Thursday, September 11, 2008

Near Death (Valley) Experience

It's been a while but recently I've been trying to find a job here in Tennessee and I've gotten away from my blog, but one of the reasons I wanted to spend time her in the dirty south was to have more time writing, so I'm focused on getting back on it. This chapter of my trip picks up after visiting Joshua Tree National Park, and after seeing much of the west coast of the United States. The Climax was the Grand Canyon, but little did I know then, that after the finale there would be a crazy twist ending...

We left Joshua tree really pumped. It was exciting because we didn't have to return the rental car yet. While we had planned on getting a rental car for only 5 days, the friendly, fast talking, teenager behind the counter at the airport rental car dealer told us that 5 days is the same price as a week so we'd get two additional days if we wanted them for no additional charge. So instead of rushing back to Vegas in a hurry we had 2 more days to leisurely head to the pleasantly named "Death Valley" and take in all the sights there as if it was an unexpected cherry on top of the Grand Canyon cake that already had Joshua Tree icing on it. Looking back it should have seemed obvious that getting "extra time" to see a place called "Death Valley" is not so much of a cherry on top, but more like a death sentence. But in the moment we took our worry free traveling smiles to the road and put the petal down in the direction of the hottest place in the United States.

Driving to Death Valley was an experience in itself. Growing up in New Jersey it's not uncommon to share the road (and I use the term "share" lightly) with about 10,000 other cars all going in the same direction. Yet here, on these open roads in the west it was the norm to be the only car in sight. Heck, we were the only man made object in sight for hours on end. It was just road, dirt, cactus's and us. Without too much to look at our attention become fixed upon the car dashboard. Why you might ask? Well in the high heat even the littlest things can become entertaining. Our entertainment was watching the temperature gauge go up degree by degree, each time getting a little cheer out of us. Again, our ignorance in hind sight seems obvious, but in a new rental car with the AC going full blast we weren't feeling the ill effects of the rising temperature, well, not yet.

Our map showed a little town called "Shoshone" a ways outside of the Death Valley entrance but we thought we'd stop anyway because we were hungry. The Famous Crowbar Cafe and Saloon, seemed to be the only restaurant in town. It was next to a museum that looked like an old barn, and across the street from the post office that doubled as the towns reminder that they might actually be connected to other people, even if only by mail. We stopped at the Crowbar. It was Thursday so I went in an asked for 5 beers for 25 cents, but sadly this Crowbar did not have the same "Thirsty Thursdays" drink specials that my Crowbar back at Penn State had. Oh the good old days of drinks for a nickel, I guess it was a bit of wishful thinking, but it was worth a try.

After lunch at the Crowbar we figured we'd hit plenty of tourist places before and after the Death Valley entrance but we could not have been more wrong. While I know I pictured a large overhanging sign across the road, maybe even with large doors like Jurassic Park, the entrance to National Park was much less theatrical. It was a small booth on the side of the road. One that even a one hour Kodak booth might spit on. No people, not Ranger to tell us good information and give us a map, just a slot to take our money, give us a receipt, and we had to begrudgingly take our own map from a stack of maps.

But we were there! Death Valley was real, we were in it, and it was HOT! We stopped all over the place. Trying to take in everything we could. It was interesting seeing the names they gave to the different parts of this deserted area of land. Death Valley is just strange area after strange area, but they are all strange because they are completely deserted and under some of the most extreme temperatures on the planet. One area looks like a desert, one like a dried up ocean, one like a waste land, another like a desert, some like hills of different color sands, but they all had one thing in common...HEAT!

We took plenty of pictures during the day we were there. Please check them out. But one picture we never got to take was one of the sand dunes during the sunset. You see, we were at the lowest point in North America, a spot called "Badwater", one of the furthest spots in Death Valley that you have to drive to. And when did we go there? Of course right before the sunset when the number one thing we wanted to see were the sand dunes during the sunset. As we realized the sun was going down faster than we had expected we jumped in the rental and pealed out of there. Tobi was being a bit aggressive as the car started to reach the fastest speeds that we had seen all week. We both sat silent as the speedometer raised, and the sun fell. The bright yellow ball in the sky was coming closer to the horizon every second and we were racing it to the sand dunes.

It may have been that "invincible" feeling that we had as travelers to think we could beat the sunset, but it was invigorating. As the car hit ninety-five not a word was spoken but we both thought we were going to make it. We were certain that we would be sitting relaxed in the desert as the sun set beautifully on the horizon, there was no doubt. Then, doubt didn't just creep into our thoughts, it smacked us in the face. The cars dashboard began to light up as if we had won a jackpot on a slot machine in Vegas. Only the car didn't spit out money, instead it started coughing and seizing, and we had to pull it over. The five or six cars that we recently flew by all slowly drove by us pulled over on the side of the road with a new appreciation for the childrens book "The Tortoise and the Hair". We were stranded. Not stranded like you think about being stranded today. Today if you pull over on the side of the road hundreds if not thousands of people will see you, you have a cell phone to call help, and if you really needed to you could walk to a gas station. No this was not our definition of stranded, we were in a whole different situation.

We are now on the side of one of the longest roads in Death Valley that only leads to a lookout spot called "Badwater". A lookout stop that is worthless during the night, so during a sunset we are pretty certain that no more cars will be coming this way until the next day. We are miles away from anything, it is 119 degrees out, and our cell phones ceased having service back in Shoshone. The sunset was no longer a race but a ticking clock for our survival.