Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Good Life in Death Valley

I'm sitting in front of my computer today in a little sunstroke-induced daze after our four days in Death Valley.

Death Valley is a huge national park tucked between the Sierra Nevada mountains and the state of Nevada, about 530 miles from San Francisco. We planned to leave early Thursday morning, but it was 10 a.m. before we were all tucked into the Honda Fit and backing out of the garage. We were feeling pretty good about our frenzied, last-minute preparations until we passed Livermore on 580 and realized that we'd forgotten Benny's suitcase.

It was an odd time for a vacation, I know. This four-day weekend was provided courtesy of the San Francisco Unified School District. Thursday was the Lunar New Year and Friday was a Furlough Day — otherwise known as We Can't Afford To Educate Your Kid Today day.

So we decided to drive our Fit, which has logged only 2,000 miles since we acquired it in August, to Death Valley and see what the hottest, driest and lowest place in North America looks like. It looks like this (click to enlarge):


We made good time and stopped at a Bakersfield Target to buy groceries and clothes for Benny. But long hours in the car is tough on a kid and he had a major meltdown when we wouldn't buy him a pack of 24 Pokemon cards to go with the 230 cards he received for his birthday. We left Bakersfield with Benny red-faced and hiccuping in the backseat, announcing that he hated vacations.

View from Dante's Peak

After a peanut butter sandwich for dinner and a bathroom break on the side of a lonely highway, Benny fell asleep. We drove up the Panamint Valley toward the park and started climbing the Panamint Range to enter the desert valley. It was nearly pitch black as we climbed the looping narrow road. We couldn't see past the guardrails and I kept picturing a yawning abyss just inches away. There were hardly any other cars, so it was just us, the stars and dim shadows of mountains. Finally the road began to drop steadily and wind less and we drove through tiny settlements to Stovepipe Wells Village, checking in at about 9 p.m.

The morning, however, was glorious. A perfectly flat valley, 150 miles long, ringed by a wall of mountains up to 11,000 feet. Snow-topped Telescope Peak brooded to the south. We piled back into the car and drove to the nearby sand dunes, 14 miles of soft beachlike sand. Benny ran about and played Pokemon Chicken (don't ask). It was climbing to a high of 72, and the weather remained that mild for the entire trip. But the sun was still relentless and the air was bone dry — I spent the trip under a Death Valley baseball cap and covered in layers of lotion, sunblock and aloe chapstick.

Sand Dunes

But we didn't have all day to play Pokemon Chicken in the sand dunes. I had a List. Fans of the Elizabeth Peters novel "Crocodile on the Sandbank" might find my List familiar. In that novel, the 19-century heroine has hired a boat to cruise down the Nile, looking at the tombs. Most tourists simply rode straight along the river, visiting tombs along the way. The heroine wanted to visit the tombs in chronological order, which meant drifting down to one tomb, then forcing the locals to row her back upstream to the next, then back up to the next, then drift down to ... well, you get it. All so she could see 3rd Dynasty Old Kingdom tombs before the New Kingdom tomb of Tutmosis III.

Well, Amelia Peabody lived on in my List. There were 18 stops, from Precambrian to the Quaternary, and this meant starting with Badwater's 1.7 billion-year-old gneiss to the south and then dashing north to Titus Canyon's 500 million-year-old limestones. Let's just say that the sand dunes were not exactly first on my list, being very recent features. Benny hopped out of the Fit, shouting "The sand dunes! They're number 12 on Mommy's list, but we're gonna see them now!" A nearby retired couple heard him and cracked up.

We stopped at Furnace Creek, the central settlement in Death Valley, for lunch, where Benny found a map of the United States in the gift shop. This map's drawings of all the major buildings, monuments and features in the country captivated Benny and he spent the rest of the day hidden behind it, like a 1950s husband behind his newspaper at breakfast. Whenever I tried to point out a particularly fetching alluvial fan, Benny would just grunt.

He did like Badwater, though, elevation 282 feet below sea level. Death Valley is very conscientious about keeping tourist updated about their elevation. Unless one lives in the Himalayas, a person's current elevation isn't something to be constantly checked. In Death Valley, though, green signs constantly update drivers on their elevation. "Oh look," I'd say. "We just gained another hundred feet." Yawn.

