S2:E8 – Third Time’s a Charm in Death Valley

After previous attempts were thwarted by Maruchan lunches, underpowered rental cars, unusual rainstorms, distracting flowers, flying tents, and snow, we finally managed to climb a big mountain. And why we’ll never stop returning to Death Valley, no matter what it throws at us.

This episode was written, recorded, edited, and produced by Lisa McNamara, with additional editing by Paul Olson.  Music by Michael Kobrin from Pixabay.

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Photos from this episode: visit our blog, Driving Inertia 

Transcript:

This is Road Tripping in America, a podcast about life on the road. I’m Lisa and this is Paul.

We’re exploring the US in a pickup truck with a camper – we named our setup The Bobs.

If you daydream about long-term travel or overlanding or vanlife – or maybe you’re already on your own adventure – join us for some entertainment from the road. We’re in search of off-the-beaten-path adventures and new experiences after a year and a half of standing still.

(music)

Today: We do the things we couldn’t do in Death Valley in an under-powered rental car.

This is series two, episode eight: Third time’s a charm in Death Valley.

This episode was recorded in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument – which has just been restored to its pre-2017 boundaries. We are so excited!

(music)

The smoke was heavy in the air, clogging the valleys and obscuring the views of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the west and Mount Charleston to the east.

(audio of summiting Telescope)

We could only barely make out the nearest mountain ranges – the Panamints to the west and the Funerals to the east. Their pastel colors were even more faded than usual; the white and tan of the valley floor was fuzzy around the edges. But the air on Telescope Peak was clear. Despite the smoke from the nearby wildfires in the Sequoia National Forest, we had decided to go for it – to make our third attempt at scaling Telescope Peak, the highest point in Death Valley National Park. From Telescope, you can see both the highest (Mt. Whitney) and lowest (Badwater Basin) points in the lower 48 states at the same time. Usually.

We had arrived in the Mesquite Flat campground the night before and parked the Bobs at a nice campsite across from the pit toilet. The Mesquite Flat campground is made up of 10 free campsites balanced high on a narrow ridge, with views over Death Valley to the east and down into Wildrose Canyon and its charcoal kilns to the northwest. Everyone in the campground is either there to climb Telescope or because they drove up to the campground and couldn’t face driving back down the rough road again the same day. When we arrived, there was only one other group at the campground and we foolishly hoped that it would stay that way, that the place would remain quiet and peaceful. But it was Friday, we were being delusional.

We hung out in the campground all afternoon, resting our muscles and enjoying the stillness. The silence is my absolute favorite part about Death Valley. It’s the quietest and most peaceful place I’ve ever been.

The one group that had been in the campground before us hiked back into their site just as other campers were starting to trickle in, at around 4pm. I was alerted to the hikers’ return by one of the men, who stepped out of the bathroom and loudly proclaimed, “Well, we did it!”

I took the bait immediately. “You climbed the mountain?” I asked.

“We climbed it! I’m 78 years old! I did it and you can too!”

He spent the next few minutes regaling me with his strategy for liquid intake (one gallon total), rest stops (every 45 minutes), trail recon (“first it’s steep, then it’s level for a couple miles and you can really jam, then the real climbing starts”), and gear hacks (he had cut a hole in the toe of his boot on the way down, since the trail was so steep that his toes were uncomfortably jamming into the fronts of the boots, which were just from Walmart so it was OK, no major loss). He was adorable. After running through his highlights with us, he moved down the campground to regale the next group.

I started feeling like maybe I could do it. Maybe this time we were finally going to make it up Telescope. Sure, he was an extremely spry 78 year old man, but I wasn’t too shabby myself. We were closer than we had ever been before. Maybe it would work this time.

The campground filled up and the sound of the toilet door slamming punctuated our dreams all night.

