Death Valley looks more interesting from its hills than the roads.
#2 Death Valley National Park, CA (November 2013)

After the Rains
Taking to the Roads
The atypical, "know-nothing" ranger staffing the visitor's center desk the day we arrived in Death Valley couldn't answer any of our questions about the recent rains. When pressed and pressed again, she did find a report indicating that the area had received over an inch of rain in the last 3 weeks, which was about half of their annual rainfall, but that was it. How many days it rained, when it stopped, and if it might trigger a wildflower bloom were unimaginably difficult questions to which she couldn't even guess an answer. We of course thought that it would have been all the buzz given that the recent storm system had severely impacted much of the southern half of the US and that rain is usually a big to-do in parched Death Valley.

What the ranger could do was point to the map indicating the many road closures in the Park and generally identify the ones that were caused by the rain in July versus the recent rain. A grunt was about all I got when I asked if the closures were due to landslides, which fit with the big truck I'd seen with a huge scoop mounted on the front end and a bulldozer with a large scoop on its trailer. But the next day I overheard that the road through Titus Canyon would be closed until it dried out. Our walk the following day on the closed 20 Mule Team Canyon road suggested it was closed until it dried out too. No massive slides or distortions in the road bed, only a few puddles, a dozen or so stretches where the muddy earth slightly sank under our foot steps, and that odd hollow sound in other spots that we'd only heard when on the Park's mud-mound trails.

The best look at Artist's Palette wasn't from the viewpoint but from our lunch spot.
Bill was initially disappointed with the many road closures because some were the access roads to his anticipated hikes but in the end, the closures supported our larger strategy. We visit Death Valley for the generally great winter weather even though the hiking opportunities are meager. This year we decided to skip the tedious hikes up the rocky washes that are literally seasonal river bottoms and instead spend more time walking on roads. I'm usually loathed to walk long distances on roads because they can be so boring but pushing up our walking pace would be easier on dirt or asphalt than in gravel fields. And what could be better than a closed grit road for brisk walking?

Like when recently at Zion National Park, we also had decided to keep the camper on the truck to make it easier to frequently visit the dump station for fresh water and to discharge our sewage. Dry camping (without hook-ups) is much more pleasant when we aren't scrimping so much. And at both Zion and at Death Valley, we'd decided to play hard in close-by areas rather than drive to the perimeters of the parks looking for undiscovered treasures, which meant that leaving the camper on the truck was less of a burden.

The views from the carless, dirt surface of the scenic 20 Mule Team Canyon road were more interesting than expected, which inspired us to next walk the length of the 9 mile long Artist's Drive over 2 days. On each day we parked our truck and camper on the main road at the junction with the Artist's Drive loop, one day at the exit and the other day at the entrance. Both days we walked about half the loop before turning back. Conveniently, this 4.5 mile turn-around point was at the most stunning point of the entire loop.

Golden Canyon to Zabriski Point: always lovely.
By walking Artist's Drive instead of driving it as we'd done before, we discovered a spot a bit off the road that was surely where the postcard photographer had stood. We learned 15+ years ago as novice cyclotourists on the Oregon coast that the viewpoints aren't where the best views are, they are where it's possible to build a parking area. Having such an exceptional view for picnicking on both days eliminated any last bit of grumbling about road walking. And being on the road worked: it let us pick up our pace enough to get a better CV workout while enjoying far more stunning vistas that we usually have on canyon hikes looking at our feet.

Even though our strategy for this visit to the park was to emphasize speed work on roads, we happily made 2 outings on the 5 mile round trip loop up Golden Canyon to Zabriskie Point and back. It is definitely our favorite hike in Death Valley and the only one that feels like a 'real' hike. The route cuts through several distinct geologic zones, gives stunning panoramas of several more, turns around at a destination that hundreds of people drive to admire every day, and the 1400' elevation gain is enough to make us feel like we've done something significant. And it did fit this year's agenda because the trail surface was regular enough that we could alternate fast walking with a bit of jogging here and there.

Thanksgiving Day
In 2012 I loved being in the National Park Service's Texas Springs campground in Death Valley for Thanksgiving. Nestled in a sloped area among the huge mounds of solidified mud, it was a charming campground by desert standards. And the fire pits and picnic tables were a big draw for the families gatherings for the holiday dinner because the big-rig campground where generators were welcome had neither. The "no generator" rule was a hardship for some of the big coach owners that wanted it all and several tried evading the rule by running their engines to power their appliances. Coercion by nearby neighbors, such as us, and the camp hosts gained reluctant compliance from the violators last year. Once the generators and engines were silenced, many of us finally enjoyed the peaceful surroundings with festive family gatherings being the predominant source of noise and campfires instead of diesel scenting the dry desert air.