Badwater's contorted, ancient rocks

Still, it is kind of cool to stand in a sun-baked salt pan below sea level and look at the ancient, contorted, metamorphasized Black Mountains. Then we drove back to the hotel, where Ron, worn out from three crazy days of writing an entire biotech section, followed by an 11-hour drive, collapsed on the bed. So I took Benny to Mosaic Canyon, No. 2 on my list.

The history-minded might remember how Queen Marie Antoinette had a little pretend farm near Versailles, where she and her ladies could milk the cows with porcelain pails engraved with her initials. Well, if Marie Antoinette had suddenly decided she wanted to hike a canyon, she would have commissioned a Mosaic Canyon. Running water cut into a mountain made of Precambrian limestone and dolomite created when Death Valley was a tropical sea. The rock was transformed into marble, and the rocks and debris washed down the crack polished the marble to a smooth sheen. It was stunningly beautiful. Benny was in heaven, sliding down the smooth marble slopes on his butt.

Mosaic Canyon

After we woke Ron up and got some dinner into him, we headed back out to the sand dunes. One thing about traveling in February is that (and I can't be the first one to have noticed this) the days are short. By 5 p.m., any sightseeing is pretty much done. So by 7 p.m. it was dark enough for stargazing.

It was an amazing show, all the twinkling, flashing and shooting stars. The Milky Way banded the moonless sky and smudgy nebulae were scattered among the constellations.

Benny tore his shoe wide open on a rock, so the next day we stopped at Stovepipe Wells' general store to buy duct tape. I wound half a roll around his shoe and after he wallowed in some desert dust, it blended right in. Then we headed to No. 3, Titus Canyon a narrow slash in the mountains and impressive in a gosh-am-I-in-a-Hollywood-Western kind of way. After that, we departed from my list to check out Ubehebe Crater. The mile-wide crater was formed by an explosive basalt volcano, so the surrounding area was covered with black, volcanic debris, which clashed with the brown stripes in the crater itself.

Ubehebe Crater

We were standing around looking at a crater when suddenly a loud, jet-engine kind of rumble exploded behind us. Another eruption? No, merely a giant tour bus, stuffed with retired Asian tourists, who swarmed out, the women with big hats and the men in big cameras. They covered the area like locusts, snapping pictures of everything in their path as the tour bus idled and belched exhaust. We fled to the car to eat lunch. Then after 10 minutes, like there was some sort of silent signal, all 400 of them raced back to the bus. (And I mean raced, it was like the bus was going to leave without them and they'd have to hike to Las Vegas or something.) The bus' engine exploded into action, rumbled down the slope and disappeared.

Time to get back on the List again. We drove south to Dante's Peak, a splendid overview of the Valley, first stopping at Furnace Creek again. There we bought Benny another map (this one of the world) and saw our only wildlife at Death Valley — a road runner in front of a phone booth at the gas station.

View from Dante's Peak

We turned in early that night, because the next day we were driving home and Ron and Benny wanted to catch part of the Super Bowl. And by now we were a little tired of the bleak, brown desert. I just wanted to see a tree. We headed down the Panamint Valley again, passing a series of depressed, rusted-out little towns. One town was particularly desolate and its only remarkable feature was a big gleaming high school. "Why is it so messy here, Mommy?" Benny asked. Ron and I could only guess that the mining jobs that created the town had disappeared, leaving only boarded up buildings and hundreds of high-schoolers to educate.

I'm proud to say we arrived home for the second half of the Super Bowl and Benny and Ron cheered on the Packers while I lay in the bedroom and streamed "The Tudors" on NetFlix. I did emerge for the last quarter, however. Great game. Groupon mortally offended Ron with its "Too bad for Tibet, but hey they make great fish curry" ad and he emailed him and wrote a blog about it. Groupon, of course, is offended that anyone could be such a dip as to be offended.

So here we are home again, where we learned that while we were enjoying 72-degree days in Death Valley, it was 80 degrees in San Francisco. Apparently we went to the desert to escape the San Francisco heat. Go figure. We will definitely return to Death Valley, if for no other reason than that I have 12 more stops on my List.