Life in Death Valley

We left Riverside County along I-15 under the threat of the Santa Ana winds.  A “red flag” warning was in effect, and out on the freeway the larger trucks were skittering across the painted lines when particularly heavy gusts struck them.  The Airstream was better behaved, but I was still glad to climb up and out of the valley toward Barstow.

At Baker we exited the interstate and headed north to Death Valley.  It’s a longish drive, and by the time we arrived at Furnace Creek (-196 feet below sea level), it was dark. We missed the turn to Sunset Campground and had to wander around for a few minutes before we found it again.  The moon, while nearly full, had not yet risen over the Funeral Mountains, and without it, Death Valley can be a very dark place.

We found Bert Gildart riding around on a bicycle in the campground, chasing us.  He and Janie had seen us roving around, looking for the campground entrance, and Bert decided to attempt to guide us in.  They arrived earlier in the day after a narrow escape from Montana snowstorms, and were now settled in for a few days of bone-warming.

Sunset Campground is one of three in Furnace Creek area.  It’s enormous and so there are lots of spaces available.  $12, no hookups, water, bathrooms, and dump station on-site.  We are parked close enough to the water and dump that we can conveniently stay as long as we like.

About half the people here are using generators  for their electrical power, but we and the Gildarts have solar panels.  Bert augments his solar collection with a small generator, since his panels have about half the capacity of ours.  We are doing fine on solar alone, despite the low sun angle this time of year.  Using the catalytic heater instead of the furnace helps.

Since we are relying on solar, the first task of the next morning was to clean the panels.  Mine were filthy with caked-on dirt, which drastically impedes their ability to generate power.  Using Bert’s truck as a ladder, I climbed onto the roof and washed them off, and then Bert did the same on his Airstream.  He needed to see me walking around on the roof to be confident that you really can get on the roof of an Airstream (as long as you are careful).

dvnp-badwater.jpg

We all came here with no agenda.  The Gildarts have been here many times, and in fact have written a book on Death Valley, so there’s nothing in this park they haven’t seen before.  They are here simply to warm up after weeks of 20-below temperatures in northern Montana.  We are here to see them and get some exercise on the trails of Death Valley in the comfortable winter season.

dvnp-emma-zabriskie.jpgIt is not hot.  The weather this week is pleasantly monotonous: highs in the 70s, lows in the upper 40s, and not a speck of cloud expected.  Chance of rain: 0%.  The hot weather for which Death Valley is famous arrives in April, when the average high is 90 degrees, and peaks in July when the average high is 115 degrees.  We were once here in June in the Airstream and survived three days with no air conditioning, but it was challenging.  This time of year the only challenge is the early sunset, which tends to curtail our activities, so we are getting up with the sun and returning to camp around 5 p.m.

dvnp-mosaic.jpgThis is also a very safe place to be, despite its reputation, especially this time of year.  The snakes and other creatures are largely inactive, and the number one cause of death here is the single-car rollover.  Because the roads are so wide open (speed limit 55-65 in many places) and there is no traffic, people tend to drive way too fast in their SUVs and Jeeps.  Then a curve comes up suddenly and – whoops! – off the road you go.  I think the early emigrants who passed through here and lost their lives due to harsh terrain, high heat, and lack of water would find it unbelievable that people are still killing themselves here simply by driving too fast.

Cell phones do not work here, and that makes it one of the last major western national parks in that category.  We don’t hear cute ringtones going off as we walk the trails.  There are usable cell phone signals at Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion, Bryce, and many other “remote” parks, but not here.  There is an enforced silence in that regard.  I wonder how long the park can hold out.

There is wifi, which is how this blog is reaching you.  The Visitor Center offers it (oddly enough, only from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and it is also found at the nearby Death Valley Ranch, both for free.  In the mornings a small circle of laptop users forms near the General Store, lately wearing warm clothes and hats against the 50-degree chill that persists until 10 a.m. or so.

Our travels in the park have so far been to Badwater, Zabriskie Point, Mosaic Canyon, Stovepipe, and the sand dunes.  Traveling with Bert, an accomplished photographer, we tend to go places in the late afternoon when the sun is low and details of the desert begin to pop out.  Tiny tracks (kitfox, beetle, lizard, sidewinder), ripples in the dunes, colors on the surrounding mountains … all reach their peak of visibility when the sun is low.  I will post an album from Death Valley on Flickr as soon as possible, since the photos I am sharing here are only a tiny fraction of what we are seeing.

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Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine