The Longest Day
We would travel over 500 miles today. On back roads, mostly. And, heck! did we feel it.
For some insane reason, we were up at the crack of a beautifully clear dawn, and we were motoring out of Vegas before 8 am. True to form of the crazy town in the middle of nowhere, we were in the desert within a quarter-hour of setting off, and before long, we were climbing up empty roads into the rocky hills, our destination? One of the hottest places on earth.
But first, to breakfast. After an hour of travel we entered the peculiar town of Pahrump. Well I guess any place with a name like that must be pretty odd. What I didn't understand was "Why?" Why Pahrump? What purpose did this place serve? A fair sized town of shacks, gas stations, trailer parks and desperate looking casinos. We didn't see anyone under 40. Perhaps this is the place people come to die. Perhaps it was Hades itself. But then, no, Hades was supposed to be dark. But it was only turning 9am, and already the bright sun was making itself known in no uncertain terms. We had a McBreakfast in an awfully quiet McDonalds. Not quiet in that nobody was in it, but McQuiet. It was McBusy, but nobody was saying McVeryMuch. We McPondered on this, as in this way it seemed very much like a place very far and very, very different from here. The London Underground. It was weird. And then I had it! Nobody said very much, because there's not really anything to talk about in Pahrump. "You see that flock o' tumbleweed last Tuesday, Bob?" "Yeah, Jim, must've been five, maybe six of 'em..." It wasn't like there were any ranches or farming going on. The scrub was just too arid. This was the Marlboro Country you see on the Billboards. I think I'll book a week here next time I'm in the 'States. Spend some time at the casino, some time at Madam Butterfly's Bath & Massage ("We Have Bodies"). I think not.
56°C and -282´
Why do the Libyans have to spoil everything? As if International Terrorism wasn't enough, they have to hold the record for the hottest temperature on the planet. In some immemorable place in the Libyan Sahara, it reached a scorching 58°C in the shade. But, the second hottest recorded temperature was in a place everyone's heard of... Still, it doesn't sound even half as exciting now does it.
Death Valley, California, is the 2nd hottest place in the world. Okay, so it doesn't beat the Libyan Sahara. But I bet Death Valley makes up for in sheer scale and incredible natural beauty. As we entered the valley from the southern end, only half-an-hour from Pahrump, we already knew we were entering a special place. Suddenly there were no vehicles on the road, which itself, seemed to be decaying into an increasingly cracked morass of tarmac beaten to a pulp by an unrelenting sun. But these were superficial effects related to the presence of man. More than that, the rocks began to change, turning from the uniform sandy red to all the natural colours from white through sands, reds and browns to black, as the road weaved its way down, down, down...
Into the Valley of Death we descended as the hills around us seemed more and more to tower above. Then suddenly the rocks parted and the valley opened up onto sandy, salty flats surrounded by the most barren of terrain. On the far side, some twenty miles away the Panamint range rose up to the snow capped heights of Telescope Peak at 11000 feet, whilst the near side rose up into seemingly impenetrable rocky hills. The only escape seemed to be to the north, where we were headed - a gap in the terrain, that didn't seem so far, but in the crystal clear air of the desert would stretch for another 150 miles. Death Valley was big.
You hear all these crazy stories about people visiting Death Valley. About being told not to get out of your car. About park wardens (it's a National Park) demanding proof that you have at least two litres of water per person before they let you enter. About not using your air conditioning under any circumstances, so that your engine doesn't overheat. Well, we saw signs warning us about taking it easy on the poor old air-conditioning, and there was a gentle reminder as we took the turn-off for the valley that there would be no services for another 80 miles. And there were stationed every twenty miles or so huge water tanks by the side of the road, not for drinking, but for car radiators... But nobody demanded to see proof of water ownership. And, oh no! We got out of our car! Reckless and stupid tourists! Okay, not so bad really. It was March, after all, not July, and only mid-morning, so it was in the rather pleasant high 70s.
In our little walk about, I was awstruck about the isolation and beauty of the place. It was desperately quiet. Utter silence. No birds. No wind. Nothing. Lifeless. And yet so inspiring. It really made one feel very small, and yet the peace was very calming. I wondered why they called it Death Valley at the time. It was ironic, in a way that such a horrible sounding place could be so beautiful, yet I also felt a kind of mortality in the emptiness and scale of things. If suddenly our car disappeared and no other cars passed through, then, yes it was very easy to imagine dying here. But what a place to die!
We thought we'd bottomed out once we'd arrived on the valley floor, but as we drove northward, the road continued to fall. The small shrubs that dotted the salty gravel of the valley bottom soon disappeared and a genuinely lifeless salty desert took it's place. Ironically, there'd been plenty of rains in the last week (I'd noticed it in LA the week before, it didn't stop raining for four days or so), and so there was a lifeless river, like the Styx, sluggishly making its way down the valley before settling into a muddy, salty, lifeless lake. In the beating sun, it would probably dry out in a week or so. We kept on seeing signs for Badwater, as well as noticing its presence on the maps, and thought it unusual that there could be a settlement in such a hostile place. Well, Badwater was where the Styx ended, a sun-drenched Hades that was nothing more than a hut with a couple of public toilets. A bit disappointing for a United States record holder. Death Valley has two impressive superlatives. Okay, it's the hottest place in the United States. But it's also the lowest. And Badwater, at 282 feet below sea level, is the lowest point in Death Valley. There were some other souls (living ones, that is) there as we passed through - the centre of attention being a gorge that seemed to disappear into the cliffs that loomed over the road. It was tempting to stop and go for a hike, but we had a long schedule ahead, so onward we drove.
