Wednesday, August 31, 2011

It All Began With An Earthquake, or How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Robin, my son James, and I were on our way out of the house, on our way to the airport, when the house started to shake. At first it was just a rattle of a lamp shade, just like it always did when my son ran up and down the stairs like an elephant. Only it continued to shake for longer than it usually took him to bound down the stairs. Then there was a faint roar like a big truck on the main road outside. Then the floor began to shake. Earthquake.

I went downstairs and we stepped outside the house even as the walls were threatening to shake off mirrors and paintings. By the time we hit the grass, it was over. The dog was shaking and neighbors were coming out asking what just happened.

Little did we know that this was just the start of our adventure. All we would be missing was an Indian friend for my son named named Hadji and a dog named Bandit. (figure it out.)

As much fun as it might have been to hang around to share stories of the quake, we had to go. We barely caught the bus to the airport, flagging it down at the last second, this too was the start of a pattern.

The bus was filled with people leaving work early due to the quake. Those in high-rise buildings had the best stories and everyone was eager to share. We raced to the airport only to find our flight delayed. This was bad as it meant we would miss our connecting flight in Denver. As we touched down in Colorado, I received a delayed voice mail saying due to the delay, we had been re-booked onto a new flight--one leaving in thirty minutes and we were trapped in the back of the plane.

We raced out and surprisingly reached the gate with a full fifteen minutes to spare. Only this was a new airline, and they didn't have proper notification of our joining them. The gate steward struggled to get us on. They processed my son and checked him through but due to a glitch in the system they couldn't get us on board. At the last minute, as the door were literally closing, they threw our identification back at us and told us to just run for it. We raced up the gangway and on to the plane entering like Indiana Jones slipping under a stone door.

We arrived in Vegas at midnight. The temperature was still one hundred degrees. If you've never been to Las Vegas, the first thing you notice are the slot machines waiting in the airport, at the gate, as you exit the plane like a friendly family welcoming you. As it turns out there are slot machines everywhere. I was actually surprised they hadn't invaded the restrooms.

Vegas and I aren't meant for each other. Vegas, I determined, is for people who want to party in a serious way. I found it to be a cross between a dive-bar and a carnival midway with bright lights, the smell of urine, cigarettes, car exhaust, and fellas coaxing you to try games, that while they might not be rigged, aren't exactly fair either. Some of the casinos were nicer than others of course, but over all the best thing I saw there was the fountain at the Bellagio. The most annoying thing was the strange lack of WiFi. Nearly everything in Nevada is contained in casinos, Starbucks included, and the casinos (at least the one we were at) only had wired connection, and ours was broken. We were forced to travel to the outskirts of the city in order to find a coffee shop with free WiFi. As it turned out the WiFi access was consistently inverse to what one would think. We could get free WiFi at a remote cabin deep in the mountains of Yosemite Valley, but not in Vegas or at the Marriott near Fresno, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The good news was that we weren’t planning to stay long in Vegas. We were heading out to Death Valley the next morning. The bad news was that the area was experiencing record high temperatures--record high temps in the hottest, driest place in the world. We loaded a cooler with ice, bottled water, a few snacks and cold cuts--we didn't want to end up eating lizard and drinking the sap from cactus--and headed in.

The city of Vegas vanishes quickly and all there is is desert. Our car had an outside thermostat and we watched it rise as we cruised along in air conditioned comfort. We exceeded 100 early on, but not much more than 106. Then as we entered the park, as we began descending into the valley my son noted it was 108. This would have been a new high for us, except that he was looking at the radio frequency and not the temperature gauge. It was actually 118. The temperature had risen ten degrees in as many minutes.

All around us was dirt and rock. It was like being on the surface of the moon--at least what I imagine it would be like--the sunny side perhaps. We pulled off at the park sign and for the first time opened the doors.

Taking a trip to Death Valley in August feels a bit like space travel. Our car was our ship and we took “space walks” outside that had to be limited by time because of exposure. Everyone was required to carry water and wear a hat and sunglasses.

