While I was traveling around Arizona and California this winter, I had more than a few opportunities to do some photography. At the Salton Sea in California, which I visited in mid January, I spent much of a day photographing the birds along the salty water or walking on the barnacle beach. For most shots, I used a 70-300mm Nikkor lens on my Nikon D7100 DSLR. I thought I’d share the best of them in a quick “postcards” blog post here.
I suppose I should say a few things about the Salton Sea. It’s a strangely beautiful, highly saline lake in the middle of the desert in southern California. It’s surface is roughly 235 feet below sea level. It was formed years ago when the Colorado River flooded and jumped its banks, pouring water into the low-lying desert for about 16 months. There are no outlets; the lake is fed by irrigation runoff and kept level by evaporation. The salt level rises steadily. The beaches are not sand; they’re barnacles. The place is home to more than 300 species of birds, many of which are migratory. The visitor center has a lot of good information with friendly, knowledgeable staff. I would definitely visit again. You can learn more on Wikipedia and the Salton Sea Authority website.
Here are the bird photos. One of these days, I might get back into this blog entry to add captions with the names of the birds. If you know any that aren’t named here, please comment to let me know and I’ll add a caption.
After a night spent at the Mesquite Springs Campground near the north end of Death Valley, I got an early start on my trip to what’s known as The Racetrack. It’s basically a dry lake bed in a valley on the west side of the park where large rocks “mysteriously” move by themselves across the flats. I put mysteriously in quotes because it’s pretty obvious that the rocks are moved by strong winds when the silty playa is slick from a heavy rainfall. But heck, it gets people out there, right?
The visitor center had warned me that the road was only appropriate for vehicles with good tires. Apparently more than a few tourists have been getting flat tires on some of the more rugged roads, which really aren’t intended for their Priuses or even their city-slicker Jeeps with junky car tires. I assured the ranger that I had all terrain tires on my truck and that they were only a year old. Still, she got me worried about my tires all day and I knew I’d never get AAA out to change a flat, even if I did have a cell signal to call them. I wondered if I could get the spare down from where it was hung under the truck if I needed to.
I left at just after 6 AM, eager to get to the Racetrack in the best light, but not interested in making the estimated 2-1/2 hou drive in the dark. It was still dark in the campground as I pulled out of my spot, leaving the Turtleback behind, but dawn was more than a hint to the east. The bright waning gibbous moon made it possible to pull out with only my parking lights on so I wouldn’t disturb other campers.
Here’s a tourist photo I shot of Ubehebe Crater the day before.
It was chilly so I turned on the heat for my seat and Penny’s and cranked the heat up a bit. I headed out to the main road, then turned left and followed the pavement all the way to Ubehebe Crater, which I’d visited the day before. Then I made the right turn off pavement, onto the gravel road I’d be following for 24 miles.
Whiplash — For a Reason
The road was completely washboarded and I bounced along it, trying but never quite succeeding to pick a speed that smoothed the ride. I tried 10, 15, and even 20 miles per hour. No joy. I drove with one hand, holding my coffee, in a travel mug up with the other so it wouldn’t spill out of the drinking hole in the cap. That bumpy. Penny alternately stood and sat on the console between the two seats, somehow not falling off.
The road climbed as the sky lightened. It was pretty straight and very narrow — maybe 1-1/2 cars wide? There were few turnouts. I’d considered, the previous day, making camp somewhere along the road instead of back in the campground, but I was glad I had decided not to — there was nowhere to pull off to camp. The grader, which likely worked the road at least once a decade, had left tall dirt curbs on either side of the roadway. There were very few places even wide enough for two cars to pass, let alone for someone to camp.
That didn’t stop someone in an SUV. They were parked nearly half in the road and had likely camped out there overnight. No one stirred in the vehicle as I slowed to inch my way around it.
As the road climbed, the vegetation changed and the outside temperature got colder and colder. Cacti and greasewood bushes gave way to Joshua trees. My outside air temperature gauge got as low as 33°F. I saw frost.
Time passed. It got lighter and lighter. Soon first light touched the tops of the mountains around me. I continued bumping up the road, never quite getting comfortable. Not another soul was in sight.
The sign at Teakettle Junction.
After nearly two hours, I’d gone 18 miles and arrived at Teakettle Junction, which is actually a named place on my map. But that’s about all it is. It’s a crossroads with a turn off for someplace called Hidden Valley. A sign decorated with a variety of hanging tea kettles stands at a triangle in the road and points the way. A couple with a big dog in an SUV were camped there, which surprised me because I thought camping wasn’t allowed at the Junction. But, at the same time, it wasn’t as if there was anywhere else to camp.
When I got out to take the photo of the sign, I smelled something I don’t usually smell around my truck. Some kind of hot oil or maybe transmission fluid. I took a quick walk around and looked underneath to see if anything was dripping. Nothing looked wrong and the truck sounded fine. So I got back in and continued on my way.
I saw Racetrack Valley minutes later. The main feature, besides the very large dry lake bed, was an island of rocks near the north end. This is what was referred to as The Grandstand. Oddly, I’d never seen any photos of it and it was a heck of a lot more interesting to me than a few moving rocks. It was obviously volcanic in nature — the whole north end of the park shows a lot of evidence of volcanic activity — and wasn’t very large. It reminded me a little of Wizard Island at Crater Lake.
The Grandstand looks like an island in the middle of the dry lake bed.
When I break something, I break it for keeps.
We reached a very small parking area with an interpretive sign just abeam the Grandstand. I parked the truck. Again that smell. What was leaking? I walked around the truck, now looking into the wheel wells. That’s when I saw that one of my front shocks was stripped bare of its protective cover and the other was leaking like a sieve.
Great. Well, I guess that would explain why I felt like I had whiplash.
There was nothing I could do about it, so I got a few things together and walked out onto the dry lake bed with my camera. But before I tell you more about my visit, I need to take a break and get something off my chest.
A Word about National Parks and Vandalism
National Parks are among America’s greatest treasures. They set aside special land to showcase some of the most amazing things that can be found in our country: geology, topography, history, wildlife, etc. They are managed by Federal employees who work hard to protect not only the parks and the wonders inside them, but the people who visit those parks. Anyone who tells you otherwise is, quite simply, an uninformed/misinformed idiot.
Every park has rules. Unfortunately, they’re necessary. For some reason, people think it’s okay to litter, or let their dogs shit on trails, or carve their initials into the rock beside petroglyphs 1000 years old. Most of the rules in a park protect the park, although a few also protect the people who visit.
One rule in Death Valley is that off-road travel is prohibited. This is pretty simple stuff: if it isn’t a road, you shouldn’t drive on it. If you’re not sure whether something is a road, it probably isn’t so you shouldn’t drive on it. If something was a road once and isn’t a road anymore, the Park Service has very considerately placed signs letting you know that it is not a road and you shouldn’t drive on it.
This rule protects the fragile desert, its plants, and even its rocks from the affects of a 2000-pound (or more) vehicle’s four tires as they make contact on the ground.
The Racetrack is one of the places where the staff at Death Valley National Park has placed signs making it pretty clear that you shouldn’t be driving anywhere off the road. A dry lake bed is not a road. It doesn’t even look like a road. If you think it’s a road, you probably should not be driving anywhere, let alone in a remote area of a National Park.
I had been warned by a friend who truly loves Death Valley that the Racetrack had been vandalized by some — pardon my language — fucking inconsiderate moron driving a vehicle on it, likely when it was either wet or damp from a rain. Tire tracks now criss-cross the dry lake bed, in some places deeply embedded into the surface. It rains very seldom in Death Valley, but it had rained earlier in the week. Still, the tire tracks remained in the otherwise pristine surface. It could take decades for them to disappear.
That means that the Racetrack’s otherwise pristine desert playa environment has been destroyed, possibly for generations of visitors.
I took photos to document the tire tracks. I want everyone to see how this area was ruined by a vandal who thought it was fun to drive around where signs clearly told him not to.
Thank you, selfish asshole fuck-head.
A sign where I parked also asked visitors not to walk on the surface of the playa when it was wet. Well, some asshole had done that, too. Fortunately, he was either a lazy son of a bitch who didn’t walk very far or his brain belatedly connected with his feet and he realized he was leaving somewhat permanent footprints. The surface was dry when I visited, but the footprints remained.
Is it that difficult to obey the rules? Will it truly ruin your visit to not vandalize the terrain while you’re there? Are you so important that you don’t have to worry about whether your fun will ruin a National Park’s natural wonder for the thousands of other people who might not want to see it ruined?
If you answered yes to any of those questions, go fuck yourself and stay the hell out of our national parks.
You want to drive around on dry lake beds? Go to Nevada. There are a shit-ton of them there that no one cares about.
Glad I got that off my chest.
My Visit to the Racetrack
I love closeup views of surfaces textured by nature. This was near the edge of the dry lake bed.
I walked onto the lakebed carefully, making sure I wasn’t leaving any footprints. (I didn’t.) The surface was bone dry with a flat textured or cracked surface that was actually quite interesting — if you’re interested in textured or cracked mud, which I apparently am.
There were a few rocks on the north end where I was walking; the interpretive sign had mentioned that the moving rocks were mostly at the south end but, after 24 miles, I didn’t feel like driving another 3 miles (each way) in my mobile bouncy house to see them. I don’t think the rocks I saw were moving rocks, but who knows?
I don’t know if this was one of the moving rocks. It certainly wasn’t moving when I saw it.
Where the Grandstand’s “island” met the playa reminds me of a beach.
I walked three quarters of the way around the Grandstand, then climbed up one side of it and crossed the rocks in an area where crossing was easy. I liked the way the gravel rock of the Grandstand’s “island” formed a sort of “beach” where it met the dry lake bed around it.
A close-up of the rocks on the Grandstand.
I used my binoculars to look down the lake bed where something shiny was just beyond the surface. Three vehicles, one of which had a very small camper on it. They probably didn’t have broken shocks and were looking at the moving stones.
I headed back to the truck. In need of a bathroom break, I was very disappointed by the lack of cover in the surrounding desert. Still, with the closest people at least two miles away, I crossed the road and walked a bit away from it before taking care of business. I suspect I wasn’t the only one who’d used that particular area for that particular purpose. But why hadn’t the others taken their paper with them? Inconsiderate.
I climbed back into the truck with Penny, started it up, and turned around. We began our long bouncy ride back to camp.
Two of the vehicles that had been at the south end passed me before I left. I got in behind them. There was some position juggling and I became the middle one. I was glad; if my truck decided it wasn’t going to go any farther, at least I could hitch a ride out with the guy behind me.
We passed about a dozen inbound vehicles on our way out. About half were rental Jeeps. In most cases, I pulled up off the side of the road with my left wheels, leaving enough space for people coming from the other direction to get through. Just once someone moved over for me.
One of the cars was a compact. Maybe a Toyota? It was near the beginning of the road. As they passed, I asked them if they were sure they wanted to make the drive. “Does it get any worse?” the older man at the wheel asked me. “A little,” I said. “It certainly doesn’t get any better.” They kept going.
I was almost surprised I made it without a wheel falling off or something. It took nearly three hours. I don’t think the shocks got any worse.
I was pretty glad to hit pavement. But not when I hit 65 miles per hour. That’s when a front end wobble kicked in. Shit. Had I broken something else?
Up at the Grapevine Ranger Station — which didn’t have any rangers in it — my cell phone worked. I parked and did some research. Within 20 minutes, I’d made an appointment to get the shocks replaced in Pahrump, NV, a two hour drive back towards Las Vegas. It was the biggest town around. The repair shop said the parts would be in at 8 AM and I said I’d be there waiting for them.
Back at the campground, I found a man who had some experience with heavy equipment and had him look at it. My question: could I put my camper back on and take it as far as Stovepipe Wells or Furnace Creek? At first, he said no. But later he came to my campsite and said that if I took it slow I might be able to make it to Furnace Creek. That was only an hour from Pahrump and it would save me a lot of driving the next day. So I loaded it up and made the move. I was fortunate to get one of the last three campsites at Furnace Creek.
I treated myself to a fine meal at the Furnace Creek Inn. I really need to stay there one day.
In the morning, sore as hell from the previous day’s ride, I bounced the 51 miles to Pahrump, using cruise control set at 64 mph. I had a nice breakfast at Mom’s Diner while the folks at Pete’s Auto Clinic replaced all four shocks. The 65 mile per hour wobble was gone when I headed back to pick up my camper and exit out the other side of the park.
Hours later, my truck left Death Valley westbound under its own power for the first time. My camper was on top. My 7-month vacation was officially over.
I have more than the average amount of free time in my life and I like to put it to good use doing and learning things. Last September, I took an astrophotography class at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. You can read about the class and see some of the photos I took during our field trip in this blog post.
What I learned about shooting the night sky is that it’s very easy to do if you have the right equipment. Fortunately, I do: a DSLR with full manual mode, a very wide angle (10mm) lens, and a sturdy tripod. The hardest thing to do is to find skies dark enough to see enough stars to make the effort worthwhile.
We had dark enough skies in the North Cascades, despite ambient light from the nearby dam and occasional passing car. I don’t have dark enough skies at home, though — the glow from Wenatchee is surprisingly (and disappointingly) bright. And although I camped at more than a few places that should have been dark enough for night sky photography, most weren’t.
Or if I found a place that should have dark enough skies, the sky was overcast while I was there. Or the moon was in the sky, illuminating it so only the brightest stars showed.
I like this shot of my RV parked on the levee along the Colorado River. I had to crop it square to get rid of the light from the town of Cibola, which is still in the shot.
I did have some success back in January when I camped out along the Colorado River near the Cibola National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona. I shared one of those photos in a blog post about the campsites I’ve been finding.
The one I didn’t share was a bit more challenging and I’m not sure if I successfully pulled it off. (Maybe you can tell me?) The bright point of light in the sky is Venus. I wanted to catch its reflection in the Colorado River, which I did. Unfortunately, although it was long past sunset, there was still a bit of a glow to the west. I think it’s from towns and homes off in the distance, but who knows?
It’s nearly impossible to include the horizon in a night photography shot without some sort of glow from terrestrial lighting.
I got a chance to practice again in Death Valley National Park, on my third night in the park. The first two nights were too cloudy and the moon was nearly full anyway. But the third night offered a window of opportunity between the end of twilight and before the waning gibbous moon came up. I was parked in Greenwater Valley with some mountains behind the camper. It was very dark outside and the sky was full of stars. I took eight shots. I think these two are the best.
This was my first shot of the evening with the camera pointed pretty much straight up. It features the Milky Way with the Pleiades near the center and Orion’s Belt almost cropped off the top.
In this shot, I pointed the camera up above the mountains behind the camper. You can see the big dipper just above the horizon. Once again, there’s the glow from something out there; it’s not the sun because I was pointed east.
I think photos are more interesting with something in the foreground. The one with my camper works for me. So does the one with Venus and its reflection. I guess the challenge is going someplace with something interesting to frame in the foreground and possibly “light paint” it with a lantern or something. It wouldn’t take much. The only light in my camper in the above shot was from a single tea light candle burning on the dining table inside. It looks as if I have multiple lights on!
I enjoy doing this, although I admit I’d likely enjoy it more with companions on the same sort of mission. Because my remote shutter release doesn’t work — I think it needs a new battery (again) — I have to use the camera’s self-timer as a shutter release. That adds 10 seconds to a 30 second exposure with about 30 seconds of processing time before an image finally appears. A lot of time standing around by myself in the dark. The field trip I took at the North Cascades class was a bit more of a crowd than I like, but at least it kept things interesting.
I hope to get at least one more chance to experiment with this kind of photography on my trip, but I’m not sure when. Most of my remaining destinations are not well known for their dark skies. I’ll see how I do.
With a note about why loneliness doesn’t exist for people who don’t need the company of others.
On Friday afternoon, I took a right turn off a two-lane road in San Bernardino County, California. A historical marker indicated that I’d found the “Harry Wade Exit Route,” a route a man and his family had taken to escape a particularly deadly desert valley in 1849.
Thus I began a long trek down a series of washboarded single-lane roads into the Mohave Desert. I was on a quest to visit some sand dunes in the farthest reaches of a National Park that gets nearly a million visitors a year but there wasn’t a single vehicle on the road with me. After bumping along on one road and then making a right turn onto another, the only indication I had that I’d entered the park was a weathered sign with the park name followed by a similarly weathered sign warning that off-road travel was prohibited.
My map of the area was very detailed.
I crossed a few dry washes, recalling quite clearly that my detailed map warned “River crossing dangerous in flood.” I had seen water flowing earlier in the day and suspected the meandering river might enter the valley, but it certainly didn’t seem as if the water had made it this far. Until a healthy stream trickled across the road a few hundred yards ahead. Surely my big pickup with its beefy tires could cross this sandy stream? Even with my big camper on back? I knew that a slow crossing was not advised, so I gave it a bit more gas and surged forward. The tires started to bog down on the far side of the stream, but by then momentum had carried us through. On the way back, I’d use 4WD.
This was supposed to be a photo of the ponds by the springs but it’s a better picture of the dreary weather. Apparently, it was pouring in the main park area.
I followed signs to a spring where another sign that I suspected might be there said “No Camping.” There were no people in the parking area, although there was a weather station that I later found on Weather Underground. I never saw the source of the spring, but I did see the huge reed-fringed ponds that had formed in a desert well-known for its lack of water. I heard water fowl and frogs and, after retrieving my binoculars from the camper, saw a few dark colored birds floating on one of the ponds. I also saw what I think was burro (AKA donkey) dung along the trail.
I was tempted to park there for the night despite the sign, but didn’t want to get in trouble in the unlikely event of a park ranger stopping by this remote spot during the night. My camper is pretty much zero-impact; it’s fully equipped to haul what I need — fresh water, fuel for cooking, food — in and what I don’t need — waste water and garbage — out. A campfire isn’t necessary for cooking. All I need is a relatively level place to park, preferably with a view. But rules are not meant to be broken and if this spot wasn’t protected by the “No Camping” rule, it would likely be overrun with motorhomes and people bathing in the springs as soon as word got out about what a great spot it was.
We are our own worst enemies.
The goal, I reminded myself, was the dunes. It would be better if I could find a place closer to them to park for the night. Although the weather was degrading and rain was in the forecast, a hike to the dunes from my campsite was a possibility, either that evening or in the morning. So I came away from the spring and turned left on the washboard road, continuing north and mindful of the sign that warned about deep sand 4 miles up the road. I didn’t plan on going that far.
I found what I think was a parking area for the dunes about a mile up the road and turned in. There was a sign about it being a wilderness area that allowed foot and horse traffic only. There was space between the sign and the road for my rig, so I pulled out, turned around, and backed in with my camper’s back door facing the dunes. I killed the engine, fetched a few things from the truck, and opened up the camper. After spending about 10 minutes putting out the slide and picking up the things that had fallen during the bumpy ride, I was settled in.
The dunes, over a mile away without a clear trail to them, taunted me under a darkening sky.
Parking for the dunes — the view out my camper’s back door.
I fed Penny.
I checked my cell phone, fully expecting to see No Service in the area where there are usually dots representing signal strength. I was shocked to see three dots and LTE. That had to be wrong. I ran SpeedTest and was even more shocked to see that not only did I have Internet service, but it was the fastest service I’d had since leaving home.
I checked in on social media. I admit that part of me wished I didn’t have an Internet connection so that I could fully disconnect. But, at the same time, I’m a realist and know that if anything goes wrong, it’s nice to be able to call for help — even if help would likely take hours to find me. (My dead starter was still fresh in my mind, which also explains why I always back into a campsite now.)
I found a classic rock station on the radio that actually played good music. I listened for about 15 minutes before realizing I preferred silence.
And it was silent. No sound of cars or trucks or planes. I could hear the wind coming through the greasewood (AKA creosote) bushes before it reached me. I occasionally heard a bird.
From my parking spot, I could see for miles in almost every direction; nothing moved.
I looked again with my binoculars. Nothing.
I sat at the table, writing a blog post on my laptop (that I might never publish), finishing the last of the ice tea from my late breakfast in Boulder City. Occasionally, I’d glance outside to see if Mother Nature would surprise me with a ray of sunshine highlighting the dunes or mountains behind them. I heard a few raindrops on the roof. It got dark out without the pleasure of a nice sunset.
Despite the full moon that had risen behind the clouds at around sunset, it got very dark.
I made some dinner and sat up in bed eating it while I did a crossword puzzle. I debated watching a movie but decided against it.
I realized I was exhausted. I’d started the day with a 4-1/2 mile hike on the Historic Railroad Trail near Hoover Dam, which would have been nothing if I was still in shape. But I’d been letting exercise opportunities pass me by and it was starting to really make a difference. Which is why I’d done the hike.
So I went to bed early.
As I slept, I was very aware of the persistent rain on the roof. I thought about that little stream I’d crossed and wondered whether it would be a bigger stream.
Later, I was also aware of the wind loudly snapping the ratchet tie-down strap holding my old rotor blades in place on the roof. There was no way to stop the sound without going outside and climbing a ladder, so I tried to ignore it. Eventually, the wind — and the noise — stopped.
I slept well after that, waking enough just a few times to notice that it wasn’t dark anymore. The clouds had thinned enough to bathe the desert around me in faint moonlight.
I’d slept until after 5:30 AM, which was actually quite late for me.
No surprise that it was dead quiet when I woke up. It was still cloudy. The sky was brightening from the coming sunrise. The dunes taunted me.
I had some coffee and breakfast, fed Penny again, and caught up on social media. The world is going nuts, but you don’t really feel it when you’re disconnected. Sadly, I was not disconnected and can feel it. It makes me sad.
I looked out at the dunes. It wasn’t worth the mile plus walk to get out there with bad light and I definitely didn’t want to spend the day out there waiting for the light to get good.
But I didn’t mind waiting in my camper for the light to get good. There was no place else I had to be. Heck, I had enough food, water, and fuel to last me at least a week and didn’t need to be at my next destination, which was only 536 miles away for six days.
And I really liked the solitude of this roadside campsite in the middle of nowhere.
So I pulled out my portable solar panels and set them up on the south side of the camper. There was enough blue sky that I knew they’d eventually generate some power. I certainly didn’t want to run my generator and break the silence.
And that’s how I spent the day: writing, relaxing, reading, and shooting the occasional photo.
A park ranger stopped by around 10 AM. We chatted for a while and he gave me some advice about road closures and campsites over the next few days of my stay in the park. A while later, two guys in a pickup stopped, wanting to know what the road was like up ahead. I told them I didn’t know, but mentioned the deep sand sign, which they’d also seen. I told them not to get stuck because I didn’t want to pull them out. We laughed.
Much later in the day, two SUVs parked near me and two men and a woman got out. By then the wind was really howling and visibility had dropped due to blowing dust. It was also cloudy and threatened rain. They told me they’d been much farther north in the park and it had poured on them all day. I asked them if they were going to hike to the dunes and they said that they’d come this far so they had to go all the way. I watched them bundle up against the wind — the temperature had dropped to the 60s — and head northeast. It rained while they were gone, but not enough to make anything wet. Around sunset, when they still hadn’t returned, I took out my binoculars and saw them at the base of one of the dunes. I guess they were doing some photography; it was too far away to really tell. I wondered if they’d taken camping gear with them; I hadn’t really paid attention to their departure.
A few other pickups and SUVs drove by but didn’t stop. It was actually a lot more activity than I expected.
The sun finally made an afternoon appearance about a half hour before sunset, illuminating the dunes and the mountains behind them and making deep shadows. It was too late to walk out there — and besides, the wind was still blowing pretty good — so I satisfied my urge to document the moment using my 70-300mm lens from the roof of the camper. The light was constantly changing and I took quite a few photos. The one below, which I obviously cropped, is one of my favorites.
Sunset at the dunes.
When the sunset show was over, I started making dinner: chicken cordon bleu with fresh creamed spinach and chanterelle mushrooms (from the freezer). It got dark quickly. I kept checking out the back windows for the moonrise, which was expected just north of due west at about 6:30. There were clouds out there on the horizon and I wondered it they’d clear out enough for me the see the moon coming over the mountains. Overhead, stars started appearing one-by-one with Venus leading the way.
My dinner was almost ready and it was dark when the sand dune hikers returned. I turned on one of my outside lights for them. Soon their engines were running and I saw taillights down the road. I didn’t envy their drive back to pavement in the dark.
Moon rise through the clouds.
My friend Bob called and we chatted for a while. It had snowed quite a bit at home and he’d spent the weekend in his shop, working on a Moto Guzzi motorcycle he’d owned for more than 20 years, getting it back into pristine condition. Unfortunately, the work he needed to do on the engine required him to keep the door open to the cold so he wouldn’t be overcome with fumes. While we talked, the moon rose just where I expected it to, making the clouds around it glow. Overhead, the stars faded away, unable to compete with the moon’s brightness.
I went to bed with a book I’d downloaded from the library, Time and Again by Jack Finney. I originally read it not long after it was first published in 1970 and it seemed brand new to me. I recommend it.
I slept great until about midnight, then woke for a while, then slept again until after 6:30. The sound of rain that was nearly forecasted nor on radar got me out of bed. It was overcast (again).
Outside, the dunes taunted me.
The hourly forecast said it would clear up around 10 AM. It would be my last chance to hike to the dunes; I really did need to get on my way if I wanted to see other remote parts of the park. So, after coffee and breakfast, I did the dishes and dressed, getting the camper prepped as much as I could for departure. The sun finally made an appearance as the clouds fled west, faster than the sun could climb into the sky.
Two pickups drove by. I started wondering why vehicles nearly always came by in pairs.
It was just after 9 AM when I started my hike to the dunes. Although satellite images had shown the remnants of a road that went that way, I couldn’t find it. So I just cut as straight as I could through the desert. Halfway there, I stripped off my flannel shirt and faced the sun in a tank top. The shade temperature was below 60°F, but I was not in the shade. The sun felt amazing on my skin and the light breeze kept me cool.
I looked back every once in a while. Although I thought the route was pretty flat, we apparently descended into a dip; I couldn’t see the camper when we were about halfway to the dunes. I later saw it again and made a note of the knob on the mountaintop behind it so I could easily navigate back in the unlikely event that my phone’s GPS tracker failed and I couldn’t see my rig.
I saw three of these within a half mile radius of each other. They were about an inch and a half tall.
The walk took about a half hour, with stops along the way to look at interesting plants, including mushrooms (!), and rocks.
The dunes are large and I felt small beside them. Penny went nuts running up and down the sand. She loves the beach and I suspect that to her, there was nothing better than a beach without water.
A closeup shot of part of the dunes.
I didn’t get very far trying to climb up this ridge.
I took a bunch of photos. Unfortunately, although I might have been in the right place, I was definitely not there at the right time. The dunes were in full sun and the golden hour was long gone. Shadows were relatively small. The light was bright and harsh. A more serious photographer would have arrived at dawn — and gotten rained on along the way.
I tried to climb one of the ridges, but when I got to the point where every step forward slid me a half step back, I quit.
It was windy there — windy enough for my footprints to disappear within seconds of me laying them down.
We stayed about a half hour, then turned around and headed back. By this time, it was almost cloudless. The sun still felt good on my skin and I never really worked up a heavy sweat. Halfway back, my path intersected with the old road and I saw the footprints of the previous day’s visitors. I almost lost the trail when a wide wash ran through it, but I picked it up on the other side and was almost surprised to see that it delivered me almost right back to the door of my camper.
Behind me, the dunes smiled and winked.
After a bathroom break and something cold to drink, I finished up this blog post. I want to get back on the road before noon and I suspect I won’t have as good an Internet connection as I have here for a few days.
I know a lot of people will read this and be amazed that I spent two days alone in such a remote place. Wasn’t I scared? Wasn’t I lonely? How could I stand to be so completely alone for so long?
First of all, no, I wasn’t scared. I come to places like this very prepared. Why would I be scared when help is a phone call away, phone service is excellent, and I have everything I need on hand to survive for at least a week without skipping a meal?
