Sorry for the delay on getting this out. It's been a busy few days. Friday's report to come soon...
- Where We Started: Barstow, Calif.
- Where We Ended: Lone Pine, Calif.
- Miles Driven: 379 (11,211 total).
- New States: None.
- States So Far: 19 (Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California)
THE DAY'S HIGHLIGHTS
It was fitting that on a day where we explored the varied elevations of Death Valley National Park, we also experienced a number of emotional highs and lows. After an amazing visit at the park, we had to deal with an injured beagle and an injured car in the remote outskirts of the park. In the end, the day ended happily, as two good Samaritans stopped to help and dug us out of trouble. But let's ignore the theory of the inverted pyramid and work our way up to the lead...
Death Valley was one of our favorite stops on the 2003 Fred Takes America tour. The park's name really doesn't accurately depict it. Yes, a large chunk of Death Valley lies below sea level, features extreme temperatures and is very hot and very dry. But the park also has mountains, sand dunes, gorgeous valleys and amazing overlooks. Yes, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere -- Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level -- does lie within the park's boundaries. But so does Telescope Peak, located at 11,049 feet. Yes, there are large expanses where the only colors you see are white and gray. But there are also rock formations colored by the oxidation of metals, forming amazing natural sights like Artist's Palette. If you've never made it to Death Valley, you should. Yes, it is sort of in the middle of nowhere, but it's only 150 miles from another well-known place in the middle of nowhere -- Las Vegas -- and only 225 miles from Los Angeles. I promise, it'll be worth it.
We started our park journey by heading down a 13-mile road to Dante's View, in the southeast part of the park. We didn't make it to this overlook on the 2003 trip, and as soon as we reached it Thursday, we regretted having missed it then. Providing a great view down into a good portion of Death Valley itself, Joan and I agreed it was the best single vista we'd seen so far on this trip.
From Dante's View, we drove 25 miles -- Death Valley is a huge park, the largest U.S. national park outside Alaska -- to Zabriskie Point, where you can look out onto the dried sediment of Furnace Creek Lake, which dried up, oh, about five million years ago.
Next, we headed down Badwater Road to re-visit the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. Along the way, we made a stop at Devil's Golf Course, a large salt pan made up of jagged salt crystals. You can walk out onto Devil's Golf Course, but signs warn you how sharp these crystals are. They are sharp, as I found out when I kneeled down to take this picture.
We continued on down Badwater Road until we reached Badwater Basin, located 282 feet below sea level. Badwater Basin has the terrain people think of when they think Death Valley. It's hot. It's dry. It's stark. In fact, we considered ourselves lucky that the highest temperature we encountered was an even 100 degrees. In 2003, it was 110 degrees when we were in Death Valley.
Next, we headed to the Mesquite Sand Dunes. These dunes have been used numerous times as filming locations, most notably for the first "Star Wars." The scene where C3PO and R2D2 are lost and wandering through the desert was filmed in these dunes. In fact, a number of scenes from "Star Wars" were filmed in the park, and here are two guys who provide the complete recap.
Here are a few other pictures from Death Valley:
All in all, it had been a wonderful day, spent in an amazing place. The only issue we'd encountered was that Fred had developed a problem with his front right paw. He was alternating between going three-legged and limping on it, and was chewing on the paw frequently. It didn't seem horribly serious, and since we didn't have any vet options in Death Valley anyway, we decided to let it ride.
Soon, Fred wasn't the only one with an injured front right paw. Right at the border of the park, we decided to make one last stop: the Father Crowley Overlook. We'd stopped there in 2003, and I remembered how nice the view was. So, as the sun set, we headed down the short dirt road that leads to the overlook. The road was pretty smooth at the start, but soon became rougher and rougher. As we bounced over a bunch of exposed rocks, the dreaded "Check Tire Pressure" light came on in the car, politely requesting that I check the front right tire. The pressure, which had been 39 only an hour before, was now zero. Hoping against hope the tire pressure monitor had just disconnected, I got out to check the tire, and found it as flat as Hannibal Lecter's pulse.
Now, a flat tire isn't a big deal, even in Death Valley, since I know how to change a tire and had done it twice on the 2003 trip. It's an annoyance more than anything, because I have to completely empty the trunk of the car to get to the spare, and we have A LOT of crap in the trunk. So I rolled the car out closer to the main park road to find level ground and make us more visible, and with the sun setting quickly, started emptying the car. I got everything out of the trunk and yanked out the spare tire. And it was at that moment that my mind went back about a year, to that day where I got a flat tire near our home in Virginia. I remembered the jerk who swerved into my lane, sending me onto the shoulder and into a pothole that blew out my front right tire. I remembered pulling out the jack in pitch-black conditions and jacking up the car. I remembered discovering that I'd missed getting the jack into the metal grip under the car. As a result, I remembered the car collapsing on the jack. I remembered calling Joan and asking her to bring her jack so I could get the tire on. I remembered tossing the crushed jack in the trash when I got home. What I hadn't remembered, until this very moment, in this remote part of Death Valley National Park, with the sun now down, sitting about 20 miles from the former Manson Family ranch, was that I'd never replaced the fucking jack.
