Death Valley Days, 2015

Checking another item off my bucket list.

There was a bit of rain in Death Valley in early February 2015, a little more on the 22nd. Time to go see the flowers, however many there may be.

I took a bunch of photos, most of them of flowers. The best ones are in my Death Valley Album on Picasa.

Left PDX a bit after 0600 on 23 February, timing it perfectly so I hit the rush hour in Eugene. So of course I hit the evening rush hour in Reno. Talk about white knuckle time. Early dusk, speed about 70mph, not sure what exit to take (turns out I didn't need an exit because I had to stay on the same highway to my chosen destination for this first day.

There is a rest area on US 395 in California with the most fantastic vista. The light was particularly good when I stopped there and I couldn't resist taking a photo. The water is Honey Lake, but I don't know if it's natural or a reservoir.

Minden, NV, isn't all that big so my motel was easy to find, but finding how to check in was a challenge. Had to go to nearby casino, no check-in parking, I didn't have a reservation, oh my! They weren't quite sure how to handle me. So they made a reservation and then checked me in. Hmmm. Five hundred eighty-six miles today, according to the map.

Tuesday was another long day, but no traffic to speak of. I got to the turnoff for Death Valley around 1300—little place called Lone Pine—and spent nearly 2 hours getting from there to Furnace Creek. Passed through an area with Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia), some of them really big, and they were in flower. Then suddenly a really sharp ecotone, and the Joshua trees gave way to creosote bush (Larrea tridentata). Stopped a few times to look at flowers, mostly yellow composites, which I learned later are brittlebrush (Encelia farinosa), both while and yellow evening primroses (Oenothera and Chylismia), plus a bunch of non-flowering stuff I didn't recognize.

By the time I got camp set up I was too tired to do much but sit and let the sweat dry. The tent worked well after my next door neighbor helped me get the poles set. It's a little too high for me to get a good hold of them both.

Wednesday discovered WiFi was down so I paid 5 bucks for a few minutes at the computer so I could reassure everyone I was okay. Once that was done, I headed for Salt Creek. It's a ways up a gravel road. Nice wooden boardwalk wanders through a big area pretty well cover ed with iodine bush (Allenrolfia occidentalis), sometimes intertwined with saltgrass ( Distichlis spicata). The stream was running well and in several shallow areas I saw little bunches of pupfish, the rare little fish that are endemic to the area. They are tiny, perhaps an inch and a half long at the most, and rather unremarkable in appearance. One of the passersby said the males are starting to change color for their breeding season. In the sand beside the boardwalk I saw a lot of holes with fans of sand just outside. Finally I saw what made them. Little blue-gray lizards, who seemed to enjoy sitting at the mouths of their tiny caves and watch the world go by. They weren't the slightest bit shy, and one even posed for me. I'd forgot to put the binocs into my pack, so of course I saw lots of little, really quick birds, which I identified correctly as LBBs. A raven yelled at me, and some sort of raptor circled overhead for a while, but apparently he didn't see his breakfast because he went away after a while.

It was going to be a hot day. By ten I was sweating. Applied sunscreen, lip balm, billed cap. Repeated several times during the day, but I was a little pink by evening anyhow.

On my way back south, I stopped at the borax works and looked over the big wagons, the ones of twenty-mule-team fame. They are in remarkably good shape, thanks to the dry climate. The photo doesn't really show scale, but the wheels are seven feet high, and the brakes are huge, around 3 feet from top to bottom. According to the interpretive sign, the usual haul was two wagons filled with borax and one enormous water tank. Thirsty work for mules.

From there I headed to Dantes viewpoint, which is around a mile above the valley floor. Leading up to it was a narrow, very curly road littered with bicyclists. The last quarter mile was 15 percent grade (that's really steep!), along a ridge which fell away on both sides. Not a road for the timid. At the top was a spectacular view of Death Valley. I ate lunch up there, after visiting with one of the cyclists. She is from Washington DC, on a supported tour (that means they have a van to carry gear, give them and their bikes a ride when they get tired). Interesting woman, probably in her 50s. Amazing. She made me feel like a wimp, because she'd ridden most of the way up the road.

The drive down wasn't as much fun as the drive up, but Nellie did just fine in her lowest gear. Turned south at the fancy resort (Furnace Creek Resort, looks like a rich sultan's seraglio), heading for Badwater. I stopped at Golden Canyon to read the interpretive sign, but feet were hurting so I decided I'd rather abuse them at the Devils Golf Course. It was another fascinating place, with acres of little towers rising above tumbled blocks of sparkling crystallized salt atop big dark blobs of the same. Not an easy place to walk.

