Epic USA Road Trip, part 5: DEATH and afterwards

The most striking single day of the trip started with breakfast in the desert at sunrise, and by lunchtime we were above the snowline taking photos of black bears in the forest. I got what I wanted: variety, and the sort of experiences I’d never get at home.

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Well, Daaaammm!
We left Grand Canyon long before sunrise, in anticipation of our two longest days of travel. It’s amazing how you can drive for hours on a straight road, and not realise it until you stop off for breakfast, feeling tired and hungry. I mean, all you’ve done is sit down and steer straight, into a landscape that looks more and more like the surface of Mars.

In any case, we got to Hoover Dam just before 10am, after a quick search of the campervan by the world’s most bored security guard. The architecture around the dam is another 1920s art deco wonder, and the two pairs of towers rising from the reservoir behind the dam reminded me very strongly of a sequence in the classic 1990s game Half Life (I spent a few minutes wondering when I’d have to fend off armoured alien brutes and Apache gunships with nothing but a crowbar).

Afterwards we drove south of Las Vegas to Pahrump (a town whose purpose remains unclear to me) to tank up, get more food for our next round of camping, and a comprehensively disappointing takeaway lunch.

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Into the Valley Of Death. DEATH! DEEEEAAAATH!!!
For some reason, my mother was a bit concerned when we told her we were going to spend a night in Death Valley. I can’t imagine why. But then, Lost Campers told us up front that they advised against driving there, especially during the day, and that if we broke down there, it was up to us to get help. This encouraged me to read up on how to protect car engines from overheating, a problem that Scottish drivers never usually have to consider.

We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, a bit earlier than we intended, and it was still baking in the heat. Our first port of call was Dante’s View, up a steep, winding road – the only time on the trip I missed driving with manual gears; somehow I missed the sense of security of knowing that the engine was locked into second gear – and we arrived at a small, windswept parking lot overlooking Badwater Valley.

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“We must be cautious; this place can be a little rough…”

From here you can see the whole valley (on a good day), with the salt flats glaring in the sun between the steep sides. More notably from my point of view, it’s the location where Sir Alec Guinness declared Mos Eisley Spaceport was the most “wretched hive of scum and villainy” on Tatooine in Star Wars. So I had a geek-out moment.

I’ll be honest: there’s a comprehensive list of Star Wars filming locations in Death Valley, and I’d figured out which ones we could see without taking up too much time. This was very much a part of the road trip for me, and I wasn’t in the least bit ashamed.

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We headed all the way back down to the valley floor, passing a signpost marking sea level. Alongside Badwater Road, the sandy rocks and cliffs glowed in the sunshine – Golden Canyon deserves its name – and we turned off the main road to head up a smooth, new asphalt single-track road towards Artist’s Palette.

The road was steep. The temperature was roasting. We had already switched off the air con and opened the windows to spare the engine, but as we wound our way further uphill, the temperature gauge crept up, and up, and then started to rise alarmingly quickly. This was DEATH Valley, after all.

I could stop the blog here, and leave you on a cliffhanger complete with the Eastenders theme tune drums, but rather boringly the advice I’d read came in handy. We simply stopped off at a layby/passing place and let the engine idle for a bit until the temperature gauge returned to normal. We moved off, and used momentum as much as possible to save the engine from working too much. It worked – the needle never got to the red danger zone – and we arrived safely.

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This is a nice place to let the engine idle and hope nothing catches fire.

Artist’s Palette is a bounty of geological curiosities, with contrasting coloured rocks rising up the hillside. It’s also the canyon where R2D2 was kidnapped in Star Wars, so I had another geek-out moment. I was on Tatooine! Every time I rewatch the film, I can smile and say “Heh… been there!”

We were joined by a retired couple who rolled into the parking lot just as we returned to the car, so I said hello and asked them if their car engine had been overheating too. The husband looked at me with startled Bambi eyes.

Nous sommes français… uh… no English!

FINALLY, after twenty-five years, I got to speak to a French person in French, with what little I could remember from school! (I was distracted by my French teacher at that time; I rather liked her.)

“Ah, d’accor’! Je swee Ecossay! Je parl un petty poo duh Fronssay…”

Just encountering someone who was willing to even try to speak their language was enough to brighten their day (unless I mis-read their expressions; for all I know they could’ve been thinking “Oh fuck, he’s trying to speak French; let’s just grin and bear it”). I think their standard of English was on a par with my standard of French, but goodwill is often all you need for a conversation.

“L’ engine d’ l’ voiture, il fait assez… uh…”

“Chaud,” my wife finished.

“Oui, chaud,” I explained, tapping the hood of the car, “Très dangereux! Je suis nerveux.”

The liquid, he is good?

“Oui, c’est bon! Mais, l’ temperature est… grande, ici.”

The woman nodded.

C’est trente-six aujour d’hui! …en Celsius!

“En Ecosse, nous avez Celsius aussi,” I said, mangling my verbs, “Fahrenheit, c’est pour les américains!”

And we had a knowing European chuckle about the inadequacies of Imperial measurements before wishing each other ‘bon chance’ and going our separate ways. I predicted, when I was a teen, that the first time I would have a real conversation in French with a French-speaker, it would not include the stock classroom introductory phrases about name, address, parental occupations and so on. (Or, as I’d put it in school, “Je m’appelle Thierry; j’habite dans un trou de merde au sud d’Aberdeen; ma mère est une conservatrice en textile…”) I was proven correct, and that’s all that matters to me.

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One… two… three… NERRRRRRRRD!!!