You may have noticed that I mentioned earlier that this was our third attempt on Telescope. It was also our sixth time visiting the park. Our two previous attempts to climb the peak had ended in failure, for many reasons. Telescope is not a technical peak, but the hike is long (12 miles round trip according to Gaia and Strava, vs. the 14 that seems to be the official NPS measurement), steep (3,000 foot elevation gain), and the road to the trailhead is rough. Most people think of Death Valley as an extremely hot place, which it is, but Telescope, at 11,043 feet (or 11,325 feet above Badwater Basin, which is below sea level), it can be 30 to 50 or more degrees cooler than the lowest elevations and there is often a short, snow-free window for casual hikers to tackle the peak.

Our first attempt was in October of 2015. We flew into Las Vegas, picked up our rental car (a cherry red Chevy Aveo), stocked up on groceries, tracked down a camp fuel canister, and ate what we planned to be our last solid meal of the trip at In-n-Out, before heading west out of Vegas to Death Valley. This was a real Frankenstein of a trip, with me starting at a conference in Denver, then meeting Paul in Boise where he had a few days of work meetings, after which we tacked on a vacation at the end. Since we already were packing such a wide range of stuff, Paul decided that we should camp extra light on this trip. We brought our backpacking stove and one pan and planned to only eat Maruchan Instant Lunches, the ones that come in the styrofoam cup, for lunch and dinner. We had eight of them for four days and we didn’t have utensils so we were just going to slurp them out of the cups. We would eat granola bars and drink those sweet canned iced coffees for breakfast. Why we thought this would be good mountain climbing fuel is now lost to the past. But the food was not what would end up dooming us that time.

When we arrived, it was 105 degrees at the Furnace Creek campground, 200 feet below sea level. We camped there the first night so that we could get our gear organized and go to our favorite place to get a beer in Death Valley, the late, great Corkscrew Saloon, a cozy dive that has since been replaced by a fancier establishment that we have yet to try out, the Last Kind Words Saloon. That night, in our little tent under the mesquites, an unexpected (to us) storm blew in. The mesquite branches creaked and groaned and the temperature steadily dropped until we actually needed our sleeping bags.

I can’t remember if we even looked at the weather forecast before that trip. Back when we only had a few days off work at a time, when our schedules were extremely inflexible, we tended to just go for it, no matter the weather. We had been waiting for this vacation, we earned it, and we felt like the weather couldn’t stop us.

When we woke up the next morning, the sky was gray and something I never expected to see was happening. It was raining in Death Valley.

We were still going to go for Telescope, though. We pointed our underpowered little Aveo up the hill from Stovepipe Wells, past the Emigrant Campground, towards Emigrant Canyon Road and the steep dirt road beyond that led up to the Telescope Peak trailhead. Climbing that last steep stretch of road to the trailhead in the Bobs a few weeks ago, I realized that there was absolutely no way that that Aveo would have made it to the trailhead in the best of conditions. Which it wasn’t back then in October 2015. Back then, the tops of the mountains were hidden by thick clouds and a steady rain fell. No matter to us. This was our chance, we were going after it.

But it was not to be. Because a flatbed with a grader was parked across the mouth of Emigrant Canyon Road and the road was closed. The road had washed out in multiple places and there was no estimate for when it would reopen, because the rain wasn’t done yet. We were irrationally disappointed. We went back to Emigrant Campground and pitched our tent and spent the rest of the day staring at the turn to the trailhead while the rain continued, off and on.

It rained that night too. Strange, we thought. Since we couldn’t do what we had planned to do, we decided to go back to a few of our favorite canyon hikes instead and camp in the valley, where it would be warmer. On the way back to Stovepipe Wells, the road dips in and out of a few washes as it makes its way down the steep, steady slope to the valley. That next morning, as we headed back down to start our alternate plan, there was water running in the washes – not so much that the Aveo couldn’t get through, but enough that it finally dawned on us that we were being incredibly dumb. An unseasonable and rare rain event was happening around us in Death Valley. We checked in at the ranger station and found that the rain was now expected to continue, on and off, for days. Many roads were washed out and closed already, having sustained major damage that would end up taking months to years to fully repair. We couldn’t and shouldn’t stay there. I accepted reality (Paul was already there, of course) and we headed out of the valley towards a big, warm meal in Beatty, NV, determined that we’d come back to Death Valley as soon as possible.

