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Sometimes a person needs to hunker down in a place that dwarfs headlines and silences cell phones. You don't have to be a survivalist to understand that, though I did think about renting a Hummer to make me invincible on a trip earlier this month to Death Valley National Park, about 300 miles northeast of L.A.
On two previous visits, I had seen all the popular, easy-to-reach sights, including the sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells, Scotty's Castle and Zabriskie Point. This time I wanted to drive some of the park's back roads to more remote beauty spots -- Saline Valley warm springs, Eureka Dunes (taller than the ones near Stovepipe Wells) and Titus Canyon in the Grapevine Mountains at the park's eastern boundary.
Lined by ancient cracked pavement, gullies, gravel and washboard, these roads often require a four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance, according to Corky Hays, chief of interpretation at the park. But when I mentioned a Hummer, she laughed. "That's overkill," she said. So I chose a four-wheel-drive Ford Explorer, which, as luck would have it, came with a satellite radio. I checked the tire jack and spare, loaded up on bottled water, peanut butter, rice cakes and oranges, packed my trusty Swiss Army knife and hiking boots, and took off.
I went in high season, which lasts from mid-February to mid-April, peaking, when the conditions are right, in a display of spring wildflowers. It was 85 degrees, clear and slightly breezy, a far cry from summer, when the temperature can easily hit 120 and you start perspiring just looking at the valley from the insulated pod of an air-conditioned car.
There are several ways to enter Death Valley, including California 190 from Death Valley Junction to the east. It's the most frequently used portal because the pass over the Funeral Mountains is just 3,000 feet, low enough so that an RV usually can handle it in the full heat of summer. The stunning western approach, by California 190 from the Owens Valley hamlet of Lone Pine, crosses two mountain passes, both higher than 4,000 feet. There's also a long, mostly unpaved road in from the north that passes the turnoff to the Eureka Dunes. This time, though, I came in from the south, on California 178, which yields to Emigrant Canyon Road inside the national park.
Along the way I glimpsed snowcapped Telescope Peak, at 11,049 feet the highest of the mountains surrounding Death Valley. It's just north of Trona, a lonely, dilapidated mining and chemical processing town that sits on the bed of a dried-up lake. Pretty soon the desert gave way to piles of rock that kept getting bigger until I realized they were mountains that, in the harsh light of midday, were all the colors of oft-laundered clothes. These are the Coso, Argus, Slate and Panamint ranges, which boomed briefly during the tail end of the California Gold Rush.
Not far away but hard to reach by car is the secluded Barker Ranch, where the Manson "family" hid out in 1969 after the Tate-LaBianca murders.
I am drawn to Death Valley for its timeless quietude and edginess; it's one of the few places I know that manages to have both. The drive north on partly unpaved Emigrant Canyon Road, with hardly another car in sight, was serenity itself. A side trip about seven miles east to Aguereberry Point in the high Panamints seemed like an adventure, even though a two-wheel-drive passenger vehicle could probably handle the gravel and washboard road, at least in fair weather.
On the way there, I investigated Eureka Mine, worked by Pete Aguereberry from 1907 to the early '30s, then rounded the shoulderless hill to his beloved viewpoint over Death Valley. There I sat on a rock eating a power bar and thinking about nothing, a restful state of mind that this place seems to encourage.
The road on to Furnace Creek Ranch, where I had a reservation for two nights, took me past the Stovepipe Wells sand dunes and the Devil's Cornfield, where photographers converge at sunset. I drove on, through the kind of exquisite twilight only Death Valley can provide, while my satellite radio picked up a New York classical station playing Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." In the distance, I could see the reassuring lights and lofty date palms of Furnace Creek.
It's a real desert oasis, watered by thermal springs in the mountains to the east and bordered by a windbreak of bushy tamarisk trees. The little enclave started as an alfalfa ranch that fed the valley's famous 20-mule teams in the days of borax mining. Ranch wives opened the place to tourists in the early '30s. Now Furnace Creek has an 18-hole golf course, two restaurants, a general store, a stable for trail and hay rides, tennis courts, a campground, a museum and a swimming pool, one of the best in California, I think, filled with clear spring water, always a perfect 80 to 85 degrees.
Rooms at the ranch have a middle-class air. They are moderately priced compared with much pricier Furnace Creek Inn but are more expensive than Stovepipe Wells Village and Panamint Springs Resort.
Near the front office, there are two rows of yellow clapboard cabins set sociably close together. Farther back, abutting the golf course, are single- and two-story motel units. I tried both the two nights I spent there and found the rooms clean, although furnished in the style of a budget motel.
The food at the 49er Cafe and Wrangler Steakhouse was another story: expensive and mediocre. The romaine lettuce in a chicken Caesar salad at the cafe was gritty, and coffee and a fried egg sandwich cost about $7.50.
When you think of it, though, it's pretty amazing that you can get a Caesar salad in the middle of Death Valley. Furnace Creek is a thriving little community, with 345 residents, a school bus stop, post office and gas station. Dennis Riesmeyer, rooms director for the ranch and inn, told me that food is trucked in twice a week from Las Vegas.
