Face the Dawn

Matt is walking home from San Francisco

Into the Valley of Death, part 2: down, down, down, then up and down and up and down …

without comments

Badwater Basin at sunsetDays 50-51, Death Valley National Park
Aguerreberry Point Road to Furnace Creek, 11.5+16.2 miles
total miles traveled: 596.4

The central challenge of this day was how to get close enough to Furnace Creek with enough water to get me a good day’s walk down one of the lowest and hottest valleys in the country. I had four gallons of water at the supercache near my camp and enough containers to carry seven liters with me. I had 27-some miles to go and more than 6000 vertical feet to descend, and I had two days to do it in.

The road into Trail CanyonI loaded up on water and walked the washed-out jeep road into Trail Canyon, and then down and out of the canyon towards Badwater Basin. I intended to descend about 5000 ft to the 1000 ft level.

As intimidating as the road was from the top, it proved to be easy to follow and a pleasant walk, with a couple of the washed-out spots being just the tiniest bit scary for a step or two. About halfway down, the road took a sharp curve, dove into a wash, and disappeared, so I followed the wash down to the Trail Canyon Road, passing through a short but interesting section of narrows.

Trail Canyon Road is very rocky in the upper reaches. It often follows washes, so the rocks are nice and round and a very awkward size for walking on, but it was gratifying to see Badwater Basin come closer and feel the terrain flatten out very gradually. In the afternoon, the wind picked up just as it had the day before, but I didn’t begin to be concerned about it until I came out of the canyon and found that it was blowing much harder closer to the valley floor. Many places in the West, a change in the weather is accompanied by unsettled air. I was glad to think that the temperatures were going to drop into the sane range, but quite unhappy to think about walking through a 3-day blow.

Reaching the area where I wanted to camp, I chose a sheltered site in a wash because I just didn’t believe it would rain in Death Valley in October. My tent pole assembly failed while setting up camp, in spite of my repair attempt using Dell’s tools. The little spoke sticking out of the hub didn’t just come loose this time, it flew out of my hand with a THWONG and a PING and landed out of sight. I thought for a bit, then found a suitable size metal rod in my stove repair kit, which served pretty well — at least the tent wasn’t going to collapse on me.

The weather broke with a sharp snap just as it was getting dark. I expected the clouds to keep breaking up over the valley but instead they began to come from the south and to mass up and thicken. Then they began to blot out the stars and the wind picked up even more. I reasoned that I would smell the rain before it reached me but all I could detect was a cooling in the air, and I only smelled it just as it hit. This time when the drops began to explode against the mesh top of the tent, I didn’t just get up and put on the rain fly. It wasn’t raining very hard, but looking up at the black sky over the mountains above the canyon I had come through that day, it was easy to imagine a right downpour up there. I didn’t want my first-ever view of a flash flood to be from quite such an intimate angle, so I was packed and ready to move out in record time. Blasting down the trail towards West Side Road, scared and furious and exhausted, I was determined to walk into Furnace Creek that night.

Luckily, it only took a half mile or so for me to see the insanity of that idea and I began to look for a reasonably flat spot where I could set up my tent with its back to the howling wind. I finally saw one and found it was easier than I thought to set up my tent in those conditions. Maybe it was the big rock I put inside before trying to put the poles up …

Although it had already stopped raining, I put up the rainfly to shed the wind and settled down for what I expected to be a noisy and sleepless night. I had been in a Death Valley windstorm many years before, and hearing the rainfly snap and flutter took me right back to that time. Back to when I came to Death Valley from my San Jose home to celebrate the spring equinox by walking all day and returned up Trail Canyon Road (the same road as now!) to find that a nice couple had weighed my tent down with big rocks so that it wouldn’t blow away entirely in the raging wind. On that occasion, I lay awake listening to the tent and getting more and more agitated thinking about my ex-wife and who had done what to who and whose fault was which atrocity until in the very center of the black screaming night I gave up and drove home, arriving at dawn and wasting a whole day in a long suburban sleep. When I woke I began to seriously work on healing up from that disastrous marriage.