Second, no, I wasn’t lonely. I don’t get lonely. Loneliness is a feeling suffered by people who need to be around other people to be happy. While I wouldn’t call myself anti-social, I’m also not dependent on other people to keep me — well, what? What is it that people need other people for? Conversation? Sex? Companionship while watching television? Am I that unusual in that I can go for more than two days without any of that?
I love my friends, but I don’t need to be with them all of the time.
And third, not only can I stand to be alone, but I rather like it. I’ve always needed a certain amount of alone time. Time to think and reflect without having to keep someone else entertained. Time to read and write and do photography without someone interrupting me, demanding my attention. Time to do whatever I want to do without someone else making judgements about how I spend that time.
When I was in a relationship, every year my future wasband used to ask me what I wanted for my birthday. In the later years, I told him that all I wanted was to have the day to do what I wanted to do. I wanted alone time.
A few things I’ve learned during many hours of cross-country flying.
Note: A version of this post originally appeared in AOPA’s Hover Power blog. If you’re a helicopter pilot, you owe it to yourself to check in there regularly to read great articles written by experienced helicopter pilots.
Because I take my helicopter where the work is, I often do long cross-country flights between my permanent and various temporary bases of operation. (After a lot of careful consideration, I’ve decided that it’s safer and more cost-effective to fly the helicopter from point to point than to buy a custom trailer and tow it.) I’ve been making cross-country flights in excess of 500 miles since 2004 and, for six consecutive years, made an annual round trip between the Phoenix area (where I lived) and north central Washington state (where I now live) for cherry drying work. Nowadays, I make an annual round trip between north central Washington and the Sacramento area for frost control. I flew solo on about half of these long flights; the other half was usually spent with a low-time pilot building PIC time at the controls while I tried not to be bored (or sometimes sick from PIO—long story for another time).
I flew home from California in late April. It was another solo flight, one that I’d been looking forward to mostly because I would be doing all the flying. And, instead of the 5-6 hour direct flight, I planned to fly west and then north up the California and Oregon coasts before turning inland again. Total flight time would be about 6-7 hours.
My first look at the California coast on a recent flight from the Sacramento area to Washington State.
Although the flight wasn’t as pleasant and uneventful as I’d hoped, I’m not complaining. But it did remind me of some tips I could share with other pilots preparing to do long cross-country flights.
Planning the Flight
Whether you plan to file a flight plan (which I recommend doing) or not, it’s important to plan for the flight. This pretty much goes without saying. In addition to the usual things to check in advance–weather, fuel availability, TFRs, route options–consider the following:
Make your flight segments shorter than they have to be. Sure, Robinson Helicopter claims I can get 16 gallons per hour in my R44 so I should be able to fly 3 hours (less 20 minutes reserve) between stops. But do I really want to fly that long without a break? Probably not–especially after those first two cups of coffee. Yet I’ve seen more than a few flight plans that had us in the air as long as possible.
Don’t just study your route before the trip—study everything around it. How many times have I tried to fly up or down the coast, only to be forced inland by a typical “marine layer” of fog? Too many to count. I’ve learned to study my route and alternate routes that would be easy to get to if I needed to change course.
Know where the fuel is along the way. Do you think you could make a planned fuel stop if you hit 30 mph headwinds that weren’t in the forecast (or flight plan)? This happened to me on my April flight. I was lucky that there were several airports with fuel along my planned route so I could stop sooner than expected.
Preparing for the Flight
Once you’ve planned the flight, you can prepare the aircraft for conducting the flight.
Gather and prepare your charts. If you use paper charts, mark them up with your intended route and fold them with the route easy to access. Then stack them in the order of use. That’s how I used to do it when I used paper. Sure beats fumbling around one-handed. Fortunately, we’re in the 21st century and have tools like Foreflight to provide accurate, up-to-date charts. Make sure you’ve loaded and updated all the charts you’ll need. Use the flight planning tools to mark your route. Then make sure you’re fully charged up and, if necessary, have backup power available. A backup device is handy, too. I use, in order: Foreflight on my iPad, Foreflight on my iPhone, and a panel mounted Garmin 430 GPS.
Make an airport and frequency list. I don’t do this much anymore–Foreflight makes it easy to get this info on the fly–but when I used paper charts, I also made a list of all the airports along the way that included frequencies for CTAF (or tower) and AWOS/ASOS (or ATIS). I could then program all the airport codes into my Garmin 430 as a flight plan and make frequency changes as I flew from one airport to the next.
Bring oil. I use W100Plus oil in my helicopter. It isn’t exactly easy to find. That’s why I usually bring along a quart for every expected fuel stop. That’s not to say that I’ll use it all, but it’s there when I need it.
Pack snacks. I always have a small cooler on board for long flights and do my best to fill it with ice (or frozen water bottles) and good snacks before I go. Even if you planned a meal stop along the way, circumstances might prevent you from making that stop. Maybe you had to change your route. Maybe the restaurant closed 30 minutes before you arrived. Or maybe the restaurant that was supposed to be a quarter-mile south is really more than a mile and a half from the only airport gate on the north end of the field. Bringing beverages like water or Gatorade-like drinks is also important. You don’t want to get dehydrated.
Pack an overnight bag. If you weren’t planning an overnight stay, pretend you were. A change of clothes, toothbrush, and credit card can make an unscheduled overnight stop a lot more pleasant. And if you think roughing it might be necessary, consider a sleeping bag or bedroll, either of which can make sleeping in an FBO–or the helicopter–a lot more comfortable.
Pack an emergency kit. I’ve spent so much time flying over remote areas that I forget that many pilots don’t. My helicopter has an emergency kit under the pilot seat that includes a first aid kit and equipment like fire starters, a signal mirror, a “space blanket,” energy bars, water, and so on. If weight is a factor–and it certainly is in my R44–you’ll have to limit what you bring. But some essentials can save your life if you’re forced to land in the middle of nowhere.
Make sure any required power supplies, cables, or batteries are handy. If you rely on electronic devices for navigation, you’d better make sure you’ve got back up power for them. My iPad’s battery can’t survive a 7-hour flight with the screen turned on and the GPS running. I use USB cables hooked up to a power supply to keep the battery charged. If you have a battery-powered GPS, make sure you have a spare set of batteries.
Set up your tunes. I listen to music or podcasts when I fly solo. My aircraft’s intercom system automatically cuts the music sound when a radio transmission comes through. Handy.
During the Flight
It’s during the flight that your preparation will really pay off. If you’ve done everything right, you’ll be prepared for anything.
Open your flight plan. I recommend filing and opening a flight plan for each segment of the flight. Again, with a tool like Foreflight this is very easy. I can open and close a flight plan with a few taps on my iPad screen. This beats the frustration of trying to reach Flight Service on the radio in a mountainous area when only 700 feet off the ground.
Remember that your flight plan is not carved in stone. I can’t tell you how many flight plans prepared by pilots who were accompanying me went out the window before the second fuel stop. Stuff happens–usually related to weather–and changes are a fact of cross-country flying life. The only time I’ve ever done a long cross-country flight plan exactly as planned was on one trip from Wenatchee, WA (EAT) to Phoenix, AZ (PHX), and that’s because our straight line route across the Nevada desert didn’t have any other options for fuel stops. We had to do it as planned.
Know when to pull the plug and wait it out. Weather an issue? While scud running is something we’ve all probably done at one time or another, it probably isn’t something we should be doing. Tired? Tired pilots make mistakes. When low visibility, severe turbulence, or simple pilot fatigue makes flying dangerous, it’s time to set the ship down and take a break. If you did all your homework before the flight, you should know whether there’s an airport nearby to make the wait a little more comfortable. I remember unplanned overnight stays in Rosamond, CA (not recommended) and Mammoth Lakes, CA (which would have been nicer if I’d been prepared for snow).
Experience Is Everything
Hard to believe that only a few hours after hitting the coast I was forced inland by low clouds and rainy weather.
My April flight was a mixed bag. It started with a beautiful but slightly hazy dawn just west of Sacramento, a gorgeous morning on the coast, moderate turbulence with strong headwinds, low clouds, hazy coastal weather, drizzly rain, more low clouds, even lower clouds (and scud running), and bumpy air on a cloudy day. If you’re interested in details, you can read about it in my blog. Although it isn’t common, it is possible for me to have a perfectly uneventful cross-country flight of 500 miles or more in a day.
If you do enough long cross-country flights, planning and conducting a flight becomes second nature. I’m always thinking about what’s up ahead and working on ways to get more information about alternative routes when things aren’t looking as good as you want them to. I’ve occasionally used my phone to call AWOS and ATIS systems at airports I think might be along a better route. I use radar in Foreflight to get a feel for how weather is moving and where it might be better or worse than I am. I’ll change altitude to avoid mechanical turbulence. If I have to do any scud running, I do it slowly and carefully, always aware of exactly where I am and where I can go if things get worse.
It’s all about planning and preparing and using your experience to handle unexpected situations as they come up. After a while, there’s very little than can surprise you.
Since the winter/spring of 2013, my helicopter has spent two months each year in the Sacramento area of California on a frost control contract. I fly the helicopter down in late February and fly back in late April. I usually take along a fellow pilot who does most of the flying to build R44 time and shares the cost of the flight. Most of these people are relative strangers and although they’re usually nice guys or gals that I stay friends with after the flight, I admit that I prefer flying with people I already know pretty well. So this spring, when it came time to start thinking about that return flight, I started thinking about who I could invite to join me.
The answer hit me like a lightning bolt: of course I should invite my friend Don.
Don’s been a pilot for much of his life and has flown airplanes and helicopters. I don’t know how much time he’s logged, but I’m certain it’s more than my 3,300 hours. I also know he has tons of cross-country experience, including helicopter flights between the Seattle area and Alaska.
You might be wondering why I’d invite such an experienced pilot when there were so many low-time pilots who’d likely jump at the chance to fly with me on a six to eight hour cross-country flight. There are three reasons.
First, Don is a good friend I’ve known for years. He and his wife were very supportive during my crazy divorce, and you know what they say about a friend in need. He’s easy going and has a good sense of humor. I knew I’d enjoy spending time with him.
Don’s helicopter on the T3 Helistop at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix in 2009. After I shared my experience approaching and landing at the helistop, he often picked up and dropped off visitors there. Later, in October 2012, he dropped me off there when I was off on one of my many trips.
Second, Don had owned a helicopter very much like mine — in fact, it was only six months newer — which he’d kept in his garage at his Seattle area home. About two years ago, he sold it. I knew he hadn’t flown much since and probably missed it. He would appreciate the flight; surprisingly, not everyone I’ve invited to fly with me on a long flight has.
Third, because Don already had so much flight time, he’d actually share the flight with me. After all, I like to fly. When I fly with other pilots, they’re paying for the privilege of every minute of stick time they can get. They don’t want to share the stick with me and I don’t feel comfortable asking them to.
So I texted Don to see if he was interested. The response came almost immediately. Hell, yes!
Getting to the Helicopter
Don has two homes, one in the Phoenix area and one in the Seattle area. He made arrangements to be in the Seattle area on the day we’d go south to fetch the helicopter.
I booked my flight from Wenatchee to Sacramento, which included a plane change in Seattle. Don booked his flight from Seattle to Sacramento on the same flight. Since Don always flies First Class, I bought a First Class ticket, too. When he booked his flight, he got the seat right next to mine.
We met at the gate for the Seattle to Sacramento flight. I’d been at the airport for two hours and had treated myself to a breakfast of trout and eggs at Anthony’s. Don had also been at the airport for a while and had breakfast.
I had Penny with me, of course. She’s always excited when she sees me take out her airline travel bag. She’d gotten back into the bag at the gate before Don arrived and he didn’t even realize I had her with me until we boarded.
There wasn’t supposed to be breakfast on our flight, but there was; a nice yogurt and granola bowl with fresh fruit that would have gone nicely with the Bloody Mary I couldn’t have. (First Class on Alaska Air really is worth the extra cost. Can’t say the same for all airlines.)
On the flight, we chatted, ate, read. Time passed quickly. We were on the ground by 10:45 AM. With no bags checked and a quick exit from the plane, we were at the curb waiting for our Uber driver by 11 AM. Penny seemed happy enough to be out of the bag, sniffing around someplace she was pretty familiar with. After all, we’d flown to Sacramento quite a few times over the past four years.
It was about a 30 minute ride to the airport where my helicopter had been parked on the grass for two months. I settled up my bill for parking and said goodbye to the staff there. Don preflighted and installed the dual controls while I folded up the cockpit cover and tie downs and went to work setting up my GoPro. That’s when I realized that I’d left the Mini SD card for the camera at home. Duh-oh! There would be no video from the flight.
California to Washington
We’d discussed our route briefly on the flight down. Neither of us was in a hurry and both of us leaned toward a flight up the coast, which would add about an hour to the flight time.
Here’s a shot of the marine layer on the coast of Oregon that forced us inland during a flight from Seattle to Wickenburg with my wasband in 2009.
My experience with flying the coast was varied. What I’d learned was that if I could get to the coast, I probably wouldn’t be able to follow it all the way up. The California and Oregon coasts are well known for their “marine layer” clouds. Although I’d flown the coast many times in the past, from Los Angeles to the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington, those damn clouds always made an appearance, forcing me inland so I’d never covered more than one or two hundred miles at a stretch. Last year, when I’d flown north by myself, planning on a coastal route, clouds with rain moved in not long after I hit the coast, forcing me inland for a dreary flight with more scud running than I like to do.
But nothing ventured, nothing gained, eh?
We followed Cache Creek west into the hills. I did the flying. I’d been wanting to fly Cache Creek all winter, but truck troubles had messed up my March plans and I wound up spending most of the month home instead of with the helicopter. I hadn’t flown nearly as much as I wanted to. This was my chance to get flying out of my system, flying a familiar and loved route. Somewhere in the hills, I turned the controls over to Don and he steered us over Clear Lake. Although the weather was clear where we were, there were clouds to the west (of course) and neither of us were sure whether they came into the coast or were off over the Pacific.
After flying up Highway 101 for a while, we decided to try heading west to see if we could make the coast. So we followed one of the canyons — I’m not sure, but I suspect it was the one the Noyo River flows in — concentrating on the path ahead of us. As expected, we were moving right in toward the clouds, which forced us lower and lower. But ahead of us, to the northwest, the sky was bright. Maybe it was clearing up?
We were flying about 300 feet over the road, stretching our necks to peer ahead of us and ready to turn around as the road went around a bend at a high point in the hills. We followed the bend and the road dropped away. We kept going.
Low clouds kept us flying low in the hillsides near Fort Bragg. We turned north, heading for our first fuel stop at Eureka. The coast was to our left and we occasionally caught glimpses of it as we flew over tree-covered hills with the clouds only a few hundred feet above us. I don’t think either of us wanted a trip up the coast in such conditions — I know I didn’t. But I also didn’t want to fly the I-5 corridor, which is painfully boring, especially once you get north of Eugene. We’d make a decision at Eureka.
The ceilings were much higher when we stopped for fuel at Eureka. We gassed up; Don bought the first tank. Then we went inside for a potty break. There wasn’t much else to do there — although the airport has a nice little pilot shop, there was no restaurant and nothing was within walking distance. So we climbed back on board and continued on our way, this time following the coast.
Despite the clouds, it was beautiful on the coast.
If you’ve driven on the Pacific Coast Highway — Route 101 — through Brookings, CA, you’ve driven over this bridge.
The coast near Newport, OR. I love the way the breakers line up when you see them at just the right angle.
A look down into Lincoln City, OR.
By this time, the scenery around us was interesting enough to take some pictures while Don flew. The doors were on, of course, so most of my photos have reflections and glare and even window dirt. But they give you a feel for what the weather was like and show a little of how beautiful the California and Oregon coasts can be from about 500 to 1000 feet up.
The coast was very rugged at the beginning, where the Redwoods National and State Parks come right up to the rocky shoreline. There were no roads in many places — just trees right up to the cliffs with lots of small waterfalls dropping down into the ocean. This is a view few people see, a view that can only be seen from the air off the coast. Don steered us along its left, over the ocean, just within gliding distance of land.
In some places, we saw sea lions stretched out on rocky beaches. I took pictures, but they didn’t come out good enough to share.
The Pacific Coast Highway hit the coast and then went inland several times. Finally, just before we hit the Oregon state line, it came out to the coast and stayed there for quite a while.
The weather got a little worse at first, with light rain pelting the cockpit bubble in more than a few places, then started to get better. By the time we got into Oregon, we saw patches of blue sky. The sun was shifting ever lower toward the horizon to the west and the light started getting kind of good.
Light is 90% of photography.
Waterfall near Otis, OR. Yes, I cropped this image; we weren’t that close.
Cloverdale, OR looks like a pleasant place to live, eh?
Don fueling up at Tillamook. The huge hangar behind him was used for airships years ago. I think there’s a chance it might be an air museum now.
We made our second fuel stop at Tillamook, OR. Don pumped while I paid. It was just after 5 PM and the airport office (and restrooms) were closed. It was also chilly. I let Penny loose to do her business, then called her back to get back on board. We didn’t hang around.
The Oregon Coast near Seaside.
By now, we were hungry. Two breakfasts had filled us before noon, but skipping lunch hadn’t gone unnoticed. Don had been texting back and forth with his wife who would have a hot dinner waiting when we arrived at their Seattle area home.
We continued up the coast a bit more before heading inland not far from Astoria, where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. This was, by far, the longest stretch of the Pacific Coast I’d flown in one day: more than 400 miles.
Don navigated northeast toward his house. It was all familiar territory to him — I didn’t fly much west of the Cascades. We flew east of Olympia and right over the top of the airport at Puyallup. From there, it was only a few minutes to Don’s place.
My iPad, with Periscope running, broadcast the approach in typical low-def quality.
Don let me take the controls and guided me in. I’d flown to his house before a few times but honestly couldn’t remember much about the approach. He had to keep pointing out landmarks and reminding me to slow down. It is tight — that’s for sure — with a steep approach between tall trees into a clearing beside his garage. I had Periscope running on my iPad in its cradle and recorded the whole thing.
And then we were on the ground, the long part of my journey over.
We went in and had something to drink while Don’s wife, Johnie, finished making dinner. Penny played with their new dog and ran around their grassy yard occasionally taking a detour to terrorize their chickens through the fence.
After dinner and a nice dessert, I went out to the barn with Don to see the two cows they’d “rescued.” They were huge. I really wish I’d had the presence of mind to take a photo, but I was so shocked by what I was looking at that I simply didn’t think of it.