A few nights later, as we were on our way back to Chicago, it rained so hard in the mountains around Death Valley that a flash flood wiped out the road from Scotty’s Castle, ruined many of the outbuildings, and stranded people at Ubehebe Crater for a very wet night. The Mesquite Springs campground (not Mesquite Flats up by Telescope, but another Mesquite-themed campground in the valley) had to be evacuated mid-storm. Over a year’s worth of rain fell in one night in that area. No one had expected it; such a big storm hasn’t been in the forecast. Scotty’s Castle still hasn’t reopened – the earliest projected reopening date is late 2022 – seven years later.

That trip was a good learning experience in general. We were extremely cocky that time. Never be cocky in Death Valley.

And then out of the October 2015 disaster came the super bloom of spring, 2016. Because we were in Death Valley when the rain that caused the bloom had fallen, I had to go back to see the beautiful results. So we squeezed a long weekend away into our work schedules, hopped on the Chicago to Las Vegas flight, picked up a rental car, and made the two and a half hour drive into the valley once again.

This time, I only had a vague thought that we’d try to climb Telescope. It felt like it would be a poetic end to the saga of last time. But I was much more humbled this time – the top of the mountain was still covered with snow. We didn’t bring the ice axes and crampons that we don’t own with us. It wasn’t happening. So instead we just enjoyed the rare bloom with the thousands of other people who came in from LA. And had our tent blown away by a freak storm. More on that, after the break.

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You heard right, our tent blew away. The LA crowd had cleared out of the campground early Sunday, headed back to the city before the start of another work week. We had one more night left on our vacation and excitedly paid for our last night in the now-empty Stovepipe Wells campground, before leaving our tent behind for a fantastic loop hike. This particular hike climbs through Golden Canyon, winds among the badlands below Manly Beacon, and descends back around through Gower Gulch, for a nice total of 4.3 miles through different layers of the rock formations and badlands that can be seen below Zabriskie Point. Before we left our campsite, we sunk our tent stakes into the gravel, covered them with the biggest rocks we could find, left a couple gallons of water inside the tent to weigh it down, and noted with amusement the thick band of clouds to the west that were creating a nice rainbow in the hills above Emigrant Campground.

Throughout our hike, the weather was incredibly lovely. March is a wonderful time to be in Death Valley. We hopped around looking for different types of flowers, filled with excitement over finding so many things growing where usually nothing grows. Our shoes were covered with pollen from wandering through the fields, even though we carefully stepped around the flowers. Pollen-laden bees heavily buzzed around us. We figured the storm we had seen earlier must have blown itself out up in the mountains, before it entered the valley, because we didn’t see any rain.

When we got back to our campsite later that afternoon, our tent was gone. We panicked – my first thought was that I hadn’t paid for the campsite correctly and so the host had picked up our stuff. That someone had stolen it didn’t ever cross my mind. It was a nice tent, but not nice enough to steal, and who would go through the trouble anyway?

We were flabbergasted. We just stood there at our site, jaws gaping, for a good five minutes before someone in a nearby camper called out to us.

“Are you the people with the blue tent?” she asked.

“Yes!” we eagerly replied.

“Um, well, a huge storm came through here earlier this afternoon, and it blew away,” she said.

“It blew away?!” we dumbly repeated.

“Yeah, this storm was intense!” she replied. “Things were blowing everywhere, the wind must have been 70 miles an hour or more. Anyway, the tent went down that way,” she said, pointing towards the far end of the campground, where the gravel ended and the creosote bushes and sand dunes began. We didn’t see anything down that way.

“OK, thanks,” we said, like she had just given us driving directions to some interesting spot, and drove down towards the end of the campground they indicated.

