Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Five Hours in Death Valley

Five hours in Death Valley. This may not seem like much in the winter months, but in the summer? It is not the most delightful of times.

Waking up, covered in gross, we both headed out of the tent into the somewhat cooled morning. Now when I say somewhat cooled, it was still hotter than most summer days in Toronto, but being six aye em, I knew this was as good as it was going to get.

Around the camp, with room for over one hundred sites, only ourselves and a couple of French women, walking around in their underwear – an attempt to beat the heat – could be found. I think this may be the only place not in “high tourist season” in the USA. Travel to Death Valley in these summer months will greet you with discounted prices across the board. Come in the fall and winter? Good luck finding a place to camp.

In the washing up sink behind the bathrooms I shoved my head under the tap. Shampoo and conditioner applied, I was somewhat cleaner, feeling better, and ready to meet the day on my own terms. Within moments my wet hair was attracting the dust particles from everywhere around me.

Katherine got ready, we broke down the tent, shoved everything into the car, and made ready to head out into this killer desert for some light hearted exploration.

Our second stop was the visitor's centre to pick up a map and learn what places we should check out. Stop one? We followed the signs to “Bad Water.” This is a section of Death Valley where a small pool bubbles up to the surface. A potential oasis for all those in need of a quick sip in the early days of exploration. But this pool was one with a deadly secret – it was full of salt, full of it. A sip from this pool would do nothing to help, only hinder.

The great salt flats spread out in front of us. We walked as far as the mountains shadow would allow, not nearly far enough to the full white coverings. But I was sick, it was hot, and there was zero ability to press on. I will normally head out, telling my body to suck it up, to see whatever it is I feel I can see - but here? Now? Without shade I could barely stand. As the rising sun ever shortened the peaks reach, I hustled back under cover of cool.

In the visitor's centre we were told about a number of different sites, and made ready to head on out to them. First, though, we would need to fuel up the car. Running out of gas here? It didn't seem like an acceptable option. There is one gas station in Death Valley. It's price? 4.43/G. Now this is about 1.16 a Liter, prices back home being about 1.00 – 1.04 a liter, but we're in a world where expensive gas is 3.30 (86/L) is expensive. This made us cringe a little. That and the realization of what we'd be paying once we crossed over the boarder.

It was originally thought that we might head to Canada on the fifth to celebrate my One Year out of the country, but looking at the added costs of Canadian fuel prices, and the uncertainty that magical Room Saver books existed (that we didn't have one for California was bothering me to no end.) will keep us out until the last second.

Ankles gripped, tank fueled, we were good to do. Our first stop was the sand dunes. I've seen sand dunes in a number of places around the world now, but seeing them here was strange. I wasn't expecting such perfect sand, and such beautiful shapes to make themselves at home in this part of the world. And yet there they were.

I was torn between my desire to run up and jump/skip down them (one of the most fun things a person can do on their own two feet) and my desire to stay near the car so that when I passed out, I would not be lost to the elements.

Many people set out to hike the sands. Once more I had to make the smart call. Curse you virus floating around our car, no doubt being shared, spread, and multiplied by the communal water bottles.

Forty five minutes later we were arriving at our next site. This was not, as you might think, forty five minutes of walking. No – that would be terrible. This was all in the air conditioned car. There is no way to see America, or her National Parks without the aid of motorized vehicular transportation. It is a big country; it is a big park.

This site would see us climbing up a slight incline to view rock formations that go beyond my description, “the look like giant's toes,” some called out. Others were too busy trying not to die, guzzling water, sitting on the provided benches. Another more adventurous group left the path to go climbing all throughout them. Hats of to their intrepid nature. There are few ways to actually hurt the things we see out here. They have existed for thousands of years, and will keep on existing until they become the new Dune Sea.

We drove through “Artists Road” a twenty minute loop that travels between some of the most colourful formations. They're best seen at sunset, when the light explodes off of them in a rainbow of shimmering amazement. But we could not stay that long and had to make due with what we had.

I will somewhat obscurely say this, when we stopped for our second view on this path I found Harley barely clinging to the top of the trunk, having already lost grip on the roof where she/it was forgotten. Terrible things could have transpired were we to have not stopped exactly when we did.

A few other areas like The Devil's Golf Course, and Natural Bridge went unseen. We may have taken the car on dirt roads in Nevada, but pressing our luck here didn't seem the thing to do. And the day was not getting younger. On we pressed to he final spot – Dante's Lookout.

It was hard not to feel bad for the personified car as we pushed it up the steep grades to the top of the mountain, five thousand feet above where we started.

With accelerator pushed all the way to the floor, we climbed at a speed of twenty miles an hour. Or continuous hope, we would not start to slide backwards into the cars behind us – and that the one in front of us would continue its steady ascent as well. Radiator water stops existed along the way, doing nothing to fill me with confidence.

But all was well, and when we finally flattened out, parked, removed ourselves from the car it was a wonderful thing – at this altitude the world was not a steamy oven of terrible. No it was manageable up here. Comfortable even. Bounding down the trails we looked out over the entire park – my only regret, that it was noon and the high sun washed away much of the detail.

Still, this was a beautiful site, and quite the thing to see.

Death Valley – it may be terrible, and awful, and the worst thing I've even been through. But it's also fantastically beautiful, and well worth the momentary discomfort.

And then we'd seen all that we could see, left the park, and headed out into California with our sights set on L.A.

This would not be a straight shot, but we would get there eventually. Just not tonight. Tonight we still had a mission – find a roomsaver magazine. Driving down the empty highway we came upon a double digit village (less than one hundred people) but it had a visitor centre. While no roomsaver existed, I did get a map of California which pointed out the real welcome centres and rest stops. An hour later, the rest stop provided me with what I needed.

Like an addict getting his fix, a wave of calm rushed over me when that green and white newsprint entered my solid grip. Now we had information. We could find a place to sleep. And off we went to good ol' Barstow, California. A perfect place to rest our heads for the night, relax, and enjoy the sweet sweet joy of conditioned air.

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