Embracing life in treacherous places
The trepidation builds as we crest yet another rocky rise, our destination Death Valley, consistently the hottest and least hospitable place on the planet, save for perhaps, say, Antarctica.
In a matter of hours we drop from the Sierra Nevada ranges at around 8000ft in elevation down to below sea level, and our vans fried brake pads have filled the cabin with that lovely tell-tale toxic bouquet.
It is true that as we enter the park from the West, we are only 100km or so from the highest point in the continental United States, Mt Whitney at 4,421m.
The van also decides that along with elevation drop, he doesn’t appreciate drastic temperature changes either and the battery goes all but useless on us. And he’s puffing thick white smoke for some unknown reason.
Don't get me started on the van's problems!
Still, the scenery is eerily beautiful and calming to a weary road tripper. Until that F15 fighter jet does a screaming proximity fly pass right by us as we stand at a vantage point taking a breather (well a breather for the van at least).
These near tenantless wastelands are prime air force base country, and the US military is evidently as active as ever.
Even as we stand catching our breath and letting the adrenaline subside we hear other distant jets tearing the serenity apart.
The embattled gold prospectors encountering this great swath of desert as they moved west in the 1840s named it Death Valley, for reasons that probably don't need explaining.
The park boasts twin records of being America's hottest and lowest place, at 56.7C and -86m, respectively.
Once a giant inland sea encompassing most of Utah, Arizona and Nevada, what remains here is a salty, dry modern day River Styx.
To say it is barren and hot and plain scary is an understatement as large as the sky out here. But to say it is enchantingly unearthly is no lie.
We are now puttering along at dusk in a three tonne vehicle (somewhat affectionately known as Ronnie) that needs a tune up, a new battery and a new left headlight, amongst several other flaws we have grown to live with by now.
Should we break down, we may as well be on the moon, the valley of death is that isolated from mechanical assistance.
At around 7pm we pull into a suitable nightly parking spot to free camp and pray that he’ll start again in the morning.
We are by Mesquite Dunes, a loose collection of fine wind blown sand in the middle of a vast flat valley, hemmed in on all sides by steep chocolate mountains.
We take a short stroll and drink in another sunset and a cold beer, before becoming paranoid about nocturnal snakes and scorpions emerging to forage in the (relative) coolness.
The temperature back in the van reads 37C and the night's planned meal of a coconut chicken curry does not seem an appealing task, cooking or eating.
The A/C was disconnected years ago, our handheld battery powered fans are hopelessly inadequate, plus it's hard to sleep and fan one's self concurrently. Once again another very patchy night's sleep – the joys of the road trip continue!
We gladly arise before dawn, still glistening with sweat even though the temperature is a more manageable 25C, and head further into the heart of the park.
Pre-dawn colours and vistas are Martian, the distant mountain ranges form a 2-dimensional tableau, until the sun illuminates the rugosities and ruggedness and they become 3-dimensional again. It’s easily the best time of the day to be in this place.
We pilot the van carefully through a narrow shallow canyon known as Artists Palette, the name obvious given the psychotic multi-coloured rocks hues.
We compare the crazy rainbow spectrum of mineral deposits to Vienetta, Rocky Road and Tiramisu desserts.
Roadside signs warn of flash flooding, which is a concept so far removed as to be laughable.
Although history dictates it can and does happen, catching dozens of motorists out every few years when the rains come.
By rains, keep in mind annual rainfall in the basin averages just 38mm, enough apparently to cause flash flooding!
It turns out mining was big here back in the day, namely Borax, whatever the heck that is. All that’s left now are ghost towns and vacant mountain vistas stretching away as far as the haze will allow.
The park is fairly small by American standards, a mere 60 km across its waist. All too soon the surreal moonscape is over and we pass the Thank You for Visiting sign en route to Vegas, as the landscape melds into the standard Nevadan staple of rock and sand and barrenness.
We breathe a collective sigh of relief that both van and occupants have safely made it out the other side. Bring on Las Vegas!
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