Death Valley and the Drive to Sequoia National Park – From the Desert to Paradise
I couldn’t check out of my Vegas hotel fast enough, I was eager to get back on the road. In the parking garage I found my stuff as I had left it, I have to say I was very surprised my truck hadn’t been broken into. Seriously. I followed the GPS to Wal-Mart where I got the next weeks supply of fresh provisions and I headed the hell out of town. Once traffic eased up I put in a call to uncle Mike Stauth in Jackson Hole to tell him that I might be coming thru his neck of the woods in about two weeks. He was thrilled and told me that his sons would be in town, because one of the kids, Sean, was getting married. He informed me that I would be arriving at about the same time as the wedding and that I was welcome to stay and that there would be a full house and a few kegs! After talking with Mike I called dad to tell him I still had my life savings and that I was headed to California.
Death valley is probably the most appropriately named thing or place on the planet. That damn big chunk of rock is so barren that I was surprised to even have a road to drive on. All along the highway, there were big tanks of water for car radiators and signs warning you not to run your air conditioner or your car would over heat and break down. It was actually not that hot because it was still early enough in the year so I wasn’t worried about breaking down. Though, out here, running out of gas is a factor. At one point in the middle of the valley there is a lookout point and a parking lot. I pulled over and followed a group of Germans up a small path to see the nothing that existed all around in its barren splendid-ness. The rock and dirt looked like a watercolor painting as everything weaved and melted together, millions of layers of minerals and color variations. But more interesting then the landscape was a cute German girl who brought back some great memories of another time and place.
The drive out of Death Valley is dizzying and can churn the stomach. The road curves madly back and forth while rolling up and down like a ship on the waves. It was the first time in my life I got carsick from my own driving. Though, before getting carsick I was having a lot of fun pretending I was a rally car driver. After climbing a step set of mountains I came out onto a flat desert and in front of me with little warning the Sierra Nevada mountain range sprang up out of the scorched rock. I stopped at a fork in the road and took a piss while marveling at the numerous mirages of ponds and lakes that lay on the valley floor. My piss sizzled on the pavement. Once I reached the mountain range I turned south looking for my turn to take me up and over the California mountains. After a long drive and running low on gas I pulled over and made myself a sandwich and took a look at the map. It seemed that I had only a little distance to go, but I had not yet seen the highway and my GPS was telling me it was still going to be a while before my turn. I trusted the GPS and kept going, I was starting to get nervous about my gas situation, and I finally encountered a small town that was within view of the highway, but I typed gas stations into the GPS and discovered their was one on my way just a little ways further, I figured I could make it, what the hell, I’m only in the desert.
I found my turn, and instantly the world changed. From flat sand bottom desert valley to rocky terrain that had fallen of the nearby mountains, and most notably, Joshua tree’s. It’s as if someone drew a line in the sand, creating nature’s boundary. I figure that two rain gages 30 feet apart would probably measure drastically different in this part of the country. The road curved up and up, and soon enough, the Joshua tree’s were gone, replaced by elms and oaks. The land became grassy with intermittent pockets of pine forest and Piles of boulders. Creeks and ponds sprang up from the dry ground. I pretended I was an early traveler who traversed the endless desert to find this land, and it made me quite happy. I wanted to pull over and kiss the ground, but instead I pulled over and gassed up my truck. The earth be damned, America needs fuel. The next stretch of drive was as pretty as any there ever was, and it was here, that I fell in love with the California of John Steinbeck.
Shortly after gassing up I encountered Lake Isabella. It is a beautiful lake nestled into soft rolling hills; all around big smooth gray rocks were stacked like a collage of boulders rolling down of the mountains into the lake. The road curved around the lake and it was all I could do to keep from pulling over and jumping in for a dip. But I still had a long way to go. On the other end of the lake the highway turned into a paved road, and it began to roll up and down. The road was never straight for more than 30 ft. and at every turn was a house hidden amongst bushes and trees clinging to the hillside. The driveways to the houses were on dangerous slopes, and soon the incline of the road itself was just as treacherous. I slowed down to 30 mph as my truck went into lower gear to motor me up the road. I couldn’t believe the steepness of the road. It was narrow and I was very glad that I was not one the outside lane that was Cliffside. Occasionally I would slow on a turn enough that I could get a look at the scenery, and the thing that sticks out in my mind now 7 months later was the color gold. The entire sky was full of golden fire, and the gold grasses that covered the hills waved and sparkled in the breeze. If was nearly impossible to discern the difference from the tops of the hills and the bottom of the sky, everything was afire. Everywhere I looked the world glared gold, and this made the driving on this road all the more uncomfortable.
Just when I thought my engine would sputter, wheeze, and give up going up the steep incline any further I rounded a corner and saw a sign saying that I was entering a National Forest. After passing the sign I reached the crest of the road and it was all down hill from there. I put my truck in low gear and let my engine brake me as I begin driving the exact same horribly steep, constantly twisting and doubling back, road I had just spent all that time driving up. I soon relaxed though and I made it a game to see how fast I could take the nearly 180 degree curves while keeping my truck in my lane. I love the feel of my momentum pushing me firmly into my chair as I tightly gripe the steering wheel with my whitened knuckles. Occasionally my game was made more exciting when I would round a corner crazy fast only to discover oncoming traffic. After 2 hours driving the hills past Lake Isabelle, the hills gave way to a plain. I was strange, I felt like I was back home in the Flint Hills and the Kansas Tall Grass prairie. Except back home the tall grasses would be green against a glistening blue sky, not burning like yellow flame beneath a golden sky. I drove the prairie and the roads straightened out enough I was allowed to let my mind wonder; I began thinking about all my favorite Steinbeck novels. I remembered some parts of his books like the opening lines of “Of Mice and Men,” when the Joad’s arrived to California in “The Grapes Wrath,” or even throughout the novel “East of Eden” I had always admired how Steinbeck described California so lovingly and with great detail, it was often a character with strengths and weakness’ just like the people he wrote about. At that moment I remember wishing I had an old hound dog with me riding alongside, just like John did in the book “Travels with Charlie.” Driving through that prairie, I am not sure what it was called, but I pretended it was John’s beloved Salina’s Valley, and that I too was now an interesting character he could write about. I fully expected to stop and pick up a few of his characters who would be hitching down the road. I come from a family where we tend to hate things, I consider myself an optimist but my brother, father, and I, are prone to go on long rants about why popular and globally loved things actually suck. One such thing/place we like to hate are the east and west coasts, specifically California and New York. But driving through that golden valley recalling fictional friends I changed my mind completely about California. I was in love. It was as Steinbeck described, and I was very surprised at the diverse landscape and the general lack of suburbs I was expecting to find. Though the housing developments were to come later, I still hadn’t had the joy of the Sierra Nevada’s nor the orchards.
I had been driving a long time and it seemed like I was now on the other side of the planet from the busy hubbub and lights of Vegas and the total bareness of Death Valley. I was hungry. I was also slightly lost. I wasn’t 100 percent sure where I was, I just knew it was somewhere south and west of Sequoia National Park. The highway brought me to a little town but I figured I would keep on going, but then I passed a small bar and restaurant and caught a whiff of barbeque on the air. I flipped a u-turn and pulled into the bar parking lot. I got out of my truck, pulled my sandals out of the bed, and flip-flopped my way into the bar. The bar was a single narrow room about 15 feet wide and 30 feet long. The bar was entirely decorated in wood that was stained dark and smoothed by lacquer and years of arms, hands, and feet sanding the wood. I bellied up and a flirty blonde asked my me drink. I ordered something local. I could tell she was the kind of woman the whole county loved; she had the air of grand motherliness mixed with an aurnry(sp?) streak and a penchant for wild fun. While she poured my beer she told me that the smell of cooking meats that brought me to her door was a fundraiser barbeque they were having. I went out a side door to a shady green yard where some cute high school girls took my money and served me a plate of fixin’s. I picked a chicken thigh from the grill and went back inside to my beer. The chicken was hot, the beans tangy, and the beer cold. It was a wonderful meal, and I was grateful I didn’t have to eat another roast beef sandwich from my cooler. With two beers under my belt and a smile on my face, I drove on out of that friendly little town with a refreshed sense of purpose. By nightfall I would be in a whole new world, but first I had to figure out where the hell I was. My Garmin took me to a dead end road, it wanted me to drive straight ahead, but the fence and forest in front of me would not hear of it. I back tracked a bit and found a road heading away from the sun that I figured it should work, and before long I was driving in-between rows of beautiful green orchards. I could see the Sierra Nevada Mountain range in the distance, and I speed up, excited now that my goal had materialized. I love it when a plan comes together.
There were more towns, orchards, many fruit stands, and a beautiful drive in the foothills around another glistening lake then alongside a river till I reached the South entrance to the park. I spoke briefly to the ranger and began another fun drive up another hair raising steep road. The road was bad enough that big vehicles and RV’s weren’t allowed to drive on it. Half-way up I pulled over beside a broke down jalopy to watch the pink sky begin to slip into night. To the darkened east a granite monolith reflected the red rays of the dying sun. I tarried long as I dare, before continuing on. At the top of the mountain I encountered them. Under the tree’s canopy the forest floor was dark, and every few seconds my headlights would flash across something and then it was gone. Like spotlighting ghosts, I couldn’t get a good look. Finally I passed a small sign telling me that I was in a grove of the giant trees, the mighty Sequoias. Soon enough I got several good views of big trees that were roadside. I was very excited but I had a camp to set up, and some hot coffee that needed cooking. Tomorrow would be a day of adventure and discovery, but first things first.
In my campground I found my camp spot and I settled in. There was a ravine near the camp ground that brought cold air down from the top of the mountains, I shivered as I set up the tent, but once I crept inside my camping bag, I was greeted with warmth and comfort. I happily drifted to sleep listening to the gurgle of a stream in the ravine nearby.