Not wanting to risk the engine temperature any more, I scrapped our other planned stops in Death Valley, and we drove on through high winds to Mesquite Sand Dunes (yet another Star Wars location), where I got a few Facebook profile pictures leaping around the sand in a brown robe, using a desiccated branch as a lightsaber. All the while I was watched by a couple of children. Gasping for breath with sweat pouring off my face, I told them “You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever!” and they said “Yay!”

We stopped off at Stovepipe Wells. The high wind and flying sand meant we weren’t going to have camp food, so we had a meal in the restaurant and a shower before going back to the car. It was stiflingly hot, and we rocked from side to side for hours in gusts of wind. It was impossible to sleep. We opened the windows just a tiny amount for the sake of getting some airflow, but not so much that we’d end up covered in half the desert.

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Stovepipe Wells by night.

The longest day
We woke before dawn. There’s something rather beautiful about a moonlit desert. Breakfast was at sunrise at Father Crowley Point, where two other campers had stopped: a woman in an estate car, and a father and son with a trailer. I asked the father and son if they knew where we could safely dispose of our empty propane bottle, but they said they’d take it and do it for us. In return, we showed the son how our campervan had been put together with the folding bed and kitchen (he was thinking of converting his pickup truck). Throughout our road trip we had a lot of interest in the campervan from our various campsite neighbours; clearly Lost Campers was capitalising on a good idea.

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I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…

We left Death Valley passing the location of the joshua tree photographed for U2’s album cover for The Joshua Tree (the actual tree has since been cut down), and went by Olancha where we could see Mount Whitney – the highest and lowest points in the lower 48 states can be seen in just over an hour’s drive from each other.

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Mount Whitney in the distance.

The next few hours were spent driving around the southern end of the Sierra Nevadas before our next stop. I had plenty of time to read stories in all the tyre marks we saw on the roads:

  • Veering off the the right, with shredded rubber on the roadside? Blowout.
  • Patch of maroon, then tyre marks going in any direction? Roadkill.
  • One set leading into another set and then another? Pile-up.
  • Swerving into the central reservation? Overtaking gone wrong.
  • A straight line disappearing off a bend, where a crash barrier used to be? A journey that ended badly.
  • A straight line stopping at a cliff face and lots of broken glass? A journey that ended really badly.
  • Zig-zagging all over the place? Maybe they dozed off and woke up to find themselves doing 75mph…

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Sequoia National Park
We had an excellent brunch at the River View Restaurant at Three Rivers before heading into the forests and mountains. My wife was driving and kept calling out views she wanted me to take photos of. I felt like the gunner in an old warplane, rattling off shots at each “eleven o’clock high!” and hoping for the best.

It was cool and cloudy – something of a relief after the deserts – and before long we were actually driving through the clouds, in a tiny bubble of visibility in all the mist. The pine trees were tinged with snow; then the roadside; then the roads.

Good thing we’d packed clothes for all weathers. At the General Sherman Trail we encountered a tanned woman in sandals and shorts with sunglasses propped up in her hair, shivering in a shawl as the snow fell.

Great weather, huh? Why’d it have to be so cold?!

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing!” I said, quoting traditional Scottish travel advice. From the look she gave me, she wasn’t going to thank me for my little insight.

We followed the trail through the winter wonderland towards the General Sherman Tree – the world’s largest – when the crowds slowed and became hushed and took photos. Not far away, a Black Bear stared at us through the snow (bored or balefully, it was hard to tell). It was weird to think we’d started the day in a desert.

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On the drive out the snow lay on the roads, so our convoy made its way slowly down each twist and turn. It clearly wasn’t good enough for one guy who decided that the twin yellow lines didn’t apply to him, and overtook all of us at speed. I imagine his journey was going to end badly.

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Yosemite National Park
We drove through Fresno in a burst of warmth and sunshine to tank up at Oakhurst, before heading into Yosemite along Wawona Road. Broken rain clouds nestled in the valleys, creating bizarre and beautiful lighting effects. At each roadside stopping place, dozens of tourists lined up to take photos of the views.

We got caught behind a slow driver doing 10mph below the speed limit (if it was 35 he’d do 25; if it was 25, he’d do 15). There was one car behind us which mysteriously vanished; I’m guessing the driver got sick and fed up of crawling along at the pace of a snail shackled to a ball and chain and simply took a sharp turn over the cliff edge to end it. I wound down the window and bellowed “YOU CAN GO AT THIRTY-FIVE!!!” which had the effect of upping their speed by about 5mph. All in all, we wished the campervan came equipped not just with a bed and kitchen, but maybe a rocket launcher, or Ben Hur-style knives coming out of the wheels.

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It was raining when we emerged into Yosemite Valley at Tunnel View, but the view was still incredible. We headed directly to our camp site. It was too late to check in, so we contented ourselves with setting up the awning and heating up foil-wrapped burritos my wife made before we left Grand Canyon. When you come from Scotland, you don’t let persistent rain ruin your al fresco dining.

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A geriatric couple in a titanic motorhome (called ‘American Eagle’, but which I kept calling ‘Ass Wagon’ because they were parked in a disabled bay despite obviously not being disabled) were sitting in their kitchen next to us, watching us as we ate. I waved to them, but they didn’t wave back.

Sure, they had a huge, weatherproof living space with a large bed, toilet, power generator, and hot running water; and we were squeezed into a car with a folding bed and a sink – but with our burritos and popcorn and beer eaten outside in the cold, dark and rain, I ask you: which of us was truly richer for the experience?

(Don’t answer that.)

To be continued…

My photos of Death Valley can be found here!

My photos of Sequoia can be found here!

My photos of animal encounters can be found here!

My photos of Yosemite in the rain can be found here!

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5 responses to “Epic USA Road Trip, part 5: DEATH and afterwards

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