The truth is, if you asked me at the beginning of the road trip (check out that trip in its entirety, here) that Betsy and I recently took across the western half of the United States, what the worst thing that could possibly happen to us on the trip would be, I would have told you flat out that the thing that I was most worried about, was the idea of our car breaking down in the desert of Death Valley, CA. This fear, almost as though the universe were trying to send me some cosmic warning, was reiterated my uncle’s father, just a few days before the trip was set to begin. While we were telling him about some of the off-the-wall destinations along the trip, we mentioned that we would be heading into Death Valley National Park, to which he expressed a degree of disbelief that we would be silly enough to go to that part of California in June, when the area would be entering into the hottest part of the summer. His concerns were noted, and then moved on from as quickly as they had been lodged. How is it then, that less than 2 weeks later, we found ourselves on the wrong side of a search and rescue, in the middle of that very same desert, rationing water and seeking the shelter of the sparse shade trees in order to avoid the direct blaze of the sun and its 120 degree rays? Well, the answer lies in a series of poor decisions that started with my refusal to listen to the urging of my girlfriend.
It was nearly 11 PM and I had just pulled off of the highway. We had made it to yet another waypoint on our tour of American roadside attractions, and not a moment too soon. My eyelids had begun to droop in that last 50 miles. More than once, I had scared myself awake when I had begun drifting onto the shoulder of the highway, activating the ribbed warning patch, which was designed for idiot drivers just like me, who drive past the point of weariness. We had left my uncle’s house in San Jose at around 8:30 that morning and had been on the move since. After a tour of the Winchester Mystery House, we made the peaceful cruise down the Pacific Coast Highway, enjoying lunch with a beautiful view at the restaurant Nepenthe, then checking out some grotesque elephant seals and the William Randolph Hearst mansion, before heading inland to investigate the spot where James Dean had died. We saw attractions all along the way to Mojave, which was the last place we passed through. So, I stopped the car just across from a gas station and got out. The warm air immediately perked me up. I stretched my weary legs and headed behind a nearby bush to relieve my bowels (the gas station was closed). After returning to the car, we began our hunt for this roadside gem, which was a 35-foot tall sculpture of a woman, lovingly referred to as the Uniroyal Gal. She was the first female version of a series of fiberglass sculptures we had been tracking, known as “muffler men.” After a few minutes of searching in the dark, we found her, hiding in an empty, dirt parking lot. She wasn’t much to look at, so it was a drive-by situation. We hopped out, snapped a photo, and then it was back to the road.
At this point, Betsy suggested that we find somewhere to make camp for the night. She cited my previous bouts with sleep at the wheel as reason enough to not press the issue. My argument was that I was refreshed by our little stop, and that in the morning we would have to contend with the Death Valley heat. The closer we could get to our destination tonight, the better off we would be in the long run. By the GPS calculations, we were still about 6 hours away.
Our destination, by the way, was a place known as Racetrack Playa. This is a particularly flat part of the Death Valley desert, wherein lies a previously unexplained phenomena, called “the sailing rocks.” The phenomenon was that the rocks on the Racetrack Playa showed evidence of independent movement. There were trails, where the rocks had slid across the desert floor, but no reasonable explanation as to what had pushed them, or set them in motion. More recently, the sailing rocks have been explained. Apparently it does rain occasionally in this part of the desert, and when it does, the sand becomes slick. Since the area is completely flat, when a wind blows hard enough, the rocks move against the slick sand. When the sand dries, the trail remains. Mystery solved. Nevertheless, Betsy and I were excited to take a look for ourselves.
Anyway, I made a deal with Betsy that she could go to sleep and I would continue to drive. If I felt sleepy or felt myself dozing, even once, I would pull over immediately and that is where we would make camp. I was truly feeling refreshed though, and I knew I could at least drive for another couple of hours. The only other attraction that was along the way was the very Joshua tree that had appeared on the cover of the Irish pop group U2’s iconic album of the same name. I had read that it had fallen over and died, which made me want to see it even more, since I do not have a particular fondness for the band. So, I set my sights for it and drove.
