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.

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