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Death Valley Wind

(this story appears in Old Roads and Shadows, an eBook )

Death Valley Wind

I made my first trip to Death Valley with Lynn and friends in 1992 during the Thanksgiving weekend. Death Valley is a popular destination over the long holiday and I was anxious to see and experience the vast desert preserve for myself. After enjoying the traditional turkey dinner with Steve down in San Diego, I met the assembled group in Irvine at Lynn’s home on Friday. The convoy departed Irvine around 10:30 that morning and our plans for the day included driving to Death Valley and setting up camp somewhere before making dinner. On Saturday, we would explore the park at our leisure and drive home on Sunday.

Lynn, a short Vietnamese girl, was a coworker of mine at the time. I called her the ‘Chief’ because she had a tendency to put her hands on her hips and bark out orders. All this was done in a warm and light-hearted way however, and she was one of my closest and most trusted friends at work. I had traveled to Yosemite with Lynn and a group of her friends in May and we had enjoyed a memorable experience.

Her mother and father were present, as well as a girl friend Lorie and a friend named Dave. The parents drove a small pickup truck with a camper shell and Lynn would go with Lorie in her car. On this trip, Dave went with me in the Miata. Space was not an issue as we threw our camping gear and coolers into the back of the pickup.

We drove north and east until we reached I-15 and followed that north as we climbed out of the LA basin and crossed over the 4190’ summit of Cajon Pass into the high desert. The wind blew hard at the summit but we remained undaunted and pressed on. We left I-15 and followed rte 395 to Ridgecrest where we picked up rte 178, which would take us up into the park. The first half of rte 178 went through the Searles Valley and past the mills of Trona. The town’s heyday had ended long ago but enough valuable minerals, such as borax, still existed out in the hardscrabble landscape to keep the mills belching smoke from the tops of their smokestacks.

After Trona, we climbed gradually over the crest of a ridge and crossed over into the Panamint Valley where the road curled down the slope onto the valley floor and turned toward the north. At this point, the road ran straight ahead into the far distance. The wind was stronger here and sand and grit swept over the car and clouded the views on the desert floor. We passed the road that led over the rough terrain of Wildrose and continued on rte 178 out to rte 190 where our convoy turned east and began the steep climb up and out of Panamint Valley. Eventually our group reached the 4956’ summit of Townes Pass and we left the Panamint Valley behind as we began our descent into Death Valley proper.

We traveled down through an area with broad sweeping turns and soon passed a sign welcoming us to the Death Valley National Monument as the three vehicles drove downhill straight into the vast valley floor below. The wind was a constant gale out of the north. The convoy drove past the Wildrose Junction and continued down towards the town of Stovepipe Wells.

Just above Stovepipe Wells, we came to a campground and stopped; the scene before us was one of total destruction. The campground consisted of a paved and hard-packed parking lot that someone had divided into numbered sites. The gale force winds out of the north streamed across this flat expanse smashing into the tents and belongings that littered the site; many tents showed broken fiberglass poles jutting into the air as the fabric rattled incessantly in the wind. Some sites looked abandoned. Across the highway on the south side of rte 190, as far as the eye could see, were tents, sleeping bags, and various articles of clothing that had blown out of the campground. This camping equipment now lay scattered like so much debris across the desert floor, or fluttered frantically in the wind wherever something had snared on the sparse desert plants that dotted the barren landscape. We huddled together for a quick meeting; making camp here was out of the question. We got back in the vehicles and headed for Furnace Creek.

Thirty minutes later, we pulled into Furnace Creek to find the campground full and every room taken at the motel and cabins located just to the south. Back out on the road our convoy now headed to Mesquite Springs Campground almost 50 miles to the north. We retraced our steps back on rte 190 towards Stovepipe Wells for twenty miles and took a hard right on the North Highway heading for Scotty’s Castle and our campground of last resort.

The entrance to Mesquite Springs Camp finally came into view on our left. By now, I was exhausted and wanted a rest, a drink, and a meal. We drove down the dirt road into the campground and parked. The wind continued unabated. We gathered around to discuss the situation. Some wanted to find a motel, go on to Las Vegas if we had to. I was too tired to contemplate that idea; no matter how windy, we could survive one night on the desert floor. Besides, every inn close by might well be full on the busy holiday weekend.