A couple of hours later I had pulled off of the road and was making my way through sand and bramble, my sleeping girlfriend none the wiser, until I came across that broken and lonely Joshua tree. A quick photo and we were again on our way. I was feeling so awake that I was almost certain that I could make it all the way to the racetrack, before deciding to make camp. That would make tomorrows drive a whole lot easier. Betsy would certainly appreciate the idea of getting out of the desert before it got really hot.
The Racetrack Playa doesn’t actually have an address, so it was impossible to search for it on the Garmin GPS that we had been using for the rest of the trip. Instead, I dropped a pin on my iPhone 5 Map’s GPS and it gave me directions. At the beginning, it gave me two route options. There was one route, which snaked around the entire national park and entered from the northeast, and there was a second, which turned off the main highway in a few miles and went directly to the destination. Though the distance was substantially shorter, the estimated time of arrival was only a few minutes earlier than the much longer, first option. I chalked this up to the fact that this was most likely a dirt road, but I was confident in the Camry’s abilities and I set the course.
About 5 more miles up I190, we turned left onto the Saline Valley Alternate Route. As I suspected it was a dirt road. It was still plenty wide and very flat (and straight), so I had only the slightest twinge of doubt in my belly when I read the first sign, which indicated that the route was not maintained and we must proceed at our own risk. The next sign warned that there were winding roads for the next “∞ miles.” Yes, it actually used the infinity symbol. I had to take a picture of it. As I proceeded past these signs, I received another cosmic sign that I might be making a grave error. I was able to maintain a speed of about 35-40 mph on the washboard dirt road. It was straight and pretty easy to navigate. I was just settling into a groove in the road that was relatively smooth, so that Betsy could remain sleeping, when a rabbit jumped into the road. At first I thought it was trying to cross, so I pumped my breaks, but it wasn’t going across the road, it was running straight for my vehicle. I had neither the time to swerve, or to brake fully. It barely made a thud as it passed underneath both the front and rear tire on my left side. Betsy stirred, due to the sudden braking, but I did not tell her about the rabbit. I was a bit disturbed by it, and even considered stopping to see if it was ok, but I knew that it was dead. I let Betsy drift back to sleep, none the wiser. If that wasn’t enough of a sign, 5 minutes later, when it happened again, that definitely should have gotten my attention. This time, I barely even tapped the brakes. The rabbit ran directly for my tire, and it definitely found it. I pushed it out of my mind.
After about 7 miles of driving on this dirt road it was impossible to avoid that rhythmic humming of the gravel. Betsy awoke and asked where we were. I told her that we were well on our way to the Racetrack Playa. It was just after 1:30 AM and we had another 17 miles on this dirt road, then 13 miles down another road (probably dirt as well) and we would be there. Then we could set up camp, check out the sailing rocks in the morning, and then we could move along, before the heat had a chance to cook us alive. The road had gotten a little more winding and the rocks had gotten a little bigger, but the road was easy to navigate and the rocks were easy to avoid, and if we kept up this pace, we would be to our destination in about an hour, even though the GPS was predicting 3:30.
About 3 miles later, our first road-sign since entering this route. The sign warned of falling rocks for the next 6 miles. This sign was odd, since we were in the middle of a flat desert. I was curious where the rocks would come from. No sooner did that curiosity pass through my head, than the road narrowed to barely a car’s width abreast and the flat desert was replaced by rocky hills, which were replaced by steep cliffs on either side. The pace slowed to a snail’s as we crawled over larger rocks, trying not to bottom out on the bigger ones. Sometimes that was unavoidable. We cringed as the undercarriage scraped against the rocks. This was the first time that I contemplated turning around, though doing so was not an option. We were on a narrow road with no space to even dodge the boulders in our path, let alone to pull a u-turn. So, we proceeded, watching the miles slowly melt away, as we prayed that around every bend the road would clear. “Just 15 miles to go on this road.” “Now only 13.” And so it went, each time the bottom scraped, we would both gasp, hoping that the damage to our rental car would be minimal. If she was worried, or had the notion to turn back, Betsy never let it past her tongue and through her lips.
