The freedom of leaving the camper behind and exploring really overtook us for a minute there. Slowed our roll over the weekend. What a novelty to not be the two-bodied wandering snail.
On Saturday the campground filled with people. For comparison the campgrounds in Texas were limiting capacity for social distancing in already spread out campsites down meandering roads. Joshua Tree National Park campsites are set up for efficient space use, not privacy.
It’s been a long time since I’ve listened to the sounds of people. I listed the noises. Acoustic guitar. Radio. Laughter. Stories. Campfire. Child talk. Child barking. The family calls the child chipmunk. Car doors shutting. Generators. I was pleasantly shocked to find it soothing. I’ve been so isolated for so long.
A nap. Those are always wonderful. One of life’s great joys.
Felt like picking up the paint brush. First time since the kitten tragedy.
On Monday we went in search of a cracked road. Found The Hammertown event in the middle of the desert. Superb. Just what I always wanted to find. It was over (thankfully) so we drove part of the course (maybe I shouldn’t of been so thankful, that was rough) looking for the cracked road. Passed a guy picking up vehicle particles. Turned out the fault line lied just out of reach on military property.
Tuesday. Another drive to the Salton Sea, to the south end. Looking for mud volcanoes, which had to be on private property. Other sites: apocalyptic seascape, obsidian outcrops, Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge, geothermal power plants.
Sunset at Keys Lookout. The sky, mountains and Salton Sea in the distance all shades of pink.
Wednesday travel day. Time to mosey on out of Joshua Tree.
Our first full day in Joshua Tree National Park and I immediately wanted to go for a ride outside of it. Let me explain. The Salton Sea is just to the south and I was intrigued by the the textures of the “sand” last year. Since then I now work with textures. I felt it was worth the drive and the smell to collect a bit of texture.
The Salton is a man-made mess. An old dried up sea bed that people accidentally filled up with water from the Colorado River in the early 1900’s. But the area being fertile from its geological past made it ideal for farming and all that runoff went directly into the Salton. Which in recent years wasn’t being fed fresh sources of water and was shrinking in size so concentrating in both salt content and farm runoff. That’s my very short version of events. You can open Wikipedia for a more accurate depiction (maybe). All I could think, while approaching ever closer to the water, is about what sort of crazed lunatic kayaks or swims in this body of water. As soon as you get close to it the smell makes you roll up your windows. Today I even gagged walking back to the truck and it isn’t even baking in the summer sun. Wait there’s more. We also explored the weird of Bombay. A grid town of tin trailer homes from the atomic age. Majestic configurations of camper mansions. Pack rat yards and art installations.
Then we went to the dried up marina. I walked up to the waters edge captivated by a swing set in the Sea. I was angling to get as close as I could when suddenly I sank a full foot and a half into the clay while it belched rotting sea smells into the air. I couldn’t lift my feet out. They were being sucked in further. So I struggled out of my shoes and while protecting my camera in one hand, crouched on the clay, I dislodged each shoe from their near grave and tossed them to safety. Then I had to backtrack to safety. I looked around, no one else was within six feet of the waters edge. This must be quick sand because it was quick and it could be called sand. Kurt saw nothing. He was on dry land taking a panorama, oblivious. I experienced this feeling before, of having the ground suck you inward, when I was a child growing up alongside what we called a cranberry bog. It was January in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and I was decked out in my 90’s purple and pink nylon windbreaker ready to take on a winter adventure.
At that time of year the lake and bog should’ve been completely frozen. I watched as my cat walked out onto obviously thin ice. I had to get him off. I don’t know why, ask eleven year old me what the impulse was. I called to him and yelled at him, and he looked at me as cats do. So I cautiously tested the surface. It didn’t give. I tested again and again. My cat walked off the thin spot just in time for me to go crashing through. It wasn’t the biting cold that I remember, it was the mud sucking me hungrily down while my cat impassively watched and I clung to the edge. For a moment I wanted to yell out for my Mother, I could see the house. Odds were no one was going to come to save me however loud I howled. I found strength to pull myself out and trudge home covered in swamp mud during the coldest time of the year in Northern Michigan.
