Friday, September 12, 2008

Day 42: Out of Fire and Death, into the City of Angels

As darkness fell over Death Valley, I was beginning the journey from the south edge towards my campground. When I say darkness, I really should note that it was never total. The moon was out, and just over half full, which cast an eerie glow over everything; and the lightning storms, which had yet to let up, continually flashed in front and behind me.

Like most National Parks, Death Valley has an entrance fee to drive through. However, unlike most other parks, there was no range booth on the edge of the park from the direction I came. Rather, you were required to stop at one of the kiosks along the route and purchase a pass from an automated machine. I finally arrived at the first of these machines nearly an hour after turning from the highway. Up until this point, I had yet to leave the confines of my car inside of the valley; I had no idea what to expect from the atmosphere. I arrived at the completely unlit Bad Water kiosk and parked my car so that my headlights could provide illumination. I refrained from turning off the engine, however; I didn't anticipate a long stay.

I opened the car door, and was immediately hit with a blast of 106 degree wind. The storms raging around the mountains were causing a ferocious wind to gust from more than one direction, blowing sand and hot air into my face in an unpredictable manor. I ran over to the ticket kiosk, quickly read the instructions, inserted my $20, and waited for my pass to print. Suddenly, an enormous gust came blowing down from the north, hurling dirt and dust at me. In order to save my poor contacts from further abuse, I turned my back and hunched over to shield myself. At that exact moment, my ticket finished printing and before I could react was blown from the machine and off into the rocky bed below the parking lot. I stood there for a few seconds, trying to comprehend what had just happened. The little piece of paper, which had cost me $20, had just gone flying off into the dark unknown, on the back of a gust of wind which probably measured 40 or 50 mph.

You have got to be kidding me, I said out loud. You have got to be freaking kidding.

I snapped out of my intense disbelief and ran to my car to get a flashlight. I went around the back of the pit toilets (which smelled horrendous, let me tell you what; just imagine the effect of all that waste sitting in 115 degree heat all day, and then having the stench blown at you in hot waves; not pleasant), and began searching frantically for my little receipt. Winding my hand crank flashlight, furiously trying to increase its area of illumination, I continued my futile searched for about 5 minutes. Every now and then, I would stop and listen, hoping to catch the sound of rustling paper. Unfortunately, I had to give up. The wind could have carried it any of at least 5 directions, and by this time far away. I would have to just pony up the cash and buy another one.

This time, I covered the opening with my hand while waiting.

I got back in my car and blasted the A/C for a good 5 minutes cooling off. I eventually arrived at the main village in Death Valley, Indian Village (over 70 miles from the entrance). Luckily, they had a gas station so I could stop worrying so much about saving fuel to be able to leave in the morning. My campground (and the only one in the park open at this time of year) was just up the road and had the charming name of Furnace Creek.

I pulled in, paid my camping fee (again making sure to place my hand over the opening to prevent losing another $12), and began driving around looking for a decent camp site. Furnace Creek is quite large with over 100 campsites, although many of them are place right next to one another in typical "camping out of a car" fashion. I finally settled on one far enough away from others, with a decent view of the eastern mountain range and thunderstorm still in progress.

What followed was an exercise in frustration as I attempted to set up my tent in high winds, while being blinded by sand being thrown into my eyes. When I finally was able to get the tent up (using rocks on each of the corners to weigh it down), a sudden gust of wind essentially turned it into a big kite. For a few minutes, I desperately held on as the tent rose about six feet into the air and pulled me forward. I prayed the straps holding the posts wouldn't rip from their stitching, or that the posts themselves wouldn't break. Finally, I wrestled the tent to the ground and was able to sit on it, preventing it from becoming airborne again. I sat there contemplating my next move. I took the tent apart, shoved it back into my car, and gave my eyes much needed rest and lubrication.

My next idea was again to weigh down the tent as I erected it, but this time from within rather than without. The theory was that once the poles had been connected, the weight would still be inside the tent holding it down and it wouldn't lose anchor like it previously had. I rummaged through my trunk, searching for items to use as ballast. While still in my backseat, I stuff the tent with anything I could find with substantial weight. With faith in myself, I brought it back out to try again.

This is how I lost my tripod, shovel, sleeping bag, pillow, sleeping mat, and extra blanket all at once.

Just kidding. It actually ended up working out fairly well (especially when I used four large rocks to anchor each of the corners inside). I finally set the tent up, threw my water bottle inside, and dove in to escape the pelting winds. After setting up my sleeping arrangements, I stripped down to my boxers and laid on top of it all. The temperature was still over 100, and my gallon of water was quickly running low. Between tent cave-ins, lightning flashes, and the oppressive heat, I spent the longest night of my trip. Oh, and my rudimentary fixes for my leaking sleeping mat failed.

