Thursday, November 25, 2004

Roads to Death Valley

As we approached Death Valley from the west, coming up along the dry side of the Sierra Nevada's on highway 395, we took one of the most stressful roads I have driven in an RV, California Highway 190. It's a nice enough roadway -- a decent two-lane blacktop. But for a large vehicle, it provides a stress-test for the engine, tansmission and brakes. As the highway heads off across the salt flats, with promises of no services for many miles, it is a clear reminder of where we are heading, Death Valley. Soon enough, we take a turn eastward and the road begins to go up and down. Disturbingly, there is a red CLOSED label posted over the roadsign that seems to indicate that highway 127, the road we were going to take out of Death Valley was shut down for some reason.

Highway 190 approaches a scenic overlook, and the steep grade signs on one side, and the emergency radiator water tanks on the other give a pretty clear picture of what we can expect. The grade goes down, steeply. Just having had a new transmission put in, with the brake pads replaced, I had no real worries, but on our first RV trip into Death Valley, we had engine problems. Memories of problems come freshly to mind as the turnouts and guard rails bring that time to mind.

First, we go down. The sign says 7% grade. I downshift to first gear and let it whine, keeping an eye on the tachometer. For most of the twisty, steep grade, the transmission does the whole job, but seven percent is just a whisker over the limit, and I have to use the brakes just a tad in places. By the time we reach the floor of Panamint valley, at 1500 feet altitude, I was feeling pretty good about the new repair work.

But that was just the first trial. Now, in the course of just a few miles, I have to drive up the Panamint Range to the pass, at 5000 feet. The signs tell the story. 'Turn off Air-conditioner to avoid overheating next 10 miles.' The grade is 9%, and in the summer, that other trip, our motor got too hot and we barely made it over. This time the RV was in better shape. We went slowly, but steadily, up to the top of the pass.

Now for the third and final stage. A straight drop from 5000 feet to Stovepipe Wells, at sealevel. The grade starts out at 8%, but gentles down to 6% and finally 4% before making it to the village. Still, the brakes get another chance to provide assistance to the transmission and engine, doing most of the work keeping the RV from going too fast. I kept a constant eye on the engine temperature, but everything worked smoothly.

On leaving day, we drove over to Furnace Creek, where highway 127 should have come in. It was plain to see why it had merited the CLOSED sign. A flash flood some months earlier had torn down the canyon from Death Valley Junction and peeled away the old roadway. There was a wide wash where the mud and debris had emptied out on to the floor Death Valley, and in among the rubble, you could see old roadway, guardrails and even light poles that had been scoured out during that storm.

But as dramatic as it must have been, it seemed perfectly normal for the terrain. Death Valley is ringed with debris washed down from the steep mountains that surround it. That was how much of the landscape was formed. For as long as people need roads in Death Valley, extensive repair must always be part of the picture.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

View From the Cliff

After five days staying in the Leo Carrillo State park in Malibu, we decided to move. The state park was nice, but they have a seven day limit before they run you off for at least two days. That and the perpetual problem of keeping the electrical system running made me want to go back to the Malibu Beach RV Park where we had stayed a couple of years back.

The state park campsites didn't have electricity. Thus we had to rely heavily on the generator and the battery inverter system. However, there was a strict curfew on generator hours, and we had several incidents where the battery level dropped too low and the inverter cut out without warning. Both our laptops were unaffected, but the Windows dinosaur that lives under the bench didn't like abrupt power failures.

So, we relocated. And I must say it is nice. Permanent electricity, fresh water in the tanks, and a lovely view of the Pacific out the front windows.

The Malibu Beach RV Park is built on the cliff, and our location is about 160 feet above sea level and drops off nicely. This morning, as I sit in the driver's seat with my laptop resting on the steering wheel, working on my next novel (working title: Falling Bak-wards) I have watched ships sailing across the sea, the scuttling clouds, and a seal cavorting in the surf. Other than the distraction of grabbing for the monocular every few minutes, it is a lovely place to work.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Runaway Truck

There is nothing to get your blood pumping more than seeing an 18-wheeler tractor trailer truck gaining speed -- with no one in the cab.

Heading for California to visit daughter Debra, we stopped for the night at Kingman just off I-40. We picked the Flying-J, because they have been RV-friendly in the past and suspected no problems parking for the night among their crowd of big-rig trucks. It was very crowded. I-40 is a major trucking route, and Kingman was at the end of a hundred mile of empty desert.

Because it was so crowded, and I hated to have any of those trucker's mad at me, I located a parking place with a lamp pole in it. There wasn't room for one of those 60-foot rigs, but there was for my 30-foot RV and my jeep. We settled down for the night in among the rumble of diesel engines and raised the satellite dish. Just then a freight train passed by less than a dozen feet away. It seems that as well as I-40, the pass throught he mountains was a route for train traffic as well. It was a little noisy, but it was free. We could sleep through anything.

In the morning, I sat in the driver's seat as usual, reading my email and testing my blood-sugar, and engaging in the surrounding entertainment -- watching trucks come and go, and watching the drivers who make a living at moving those huge, massive trucks around. It has always fascinated me how skillful they are at parking their rigs in a densly packed parking lot like this one.

