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Death Valley

I decided to go to Death Valley for a week to unplug and stayed at the Furnace Creek Ranch. People always wonder why I go out there instead of head off to the beach, and while I love laying on the beach too, sometimes it’s nice to go where it’s dead quiet. In some ways it’s sort of like trekking to the middle of nowhere to Burning Man, except in DV you have the option of staying at hotels. (Las Vegas is 2 hours from DV) Having said it’s quiet, right now is actually the biggest tourist season of the year since the weather is mild, but DV is a huge place and everyone returns to camp/hotel/RV at night. At places like FCR there’s plenty of casual social gathering around the fire pits in the evening, if you want company you can find it. Otherwise, if you’re a night owl like I am and have a vehicle, you have complete free reign of the place after the sun sets. Venture just out of town, you will not see another soul or vehicle until morning.

Nighttime is a big part of what makes this place so amazing. DV just recently got some special blah blah acknowledgements of being one of the darkest places in the northern hemisphere and I believe it. Bring binoculars, find a remote parking lot, lay down a blanket, and be amazed at the stars for hours. They’re very numerous and sharp, like lightbulbs on strings. The only thing you hear is the wind, the tinnitus in your ears, and maaaaybe some coyotes off in the distance. It doesn’t suck!

For an interesting experience I recommend driving out to Badwater (the lowest point in the basin, and North America for that matter) at night in the dead of summer. Even at midnight it’s still 111 F, virtually no wind/breeze, pitch black (save for stars/moon), dead silent, and nothing’s around for 20 miles. I think of it as the dry walk-in equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank as you walk around and are hugged by the warmness.

My DV travel tips, for going to/from the SF Bay:

  • Never been to Yosemite? Cut over the Sierras on highways 108 or 120, catch highway 395 south.
  • Going through Bakersfield and then over? Ignore your GPS telling you to take highway 178 (especially on the way back), it sucks. It’s a windy canyon highway and you’ll be stuck behind somebody riding the brakes all the way down at 45 mph.
  • Avoid shortcutting using the Trona/Wildrose road, it sucks. The road is not maintained well and patched all to hell. I discovered this at 1 am and was not pleased.
  • Those windy turns through the passes you take at night? Yeah, the darkness conceals you’re driving on the edge of a mountain with a 2000′ drop off on one side and there’s no guard rails.
  • Places like Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells, Furnace Creek are surprisingly far apart, 20-30 miles.
  • Get gas in Stovepipe Wells during the day. FC has 24/7 gas but it’s easily $1-$2/gallon higher than the rest of the world. Likewise since Panamint Springs is so remote and purely diesel generator powered, their gas is even higher; I think I saw $6.95/gallon this trip.
  • There’s AT&T EDGE coverage around Furnace Creek, but that’s it once you enter the park unless you get on a mountain top.

One thing I was amused by was hanging out in front of the FCR store and watching the tourist machine at work. The place seems to do a pretty good job processing bus loads of retirees. A big tour bus rolls in, stops at the curb and all of the passengers are herded up the steps into a big buffet room. An hour later the bus returns, everyone is herded back on the bus and driven the 0.25-0.50 mile back to the buildings with guest rooms. The bus door opens, they all again are herded into the same ground-floor unit to their rooms. Repeat the reverse the next morning, and then I guess they go off to their next tour destination or back to Vegas.

The after-hours crowd is what makes the ranch fun. The tourists and retirees usually clear out by 8 pm or so, and the night crowd starts trickling in (or continuing on) to the saloon or the fire pits in front of the store. What’s nice is that you don’t have to be a guest, any random person can come hang out. Pretty much everyone I chatted with are well traveled, come from all over, and have fascinating stories. Later on the employees get off shift and join in. Be nice to who cooked and served your cheeseburger, you will likely run into them here! Many seem to thrive on adventure too, lots of them are 20-somethings who signed up to work in national parks, traveling from park to park as they’re assigned.

While I was there I spotted a small fleet of Ford Focus and Fusion cars with Michigan manufacturer plates, all with dashes decked out in all sorts of digital readouts; I’m assuming GM product testing. Thursday night some sort of film crew rolled in from LA with several giant camper trailers, with some tall skinny girl with black hair and a clipboard buzzing around who was clearly running the show. As I left Friday morning I noticed the crew was apparently filming at the Old Borax Works, they had CHP present to block off the highway, trailers were set up on the parking lot, and people were huddled out on various hilltops. I have no idea what they were shooting, but I’d like to see it!

It was also sprinkling when I left Death Valley which was pretty nice and smelled amazing. What I didn’t realize is that this meant SNOW was waiting for me in the Sierras! Somewhere between Lone Pine and Bakersfield the sand on the side of the road turned to snow. Several inches had fell, the place was covered!

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