A few minutes earlier, as I was unpacking the trunk, two motorcyclists had turned into the lookout. Now, I'm well aware that there's a stereotype about bikers, but when you're in a remote place and have no way out, stereotypes have a way of taking over your brain. So we were both worried when we saw them look our way, and pull in. It soon became clear they were not a threat, as they were two middle-aged yuppies out for a ride, and not Hell's Angels. What was kind of shocking was that they sat about 20 feet from us for about 10 minutes, chatting casually, and didn't bother to ask whether we needed any help. Eventually, they did, but in that way that suggested they really hoped we wouldn't say yes and hold them up. Not wanting to get in the way of their midlife crises, we let them ride off without saddling them with any responsibility. It was right about this time I realized we didn't have a jack.
This was the moment where it all could have gone very wrong, but we both kept our heads and checked our cell phones. Joan's had no reception, and neither did my primary phone. But, after hours of having no connectivity, my BlackBerry had flickered back to life. So I called AAA, and was on the phone with a rep when a big pickup truck happened by and stopped. In it were our saviors, Bill and Jessica, who lived nearby, and were heading home through the park. Bill was clearly a man who had dealt with a lot of tire problems in his time, so I wasn't going to do anything to slow him down. He tried a compressor, and soon discovered the massive hole in the sidewall of the tire that clearly removed the compressor as an option. After he and Jessica located the well-hidden jack in their new truck, they discovered that the truck's jack was too tall to get under the Acura. But Bill produced a shovel out of the truck -- have I mentioned he was prepared for anything? -- and I dug a ditch under the car so that the jack could fit underneath.
Luckily, this digging idea worked, and soon, we had the car up and had put on the spare. Soon, we were back on three good tires and a donut. We thanked Bill and Jessica for taking an hour-plus out of what was already a long ride home for them. It was truly a act of kindness, and they could not have been nicer people. We probably would have waited longer for someone to help us on Route 7 in Tysons Corner.
After we said a grateful farewell to Bill and Jessica, we buckled up for the hairy ride to Lone Pine, as we still had to descend from the mountains on a donut that's you're only supposed to drive for 50 miles and at no more than 50 miles per hour. Luckily, we made the quiet hour-long drive to Lone Pine without incident, though we still had a dog that needed a vet and a car that needed one of the Acura RL's hard-to-find tires.
- There are rarities in life: perfect games in baseball, perfect diamonds, good episodes of "Three's Company," New York Jets playoff victories, etc. But, in my life, the rarest of sights is Joan running. Joan has a wonderful, laid-back, casual approach to life that has served her well. This approach, however, apparently requires very little running. So imagine my surprise when, while at Dante's View, I turned around and caught this image.The ever-conscious Joan had lost a tissue in the high winds, and had decided to give chase. Hank, as shocked at this sight as anyone, looks quite concerned.
After an effort that required her to climb a few feet down an embankment (not one with a long drop), Joan recaptured the tissue without a struggle. But I am glad I finally captured this moment. By the way, here's a less-unique photo I took at Death Valley.
OK, maybe not. But this would have surprised me less than seeing Joan run.
- Random iPod shuffle song of the day: We usually pull the random song as we're getting close to the hotel. On Thursday, let's just say we were a bit distracted.
- Most-Played Albums: We ran the gamut during our Death Valley visit, as we played some Elvis Costello, Bob Marley, Bob Seger and Bryan Adams. Midday, we settled into a long Eric Clapton run, playing good chunks of "Slowhand," "Behind the Sun," "Journeyman" and "Crossroads" box set. We were playing "The Core" -- an extremely underrated Clapton song, in my view -- when we got our flat. Once we got the tire replaced, we continued with Clapton all the way to Lone Pine. We didn't feel right penalizing Eric for our misfortune.
- Lunch: Quizno's, Barstow, Calif.: Aiming to stay healthy, we stopped at a Quizno's at Barstow Station. A rest stop/food court that sits alongside the railroad tracks and right at the intersection of Interstates 15 and 40, Barstow Station is located inside parts of 17 old railroad cars. It was an odd little place, and when I later Googled it, I found there have been a lot of shootings there in recent years. Jim Nutrition Rating: 4 stars (out of 5). I got a regular turkey sandwich and a bag of chips. Restaurant Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5, on the fast-food scale). Exactly what we expected. Nothing more, nothing less.
- Dinner: McDonald's, Lone Pine, Calif.: We have an odd tradition that every time we escape an ugly situation and can make it to a town, we stop at McDonald's. This is mostly because, when we get stuck like this, McDonald's is usually all that's still open. So, once again, our travels took us from the heart of danger to the Golden Arches. Jim Nutrition Rating: 1 star (out of 5). I won't lie; I used the stress of the situation to order a quarter-pounder and fries. And I super-sized it. Restaurant Rating: 4 stars (out of 5). We both agreed that our food tasted extra good, since we were starving and were just glad to have made it to Lone Pine.
- Best Western Frontier, Lone Pine, Calif.: We stayed here back in 2003, and wrote nice things about it then, though neither of us had real clear memories. We were happy again this time, with a big, clean room and a parking space 10 feet from the door. We'd give it a 5, except for the fact they charge for late checkout, and even through we didn't need it, that's a silly policy. Hotel rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5).
COMMENT OF THE DAY
BONUS JIM PHOTO
BONUS BEAGLE PHOTO