I hit the sack in the guest room pretty early. I was still fighting a cold I’d had for at least three weeks and was exhausted. I slept well with Penny at the foot of the bed.
Seattle Area to Wenatchee
In the morning, after letting Penny out and then taking a quick shower, I dressed and met my hosts for breakfast. It was overcast and questionable (as usual) as to whether I’d make it across Snoqualmie or Stampede Pass. The automated weather station at Stampede was reporting half-mile visibility, which was enough to get through legally. But what about the rest of the flight? There was no accurate weather reporting in other places in the mountains. The only way to find out whether I’d make it was to give it a try. If I couldn’t get through, it was a long flight around the Washington Cascades to the Columbia River Gorge. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to go that way.
Another cloudy morning at Don’s place.
After thanking my guests and saying goodbye, I did a quick preflight, added some oil, and climbed on board with Penny. Then I started up and warmed the engine, setting up my iPad and iPhone with weather resources and Firelight maps to guide me while I waited. When the helicopter was ready to go, I picked up into a hover, turned 180 degrees over the driveway, and climbed out through the trees the way I’d come.
I had ForeFlight’s track log feature enabled during the flight, so I know exactly how I went. Originally, I thought I’d hook up with I-90 and follow that through the mountains at Snoqualmie Pass, which is at 3004 feet. But that would require me to head north quite a bit before heading southeast. It didn’t make sense to go out of my way. So instead, I followed the course of the Green River up into the mountains, aiming for Stampede Pass, which is higher at 3800 feet, but had that handy ASOS weather station. The weather there was reported at 1/4 mile visibility with mist, but I knew that could change at any time.
An overview of my route from the Seattle area to Wenatchee. Not exactly a straight line.
In the meantime, the flight was pleasant, even under the clouds, taking me over the Howard A Hanson Reservoir and a few communities that were no more than named points on the map. The area below me was thick forest, for the most part, with a road following the river for part of the way. I wish I could have taken pictures, but I’m a terrible photographer when I’m flying. I really missed my GoPro on that flight.
I steered up another canyon to the left just past Lester, heading for Stampede. The only roads were forest roads now as I climbed with the hills, getting ever closer to the cloud bottoms. Soon, I could see Stampede Pass ahead of me. I’d forgotten all about the wires that crossed through the lowest (and clearest) spot. I’d have to cross at a higher point a bit east where the clouds seemed to touch the ridge line. I could tune into the ASOS by that point; it was still reporting 1/4 mile visibility with mist.
Here’s a closeup of my route (the blue line) through the Stampede Pass area on a Sectional Chart. I crossed the mountains just southeast of the pass, not at all interested in crossing over all those wires.
I slowed to 40 knots and creeped up to the ridge. I knew the rules I’d set for myself, rules that had never failed me when dealing with weather flying: if I could peek over the ridge and see the ground and my path ahead, I’d cross the ridge. Otherwise, I’d have to backtrack or find another place to cross.
I peeked, I saw. The ground dropped away ahead of me as I crossed the ridge near the pass and descended down into the valley beyond. Soon I was flying over I-90, past the lakes near Roslyn and Cle Elum. I steered east northeast, then due east, then northeast, direct toward home.
I crossed the mountains south of Wenatchee at Mission Ridge and made a slight detour to check out the slide damage areas at Whispering Ridge and Joe Miller Road. Then I made a beeline for the airport to get some fuel and take care of some paperwork with my mechanic.
A short while later, I was landing on my platform, which I’d left outside before heading down to Sacramento the previous day. It was good to get the helicopter put away.
I need to start this account with some back story to put it into perspective. If you’re tired of reading about my old life, skip the following section and start reading at The Drive.
The Back Story
One of the things that bothered me most in the last years of my marriage was the fact that my husband’s 9 to 5 job and his insistence on living in a condo in the Phoenix area instead of our Wickenburg house made it very difficult for us to have any fun together. Although my time was extremely flexible — I was still in my declining writing career and didn’t do much flying when I wasn’t away for my summer job — his wasn’t. He worked every weekday. Even when I moved into the condo with him that last winter we were together, we seldom did anything during the week. Dinner and a movie gets old after a while, but not nearly as old as watching him channel surf every evening we didn’t go out. On weekends, he insisted on making the 90-minute drive back to Wickenburg on Friday afternoon, returning with a 90-minute drive back to Phoenix on Sunday evening or Monday morning. I tagged along when I could, but the irony of our work schedules was that I was more likely to fly on weekends than weekdays. Besides, on weekends he’d spend a lot of time catching up on car shows he’d DVRed from Dish Network. Doing something “different” meant taking the same old motorcycle ride up to Prescott. He wouldn’t take his plane out unless the weather was perfect and forecasted to be perfect until after his return.
To make matters worse, he was nearly constantly in a foul mood. His job — like the others in Phoenix before it — had become a dead end, with an unpleasant work environment and a micro-managing boss who made it difficult for him to make the sales he needed to earn a better living. He was struggling financially to not only cover the high cost of the condo he refused to sell, but the loan on his Mercedes, expenses for a plane he seldom flew, his other living expenses, and his regular contributions to his niece’s education, which had entered the PhD candidate phase. He couldn’t see how his debt and expenses had made him a slave to his job. He was never happy and he seemed to take it out on me, accusing me of being the reason “we had no friends,” and complaining when I preferred reading or doing crossword puzzles over spending another frustrating evening in front of the television while he channel surfed.
When that job came to an end in early February and he seemed to have another job lined up behind it, I pushed hard for us to go away for a five-day trip to Death Valley. We’d take the Mobile Mansion, set up camp at one of the park’s campgrounds, and take our cameras out to explore Death Valley. February was the time of year when the wildflowers started blooming. Our previous trip together to Death Valley — way back in the 1980s — had been limited by the rental car we’d had; we’d be able to go a lot farther off the beaten track in a 4WD truck.
I saw the trip as an opportunity to leave troubles behind, to remember the other great trips we’d had together, to go back — at least mentally — to a better time when our relationship was better and our love for each other was stronger. I hoped it would recharge our relationship and bring us closer together again.
Unfortunately, the trip was not to be. His mother was in town — as she was every winter for a month or two — and although we’d put her in a great two-bedroom home that was part of an assisted living community in town, she was at our house every single day and long into the night. For some reason — fear, perhaps? — he didn’t tell her about our upcoming trip. As the days to departure ticked down, I kept waiting for him to tell her. Surely she could live without us for five lousy days.
Lucy, the toothless pug, basking in the morning sun at our Colorado River backwaters campsite. She survived that February 2012 night in the desert by hiding under a neighbor’s porch.
And then the day before we were supposed to leave — the day we should have been packing — he let our dog and my friend Janet’s dog out and later let our dog in without remarking on the absence of the little toothless pug. It was hours before I realized that she was gone, lost in the desert. After spending the entire day looking for her and feeling nearly as heartbroken as Janet about her loss, I snapped. I told him I’d had enough of him and cancelled the trip. The next day, I went down to Phoenix to work on a book in the office I’d ironically moved there to be closer to him.
I cooled down after a week or two and agreed to go with him to a marriage counsellor. And although I thought things were on the mend and looked forward to him starting yet another job that would give him more free time, he apparently had other ideas. When I left in May for my summer job in Washington, he signed up at Chemistry.com. A month later, he was sleeping with the desperate old whore who convinced him to dump me — after a 29-year relationship — and go after my money. He even told the judge at the first hearing that I had abandoned him. (WTF?) You can read about the rest elsewhere in this blog.
Anyway, that’s the back story. I’ve been wanting to visit Death Valley for the spring wildflowers for at least four years. This year, I finally got a chance to make that happen.
(Funny how much I can make happen without a sad sack old man holding me back.)
It wasn’t an uneventful drive.
I left Valley of Fire around 10:30 AM and got on I-15, heading southwest. I was just settling in for the three-hour drive with the cruise control locked in at the highway speed of 65 MPH when I felt a weird vibration in the truck. I got into the right lane and killed the cruise control about the same time the right rear tire on the truck blew.
I’d always wondered what it felt like to have blowout at highway speed when towing a 15,000 pound trailer. Now I know.
I kept control of the truck and managed to bring it to a stop within about 1,000 feet on the narrow shoulder of a very long overpass. Because highway traffic was just three feet away from my door, I lifted the center console and slid across the seat to get out on the shoulder side. The tread on the tire was nearly completely gone. Moving forward to get off the overpass was not an option unless I didn’t mind destroying the rim. The tire would have to be changed right where I was.
For the second time in less than two months, I called AAA.
My damaged mud flap, sitting up on the guardrail with a big hunk of tire tread on the shoulder beside it.
While I waited, I walked back along the highway. I recovered a big chunk of the tire, but more importantly, I also recovered the mudflap that had been torn off when the tire blew. I brought them back to the truck and threw the mudflap into the bed.
A flatbed tow truck arrived an hour later. A guy came out and set about lifting my truck’s rear end with a hydraulic jack and lowering the spare tire fastened under the truck bed. In just a few minutes, the tire was changed. Of course, the spare’s pressure was low, but that wasn’t a problem. The truck had a compressor and the tire was soon inflated and I was ready to go.
Honestly, anyone who travels — especially alone — really should have roadside assistance like AAA. This was the second time it helped me on this trip. And yes, I probably could have changed the tire. But it likely would have taken me hours to do it and the tire pressure still would have been low. I got the job done without getting dirty for the cost of a $20 tip.