When I started Nellie, I saw a new light in the control panel. CHECK ENGINE. Heart sinking, I pulled out the owner's manual, which wasn't as helpful as I'd have liked. The light could indicate something serious or it might just a warning to have emissions system checked or make sure the gas cap was on tight (it was). Big help. Remembered when the Saturn's light went on we were told that it just meant it was time to have the emissions system checked, so decided to finish the day's plans and cut tomorrow short (no Scotty's Castle) and get to where I could call Metro Metric (so nice to have someone to ask). I wasn't sure how far I'd have to drive to get cell service. Beatty looks pretty small, and it's 50 miles from Furnace Creek.

On to The Lowest Place in North America, Badwater Basin, which is 297 feet below sea level. By then my feet were burning as well as aching, so I walked a few feet onto the salt path and turned back. According to the guide book, I could have walked clear across the valley if I'd wanted (and back, too, of course), but I didn't want. Despite the brisk breeze, I was sweating when I got back to the car.

I don't think you can see Mt. Whitney from Badwater, as someone told me I could. The near horizon was just too high, with nothing visible beyond it. None of the peaks I could see was anywhere near 14,000 feet high.

On my way back to Furnace Creek, I detoured along Artist Drive. Definitely worth it. The colors in the hillsides are spectacular and the road is a lot of fun to drive—very slowly. Dips where I felt like I was about to drive off the edge of the earth, curves that I had to crank the wheel hard to get around. No wonder they don't allow vehicles longer than 25 ft to drive it. I stopped at an interpretive sight near the most colorful outcrop and was lucky to hear a Ranger talking about it. He said the colors were mostly from chlorides, no copper or iron, and caused by an upwelling of chloride -rich hot water along a fault line—a long time ago.

After a brief stop for ice (really expensive!), I headed back to camp, ready to put feet up.

I had some interesting encounters with folks in Death Valley. The next-campsite guy who helped me set up tent was friendly and gregarious. I was sorry he moved on the day after my arrival. The fellow on the other side of my site was a retired machinist and we talked gadgets and projects. At the Artist Drive interpretive site, I sat next to a couple of fellows who started talk ing about retirement in Oregon and raising marijuana. I had to chuckle to myself. They looked way too respectable, but times—and styles—are changing.

Up early Thursday to break camp. When I turned the undertent tarp over, I discover ed the underside to be quite wet. After moment big droplets of water formed all over it, probably a cupful or more, if they'd all coalesced. The patch on the gravel where it had been was dark wi th moisture too. So now I've seen proof that one really can get drinking water in the desert by digging a hole and covering it with plastic.

On my way out, heading toward Beatty NV, I made a few last stops to photograph flowers. Sorry to leave, but I'd seen what I wanted to see, and was satisfied. I wasn't terribly disappointed at missing Scotty's castle. This trip was about scenery and critters and flowers.

No phone service in Beatty, just cheap gas and not much else. I fought strong cross winds all the way to north to Hawthorne. Sometimes the wind angle was enough to make the car sing. Most alarming, until I satisfied myself that the noise I heard was due to the wind. Whenever an oncoming semi broke it, the song stopped briefly. When the road turned to the same heading as the wind, the singing stopped entirely, and I didn't hear it again.

Cell service in Tonopah, UT, as well as a Burger King. I called Metro Metric and was told how to get the CHECK ENGINE warning code read and to call back and they'd translate it. But I had to drive all the way to Fallon, NV, (another 180 miles) before I found an Auto Zone store to get the code read. By the time I had the code, it was after 5 so I'd have to wait until morning to call. Got a motel room, picked up a frozen entrée and a salad and spent the evening reading.

Friday I hung around Fallon until I could call Metro Metric, learned that heading home was not going to kill my car (which by then I'd pretty much decided not to worry about, as I'd driven more than 500 miles since the stupid light went on), so headed north, to Winnemucca, McDermitt, and eventually the turnoff toward Burns. I encountered rain just outside of Lovelock, NV, and it was pretty constant thereafter—except when it turned to snow. From Burns Jct (which used to be the farthest out stop on one of our Coke delivery routes) to Redmond, I encountered just about every kind of weather except tornadoes, hurricanes and typhoons. Pretty exciting, and a little scary, because some people don't realize how slick hail can make a road. One pickup-with-camper twice passed me, and then slowed way down, so when I could (clear road, no traffic) I went around him. The third time he passed me and slowed, I slowed even more and let him get way ahead. I sure didn't want to be nearby when he spun out. I didn't see him upended beside the road, so I guess he survived.

Weather didn't look like it would improve and it was nearly 5 when I got to Bend. I drove on to Redmond and found an inexpensive motel (most comfortable one of the whole trip) and holed up, not wanting to tackle mountain snow in the dark. Forecast was not encouraging, but by mid-morning Saturday the storm should have passed.

And it did. The weather couldn't have been better for my last leg. Clear skies, little wind, and not a lot of traffic until I hit Government Camp, and even then it wasn't congested.

Really glad to have gone. Really glad to be home. Miles driven 2101, sights seen unforgettable.

P.S. Two days after I got home, the CHECK ENGINE light went out. All by itself.

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© 2015 Judith B. Glad