Death is on my mind as we cross over the Nevada-California border. The ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada, fading into nothing out Dexy’s back window, and Death Valley, California, straight ahead.
Death Valley National Park
Travel tip: Don’t cram too much into one day. Because if you do, something’s got to give.
In our case, Death Valley draws the short straw. Too much time in the Nevada desert means there’s no dawdling in California’s. It’s straight on through – on the Daylight Pass Road, heading east to west. It’s a shame to give Death Valley NP the short shrift because, if you can stand the parched conditions, there is plenty to see and explore in the park: the ghost town of Leadfield at the base of the Grapevine Mountains; Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation in North America at 282 feet below sea level; Hole in the Wall and plenty of other canyons; and the many zig-zagging roads and trails that lead up to cliffs with names like Dantes View and Coffin Peak.
But despite all we miss, the Daylight Pass Road offers sights of its own, from windswept dunes to sun-swept mountain ranges, and through the canyons where mirages turn the asphalt highway into rivers of sweat – it must be 110 degrees in the shade, if there is any shade to be found.
The thought of death returns. We’ve passed Devils Cornfield and have stopped by the side of the road to size up what looks like a short hike to the Mesquite Sand Dunes. They look spectacular from a distance and now we want to see them up close. I’m not thinking of death for the first quarter of a mile through the corn stacks, but every quarter of mile – no, every step thereafter, all I can think of is this is how people die out here. At least those people who forget their water in the car. But we soldier on.
The corn stacks disappear and the light-colored sand turns white; we climb one dune and another and another, with the prospect that pure sand, devoid of brush and desert shrubs, is just over that next dune. But we are parched – our hike across the desert sands has done us in; there isn’t another dune in us. As we turn to head back to the car – and the jug of water waiting for us – I look up and it’s all sky, revving up for sunset.
Stanislaus National Forest
From Death Valley, the shortest route west to San Francisco takes us north along Route 395 that slices through Inyo National Forest past Mono Lake and on into Stanislaus National Forest. And so begins our steep climb up to elevations that reach beyond 9,600 feet, along one of those winding roads that are closed in winter but open to the adventurous in May. We’ve been warned that although it may be the shortest route to the central coast, it can also be quite harrowing. It’s a beautiful spring day in the forest, and I for one am very glad to be out of the desert, whose arid conditions impress upon me the need to seek higher ground.
The climb up is glorious – the stands of majestic trees that stretch for miles, and beyond them the mountains still covered in their winter blanket of snow. At one point along our climb up, we stop to smell the roses, and eat our picnic lunch while we’re at it. Although our picnic table – a slab of rocks that seem to jut out of time immemorial – is just a few yards from the road, it feels like we are the only two people in this vast wilderness; not one car passes by to break our reverie. But as peaceful and serene as all that is, it does make me stop to wonder why. Why is no one else on this “road closed in winter” on this lovely spring day?
We brush off the crumbs and wash our hands in the nearby Sardine Creek; it’s time to move on, ever upward. And up we go, watching the roadside elevation signs creep up – 6,000 feet, 7,000 feet, 8,000 feet, 9,000 feet.
At some point we reach the top, and then it’s the descent downward through the trees. Going up is for dilettantes, going down is for the professionals. The winding switchbacks are unrelenting, and I ride Dexy’s brakes for all they’re worth – to the point where smoke is billowing out from beneath the car. Other than to pull off the road and watch the smoke dissipate, I’m not entirely sure what to do next. Fortunately, a young couple in a car pass us, going the other way, and pull in to see if they can help, and they ultimately offer us some professional advice: The only way to save your brakes – albeit do a number on your transmission – is to head down the hill in first or second gear. It seems like a reasonable trade-off at this point, and after a heartfelt thank-you to the couple, we’re on our way at a snail’s pace down the mountain and out into relatively flat land. Crisis averted. It makes me wonder how Dexy is going to take to the hills of San Francisco in the weeks ahead, but for now, we’re on an even course, beetling it across Route 108 through the lush, and obviously well-watered, agricultural heartland of California, where abundance is everywhere. The small towns that dot the route vanish behind us as we make our way west along 120 and then 580, through the congestion of cities and towns that lead to San Francisco Bay, and on the other side of the bay, Palo Alto, where I drop off Wendy at her friends’, before heading north into that city of delights, San Francisco. My westward journey is at an end – a 13-day road trip that began on May 17 has taken me from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. I made it!