At about 8 miles to go, we came to an odd intersection. The road continued over a mound, but looked to end abruptly. To the left, a smaller road disappeared into a thicket. I made a snap decision to head left, thinking that going straight would just lead me over the edge of a cliff, or to a dead end. I had to get out of the car to move a few rocks, and after making past an obstruction, I headed about 150 meters into the thicket, before realizing that the road did not continue any further. The brambles and bushes and trees had closed in around me, scraping the side of the black sedan. I knew that they were gauging the paint, but I dared not say it aloud. I suddenly had the gut-wrenching realization that I had turned left, when I should have gone straight. Either that, or the road had actually come to an end here, and I would have to turn around and go back the way I came, all 15 miles of this hellish road. Neither of those options were what I considered good news. I walked back the path I had just come and explored over the mound. The road did in fact continue. After cresting the mound, it banked hard to the left, disappearing behind a cliff. If I had only driven straight for a few more feet I would have seen that.
Enclosed on all sides, I had no chance of turning the car around in place. I would have to reverse the same way I came. I made the 150 meters with relative ease, only suffering the same scrapes that had already been inflicted once. Then we came to the rocky pass. The last obstacle I would have to tackle in reverse, before we could continue on our journey. I took it slow and steady. About halfway through the obstacle, the right side of the car began to lift higher than the left. I didn’t notice it at first, but all at once I was aware of what was going on, that we were climbing a large rock. There was no way it could end well, so I straightened out the steering wheel and crept forward a little bit, intending to maneuver around it; a little more. Then suddenly the right side of the car came lurching down and I heard a crunch. When I pressed on the gas, the car did not move. I heard the engine rev, but the car was stationary. I hopped out of the car, but I already knew what I would find. Sure enough, there was a massive rock propping the right side of the car up, just behind the front tire. The tire was no longer touching the ground and was spinning. A slight panic suddenly crept into me for the first time; if we are stuck, then what? Do we walk 15 miles back to the road? How are we going to get the car out of here? How much is it going to cost? What is going to happen when the sun comes up? Do we even have enough water and food to make it back to the road?
Then, as quickly as it had come, the panic was replaced by resolve. I would not let this car get stuck. That would not happen. I was responsible for Betsy’s well-being. I had her get in the driver seat and I pushed and lifted with all my might, while she tried to drive. The car didn’t budge one inch. That was not the ticket, but I was still determined. If I couldn’t push us out, I was just going to go back to old school Minnesota winter driving tactics: the forward/reverse rocking method. I didn’t care how much damage I was certainly going to do to this car; I would not allow us to get stuck. The transmission got its workout and the smell of burning rubber was pungent, but still nothing. My resolve was beginning to wane. Then I cranked the wheel hard to the right, locked the transmission to reverse and hit the gas hard. Against all odds, the tire hit the smallest patch of traction and the right front side of the car jumped up, as the tire gained the top of the rock, and then fell just as quickly. I heard the right side of the front bumper crunch as it impacted the rock on the way down. I didn’t care. I whooped in celebration as I continued to back until I was on level ground. Only then did I exit the vehicle to inspect the damage, though not too closely.
I stood there, in front of the car for a long moment, contemplating our next move, though not giving voice to any of the thoughts running through my head. Should we continue on? We only have 8 more miles before we make it to the turn off of this horrible fucking road. Perhaps the worst is already behind us. If we turn around, we have to go back the 15 miles we just came. But, what if it gets worse. What if we go farther and then we get stuck? This is a place where I actually have enough room to turn around. In the end, my ego won, the way it always does. Convinced that the road would clear up and that we hadn’t driven this far in vain, we moved ever forward. If Betsy had doubts, she kept them to herself. I could tell that she was scared, so I kept my own doubts to myself as well. Fear is contagious and I knew that if she sensed that I had lost control of the situation, she might completely lose it.