While I’d been waiting, I’d been working the phones. I called Discount Tire in northwest Las Vegas — a location that was along my route to Death Valley — and arranged for a set of replacement tires. In all honesty, I never did like the off-road tires that had come with the truck. I just hoped I’d get a year out of them. I obviously wasn’t going to. Best to just replace them all now with an all-terrain tire that was better able to handle the weight I was towing. I wound up with a set of four Toyo Open Country tires. Even with a $100 rebate, it was quite a chunk of change. With luck, however, I won’t have to replace them for at least 5 years.
So my next stop was the Discount Tire location I’d called. There was a long line inside. I was told it might be two hours. I secured my place in line, paid for the tires, and then pulled my rig into an empty lot next door. I disconnected the Mobile Mansion, topped off the truck’s tank with diesel, and parked it back in the lot. Then Penny and I went into the RV and had lunch.
That’s one of the nice things about traveling with a house. The fridge and bathroom are always handy.
It was about 3:30 PM by the time the new tires were on and I’d hooked up the Mobile Mansion again. Sunset was two hours away and it didn’t look as if I’d get to Furnace Creek by then. But I put the pedal to the metal and drove. I got on Route 95 and followed that to Amargosa Valley. Then south on route 373 to Death Valley Junction. Finally 190 west to Furnace Creek. There wasn’t much traffic at all and I was able to do (at least) the speed limit all the way. The new tires felt great — and were amazingly quiet compared to the old ones.
I took the highlighted (blue) route from Valley of Fire to Death Valley.
On the descent down to the valley, the sky to the west, which was full of high, light clouds, turned brilliant pink and orange and then violet. It was probably the best sunset of the trip.
It was nearly dark when I pulled to the curb across from the office for Furnace Creek lodging. I checked in for the campsite I’d have for the next two nights. Then I walked back to the truck and drove it the final half mile to the campground. It was a back-in site between a giant luxury motorhome and some tent campers. I’d never parked the Mobile Mansion at night, but it wasn’t as if I could wait until morning. I set out a lantern on the driver’s side at the back of the site and a flashlight on the driver’s side in the front. And then, with a little guidance from the tent campers, I backed it in.
Got it on the first try. Sometimes I really surprise myself.
Setting up camp was easy because the site was level and there were no hookups. I disconnected the Mobile Mansion from the truck and put out the slides. Done.
The only drawback: that luxury motorhome had a generator running and it was loud. (What is it with these people?) Fortunately, they shut it off at 7 PM sharp.
Dawn at the Dunes
Although I’d hoped to get some exploring in on the afternoon when I arrived, arriving in the dark made that impossible. So I started my explorations early the next morning after a quick breakfast. Penny and I climbed aboard the truck before dawn and headed north toward Stovepipe Wells. I had the idea of photographing the dunes near there around sunrise. Unfortunately, so did a bunch of other people. When I arrived, the parking lot was half full and there were people all over the dunes. Getting a shot without a bunch of footprints or a tourist in it was not likely.
So I backtracked down the road and parked on the shoulder. I climbed into the back of the truck with my tripod and camera and framed a few shots using my 85-300 telephoto zoom lens. The focal length compressed the perspective, as I suspected it would, bringing the distant mountain tops closer. I got a few shots I liked before climbing back into the truck to continue on my way.
Not long after sunrise along the road between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley.
And here’s where I made my mistake. Back in January, I’d had lunch with my friend Rebecca, who had been to Death Valley earlier in the year. She’s showed me some locations on a National Geographic map that I bought and had shipped out to me when I was staying at the Colorado River backwaters south of Ehrenberg. I’d studied the map and had decided to try finding a set of dunes to the west of Ubehebe Crater in the north part of the park. But I guess I hadn’t “studied” the map enough — for some reason, I thought the road through Stovepipe Wells was the right road. It wasn’t until I was at Emigrant Campground that realized something wasn’t quite right and pulled over to check where I was going. I’d gone about 40 miles the wrong way.
Pro tip: Maps can only help you when you use them. Duh. (I should have grabbed one of these maps at the Visitor Center. It’s not as detailed as what I had, but it’s easier to manage in the truck.)
So I came up with a Plan B: explore the west side of the park up Emigrant Canyon Road. The map showed two interesting townsites: Skidoo and Harrisburg. I like wandering around ghost towns and figured I’d check them out.
I headed south on Emigrant Canyon Road, climbing ever higher into the mountains on the west side of the park. Outside, the air was cooler — in the low 40s, according to the truck’s outside air temperature gauge. But it was clear and I knew it would warm up. I found the sign to Skidoo and turned left onto a nicely maintained gravel road. Ahead of me, in the near distance, were two white SUVs and a white pickup truck. Soon, I caught up with them and was driving in their dust. When I saw an old cabin on a short road off to my left, I turned and used it as an excuse to let some miles get between us.
One of the neatest abandoned buildings I’ve ever come upon.
The cabin wasn’t anything interesting other than the fact that it was in remarkably good condition and would still make a very usable shelter. That in itself was remarkable: most unused buildings in this country — especially those in remote places — are targets for vandals who destroy for the pure satisfaction of destruction. There were no signs to keep out so I did what any explorer would do: I opened the screen door and wooden door inside it for a peek. I found an old spring bed frame and some litter inside. No smashed beer bottles, no graffiti, no vandal debris. I carefully closed both doors up the way I found them.
I don’t know why, but I like this image.
In general, the place wasn’t very photogenic. The most interesting shot I got was through a hole in the boards covering the back window: the light shining through cracks on the door. It was the cleanest abandoned building I’d every seen. I hope it stays that way forever.
Yes, I do realize that I probably looked pretty silly driving around Death Valley with two kayaks on my roof.
Penny and I got back into the truck and crossed the road. Soon we were climbing up a hill to an old mine site on the opposite hillside from the cabin. I left Penny in the truck — I don’t like to worry about her falling into mine shafts — and explored on my own. There wasn’t much there that I hadn’t already seen before at countless mine sites in Arizona and Nevada: the support structure beside the main shaft, several smaller horizontal mine shafts going into the hillside, and the remnants of old buildings. The site was neat and clean. Thinking back on this, I have to wonder if the park service or volunteers clean these places up. Or if vandals simply avoid National Parks.
We got back on the road and continued the drive to Skidoo. In most places, the road was wide with gentle curves and a bit of washboarding. In other places it was narrow and rocky as it wound along the edge of a steep drop-off. I passed the ruins of another building on my left and decided to explore it on the way back. I was eager to see Skidoo and wanted to be there before the sun had risen much farther.
Here’s the sign that tells you you’ve arrived at Skidoo. At the top is a quote: “Here the golden goddess is again singing her siren song of enchantment and California is again beckoning the world with a finger of gold: the world is listening, and coming — TO SKIDOO!” Apparently, the Rhyolite Herald was pretty good at dishing out bullshit back in 1907. All I could think about was where did they get their water?
When I got there, I didn’t even know I was there. It was just a flat area among the hills with lots of dirt roads going off into different directions. I drove up to an interpretive sign set alongside a turnoff in the road that announced I’d reached my destination. Wikipedia calls Skidoo a “virtual ghost town” but I don’t see any “virtual” or “town” about it. There’s really nothing of the town left other than foundation rubble and broken glass.
I’ve been doing some video journalling lately and apparently made one from the top of the hill. I didn’t turn toward the sun, probably because I knew the video in that direction would be crappy. I sound nasal because I was fighting a cold and I’m not sure if the snowcapped mountains are the Sierras.
I saw a road going up a steep hillside and decided to check it out. It would be a good test of my new tires. I drove over to the bottom of the hill, popped the truck into 4WD and started a steep climb. There was plenty of room at the top to park and (fortunately) to turn around. So I parked, shut the engine, and climbed out with Penny for a good look. From my vantage point, I could clearly see where the town had been (despite there being no real traces of it), as well as several mine shafts with towers. The two SUVs and pickup truck I’d seen earlier in the day were parked by one of the mines far below me. Off to the northwest, I could see snowcapped peaks.
I could see the white trucks and the men who had been in them near a mine site across the ravine from my observation point. A photo shot with my 300 mm lens revealed the Noreas logos on the SUVs. One of the men was dressed as a ranger and had likely come in the unmarked pickup with the big antenna on the roof.
There wasn’t much left of the truck and what was left was half-buried in mine tailings.
I turned the truck around and headed back, realizing that the road looked a lot steeper from the top than it had from the bottom. I took it slow in 4WD low gear. Then I found my way to another mine site I’d seen from the top of that hill, parked off the road, and got out for a look, again leaving Penny in the truck. What interested me most about this site was the wrecked truck there. For some reason, I like to photograph abandoned vehicles so I really spent quite a bit of time on this one.
I like the textures you can find among old, ruined things: a rusty car door, a wall made out of wood planks.
By then I was pretty sick of Skidoo and ready to skiddoo. (Sorry, but I couldn’t resist that one.) I turned the truck around again and retraced my route back to pavement eight miles away. I did stop along the way to visit that other abandoned building, but there wasn’t much there of interest so I didn’t stay long. Not even worth sharing a photo of it.
Harrisburg / Aguereberry Camp
Back at Emigrant Canyon Road, I had to make a decision: go back into Death Valley and explore elsewhere or continue on my way. I decided to go a little farther down the road to see if anything else was interesting. That’s how I wound up taking the turn to see the ghost town of Harrisburg, which was partially visible from the paved road.