I’ve never liked the Stovepipe Wells campground much. Most campgrounds in Death Valley are somewhat charmless – they’re typically big gravel lots with spaces so close to one another they’re basically just parking lots. Stovepipe Wells doesn’t even have picnic tables at the majority of sites, and the one bathroom is so small and far away that there’s always a line to use it. It’s basically a Walmart parking lot without the Walmart. And it’s so big that we needed to drive to the other side.

As we were slowly driving along, looking in other people’s campsites to see if our tent had snagged on a camper or car, a woman ran out of a parked RV.

“Are you the people with the blue tent?” she yelled.

Somehow we had become famous as the people with the blue tent.

“Yes!” we replied. “Did you see it?”

“It came flying through here and we grabbed it!” she said excitedly. “We wrapped it around that site post over there,” she said, pointing at a campsite stake a couple spots down.

Sure enough, there was our little blue tent, in a sad, crumpled pile. We thanked the woman profusely – she who had gone outside her RV in a 70 mile per hour windstorm to grab and secure a random tent blowing by! Later, I wished we had grabbed a bottle of wine or some snacks from the Stovepipe Wells general store and left it on their RV step as a thank you, but we were just too stunned to think of that at the time.

We got to work sorting out our tangled mess of a tent. The water jugs we had left inside had those clip-on style tops, which had of course popped open and the water had spilled everywhere, so the tent was wet both inside and out. The sleeping bags, mats, and pjs we had left inside were soaked and a layer of sand covered everything too, inside and out. The water was gone.

(Side note: We still never buy those clip-on cap style water jugs, or if we must because screw caps aren’t available, we treat them like live grenades. We’ll also never leave water in a tent to weigh it down again, no matter the closure type! Too bad we had to learn that lesson the hard way…)

After we muscled everything into the trunk of our rental car, we decided to drive up to the Emigrant Campground to dry out, since there were no picnic tables to spread out on at our paid-for spot in Stovepipe, and since we felt like we needed to retreat to a safe spot, which Emigrant has always felt like to us.

Once again, we had ignored an obvious threat. Once again, it was just an inconvenience – everything dried out, the tent still worked fine (though it would always be a little crooked from that day on), and we saw the most amazing stars that clear night. I knew enough to avoid the obvious risks – the heat, the single car accidents, the sun, the flash floods while one is inside a small canyon, but I was still being too cavalier about everything else. And that needed to change.

(footsteps audio)

So that’s the history that I carried to the top of Telescope Peak on this bright, smoky day. I had no expectations that we would even reach the summit – the hike isn’t technical, like I said, but it’s very steep and longer than our typical day hike. Going in, I was going to be happy to get to the ridgeline and see a view, hazy though it may be, and anything else would be gravy.

And then we had views right away. There are views every step of the six or seven, who really knows, miles to the summit. But the one thing you can never see, until you’re almost on it, is the summit itself. It hides until the absolute last minute behind a false summit. I like that.

The geology of Death Valley is my second favorite thing about the place. Because there’s so little vegetation, the landscape is always in your face. And it’s not just boring old dirt – the ground swirls with different layers of colors that have folded into and over each other with volcanic and seismic events, the hills are made of palettes of colorful mud and volcanic ash, sand dunes roll, salt flats glow white. The colors are vivid when it’s sunny and soft and muted when it’s cloudy or hazy. And nothing is hidden – it’s all there in the open to discover.

Our footsteps on the talus slopes sounded like walking on shattered ceramic.

(footsteps audio)

On top of Telescope, there was a bunch of junk – two ammo boxes filled with notebooks, pens, signs people had made, lost sunglasses, and a plastic bottle of Jim Beam with two inches of brown liquid in the bottom. Someone had lugged a very large telescope up the mountain and left it on top. There were two wooden signs too, one with ‘Telescope Peak’ and one with ‘Elevation 11,043 Feet’ written on them. Which any self-respecting person who reached the summit had to hold up for a selfie, or two hundred.

