Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Desert Road Trip - Part 2

Part 1

I don't generally do point-to-point sightseeing. I prefer to wander; I don't even like the linear constraint of a trail. For most people, though, the National Park Experience is a connect-the-dots kind of thing. True story: in October 1991, when Bush I shut down the Federal government, I was in Yosemite; there was all kinds of uncertainty about what exactly the shutdown meant for visitors (would they kick us all out of the park? or would there just be no ranger-type services?). I walked past a guy who was saying to his companion, "the ranger said the day use area would still be open...so let's go visit the Day Use Area."

I was reminded of this at Father Crowley Point, first official Vista Point as you enter the park from the west. Perched at the rim of Rainbow Canyon, this is where you get your first real glimpse of the Panamint Valley, a dead-white alkali lakebed walled in by bare rock mountain ranges. When I parked I was the only one there. I snapped some pictures then went off into the brush to transact some business, and when I returned there were four more vehicles and a dozen people.

My plan was to pull over wherever I saw a good picture, but this stretch of road isn't particularly conducive--too-narrow shoulders, with multi-hundred-foot dropoffs beyond. So...vista point to vista point.

At Panamint Springs I had the great honor and privilege of paying $5.15/gallon for mogas--an event I'll be sure to tell my grandchildren about, although it'll be one of those comical cross-generational misunderstandings where I think the point is how much I paid and they think the point is how little. Then down into the valley and across the dry lake with the Panamints looming ahead, and then up again to Towne Pass. And then the long gentle descent down an alluvial fan into Death Valley.

Really big (20 miles across) and really desolate (the Mojave is lush by comparison), with vast alkali flats and mountains of tortured strata in hallucinatory colors: Death Valley is a deeply weird and inhospitable place. All the weirder wherever there are clumps of tourists, hopelessly out of place in this beautiful inferno.

I paid my fee at Stovepipe Wells and continued east, with a short stop to gawk at the dunes. Then south at the junction toward Furnace Springs, where I had a campsite reserved. A couple miles shy of the village there are big fields of desert sunflowers stretching several miles along the road. (I was lucky: this was a prime year for wildflowers in Death Valley, and in many years there isn't much at all.) It's an incongruous vision--all that dazzling yellow growing out of barren gravel (not even really any dirt to speak of), and if I were inclined to see metaphors in things I might see a metaphor in it.

At Furnace Springs I staked my campsite claim and had a burger at the coffee shop. (The waitress asked me: "Is everything okay?" It took me a half second to realize that she was asking narrowly about my lunch, not broadly about my life.) Then north to Titus Canyon for a 3-mile hike up the Narrows--a shady escape from the early afternoon heat (the Narrows is, in fact, narrow--in places no wider than the one-way dirt road).

Then on to Rhyolite--with a short detour. I had planned to call Jody Thursday night, but there was no payphone at Red Rock Canyon. Just a few miles past Rhyolite is the booming metropolislet of Beatty (regional center of cheap motels, brothels, and casions); I figured I could find a phone there, and maybe get some mogas at a better price than they were charging in the Park. I lucked out on both, gassed up and called home.

After some small talk she asked me Do you want to hear any news about your father?

I really didn't, but I suppose I did. So I said Sure.

He passed away last night, she says.

We talked for a while. Condolences. No reason to cut short my trip; everything was being handled. I would call my brothers as soon as I got a chance. Not much more to say.

More than anything else I felt relief--his misery was over--but the finality of it, all the things he would never say or do again, still hit me. And being here at a busy gas station (a bunch of bikers drowned out our conversation at one point) in the midst of human activity, surrounded by 'normal' life, just seemed terribly wrong.

Twenty minutes later I was in Rhyolite--a much more appropriate place, under the circumstances. It's a dead town built by people who are long-dead, who left it to die a decade later; from the crumbling ruins of the bank to the faded writing on the wooden grave markers in the barren windblown cemetery, everything about the place is a reminder of death.

Back in Furnace Springs, I tried to call my brothers but the payphone blocked my phone card. I made dinner and read until dark and a little after (headlamp: big plus). Then I was at loose ends: I went over to the bar thinking to have a drink, but I didn't like the look of the place; I drove aimlessly through the desert night; I walked around the campground. And eventually I retired to my car-bed for the night.