Death Valley 2, Colin 1
I arose just before sunrise to the proverbial calm after the storm. The sky was mostly clear, the wind gone, and even the heat was down to an acceptable 85 or so. I packed up my belongings, got dressed, watched the sun rise, and headed back into the village for overpriced breakfast buffet.

I left Death Valley partially conquered, but partially victorious.

For most of the rest of Tuesday, I crossed the barren wasteland that is south-eastern California. After hours on the road, I descended the San Bernardino mountains and into the smog filled valley. For those who haven't driven into LA by car, the change is very visible; a think layer of brown haze permeates the view into the distance. My first stop in LA was to be with a friend from Santa Cruz, Laura Kim; I'd be staying with her for a few days and getting exposed to some lesser seen parts of life in the Valley. I arrived in Pasadena around 2pm, which meant I had a few hours to kill before she got off work. I bummed around, bought a CD from a used record store, and settled down in a coffee shop to read a local news paper.

That night, we met up with two of Laura's friends for happy hour at Bar Celona, a fairly fancy bar in old town Pasadena. The happy hour menu consisted of a selection of food items such as shrimp, buffalo wings, meatballs, and other such finger food for $5 each. Not too bad, we thought. That's when we found out that for $5, you get four meatballs, or four shrimp, or four wings. We ate a couple of plates between us, drank down some pints, and headed over to King Taco for more substantial food. Another bar (where they had Stone IPA on tap!), then some delicious frozen yogurt from a self-serve yogurt bar. This place was very interesting; you chose the size of dish you want, pour as much yogurt of varying flavors, then top with fresh fruit! Very tasty and in fact quite healthy. I imagine places like this will begin popping up in Portland within a year or two (behind LA as we usually are in these kinds of things).

Wednesday morning, I got up around 9am so I could navigate the interstate traffic down to Disneyland to meet up with my sister Kirsten and her daughter Natalie, as well as her friend Kari and her son Rowan, who just so happened to be vacationing at the same time I arrived in the area. Talk about good timing. Amazingly, the park wasn't all that busy (being after Labor Day, and the middle of the week); we never had to wait more than 5 or 10 minutes for even the busiest rides.

Contemplating my situation.
I spent the day with them wandering around the park, getting shown around Minnie Mouse's house by Natalie, and getting completely saturated on Splash Mountain. In reference to that last point, let me tell you, I think the ride seater was conspiring against Kirsten and myself, as he sat us in the front (myself in the very front), with a smaller child behind. We obviously weighed down the nose of the boat, so any and all declines caused the nose to dip lower than usual into the water, resulting in more pronounced waves invading the sides. I was soaked before we even went down the last drop. I thought about how best to shield my poor backpack (with camera inside) while plunging down the last free fall. Good thing it was a nice day (although I still didn't dry off before going to bed that night).

We parted ways in the evening and I headed back to North Hollywood to meet up with Laura and Meghan, another friend from Santa Cruz. I met them at Porto's, a delicious bakery restaurant and ate some leftover scraps of food they had ordered (well more than scraps really, but that's what it felt like; I had a good portion of a beef sandwich, two potato balls, and half of a cheese and jam filled danish thing). That night, the three of us went bowling at an amazingly hip and "indie" kind of bowling alley. With complete modesty, I can say that Moobs dominated. Okay, dominated is a bit of a strong word, and in fact quite incorrect. But we had fun.

Thursday rolled around, and set in motion events that would culminate in an amazing trip to a Korean karaoke establishment...

Beard status: getting quite full and fluffy. White hairs becoming more pronounced, though.
Total trip miles: 11652. Unbelievable.
Listening to recently:
Eye Alaska - Yellow & Elephant


Cate said...

You've been teasing us with what happened in karaoke for two blogs now! I must know!


p.s. Were you scared of bears or wild things while camping?

g said...

wow dude, death valley... that is some hardcore business. i am impressed that you toughed out the night though... i doubt very many people venture to death valley for fun, you are one of the few. if fun is the right word, anyway.

John and Dianne said...

I was about Natalie's age when I went to Disneyland the very first day it opened to the public. It was still under construction. My only real memory of that day was watching the cartoonists draw pictures of Mickey and Donald. My dad took "movies". It was unproved and a business gamble at that time. CA was a true paradise. (Dianne)

matt said...

I love you expression in that picture! I want to go back to DL some time. we should all plan a trip when Calli is old enough.

death Vally sounds very interesting. I don't think I could take the heat though.