We looked in the direction we thought Mt. Whitney was and told ourselves we saw it. We looked at two potential spots on the valley floor and picked one we decided must be Badwater Basin and knew we saw that. There was no wind on the summit – it was eerily still and warm and sunny. Once the five other people who reached the top before us had left, we had the summit to ourselves for a good half hour, only relinquishing it when a new group popped up over the false summit and saw their end goal in reach.

The next night, relaxing our sore muscles at the Wildrose Campground, we toasted the things we had been able to do so easily in the Bobs that we hadn’t been able to do before. We drove down Titus Canyon in all its terrifying, washboarded glory. We made it up Telescope. We went out to Skidoo, the site of one of the most productive gold mines in California history, and poked around old miners’ cabins, mine shafts, and a mill.

(miner cabin door audio)

Later on, we found out that Skidoo is incredibly contaminated by cyanide, mercury, and a bunch of other chemicals and heavy metals. We didn’t lick anything.

We had also avoided the smoke. Sitting in Wildrose, we still had one more day in the park before we had to get back to Las Vegas for a scheduled side trip. For our last day, we decided that we’d revisit one of our favorite places, Mosaic Canyon, because every time we hike it, it looks different. That night, we’d relax and recharge.

In the middle of the night, my throat started tickling. Wild burros were moving around us. The smell of smoke was in the air.

In the morning, a thick white cloud filled the Panamint Valley below. We watched in sick fascination as it moved up Wildrose Canyon. Soon the sky turned a brownish gray and the sun went orange. The air became unbearably thick with smoke and shook us out of our stupor. We needed to get out of there. We packed up quickly and left the deserted campground. All through Emigrant Canyon and down the steep slope to Stovepipe Wells, the smoke was so thick it obscured the hills and mountains around us. The ghosts of dead sequoias hung in the air and pushed us right out of the valley, canceling our plans to see Mosaic Canyon or anything else this time. Once again, we ran back to Las Vegas.

(music)

But Death Valley wasn’t all bad this time. It was incredibly hot, it was smoky, and almost no one else was there. It was the most deserted I’ve ever seen the place, and I relished having it all to myself.

Death Valley is still my favorite natural place I’ve ever been. After being lucky enough to visit so many other amazing places, I wasn’t sure that it still held first place in my heart, but as soon as we crested the ridge from Beatty and the road ahead of us made that long straight line across an immense playa before plunging into the hills again on the other side, I knew that it was still my special place, a place that I will want to come back to again and again.

Because there are still things to do. Despite visiting six times, we still haven’t been out to the Racetrack. There are countless bumpy roads to drive and ghost towns and distant canyons to find. The hikes that we have done can change after a single storm – sediment can cover up or reveal layers that had been hidden before.

When we visit somewhere, we never really know it. We’ve only experienced it during one short time, in one short season. And that’s so clear in Death Valley, which is constantly changing. And so are we, so whenever we experience a place again, we’re different too. That’s why I can’t ever say I won’t go back to a place. We’ll never experience everything there is to offer. And that’s both frustrating and wonderful. Despite traveling full time, our list isn’t getting shorter. You can’t “do” Death Valley. We’ll never finish it. But I don’t think I’ll ever climb Telescope Peak again.

(music)

Over the winter, while we’re taking a short break from adventure travel, we’re planning to do a mystery-science-theater-2000 style read of an older travel narrative – potentially the first in a series. We’re going to start with ‘The White Heart of Mohave’ by Edna Brush Perkins – a gorgeous travel narrative by a native of Cleveland, OH who visited Death Valley in the 1920s, before people came to Death Valley for fun, before women casually traveled on their own. We’re really excited to share the story with you, peppered with the type of insights that can only come from a hundred years of perspective.

In the meantime, we still have a few more episodes of stories from the road to share with you through the end of the year!

(music)

Next time: we get to the part of the trip I’ve been eagerly, impatiently waiting for: Utah!

Until then, check out our website, roadtrippinginamerica.com for transcripts and photos from this episode. If you are enjoying this podcast, please share it with a friend who’s also interested in travel, overlanding, or vanlife.

Thanks for listening!