We unsealed the car doors and were hit by the blast of heat. Yeah, it was hot alright. We did a little rock climbing noticing the tremendous difference between shade and sun. We were only outside about twenty minutes but it was enough to break a solid sweat. Something that I didn’t even notice until returning to the car because the hot, dry wind hid the fact.

Robin at Zabriskie Peak

We continued onward, and as we descended deeper, the temperature continued to rise. 119, 120, 122. The heat had reached 123 when we arrived at Furnace Creek, the destination and the location of the park headquarters. 123 degrees does interesting things to you. The skin of your fingertips prickles like your being stuck with pins and since the ground is about 200 degrees, it’s like standing on a skillet. You feel the hot burn coming up through the soles of your shoes.

We entered the gift shop were I got a proper cowboy hat, I know why they wore them now, then we had lunch at the saloon. We were not at the lowest point yet, but we were at the location I needed. So while Robin made plans to press on deeper into the park, I took notes with my iPad and snapped photos. I took mundane photos, photos of things that I might need for my book. Other tourists looked at me oddly. They were snapping shots of the mountains and covered wagons. I was taking photos of their car, and the other tourists, the bar menu, and the gift shop.

After lunch we drove deeper. Long stretches of nothing but rock and dirt and forbidding mountains. I got the very real sense this was a dangerous place. We stopped at some dunes and then left the paved road and headed up a dirt road toward a remote canyon that Robin had a hankering to explore. By now the temperature was 124 degrees.

Because the road was rough and we had the potential of sliding off and getting stuck, something that would definitely would have been a problem, I was stupid and concentrated on the road and not my gauges. As I was gunning it up a steep slope the air conditioning stopped. The vents were just blowing hot air. I looked down and saw the temp gauge was pegged. The car was about to overheat.

Recalling my younger days of driving a rattletrap Dodge Dart, I shut off the air conditioning and threw on the heat. This immediately dropped the car’s engine temperature, but of course the car’s interior suffered. Just imagine driving in 124 temperatures and not just without air conditioning, but with the heat blowing full blast like it was the height of  a New England winter.

We made it to the top, parked the car, and shut it off. We needed to give it a rest, so we went hiking up into the canyon. We darted from shadow to shade like kangaroo rats scurrying through a 1950s western.You could just see the cowboys and Indians.

Robin in Mosaic Canyon

We followed what was clearly the carved path of an old river with smooth curved stones. When we went through our water we turned back.

Going down was easy. We ran into another car who was coming up and I flagged them down to explain they ought to watch their temp gauge only their English wasn't very good and I'm not certain they understood.

This was a common throughout our trip. Just as American youth have been known to visit Europe in summer, it turns out that July and August is the time when foreigners visit the American west. There were mostly French, Italian, and Japanese and all in-park restaurants had instated “tipping included policies” as apparently Europeans don’t tip.

Lastly we went to Badwater. This is the bottom, the lowest place in Death Valley, and the hottest. It is a giant salt flat that looks just like a lake from a distance and like muddy snow up close. It is the sun’s anvil, a reflecting mirror that when you walk out on it you feel as if you just entered into a convection oven.

Robin and James on the salt flats of Badwater

This was incredible insofar as heat goes. Heat came from above, burning down, and heat came from below as it bounced up off the white surface of the flats, and the heat swirled around you in the form of burning gusts of desert winds. Here we were around 300 feet below sea level, and despite the scorching heat a small pool of water was there and had been for years. Full of salt, this "bad water" is what gave the place it’s name.

We headed out of the park after that, but stopped in the desert after dark and spent an hour just staring at the stars and listening to the only radio station we could pick up that was a call-in talk show about UFOs. Disturbingly interesting as we weren't far from Area 51. If this was a Johnny Quest episode, you just know we would have seen a saucer that night. (yes that's the answer if you couldn't figure it out.)

News of the hurricane was everywhere. It was made very clear that the eastern seaboard was about to be blown out to sea and never seen again. Given this we felt the odds of returning to Virginia on Saturday was unlikely. Unable to even contact the airlines due to the high volume of calls, and our discontent with Vegas, we decided to do something radical. Envisioning a day or two of being trapped in an airport, we said screw it, and turning our round trip car rental into a one way to San Francisco, we went exploring.

