Sunday, May 4, 2008

Haunted by Death Valley

I spent way too much time alone on this trip, traversing perhaps the loneliest part of the country, the place where it is perhaps the most ill-advised to travel alone. But it made me think: at some point, I might have to either switch gears entirely and do something really significant with my life, or just commit myself to doing absolutely nothing with it. Either way, I can't remain in mediocrity anymore.

Panamint Springs Resort turned out to be anything but mediocre during my Death Valley trip, but it's not like I really chose to stay there. I had to.

The other options within the park – Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek – were sold out save for the $400 rooms at the Furnace Creek Inn, which I just couldn’t justify even though my flight had been free. After exploring options outside of Death Valley like the Motel 6 in Beatty and the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, I finally found Panamint, which sounded like a great nighttime oasis for my trip.

True, Panamint is an oasis – it tends to be 10-15 degrees cooler than the rest of Death Valley – but it’s no resort. And it’s really far – at least an hour away from the two main visitor centers and much of the stuff that there’s to see in the park. But it’s smack dab on the western end of a scenic byway, and even though I couldn’t actually find Darwin Falls, the nearby waterfall, despite driving back and forth on route 190 looking for it, it was kind of nice to know it existed.

In truth, Panamint would be a great option for anyone coming from the west and making their way through the valley, a great one-night stay with really good meals and friendly staff. This morning I overheard my waiter telling another table that every year, some Hollywood celebrity rents out the whole place – even the campgrounds and RV park – for a week-long wild time of beer-drinkin’ and “girls takin’ off their tops.”

Too bad it’s haunted.

My first night at the motel, I thought maybe I was imagining a ghost cat walking across my pillow and onto the nightstand. It would’ve been understandable, since that black cat had been keeping me company earlier at dinner. But last night, I woke up screaming in my pitch-black room, with the vision of a man crouching next to my bed. I shouted “Oh Jesus!” and took the pillow I was cuddling next to and thrust it into the air past the other side of the bed, hoping to dissipate the apparition. I suppose it was friendly enough – it was just sitting there – but it’s creepy enough when a person watches you sleep, not to mention a ghost … or…whatever. I didn’t take too kindly to it and yelled at it to go away and get out, my heart racing, my body sweating. I think he left, though it was so dark – and so was he – that I couldn’t really tell, but I managed to fall back to sleep anyway.

the boardwalk to the salt basin I'd needed a good night’s sleep after all the exploring I’d done on Saturday, too. I drove all over hell’s half-acre, getting car sick from my own driving with so many dips in the road, experiencing the extremes of the park by accelerating up to 5000 ft. above sea level and sinking to over 200 ft. below sea level. I visited the lowest point in North America, Badwater, which was probably my favorite site in Death Valley. It’s a salty basin that collects all the debris from the eroding mountains surrounding it (including the highest point, Telescope Peak), but because of movements in the earth’s crust, it’s actually sinking faster than it’s collecting. And since it hardly ever rains in Death Valley (and Lake Manly and all other bodies of water have dried up in the last couple of thousand of years), it doesn’t really collect any new water, which means the pools of water at its entrance are ancient. And, according to how it was named, too salty for drinking.

ancient waterThe ground there is white and damp, and touching it feels like you’ve grabbed a wet powdered donut. The whole thing is flat and wide open, and with the mountains looming above (and a sign mounted that indicates sea level), it’s a weird reminder of your humanity. Everything is bigger than you.

The rest of Death Valley was less existential and a little more like a theme park, each attraction named cutely like “Artist’s Palette” (because of the multiple colors of the mountain) and “Devil’s Golf Course.” I preferred the truly shocking natural wonders, choosing to climb the Mesquite Dunes where Star Wars was filmed, teeter on the edge of the Ubehebe Crater where the wind blows up to 50 mph, and nearly blow out my tires on the unpaved road to Titus Canyon – which I really should have approached from the east, so I could’ve driven down the one-way road through a ghost town.

Many of the ghost towns in and around Death Valley are inaccessible by roads or even hiking trails, but the most famous and accessible one is probably Rhyolite, which is just off of nearby border town Beatty, NV. I’ve always been fascinated by ghost towns, which seemed like a paradise of abandoned buildings, so I made Rhyolite my first tourist stop on Friday. Driving down the old unpaved Main Street, you’re surrounded by rubble and scrap metal, the vestiges of abandoned homes and businesses that are currently unrecognizable, sometimes only a pile of stones remaining. But you can still see the old railroad depot, its “Rhyolite” sign double-painted with “Rhyolite Ghost Casino,” and the old general store.

depot-slash-casino

As I was taking some pictures and giggling to myself, I realized I’d stumbled into the shot of a Travel Channel production, and was being asked to get out of the way by the crew. Hilarious. Too bad they were rushing to get the last shot of the day, otherwise I would’ve campaigned to get myself into the show.

I think the majority of my trip was just driving. As soon as I got out of the greater Las Vegas area on Friday, I was driving down highways at 80 mph surrounded by a whole lot of nothing, cell and Blackberry signals out. The only communications I received were from the ominous road signs, telling me to turn my headlights on in daylight, to avoid overheating by turning the A/C off, and to fill my radiator with water. I’d rented a hybrid so I could save on fuel, but the dashboard displays on those things are so wacky I didn’t even know how to know if my radiator needed water. Did I even have a radiator?

With no one to ask, no one to call, and no rangers in sight, I just kind of breathed deeply and did a Hail Mary the whole way, risking the soft shoulder edge of byways on the ledge of a mountain with huge dropoffs. With a variety of maps rustling against the A/C and no GPS, I managed to navigate my way around without getting lost or freaked out. I encountered very few cars on the road, and a few bikers riding in formation, but mostly I was alone on the open road.

On the way back to the Vegas airport today, I ignored the MapQuest directions and instead took my motel’s suggestion of driving through Death Valley Junction and Pahrump, which turned out to be a really easy and direct route straight to the car rental plaza for the airport. It’s still pretty desolate, but appears to be growing, and I think I even spotted a new town being built. It was all very Wild West.

By the time I was back within Vegas city limits, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I was booked on the redeye back to NY but instead of visiting the Pinball Hall of Fame or the outlet mall, I hustled to the aiport and bought my way onto the next flight out, getting me back into the city tonight rather than early tomorrow morning. It’s not that I’m so anxious to get back to my life – rather, the opposite – but I’d just had enough of what I was doing this weekend and ready to move onto the next thing.

So how do I dig myself out of mediocrity? Well, I've got to pick one thing or the other. We'll see what the future holds...