The menace of the desert
I started my second day in Death Valley at the Furnace Creek Interpretive Center, where visitors get information about what to see in the park and where rangers give lectures. The museum here recalls the valley's borax mining days with vintage boxes of Boraxo ("Cleans Dirty Hands") and Johnson's Foot Soap ("Soaks Away Foot Misery"). Another exhibit explains how Death Valley won the title for the hottest place on Earth on July 10, 1913, when the temperature hit 134 degrees; nine years later Azizia, Libya, in the Sahara Desert, got two degrees hotter and still holds the world hot-spot record.
At the interpretive center, I had a long chat with park naturalist Charlie Callagan about the dangers of Death Valley. He said visitors are mostly scared of rattlesnakes, though in the 13 years he's been here only two people have been bitten, both while trying to pick up snakes.
Getting stranded on back roads is more common. Every year, cars get stuck in the middle of nowhere, especially in the summer, Callagan said, when 80% to 90% of park visitors are vacationing Europeans in rental cars with little doughnut spare tires instead of full-sized ones.
Furnace Creek gas station manager Herb Boatright told me he gets as many as 10 calls a day for a tow. The service costs $150 an hour, to the stranded motorist and back. He once had to send a tow truck to the remote Saline Valley, more than 100 miles from Furnace Creek on rough road; the vehicle just needed a jump, which cost the driver $1,400.
I get daunted by things like that. I scratched a trip to the hot pools about 50 miles up rugged Saline Valley Road and started giving serious thought to making the 44-mile trip to Eureka Dunes in the north. Somehow, Death Valley always seems to turn me into a wimp.
I refused, however, to be deterred from Titus Canyon, a 27-mile backcountry road one way from just outside the park's eastern boundary to the floor of Death Valley. (The last three miles on the western end are two-way.)
Near the start of the road, beyond Daylight Pass and the state border on Nevada 374, I stopped in Rhyolite, once a town of about 10,000 but now just for tourists and ghosts. It boomed with the Bullfrog gold mine, co-founded in 1904 by Frank "Shorty" Harris, who drank too much one night and sold his biggest strike for a song.
There's an open-air museum created by Belgian artist Albert Szukalski along the road, where Modernist sculptures -- among them, a ghost climbing on a bike -- are scattered in the creosote, bizarrely juxtaposed with the moldering shells of Rhyolite's banks, stores and homes. These include the handsome Spanish Mission-style Las Vegas Tonopah Railroad Station and an odd house made of bottles, which were good insulation and cheaper than wood. Volunteer guide Riley McCoy took me and a group of motorcycle riders around the house, peppering his presentation with corny jokes.
Then it was on to Titus Canyon. The drive starts with a straight shot across a spur of the Amargosa Valley, the desert basin to the east of Death Valley. Gradually it climbs an alluvial fan into the Grapevine Mountains, past shimmering metallic cliffs, old lava flows and high-perched hoodoos to 5,130-foot White Pass at the head of Titanothere Canyon. Between White Pass and Red Pass, at 5,250 feet, a chain of shoulderless switchbacks makes the heart thump. Later, the road passes Leadfield, another abandoned mining town, and Klare Springs before entering the winding narrows of Titus Canyon.
It took about four hours to make the trip, stopping frequently to scramble around in the mountains. I was so pleased when I finished that I drove up to Ubehebe Crater, at the north side of the park, for sunset. This windy geologic pockmark 500 feet deep and a half-mile wide is surrounded by so much cinder and ash it seems as though the explosion that created the crater occurred just last month.
By now I was having a grand time driving around Death Valley. The next day, the two-mile gravel road to Darwin Falls, on the west flank of the Panamint Valley, seemed a breeze. Yellow brittlebush bloomed on the sides of the road. I picnicked when I got to the fern-banked waterfall, which, remarkably, flows year-round in the middle of the desert, and shared my tortilla chips with a little L.A. girl whose family was here to camp.
As good as it gets
Truth be told, you don't have to brave the park's back roads to fully appreciate the views. To me, the route to Darwin Falls from Furnace Creek, west across Death Valley, over Towne Pass and down into the Panamint Valley -- all paved, with frequent caches of radiator water -- is about as good as desert scenery gets. At one point I could see California 190 slice straight across the white clay bed of the Panamint Valley, framed by the brittle Inyo Mountains and, beyond them, Mt. Whitney. Then a high-tech plane from the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station to the south flew over. It was so lithe and graceful that at first I mistook it for a bird. The irony of seeing an American fighter jet in a place vaguely like the Middle East, when I had come to the park for forgetfulness, didn't escape me.
But it didn't bother me either, maybe because I knew I would be spending that last night at Furnace Creek Inn, built of yellow adobe in 1926. It clings against the Funeral Mountains and overlooks the barren belly of Death Valley. I paid dearly enough for it -- $280 a night in high season -- but my room opened onto a stone terrace above the tennis courts, pool and garden. There was a border of vintage Malibu tile in the bath, Empire-style lamps by the bed and a (nonworking) fireplace in the corner.
The rambling inn seemed a faithfully maintained piece of historic California, like San Diego's Hotel del Coronado and Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel. Dinner in the formal restaurant -- spinach salad with dates, pork loin and chocolate bread pudding, accompanied by a Napa Ridge Pinot Noir -- was good. And when a rain front brought shutter-rattling winds that night, I slept tight on a king bed mounded with pillows.
Now I know Death Valley better than I did before, though I still want to climb Telescope Peak and drive a few more back roads. It's a place that requires caution but not a Hummer. If it brings peace, that's good. If it makes you feel like a wimp, that might be good too. There are lots of things Death Valley can tell us that we ought to know.