The driver to our right was having problems with his truck. He had pulled the engine hood down and was working on something with a hammer. He was oriental and short, but I was nervous about the way he walked all over the hood. If I tried something like that, I'd break it with my weight.

Finally he appeared to be ready to go. He fired up his engine, but then he noticed someone in the parking lot. Mary Ann commented that she wondered if truckers met friends from time to time staying in the same truck stops.

I wasn't paying attention, until I noticed his truck start to move.

In a flash, I realized he wasn't at the wheel. No one was at the wheel! I slammed at the horn, but that didn't work. I jumped up and dashed half the length of the RV back to the doorway, but Mary Ann, as usual, had turned the deadbolt for the night, and I had to fumble with it for precious seconds.

By then, there was nothing left to do but watch in horror as the truck gained speed across the 80 or so feet, not turning one inch as it slammed into a truck parked facing us.

Mary Ann was shaken, fearful that someone had gotten smashed between them, but that was not the case. People scurried around. I didn't see him enter, but the driver took control and backed his truck back into the vacated slot. Truckers from all over came to see the dented rigs. The driver spent more time on the other guy's truck, looking for damage.

Finally, the other trucker came back, probably from breakfast in the restaurant, to discover his truck had been damaged. Now this guy was a Hagrid-like big guy with a beard. The little oriental guy explained what had happened. The big guy was clearly angry, but at my distance, I could hear nothing. The body language spoke volumes, however. I would have hated to be the little guy. No blows, but if the words matched the gestures, they must have left burn marks.

Prudently, it was time for Mary Ann and I to leave. I really hated to be there if anything more physical happened. We pulled around to the other side of the place to gas up, and as she watched me work the pump, Mary Ann spotted a police car pull around behind. I wonder if a helpful trucker or two had called in a report.

It's amazing to me how the body reacts to things like this. Those handful of seconds, from the time I noticed the truck start to move, until the time I saw it hit, must have pumped me full of adrenaline. Muscles shook for half an hour afterwards. And the memory -- that will last quite a while.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

A National Park All to Ourselves

We were heading from South Dakota to California, and the Weather Channel showed a large winter storm coming down over our planned path. This was a big one, with high winds and snow alerts, covering the several states. I am reluctant to drive the RV in conditions like that. We decided to change course and head south on I-25 as fast as we could. Near sunset, Mary Ann poured over the maps and directed us towards Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The dunes are in a high mountain valley, surrounded on nearly all sides by mountains. It is actually a desert, and over the ages, sand has collected in a crook of the eastern mountains. The dunes are hundreds of feet tall and a fun place to play, in the summer.

We found that most of the campground was closed off, but that was okay, because there was only one other site being used, and they left the next morning. The snow came as predicted, but in this valley, it was just a light dusting, highlighting the dunes with bands of white, and crowning the sage with a glistening icing.

We decided to stay another day, taking a restful morning and then heading out in the afternoon to visit the two nearby National Wildlife Refuges. The valley was criss-crossed with irrigation ditches from earlier decades, fed by water from the nearby mountains. There were wetlands all around, feeding the source of the Rio Grande River. We traced the dirt roads in Alamosa NWR and startled a porcupine and many very skittish ducks. Not that I blame them. Public hunting lands and the wildlife refuge are close neighbors, with the same roads serving both. Hawks and a Great Horned Owl were icing.

Over in Monte Vista NWR, we watched the sandhill cranes come in to roost for the night. I have to wonder about their cold toes. When they fly, this very large bird trails its feet behind them, so as they pass overhead, you can see their feet clearly. The air was dropping below freezing by sunset.

Heading back to the RV in the campsite, not only was the entrance gate unmanned, but all other visitors and campers were gone. We had the whole National Park to ourselves. We fired up the generator and the heater and I worked into the evening packaging up stories to send out as soon as we located a post office. Mary Ann went to bed early, hoping to catch the dawn for shots of the dunes.

At 5 am, when she awoke, sensing that the heater had stopped working, we found that the batteries had gone dead early. The cold had sapped the capacity out of them. But we bundled up and hopped in the jeep to get to the magic viewpoint before the sun touched it. The jeep's thermometer reported 2.7 degrees F. and even shifting the transmission was sluggish.

But the morning shoot called. Even with frost obscuring the windshield, we headed over to the mountain pass road. The one with the large sign saying "Point of No Return", giving a wide place to turn around. Shortly past that, the road turned very soft, with deep sand. The jeep went into four-wheeled drive and we surged on. It got worse, and I shifted into 4WL. Just as the road started to get better, as it turned up into the mountains and showed more rocks under the sand, Mary Ann realized we had passed the viewpoint and we turned back.

She hopped out and began taking first-light pictures as the sunlight tipped the mountain peak.

It was then that I realized we didn't quite have the national park to ourselves. As I rummaged in the back, hunting for her gloves, I disturbed a visitor -- a quick little brown mouse that had found our jeep a nice cozy place to wait out the chill. He left in a hurry. At least I think he left. He could still be back there with the jumper cables and tow straps.

The shadows didn't cooperate with Mary Ann, and we moved several times as she tried to get the shot she visualized. We won't know the results of that until later, but for me, this has been a morning to make me breathe in deeply and smile.