Statues at Hoover Dam

After visiting the Hoover Dam and swimming in Lake Mead we crossed the Mojave desert. With the intention of reaching Sequoia National Park, we took this nice little gray line on a state map. We later dubbed it Bob’s Road. Robin called it other things--things I shouldn’t repeat.

Bob’s road was a tiny road that went up into the mountains. It switch backed it's way along the edges of cliff, cliffs with no guardrails. Robin, in the passenger seat, and being afraid of heights, clutched the arm rest and...let’s just say she wasn’t a happy camper. After reaching the top I noticed we were getting a bit light on gas. Anxious to find gas and a place to stay for the night before it got dark, we became concerned as the road narrowed, turned to dirt, and then as the sun began to set, the road just ended.

Me...somewhere along the road

We spoke to some locals and learned that to get gas we had to go back down. Robin was shaking her head before the guy finished speaking. To her credit she climbed in the backseat and read her Kindle as we went back. It was a good thing, because at the very worst bend, where the road narrowed to near one lane we met another car coming up. When i think of that moment, I imagine little rocks breaking free as our tires crept around that edge. Outside of that we were fine.

We reached the Sequoias the next day, and wandered around a grove of the largest trees in the world, many about 2,500 years old. Then we moved north to Robin’s favorite place...Yosemite.We'd been there about sixteen years before, but our son was only an infant then, so we took him back.

If you’ve never been there, you likely can’t imagine it. You travel over hills and mountains with great views then you crest the ridge and start down into this isolated valley. You pass through a tunnel or two and then, wham! There it is--this vision that is too perfect to be real.

The largest single piece of bare granite cliff called El Captain, and the famous bald granite cliff Half Dome. Waterfalls, mountains and a river running between all of it. At the bottom of the valley there are lush meadows of flowers walled in by towering rock walls spilling waterfalls like some Jurassic Park movie.

Normally there is never any lodging available here due to the high demand, but that day there was also a fire. Yes, a forest fire started by an exploded propane tank that burned down a hillside and torched four thousand acres in twenty-four hours. It had closed one of of the three roads into the valley. It also (along with an earthquake a few days earlier in the park--can you believe that?) scared a number of people away. As a result we managed to land a “cabin-tent”

Our tent is the one on the left with the door open

and spent the night in Yosemite beneath a starry sky, sitting in a log built lodge that had 20oz dark draft Mammoth beer and free WiFi of all things.

The next day it was on to San Fransico and our flight home. So we faced, dealt with, or benefited from two earthquakes, record high temps, a hurricane, and a forest fire.

Our four day trip turned into a week, I'm rather sore from rock climbing learning I am getting too old to keep up with my seventeen-year-old son, and I took to buying souvenir T-shirts just to have clean clothes. Still, it was very fun. The only problem is that tomorrow I will have to fly out again to Atlanta for DragonCon.

No rest for the weary, as my mother always said. Hope to see you there. I’ll be the tired looking one.


  1. Yay, I want to go to death valley now. In the summer. That would be fun.

    See you in ATL soon.

  2. Sounds like an excellent trip! Very exciting stuff. It's important to find and appreciate (ok, and survive) those adventures. That's living!


  3. Awesome. Now I feel the intense need to go to the desert, since you know, I wrote about one. Wow awesome pictures. Thanks for sharing your desert saga.

  4. Thanks for posting. I really doubted if anyone would care about seeing the boring slide show of my trip. Flashbacks to childhood I guess. When I was three my dad took the family around the country via the old Route 66. For the next five years we watched the slide show of the trip when ever guests visited.

    Sadly the old General Sherman drive thru sequoia tree Is gone, and the interstates have killed 66, and all the great roadside tourist shops, but the mountains, forests, and deserts haven't changed a bit.

  5. Loved the post. I bet you're going to write some great story about some poor guy lost in that desert. I'm sure it will be just as great as your other books. Thanks for sharing.


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