But apparently there is sometimes progress in a life, because this time instead of finding some sore spot to clamp my jaws on and shake, I fell deep asleep and woke hours later to find that the wind had died and the stars were back.

In the chill of the morning I prepared for the long day’s walk into Furnace Creek, grateful that I had been able to rewrite history, that this Death Valley windstorm was finally so different from the last one. I was also glad that the weather had changed and I could expect a relatively cool trip down the valley, meaning that I didn’t have to carry so much water.

Rain on the Funeral MountainsI struck camp, geared up, took a long drink of water, and started down the slope towards West Side Road. The clouds had crossed the valley and were being pierced and tattered by the mountains to the west, and wisps and veils of rain were floating through the canyons and the storm was on its way out.

It was a windy and raw and exhilarating walk down to West Side Road and then across the valley and up to meet Badwater Road. The storm was really putting on a show on its way out, and I was getting a closeup view of some of the starkest scenery anywhere. I passed by the Devil’s Golf Course (“only the Devil could play on such rough links as these ..”) and a river of alkaline soil heading right down into the lowest point in the hemisphere.

Reaching Badwater Road, I crept over the long rolling hills towards Furnace Creek, back in sight of humanity in numbers, the tour buses and the rental cars and packs of motorcycles. On the entire trip into Death Valley from Lone Pine, the only people to stop and talk or offer me a ride were on the road into Darwin. My theory is that on a fast and busy road people figure that they can’t stop in time to be much use and that someone else will stop in any case. People have been kindest and most attentive when they are close to home and traveling slowly. Maybe people feel more responsible for what happens in their back yard or at least are more in their comfort zone dealing with a stranger.

Jamming down a slight slope I saw a bicyclist coming towards me and had a moment of startled hope. What I saw was a woman of slight and fit build on a bike, dressed in full “gear-queer” regalia. Biking clothing being pretty impersonal, I almost succeeded in believing that Lori had somehow known that I was getting to Furnace Creek a day before our rendezvous and was riding out to meet me. As she passed me, I gave her a hearty “Lookin’ strong!“, a line I got from a guy standing in the middle of the throng of runners halfway up the most punishing hill in the Bolder Boulder 10K run, and got a laugh in return. A mile later she came flying back and slowing as she came past, called out something about me looking like I’d come a long way. I replied that I’d walked there from San Francisco and was rewarded with one of the best responses of the whole trip. “You did not!” she said, in a perfect playground intonation, then dismounted and talked with me for a while. She was a seasonal employee of the park and was just out for a fun ride. Like all the more personal encounters I had on the trip, this little interaction lifted my spirits and made the last miles into Furnace Creek a little happier.

Arriving at Furnace Creek, I found that all accomodations were full except for the campground. I met Ranger Charlie and gave him my report on the road into Trail Canyon, and his colleague gave me the lowdown on which campsites were going to have the best shelter in the windy night it was shaping up to be.

Death Valley storm 2I really dislike established campgrounds because you get all the disadvantages of camping and of apartment living simultaneously. Having all the discomforts of being outdoors plus very little privacy while being almost totally exposed to the bad behavior of your fellow humans can add up to a uniquely miserable experience. But I didn’t mind too much for this one night, surrounded by some sizeable sheltering trees and having pretty good access to some civilized comforts in the form of a well-stocked store nearby and the prospect of a cafe breakfast the next day and then hanging out with Lori for a few days.

I didn’t mind too much, even when the male half of the couple in the next campsite began telling a very dramatic story very loudly in a language I didn’t understand — Serbo-Croatian? Italian? Armenian? and continued his harangue for (I am not exaggerating) at least two hours. Maybe three. I really felt for the woman, who said maybe five or six words in all that time.

Written by walkingman

December 8th, 2008 at 4:18 pm

Posted in Desert

Leave a Reply