We arranged the vehicles in a small arc with mine at the top end. I put my small dome tent on the ground in the lee of my car, staked out the corners, and inserted the aluminum poles into the sleeves. I attached the storm fly because the added metal pole made the entire structure tighter and stronger, and attached an additional guy-rope from the side of the tent to a wheel on my car. I put some rocks down inside on the nylon floor, about fifty pounds in each corner. It felt secure enough. I threw in my ground pad, sundries pack, and my sleeping bag; I was set.

The others erected Dave’s tent in the lee of Lorie’s car and a large bush. This was a large tent and Lorie, Lynn, and Dave spread out their sleeping gear on the floor. Lynn’s parents planned to sleep in the back of the pickup truck under the camper top.

Lynn placed a large green two-burner Coleman camp stove on the picnic table and opened the top, which served as a wind protector. The wind promptly blew the stove right off the picnic table! I do not mean knocked the stove over, I mean slid the stove down the entire length of the table and off the end onto the ground, full fuel bottle and all. After that, we built a wall on the table out of coolers and heavy boxes to serve as a windbreak. Lynn pulled out the communal dinner for the night: salad, bread, and a frozen 10-inch square block of chili that was as hard as granite.

We set about slowly thawing and melting the frozen dinner in a large pot. I made a stiff drink in my coffee travel mug because the attached top kept the sand out. The sun went down behind the mountains in the west and it was now cold as well as windy. We took turns stirring the block of chili and carving chunks off the side as the frozen cube softened. Dave hung a light in the center of his tent and people sat inside, talked, and played cards. This did not work for me, as my back could not take the strain of sitting on the floor with my legs crossed so I lay half-in and half-out of the tent door with my legs jutting outside. Eventually, Lynn served up dinner in large bowls with bread and butter and a salad. Dinner was simple and delicious, and I enjoyed the meal as I lay on a blanket with the wind buffeting the tent.

After dinner, I went for a walk and smoked a cigar, savoring every moment of my first night in Death Valley in spite of the wind. I enjoyed another drink in the shelter of the communal tent as the group laughed and traded stories, and then made my way towards the spacious luxury of my sheltered sleeping bag. Using a flashlight, I shed my clothes and climbed into my bag, then turned the light off to enjoy the wind and the darkness. After a long day, I enjoyed the simple act of reclining in the private comfort of my tent. I had a good sleeping bag so I was plenty warm laying on my pad with the bag half-zipped, looking out the screen door into the darkness of the desert falling away to the south.

As I started to nod off I noticed the strangest sight, a lightshow going on at the top of my tent. Colorful balls of electricity and flashes of light were shimmering in and out of existence along the nylon dome of the tent as the wind blew high-speed sand particles across, over, and around the structure. The display amazed me and I watched the lights flash for an hour or so before sleep finally overtook me and I was out for the night.

In the morning, the wind was still strong as I boiled water for coffee. Lynn was sleeping on the front seat of the pickup truck; the tent must have been too noisy in the wind. When everyone was up, we decided to spend the morning in Death Valley and then head back to Orange County and the beach; the wind had beaten the enthusiasm for camping out of everyone.

We drove a short distance to Scotty’s Castle and took the tour, if for no other reason than to get out of the wind. We drove back to Furnace Creek, and then continued on to the low point of Death Valley at Badwater. At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater is the lowest point in North America. After walking around the area, we continued south down the valley and up over the southeastern pass and down into Shoshone, then followed rte 127 south to the I-15 at Baker. From Baker, the highway was a slow and tedious crawl all the way to home to Orange County and the beach; everyone who had been out in the desert on the long weekend was coming home a day early because of the brutal wind and the line of slow moving cars stretched from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.

Today, Death Valley remains one of my favorite places to visit and my wife and I roam the sprawling park several times a year. When I explore Death Valley, now a national park, I always remember that first trip and the singular sensations that stayed with me over the years. I remember coming down from the austere beauty of Townes Pass and entering Death Valley for the first time, hypnotized by the grandeur of the scene in front of me. Then I recall the damage and destruction at the campground in Stovepipe Wells; I never witnessed anything like that before or since. Later, in the gathering darkness at Mesquite Springs, I remember how we all looked at each other in shock after the wind blew the Coleman stove off the picnic table.

However, for me, the most piquant and abiding memory of that trip is the small lightshow I witnessed on the nylon roof of my tent. That flickering display of colorful electric charges that danced and flashed in the darkness above me was magical, and it remains vivid in my mind today, undimmed by the years.


Laudizen King
April 2009
Los Angeles