Not long after Badwater we arrived at a junction where the main north-south road through the length of the valley met the cross route. Turning west, back toward the coast, we saw our final feature of the Valley. Out from nowhere, the pristine sand of the Dunes rose from the flat gravel of the valley floor. A friend of mine spoke of strolling out onto these dunes in the summer months, of how his feet started to burn through his sneakers after only twenty minutes of walking, and of having to write them off afterwards, as they had melted beyond repair. And with that last surprise, we started to climb once more, up into the Big Country of the Sierra Nevada.
Panamint and The Sierra
The emptiness of this uninhabited corner of California seemed only to increase as we climbed over the Panamint Range to the west of Death Valley. Cars seemed to pass us even more seldomly, as the road snaked its way over spectacular ridges and folds of multi-coloured rocks of the range, before descending once again into Panamint Valley, as equally arid and desolate as Death Valley. A jet fighter on low flying maneouvres buzzed us as we traversed the flats, and in the clear air we followed its acrobatics far down the into the bowl of the valley, as if it were our own private air-show. Tim was driving at the time, and I don't know whether it was better to be in the driving seat or as a nervous passenger as we climbed the next ridge. The road twisted Monte-Carlo style as it tried to find a way up the tortured mountains, and as this road was not a priority route of national or even state importance, crash barriers were not fitted, so I would occasionally induce an underwear-changing experience by peering out the window, down sheer precipices without the re-assuring luxury of a double-crinkled ribbon of sheet-steel. Ironically, we saw a few highway maintenance trucks on this road with their road gangs out and about - preparing foundations for crash-barriers, of course. And then I wondered why, at this particular time, they were doing this improvement. Perhaps some particular statistics for this route last year had suffered an unfortunate rise. I quickly tried to put such thoughts out of my mind - not that it was difficult, because as we approached the top of the mountain ridge the view had suddenly opened up and I ordered Tim to stop at a makeshift layby.
We got out of the car and climbed up the hill a bit further, to witness the world open before us. I knew then I'd never seen such a view like it before, and understood at that moment what they meant by The Big Country. You were told it was big, because in the clear air you could see so much. In England, there is always a haze, even on clear days, which always limits how far you can see, and tells you instinctively that this hill is nearby and that one (because it's more hazy) is far away. Looking over Panamint Valley, you could see every line of every ridge perfectly, felt that you could just reach out your hand and touch this peak or that, despite the fact that the map was telling you they were both over fifty miles away. And this vast landscape was all around us, without a single suggestion of human interference, save the road below us. Empty of human ants. It was almost a shame that we'd been spoilt and seen this only on the second day of the adventure, as in my opinion, it was the finest vista of the trip, and that is saying a lot.
Not that it got any worse. The road continued on across the emptiness of a high desert, scattered by thousands of lonely Joshua Trees. Where was Bono when you needed him? All this time, as we journeyed along the empty highway, the giant, spectacular peaks of the Sierra Nevada rose before us as we approached.
By American standards, California really is a state of superlatives. And two of them were in the same small part of the state that we happened to be driving through. Death Valley is the lowest point in the U.S., and "just down the road", in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountains, stands Mount Whitney which, at 14,495 ft is the highest point in the U.S. outside Alaska. Yes, higher than all the peaks of Colorado. And we saw both points within a few hours of motoring.
At the base of Mount Whitney (well we weren't quite sure which one it was, as they were all giant peaks), the quiet highway we'd taken from Death Valley finally met US395, the backbone highway of Eastern California. This road went on for hundreds of miles, through endless wide valleys, over snowy passes and pine forests, past high, cold looking lakes, with only the occasional settlement along the way. Bishop was the biggest of these, and the only real town for hundreds of miles around. Consequently, it looked to be the real hub of the region, busy as it was, and it looked unspoilt, almost like something out of the wild west.
You can have too much of a good thing. As we approached the area around Tahoe, we were both fatigued from a full day on the road, and so the novelty of the Big Country, and its Big Views did begin to fade. But the final stage, climbing over a high and snowy mountain ridge that rose straight up out of the out of flat brown plains of Nevada, didn't disappoint. Once on the other side, we entered the region of ski-resorts around Lake Tahoe, busy with school holiday traffic, but finding a cheap ski-lodge room was not difficult. The Tahoe Sunset lodge had an outside hot-tub, and the novelty of taking a dip in the pitch-darkness and ice-cold air seemed too tempting. So we took a well-earned bath and eased-away the strains of driving half-a-thousand miles across deserts mountains through roiling hot water and bubbles. A surreal experience with snow on the ground next to the tub...
We finished the longest day with an unusual Mexican style pizza from a cozy pizza restuarant just across the road from the lodge, before turning in for a desperately needed early night...