Sunrise exercises on the mud mound above Texas Springs Campground.
Like during the Christmas holidays we spent in the Mediterranean region as cyclotourists, I savored a similar opportunity to indulge in the excess holiday cheer that spilled over into public spaces in Death Valley. The Texas Springs campground scene at Thanksgiving reminded us of being in Croatia where people filled the streets at midnight on Christmas Eve to set off fireworks and of being in Spain and Italy where families promenaded en masse on the city streets on Christmas morning. The relatively warm, sunny weather invited people in both Death Valley and the Mediterranean to be out and about and even as strangers, we felt a part of their holiday celebrations. In the Death Valley campground last year, I walked up and down the access lanes in the dark enjoying the glow of the many campfires and the cheery groups of people sitting around the clustered picnic tables and fires. For me, it was an acceptable substitute for gathering with family in the NW where the tradition was to huddle indoors because it was too nasty to be outside.

We arrived in Death Valley for Thanksgiving 2013 hoping the publicly displayed private celebrations would again satisfy our need for connection with well-anchored holiday traditions. Much to our surprise, there was also a bit of an overlay of family dynamics in the mix this year. A delightful couple with 2 grade school-aged children we met last year greeted us as we arrived and we took a slot next to them in the campground. Over the next few days, chats with our neighbors Greg and Leá from San Diego and another unrecognized repeat guest from last year updated us on the stories about the 'family.' The bad boys from last year who oh-so-reluctantly quit running their engines as faux generators were back and parked nearby, but so far were behaving. The older man next to us was remembered for demanding the other neighbor give-up his prized end spot so the older guy could have it for himself. Another repeat guest in his late 80's arrived with a flat tire and then struggled with a dead battery, both of which Greg helped to fix.

As the big day drew nearer, we felt more connected with the 'family' than we cared for. The pushy older gentleman next to us fired up his engine on Thanksgiving morning to charge his batteries and I quickly enlisted the campground hosts' help to shut him down. Like with graffiti artists, if you let one get away with it, soon a whole slew of them will join in so it's best to interrupt the anti-social behavior swiftly. (He briefly ran his engine again in the evening.) Then it became apparent that a new neighbor who had a particularly spacious site was being decidedly ungenerous by taking an extra campsite to create a buffer zone around them. I was sympathetic with the need for space but thought it was shameful to exclude another family from enjoying the fully-occupied setting on this special holiday. It was a sad reminder that there are never enough rules to counter all possible bad behavior but I was also impressed that only one family in the campground stooped so low.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are picturesque even before the coveted long shadows settle in.
But the like holidays with our extended families over the years, despite the predictable acting-out by some, we enjoyed our new holiday tradition at Texas Springs campground. The evening temperature of 60° versus the mid-70's of last year's Thanksgiving evening muted the festivities some, but the packed campground was aglow with campfires and the holiday festivities were infectious. We enjoyed our evening stroll under the star-filled sky and reminisced about winter holiday celebrations we'd known both at home and overseas.

"Shame On Us"
After a week at the Texas Springs Campground near Furnace Creek, we drove to Stovepipe Wells, the other "hub" in Death Valley (as in the only 2 places to buy gas in the entire park.) Happily romping and exhausting ourselves on the nearby Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes was hardly where we expected to be chided for misbehaving. It was there that a photographer reprimanded us for not staying on the trails, which was outrageous because, like at most sand dunes, there were no trails. His next comment revealed the real issue: "I hate seeing foot prints in the sand." We finally got it: our foot prints were bad because they were ruining his photos but his footprints were OK because he was taking photos.

It was easy to visualize his image of a perfect photo but he had picked the wrong sand dunes for his shoot. Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are literally on the edge of one of the main roads in and out of Death Valley, a park that receives almost a million visitors annually, with tourists literally coming by the busload. In addition, he was walking in the most heavily traveled part of these dunes. Heading for dunes that were farther from the main road would have been a superior choice for his pristine shots.