I drove about a mile or two down the unpaved Aguereberry Point Road and parked with two other vehicles in a tiny parking area in front of a closed gate. The folks from the other vehicles were just leaving their cars and walking toward the ruins about a quarter mile away. They had a dog with them, too, so Penny and I hung back to give them space. I’d later discover that they were part of a group of three, two of which were in period costumes for a photo shoot. We were the only people there.
A look through the wall of Pete Aguereberry’s old house.
Although maps identify this spot as Harrisburg, a sign at the ruins called it Aguereberry Camp. The main site consisted of three buildings, an outhouse, and the remains of a mine. Farther up the road I’d walked was the ruins of an old Roadmaster sedan and still farther were the ruins of the Eureka Mine, which I did not visit. (There are only so many mine shafts a person can see in a day.) While the photo shoot folks were working around the car, I explored the buildings. They were in disrepair and vandalized, just as I’d come to expect of ruins, but not nearly as bad as I’d seen at other vandalized sites.
From there, Penny and I hiked another 1/8 mile or so to the old car, passing the photo shoot folks on their way back. The car made a remarkably interesting subject for photography — at least in my mind. The original color, teal (?), could still be seen among the rusty patches. Even the logo of the car was visible in one spot — which is how I knew it was a Roadmaster. I took quite a few shots, many of which featured Aguereberry Camp’s buildings in the background. I even got to play a bit with my 10-24 mm lens, which I seldom use these days.
A wide angle (16 mm or 24mm full frame) shot of the car with Aguereberry Camp in the background.
A very wide angle (10 mm or 15 mm full frame) shot of the car with the buildings visible through the windshield.
We walked back to the building a while later and spent some time chatting with the photo shoot folks. The two models — a man and a woman — had changed back into regular clothes. They were all sitting in the shade, snacking on peanut butter and apples and other tasty treats. They offered me some, but I declined. We talked about Death Valley and photography and they urged me to continue up Aguereberry Point road to the point. “The view is amazing,” the photographer assured me.
Although I felt as if I’d had enough driving along bumpy back roads for the day, I’m not one to pass up a view — especially one that isn’t crowded with tourists. So when I left the photo shoot folks, I continued along the road.
Aguereberry Point was only about six miles from pavement, but much of the road was very narrow for most of the way. There was a section that it wound through a narrow canyon that I could imagine being treacherous in a rainstorm. Then it came out onto a hillside and continued climbing out in the open. Up and up and up, finally ending in a small parking lot that looked as if it were at the top of the world. Penny and I were the only ones there.
The view was good from the parking lot, but the photographer had advised me to take the trail to the point. After walking (and climbing) a bit on the wrong trail, I got on the right one and followed it as far as I could go. The view of Death Valley was unobstructed to the northeast and southeast, with a mountain due east that blocked the view that way. At an elevation of 6,433 feet, we were at least that high above the valley floor, much of which is below sea level. It was dead quiet.
Photos really can’t convey the full picture of what this place is like, but here’s a panoramic image to give you an idea. Was it worth the drive? Hell yes.
Here’s a panorama taken at the point. Click the image for a larger version that you can scroll to see details.
Ravens like dog food. Who knew?
I walked back to the car and put out some food and water for Penny. A young couple drove up and parked next to the truck. As they donned backpacks, we chatted about places to visit in the park. I had nothing to offer except a recommendation to skip the drive to Skidoo. They told me that the wildflowers were amazing down near Ashford Canyon, where they’d camped overnight. Then they were off down the trail, leaving me to chase off the ravens that were eating Penny’s food.
From there, I retraced our route back to pavement and, from there, back down into Death Valley. We passed through Stovepipe Wells and headed toward Furnace Creek. That’s when I noticed the wildflowers I’d missed that morning on my predawn drive. The roadsides were full of them. I didn’t realize it, but Death Valley was heading for a once-a-decade “super bloom.”
I thought there were a lot of flowers here, north of Furnace Creek. But this was nothing compared to what was about 50 miles down the road.
After a brief stop to check out the desert pupfish at Salt Creek, I continued past Furnace Creek on Badwater Road. I was back among the tourist crowd, with lots of cars and buses along the way, especially at Badwater, which is the lowest point in the U.S. at 282 feet below sea level. There were lots of people walking out on the salt flats there, but I didn’t bother to stop. I was aiming for Ashford Canyon, where the young backpackers had said there were so many flowers. The further south I got, however, the more flowers there were. People were parked alongside the road where the flowers were thickest, taking photos and walking among the bright yellow blooms. I couldn’t resist a few stops myself, although I knew I’d get better shots when the sun was lower in the sky.
The light wasn’t as good as it could have been, but I couldn’t resist stopping for a few photos along the way to Ashford Canyon.
I was also surprised to see standing water in various places alongside the road. I’d heard that there had been a lot of rain in Death Valley that fall, but I’d assumed the water had run off or seeped into the ground. Instead, there were a few dry lake beds that weren’t exactly dry. Some were almost swampy. Although I hoped for an opportunity to get some good reflection shots, conditions were unfavorable; a breeze put just enough ripples on the water surface to break up any good reflections.
Desert gold wildflowers at Ashford Mills.
I arrived at the remains of Ashford Mills after 4:30 PM. The same big yellow flowers — appropriately named “desert gold” — I’d been seeing along the way were scattered all around the ruins. I wandered around the ruins and took photos while Penny sniffed here and there. It was amazing to see hills in the distance yellow with blooms.
Here are several close-up shots of some of the smaller flowers I spotted while wandering around.
There were also some smaller flowers that were less obvious and required careful attention to spot. I did a lot of crawling around with my 16-85 mm lens — I don’t have a macro lens — to get close-up images of them. The group of four people sitting out at a picnic table near the parking lot, eating a late lunch or early dinner, must have thought I was nuts. I was really getting into it.
The turn for Ashford Canyon was right across the road from the road to Ashford Mills. It was a narrow two-track road that wound up a hillside and then into the canyon. The young backpackers had said the flowers were good up there, but as I began the slow bumpy drive I began wondering whether they meant that the flowers were good in that general area. They certainly were amazing. I drove for about a mile when I realized it wasn’t going to get any better than what I was already seeing. I found a place to turn around and started back.
By this time, the sun was sinking quite low. Mountains on the west side of the park would make sunset a lot earlier than I expected after consulting Siri that morning. (Ask Siri what time sunrise or sunset is and she’ll tell you and provide a weather report.) I wanted to head back for a late afternoon shot of a particularly flower-filled area along the road. So I headed back toward Badwater and Furnace Creek. I reached the location I was thinking of just as the light was getting very good and got out to take a few photos.
The carpet of yellow flowers is a stark contrast to the bare rock walls on either side of Death Valley.
Leaving the Valley
By the time I was ready to go back, the hillsides were in shadow. It was dusk when I pulled up to the Mobile Mansion.
If you’re wondering why I bothered to give you the backstory at the beginning of this post it’s because of this: While I drove and hiked around and explored and photographed Death Valley with my dog, I spent a lot of time thinking of what the trip might have been like four years earlier with the man I thought was my life partner. With five days to spend in the park, we would have seen a lot more. But would the trip together have gone as smoothly as I’d hoped? Or would he have been stressing about his mother left behind? And would the trip have been a repeat of all those amazing road trips we’d taken together in the 1980s and 1990s? Or would we have bickered over every little thing we did?
I know now, in my heart, that our relationship was like the walking dead — existing with no life, no future. In February of 2012, I wanted to go back to the way things were when our relationship was good and strong, when we were two people of one mind who shared ideas and dreams. But he had already given up and was just biding his time, waiting for his escape. I loved and trusted him too much to see the truth about what he’d become: a bitter old man, blaming me for his failures in life, eager to take revenge on imagined offenses.
Although my trip had been short — too short, I think! — it had been taken on my terms, without pressure or a need to compromise. I’ve been traveling alone since long before my 19-day “midlife crisis road trip” back in 2005. While it’s nice to travel with a companion, good travel companions are hard to come by. I lost mine years ago, many years before my divorce. While I’m sad that he’s gone, there’s no denying how much better off I am without him.
Although I’d considered doing a little early morning photography the next day, I realized that the locations I wanted to visit were too far away to get there and back and still leave the park by 10 AM. It would be better to come back another time, when I had more time to spend. My next stop was in the Sacramento area of California, where I’d be based with the helicopter for a frost contract. It was a six-hour drive and I looked forward to seeing a few friends when I arrived. Wednesday would be my travel day and Thursday would be a day to kick back and relax before taking Alaska Air home to fetch the helicopter.
To minimize the noise I’d make on departure the next morning — keeping in mind that my tent-dwelling neighbors would hear every sound I made — I decided to hook up the Mobile Mansion that evening. So I cranked down the landing gear, backed the truck into place, and lowered the front end of the Mobile Mansion onto the hitch. Within a few minutes, the chains and power plug were in place and the landing gear was up and locked. All I had to do in the morning when I was ready to go was to close up the slides.
I had a nice salad for dinner. I tried hard to ignore the sound of the generator next door. I don’t understand how I can camp day after day in my rig without running a generator when these people in their fancy motorhomes can’t seem to spend any time in theirs without their generator running full-time. Fortunately, they turned it off at 7 PM sharp.
After dinner and a quick clean up, I relaxed in bed with a book. Penny curled up in her bed beside me. I was dead asleep by 9 PM.
In the morning, we were on the road by 7 AM, heading west on the road past Stovepipe Wells toward Panamint Springs. That drive didn’t go anywhere near as planned — but that’s another story.