We left Arizona ready for a short drive. We didn’t have that long of a drive to get where we were going. Then I had an inspiration. Hoover Dam was only an hour away? Why not? What could go wrong.
First off. Hoover Dam was more than an hour out of our way.
Second. We needed to stop to eat before we saw the main event. Then pick up something from the store. Then stop to check out something. Then, well, nature called.
Then we had to have our truck and camper searched while the dogs went mad. Ok. That wasn’t so bad? The Hoover Dam was a lot. More than I expected. I also had no idea what a people magnet it was.
While stopped at the turn around point (because you aren’t allowed to go into Arizona) for the Dam, I saw it. A critical repair on the camper didn’t hold.
Now we were trying to find a place to camp for the night. And my husband vetoed the campgrounds for camping on BLM land instead. We drove along Lake Mead thinking we had it all figured out.
Then dark descended on us like a curse. We didn’t find anywhere. We drove through the desert night sure the next rise would yield a little BLM camping gold nugget. It did not. The last rise gave way to the vast lit spread of Sin City herself (huge and sprawling), and there was no where for us to go but through it (turning a 30 ft camper around is a challenge). After the subtleness of Arizona the lights of Las Vegas hit like a planetary object. Also, you can smoke and gamble in gas stations. Pro-tip pay outside so you don’t come out smelling like an ashtray from that 60 seconds.
It took some convincing… but I got my human to agree to drive over that line. I don’t believe he regrets it yet. (Also since when did google maps welcome users to a new state? I’m sure California is the only state that it has done that with).
There’s both more here and less here than I expected. There are little pockets of civilization to get gas, food (food is a relative term) and camp. Great stretches of empty desert. But, where is the grocery store? We went to the nearest town and nope nothing there. Why did we drive there? Because the wind storm knocked out the power and internet and we couldn’t get fuel within Death Valley. Might as well get some supplies too… nope.
Yes the wind storm. Days of wind. Though the first night it hit, it came on like an angry bull. We watched the dust storm gather at the base of the mountains. In the night the gusts reached as high as 70 mph. It has been a few days and it is still windy. There is a fine coating of dust on everything including the cat.
Despite that this place is magical. In every direction a new texture, a new color, a vista, a canyon… We explored the roads leading to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, the Artist’s Palette, the Devil’s Golf Course and then the Racetrack Playa. After the Racetrack everything changed.
It was 60 miles to the washboard gravel backroad that takes you to the Racetrack Playa, then it is another 26 miles of rough riding up, yes up to the valley it resides. Plus the extra miles when we attempted to take a different route out and found that no we do not have a 4×4 with high clearance. It was dark by the time we reached the blacktop.
Then the check engine light came on with 60 miles to go back to camp.
The doldrums. We were marooned in Death Valley with low supplies and waiting on an alternator to be shipped. I focused on art. I scanned my polaroid collection. Started editing them. Worked on my 100 day project. We tried to keep shopping at the store to a minimum because of the premium prices. Then we ran out of dog food. The store had a cute little bag. We ran out again. Crossed our fingers that the store restocked, and it did.
When the alternator arrived, it did not work. Nothing worked. (More about the truck situation here)
Death Valley to Pahrump to Lake Mead to Las Vegas to Lake Mead to Valley of Fire to Death Valley
Here in my tale we start driving in circles. We sever ties with the old truck and finally make the commitment to a new one. With a lot of mixed feelings. I write from Death Valley where the troubles began, sitting in a new-to-us truck, and I’d be hard pressed to unravel our journey between leaving and returning with the exception of a few notable experiences.