A photographer's nightmare: Boy Scouts on the dunes with their boogie boards.
When I forewarned a couple approaching us of the photographer's issues, the woman concurred with the importance of staying on "trails". Without thinking, I lightheartedly blurted out "I'm not sympathetic." She then commented that we should be barefoot like they were, which of course we were--oops! A few minutes later, we noticed another half dozen people with huge cameras trudging up the dunes and felt increasingly unwelcome. We finally realized what was happening: it was nearing sunset and the photographers were coming out of the woodwork for shots of the dunes with dramatic long shadows. All of our other visits to the dunes had been closer lunchtime when a more joyous crowd was out and about mindlessly covering the them with their tracks.

Our mischief in the dunes paled however in comparison to the bad behavior of some of the ordinary tourist-photographers in Death Valley. I was startled and a bit amused by the young man driving alone with his iPhone held in front of his face so he could photograph the stunning beauty of Artist's Drive while in motion. It was a one way, one lane road but even as pedestrians I didn't feel endangered by his somewhat reckless behavior. But I didn't feel safe on the same road with the man driving with his camera view finder continuously held to his eye--I mean, really. He could have passed the camera to his companion and we'd all been better off.

Terrible Two's
The beginning of our 2013/14 SW traveling season felt suspiciously like we'd entered the Terrible 2's with our now 2-year old Arctic Fox camper and truck. Our first couple of days in the camper in late October had Bill dealing with drawer tracks ripping out of the cabinetry and a split in the plastic 'insides' of our kitchen faucet head. Then as we were poised to enter Death Valley for an almost 2 week stay, Bill noticed what looked like a super-sized tack in a rear tire. Too close to the sidewall to be repaired, our very expensive, low-mileage monster tire was now junk. At least we were in a town with a tire shop where someone else did the heavy lifting to install our spare and sold us a used tire to replace it.

A week later on the day before our re-provisioning trip from Death Valley back to Pahrump, NV the "pop-out" or slide on our camper wouldn't budge when I pressed the magic button. The motor ran but nothing happened. It was definitely better to have it stuck in the closed position than the open position, which would have prevented driving. But the closed position made for extremely cramped quarters that night. As handyman Bill delved into the problem the next morning he concluded it wasn't road worthy after all because the bolt that had sheared off was key in keeping the slide locked in place. It was easy to conjure a horrific image of the slide flinging out on a curve and hitting an adjacent car or tipping us over. Bill worked in the cramped space for an hour or 2 to clearly identify the problem and secure it for driving with a temporary fix.

We inadvertently learned a clever trick that day, which was to park in a hardware store's parking lot if at all possible when making camper repairs. With that strategy in mind, our first stop in Pahrump was at The Home Depot to give Bill ample time to make a permanent fix. Bill made several trips into the store as he worked on the slide mechanism and came up with more ideas as to how to improve some pending problems with it. It was a relief to know that a huge inventory of tools and parts were in easy reach and then to have the repair behind us.

Bill's 2nd hardware-store-parking lot repair.
When leaving Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley a week later I created an equally disturbing and more expensive problem when I made the predictable error of moving the truck off its blocks on our departure morning before lifting the camper's support jacks. The jacks are rarely down when the camper is on the truck but Bill had dropped them one night when the high winds kicked up. They were perfectly visible but unseen. I heard a crunching sound as the truck began to move and so I paused briefly, deciding it was the gravel under the tires making the noise. It was indeed the sound of gravel but a sound amplified by 2 of our 4 jacks plowing furrows into the hard pack. r

Luckily, only one of the 2 jack posts bent and that was near the top. The damage was high enough that the moving part fully retracted and we could drive. But it was about a 10 day process of making phone calls and then waiting to receive a new jack from its Midwest manufacturer and Bill installing it. We used similar, fully outfitted workshop on installation day as we'd done in Pahrump: we headed for the Lowe's home improvement store parking lot. In the meantime, we devised a more failsafe way of alerting the driver that the jacks were down because we always knew we were at high risk for making this catastrophic error.

A couple of days after the new jack was installed, the microwave oven started acting up. It had a spell of only heating on what seemed like half power, and then it became generally more reliable. Bill's online reading reassured us that we didn't need to buy an RV-specific replacement model because any oven of the correct size would be fine. Given the relative ease of buying a replacement model, we decided to take a break from our string of repair woes and use the oven until it truly failed.

Up Next
We left Death Valley after several repairs but without any sign of a wildflower extravaganza having been triggered by the recent heavy rains. Our next stop was to be a brief re-provisioning stay in Palm Springs but this, the winter of one arctic blast after another, put the kibosh on our plans. It was literally freezing in the Idyllwild forests above Palm Springs where Bill planned to park for weeks of hiking and so we instead hunkered down in Palm Springs for a few days and hoped for trip planning inspiration to hit.