involved in Newton’s laws of motion like never before, weighing factors of gearing and engine torque and shifting and clutching and braking and the road warnings of 25 MPH really do apply to you. That is about the speed you need to hit that turn or you feel… the tipping sensation. You aren’t really coming off the road, but it feels a lot like you could if you went just a bit faster. Just a bit.

The closest thing I can liken it to is surfing which requires a surrender and a force of will working together all at once.

And you can really kill your vehicle if you go too slow in a high gear and lug the engine. You have to shift “just right.” And if the engine gets too hot it can blow.

But all this isn’t bad. You are connected. You are in full causation of the situation much more because you are not being taken along by a machine that erases the physics with clever and amazing engineering. I own and have owned those cars and love them, they are fun to drive, but the driving experience is completely different. In a modern car you are CERTAIN it can do pretty much anything you want. Speed limits are somewhat laughable. A 45 MPH warning sign means, slow to 70. With a Bus it is the opposite. You have to PLAN AHEAD, sometimes several miles ahead when you see a rising ribbon of roadway. Once you start up something like that the bus slows down, and down and down if it’s really steep.

This valley to valley pass is very steep, second gear steep which is about 25 miles per hour. But, again, it’s cool. You are on your toes, so to speak, engaged, working with the hill, aware of it, part of a shared existence rather than moving over it like an unfeeling wind. You and the Bus are WORKING TOGETHER in a way you just don’t connect with a modern car, like, ever.

And then you descend and descend, and the Bus is just fine.

The air in Death Valley was dusty this day, no great views, but it’s still a bit awe inspiring as you pass the dunes blowing across the highway and the sign that says, Elevation Sea Level. No sea here. And a day that was in the 60s above is now pushing 90 below. Cool for Death Valley.

And… no air conditioning.

And we arrived at Furnace Creek for the night. A campground that has just, as far as major services are concerned, closed for the season because it’s backwards season-wise, same as it’s opposite, a ski resort. It’s too hot in the summer to expect a lot of tourists so the campgrounds are cheap, available, and we never saw a Park Ranger or a concessionaire. ATM card your Eight Bucks and pick a campsite.

I loved it. It only dropped to about 70 that night. Michelle slept outside on the cot, as comfortable as in a bed a home. I took the camper bed because it’s no picnic getting her into the bed in the bus. Mo slept all over the place.

And we had done it. We were on the road, meeting a man that evening who was curious about Michelle and paused in his walk to the bathroom and came over to talk about his mother who had passed from dementia. He had been her sole caregiver and wished he had done something like this with her. Another, younger man, who offered his arm for support as I walked her and then went off to hot springs, a young man perhaps similar to what I had been like on my solo motorcycle trip all those years ago.

And there were some German kids who loved Mo in German.

We were parked in the embrace of twisted evergreen trees that somehow survived this environment, somehow through the searing, relentless heat found a way to dig deep and drink what must be water from a spring close to the surface. “There are hundreds of springs in Death Valley,” I was told.

And there were clean bathrooms and only one scorpion.