Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Death Valley

This was going to be "Desert Bloom -- Death Valley". The flowers were there, but it was a different jeep trip.

At the floor of Death Valley, there are flowers, but we arrived past the peak of the bloom. Mary Ann had done her research and knew that the flowers were still vibrant at higher elevations, so she charted us a course up out of the Death Valley Basin, through Nevada and back down by way of Scotty's Castle.

It was a good loop. Once we reached the 2000 - 4000 foot elevation, we were stopping every few miles for her to take more pictures. I even got some time to work on my story. On Highway 95, while she was lying in the dirt, trying to get some very close up pictures of some purple flowers so tiny that most people wouldn't see, I was watching a dry lake bed that was hosting a series of very dramatic dust-devils. Some of them were the most tightly formed and tallest one's I'd ever seen. They were carrying the dust up, easily 1000-2000 feet, based on what I could estimate from the mountain range on the other side. They reminded me of the ones seen on Mars. Very tight and well-defined.

The drop back into the basin going to Scotty's Castle proved to be the best flowers of all. Dramatic yellow flowers filled the valley.

But it was here that Mary Ann let me know she had more planned for us.

She had traced a route that left the pavement and headed up towards Eureka Dunes, supposedly a bigger dune field than the one near Stovepipe Wells, where we had camped.

The instant we left the pavement, I had to sigh. The road was washboard. I could barely go ten miles per hour before the wheels were bouncing all over the road. But, that's where she wanted to go, and we'd done crazier things before.

It was a long road. I started experimenting, trying to find the right speed and the right track to minimize the vibrations. We stopped a few times to get pictures of flowers that she hadn't seen in other places in the park.

But by the time we were 15 miles down the road, she gave me the chance to turn back. I should have taken her up on it.

At mile 17, I was trying a new trick, keeping the right wheels up on the shoulder of the road. It was doing a great job of minimizing the vibrations and allowing me to drive faster. The shoulder wasn't really graded like the main road bed, so it had some rocks that I had to avoid, but I was doing okay. Except for that last rock.

Bang! A hundred yards later, Mary Ann said, "We may be in trouble." I could smell it too. Oil. I stopped the Jeep immediately, but before I could turn off the key, I could see that the old pressure had dropped to zero. I got out and looked. Oil was spilling out on the ground. The rock had knocked a hole in the oil pan.

It was two hours to sunset, and this was Death Valley. There was no cell phone coverage, and we were in one of the most deserted locations in North America.

Surprisingly, I was up-beat. Yes, we were stranded, and it was likely no one else would be on this road before tomorrow. Yes, we had eaten our lunch. Yes, we hadn't planned for an overnight and there were no coats or blankets.

Still, we didn't do anything crazy. We reviewed our supplies. We had several water bottles, and cans of nuts to eat. I had left a sweater and cap in the Jeep, and she had a pullover jacket. If it didn't get too cold, we should be okay. I opened the hood on the Jeep as the universal sign of car trouble.

When Mary Ann started to worry, I went and found some more flowers for her to take pictures of. Once she had things to do, she was okay. I toyed with several ideas, from hiking back to the pavement, to taking the oil pan off myself and seeing if I could patch it, but those were clearly long-shots. I concentrated on going with the flow, being up-beat, and knowing that it would all turn out okay. Besides, it would make a good Blog.

Sunset came, and immediately it started getting colder. I bundled up, and waited. We were close enough to the commercial air lanes that jet noise would cause me to jump up and check for activity every few minutes. Most of the time I couldn't even see the jets. Mary Ann voted against staying out in the desert all night. I voted with her. It passed. We sat in the Jeep and waited, listening to the growing noises of animals and insects.

I have good hearing, and being so far away from any mechanical noise, I could hear things miles away. Perhaps I could even hear an occasional truck from over the mountains in Nevada. Maybe.

Finally, about an hour after sunset, I looked up, and there on the road ahead, I could see dust and headlights. "A car is coming," I told Mary Ann, while I turned the headlights on and off, signalling.

"Where is it?" she asked. The headlights had vanished. I looked and told her it was probably just out of sight. The road went up and own over the hills. But I was confused. I had heard engine noise before, but I couldn't now. I hadn't imagined it.

I walked a half mile up the road, and there was no sign of a car. Realizing I had walked off without the Talkabouts, I walked back and told Mary Ann that I suspected that the car had pulled off somewhere and that I was going to look for it. I took one of the radios and headed out. Just a minute later, she radioed that she had spotted a light. That was promising.

Down the road, I saw relatively fresh tracks in the dust. A vehicle heading towards us had stopped, turned around, and headed back. I followed, and shortly found a side road. The same tracks when that way, so I followed, and before too long, I saw a light. I radioed Mary Ann and told her where I was.

In a place as deserted as this. I realized it wouldn't do to pop up and startle people, so I called "Hello!" before I approached. Jim and his mother Janis were just making camp. I told them my problem, and he was glad to help, but I felt sorry that they were being put to this trouble.

After they had re-packed, and gotten Freckles the dog back in their car, they came up to where we were stranded. Mary Ann went with them to arrange the towing, while I stayed with the Jeep. It was either me or Freckles. There wasn't room for both of us.

As the lights of the car vanished into the distance, I relaxed, listened to the night noises and pulled all the available coverings over my head to conserve heat.

I was startled by a light behind me. It wasn't time for rescue. I climbed out and stared for a while at the rising full moon. I would have watched it longer, but it was cold.

About the time I expected, a light appeared on the far horizon. I turned on the Jeep's tail lights and waited. It was Mary Ann and the rescuers. Things hadn't worked out as planned. The tow truck wouldn't arrive until tomorrow and they were worried about me and brought a sleeping bag. But, as we talked Jim noticed the tow bar on my Jeep and offered to try to pull be back with his car. After some manual repositioning of the Jeep, we connected and Mary Ann and I rode in the Jeep while being pulled back over 17 miles of washboard road.

It was hard to keep my hands off the steering wheel, but I was dead tired. It was by now, 2 am. Jim drove us all the way back to Stovepipe Wells, where we could hook up the incapacitated Jeep when we left. Mary Ann talked them into staying at the Stovepipe Wells hotel and we all agreed we'd sleep late.

It was so nice to sleep in my own bed, even though I was starting to get a fever chill. (Better now).

Lessons learned? God does take care of you even when you're stupid.

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