We drove through North Vegas, which I was told, was the “hood.” Twice we did that. The first time was the night we drove through when we were looking for a place to stay for the night before we ever reached Death Valley. Then we drove through during the day. The same road from the desert that opens up to the city. I the daylight it is littered with trash. (Other routes into Vegas are not). I saw a man laying in a parking lot at ten am. his shirt was pulled up over his torso. His torso twisted in one direction and his legs in the other. I could not say for sure if he was alive or not. There was a woman with bright blue afro styled hair wearing a surgical mask hitting a small man approaching her on the sidewalk. Near an intersection an older man in a wheelchair with no legs was nearly in the road, slumped over, sleeping, I hope. Later in another area of the city I saw a tall thin man holding his dirty blanket around his shoulders trying to get into the dumpster pen at a fast food joint. He gave up and slumped against the side of the building. His head hanging between his knees. I tried to go back when I could to get him something, but he was gone. Implored my husband, said look, he isn’t begging (referring to the professional beggars that are around) , I must. But I failed at that kindness, and it will be one of those moments I regret.
And then we were able to finally leave Las Vegas. We tried for the Valley of Fire to the north, but it was unbelievably crawling with people. We drove around a couple scenic roads before heading back to the campground in Death Valley for a night.
Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park
In the winter you can still see the world’s biggest tree. As long as you are prepared with winter tires, 4×4, chains and ok with the idea of being snowed in while they clear the critical roads. On February 20th it didn’t seem likely. The mountain looked like early spring. By the afternoon of the 21st though, everyone, including us, evacuated the campground for lower ground. Storm was coming. And we weren’t staying to experience it. Nope.
But I saw them and a few days before it didn’t seem likely I would. We tried to enter from the south, a direction that was closed for the winter and the locals weren’t giving up the correct information about how to go about seeing the giant trees. Google? Cell reception was hard to come by.
Once set on the right road we climbed into the rolling green back country. Followed a winding mountain road through early spring oak forests and cow pastures. Then we climbed up and up a winding mountain road. The trees changed from hardwood to pines and then we saw the first monumental sequoia just before the entrance gate.
The things I learned about these trees that are going to stick with me the most:
They have no taproot. You cannot walk up to and touch the biggest trees. Well, you shouldn’t, if you don’t want to love them to death. They are being protected from all the tourist traffic by foot paths and a little wood fence. Unfortunately, while breathing in the General Sherman Tree, I witness two different groups of people ignore the fence. A young man speaking French from one group and a few individuals from a group speaking a language that sounded Russian/Eastern European. Another individual with a middle eastern accent chastised the second group. Declaring they “educate themselves,” well said stranger and thank you for using your voice.
The air quality is horrible. For us, for them. They are under assault. I didn’t expect the smoky haze, the locals are aware, but it has not saturated into the public sphere. This air is trapped here. Saturated. From below you can barely make out that there are any mountains. From above the land disappears into the haze. My clothes smell smokey and there were no campfires. There were no active wildfires in the area. I’m searching for the explanation of why there was so much smoke in the air. I’m told it is just the bowl effect of the mountains and the prevailing winds trapping everything in.
Joshua Tree National Park
I almost forgot that we visited Joshua Tree! We were unable to secure a camping spot and camped on nearby BLM land then drove through the park on our way south. I since learned that Joshua Tree, like many natural wonders, is threatened by climate change. Experts believe the future holds a time when there will no Joshua Trees in the park.
Did I know there was an inland sea in Southern California? Maybe once I looked on a map and since long forgot it. We drove along the western shore admiring the deep blue sparkles against the distant blue haze mountains. So we stopped to check it out.
The beach sand was made of minuscule shell particles. The closer to the water the sharper and larger.
Then you are assaulted by the aroma of the Salton Sea. The posted warnings were to not eat the shell fish, but swimming was fine. My ocean drinking dogs weren’t interested in these waters. The Salton Sea is a beautiful manmade mistake (yes, man accidentally filled an ancient lake/sea bed). And if cared for she’d be the bell of the desert again.
Forty-five miles of sand dunes cresting in light and and shadow. Changing color with the light. Pure form. Hundreds if not thousands of people come every week to these BLM managed dunes to play in the sand with their toys, but I came for the light.
And I got to see part of the Sonoran Desert bloom in white, violet, pink and orange.