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Hello Death Valley

Started: 2017-02-20 14:05:14

Submitted: 2017-02-20 16:55:48

Visibility: World-readable

12 February 2017: In which the intrepid narrator travels to visit an otherworldly landscape

One of my motivations behind moving to California was to have a base of exploration for new and exciting places I haven't visited before (at least not as an adult). Last summer I staged camping expeditions to Yosemite and Lassen. Next on my list was Death Valley, but a careful analysis of the climate data suggested that winter or spring was the best time to visit, when the daily temperatures would be in the seventies, rather than well above 100.

Willy came to visit San Francisco for the Chinese New Year parade at the beginning of February, and this seemed like a good time to visit Death Valley. Kiesa is not especially interested in deserts, and is constrained by her available vacation time (she ended up with an abysmal two weeks of vacation per year at her new job; I get three weeks of proper vacation, plus comp time for being on-call), so I didn't feel especially bad leaving her behind while I headed off towards the furthest corner of the state.

It turned out that Death Valley is still a long drive from San Francisco -- it's eight hours of driving, according to Google Maps, plus whatever time one needs to stop for gas and biological needs. The trip was neatly divided into a couple of distinct phases:

  1. Urban freeways in San Francisco (including a stop by REI for last-minute meals);
  2. I-80 over the Bay Bridge;
  3. Urban freeways in Oakland;
  4. I-580 over Haywards Pass through the Dublin Hills;
  5. I-580 through suburban Dublin, Pleasanton, and Livermore (including a stop by Safeway for last-minute bagels (for lunch) and oatmeal (for breakfast);
  6. I-580 over a very green Altamont Pass into the Central Valley;
  7. I-580 and I-5 through the western stretch of the Central Valley. This was an entirely new world: rolling green pastures punctuated by the occasional aqueduct, with billboards and signs admonishing one to "Vote to Make America Great Again" and "Stop [Senator Barbara] Boxer's Congress-Caused Dust Bowl" and leading rhetorical questions like "Is growing food wasting water?"
  8. Bakersfield ("the armpit of California", according to Willy), with the San Gabriel Mountains looming ominously in the haze to the south, our last line of defense against Los Angeles;
  9. California state highway 58 climbing up to Tehachapi Pass, with farmland quickly giving way to orchards and pastures, with a giant wind farm on the pass itself, lit up brightly by the late-afternoon sun;
  10. Descending Tehachapi Pass into the Mojave Desert, seeing Joshua trees (and listening to the obvious album, The Joshua Tree*) and the DC tie line, glimpsing the aircraft boneyard in the distance;
  11. Turning onto a series of smaller and smaller roads going straight through the high desert as the sun set behind us, seeing real estate signs offering land for sale, and wondering what one would actually do with that land;
  12. Driving through the Panamint Valley in the dark, wondering what the terrain looked like outside of the reach of my headlights;
  13. Climbing the Panamint Range and descending the other side into Death Valley itself, and (at long last) reaching the campsite at Furnace Creek, set up around a freshwater spring in the middle of Death Valley, at 190 feet below sea level.

A couple of weeks ago I discovered that the Bay Area had a Bollywood radio station when I turned on my car and heard it playing, because Kiesa had tuned the radio to it. I mentioned it on Twitter and Willy responded, "This is life-changing!" We listened to the station as long as we could while leaving San Francisco, until the Dublin Hills blocked the signal. Willy took notes, and I'm looking forward to reading his thoughts on the station.

[* I can actually hear Bono strutting as he sings "Where the streets have no name" but that doesn't make me love the album any less.]

We arrived at Furnace Creek Campground at 20:30 PST, well after dark. (One of the weird side-effects of camping in the winter was that the sun set much earlier than I'm used to.) The campground office was closed, and had been for hours, so after driving a quick loop through the campground and failing to find any unreserved spaces, we stopped back at the entry kiosk and saw a short list of sites that were available. The first site on the list, #129, a tent-only walk-in site, was still available, so we claimed the site, pitched the tent, ate supper (one of the easy-to-prepare backpacking meals I'd picked up at REI), and went to bed.