Las Vegas, NV to Death Valley National Park to Ridgecrest, CA
17.03.2016 - 18.03.2016
I practically drowned myself in caffeine this morning and swallowed maybe a few too many Tylenol in hopes it would kill my hangover (it didn't). Running on almost no sleep and exhausted from a night in Vegas, I felt as dried up as the desert landscape around me as I bitterly pointed the car towards the most lifeless and barren part of the country.
The roads that cut through the empty terrain were endlessly long and straight, something you'd see in an expensive car commercial. Too bad I was driving a Kia Rio! Then, I blinked and we were suddenly surrounded by thousands of bright yellow wildflowers stretching on for miles. Knowing this would be the last time we'd probably see plant life for the rest of the day, we dove out of the car and literally frolicked in the field of flowers. We even plucked some to decorate the dashboard and mirrors of the car.
On the way back to the car, we noticed the pickup truck that was in front of us had pulled over as well, and the driver was walking towards us. We panicked briefly since we hadn't seen any other cars for an hour and we didn't have cell signal. It'd be a bad time to come across someone dangerous. Fortunately, the man ended up being ridiculously friendly, and asked us for a ride back to his house which was just a few miles down the road. After some difficulty making a spot for him in the cluttered backseat, we set out on an adventure to explore the only town for hundreds of miles. Our hitchhiker explained that he had grown up in the tiny town, and we were surprised to find that he loved the place so much he came back to stay after an attempt to get out and see the world a bit more. The town didn't even have a gas station or grocery store, but he managed to make the simple life I've always avoided seem desirable after our quick conversation.
Then we left our flower fields behind and entered the park. Death Valley is enormous (an area of roughly 3000 square miles) and I already hated every inch of it. I think the car agreed, since we ran low on gas literally hundreds of miles from the next station on route. Unsure if AAA would rescue us in the middle of the desert, we didn't take the risk and ended up driving 45min in the opposite direction to fill up our tank. We made sure to photograph a gorgeous hotel on the way out (too bad the location probably isn't great for business).
Back on route and a couple more hours of uneventful driving later, we pulled over at a viewing spot to check out the scenery and stretch our legs. Our bodies must have been in shock, since just a few days after traveling through the mountains of Colorado 11,000 high, we were now walking along the lowest point in North America: Death Valley's "Badwater Basin," 282 feet below sea level.
And it wasn't just an enormous change in altitude that was shocking, the completely flat, salt-coated terrain stretched on for miles with not even a single tree interrupting the vast emptiness. We found out that the salts coating the land were highly toxic, explaining why nothing could grow there. I'd never seen a more lifeless place (and likely never will).
It was a sweltering 90 degrees, much too hot to make the several mile hike out to the next viewing spot (and honestly, what could really be there except a slightly different view of the same vast emptiness?) Instead, we justified our early departure from the infamous spot by using the remaining daylight hours to take a scenic drive.
We were glad to find another scenic viewpoint along the way, the best vantage point to check out a strange grouping of pastel-colored hills known as the Artist's Palette. This was also the very same place R2D2 famously sped across on his way to find Ben Kenobi's hut in Star Wars: A New Hope. In fact, much of A New Hope and Return of the Jedi were shot in Death Valley, evidently the closest thing we have on Earth to the fictional desert planet, Tatooine. After realizing this, I spent the rest of the day on the lookout for other parts of the desert that may have been featured in the films. Everything about this place definitely had an alien, other-worldly feel.
We passed a sign for winding roads ahead and thought nothing of it as we approached the one way path that vanished among the sandy hills. It ended up being one of the strangest drives I've ever taken that swerved and dipped through surreal scenery straight out of a science fiction film. The cellphone video below is a poor demonstration of the experience, but shows how tight the space was as we drove through.
After that wild ride, we got back on the main road towards the ghost town called Rhyolite at the edge of the park. We originally planned to camp here for the night, but were disappointed to find out that the ghost town was protected as a historical site and didn't allow overnight visitors. Nevertheless, we spent a long time exploring the crumbling town.
Amidst the rubble stood one fully preserved piece of history, a beautiful hut made entirely out of empty liquor bottles. This oddity was a welcome escape from a day of abandoned and lifeless landscapes. Even better, the area surrounding it was at a high enough elevation to allow for some welcome but equally bizarre flora: Joshua trees.
On our way out of Rhyolite, we noted some strange figures posed unmoving along the horizon. Intrigued, we went to see what was going on. When we pulled up, I realized they weren't people at all but strange statues meant to look like sheets covering human figures, but with no person underneath. As a scary movie fanatic, I recognized these creepy figures as the type of things that would come alive and partake in haunting visitors when night fell. Even after posing with one, I was was on alert and refused to keep my eyes off the things for too long.
Visible from the sheet statues was a strange cubism statue of a naked blonde woman posed on her knees. Even with a degree in the arts, I have no idea what this art piece was supposed to represent. I still photographed it though, because otherwise I don't think anyone would believe me when I said I found a pixelated naked woman statue in the middle of Death Valley.
The sun was setting and we made our way out of the park in hopes of finding a decent meal at one of the few towns along the park border. The landscape was admittedly beautiful as the sun dropped lower in the sky, even though I was still bitter about the place. However, with camera batteries low and stomachs empty, we only paused for a moment to snap photos of the washed out terrain temporarily painted a vivid and warm gold by the setting sun.
We luckily came across a family diner not too far away. While there, we gulped down water like we hadn't drank for days and I've never been more excited to see a restroom with running water. It was already dark out when we paid for our sandwiches and departed. Then, much to my exhausted body's dismay, Tian decided this would be a great opportunity for some astrophotography. Since the route to our motel in California took us back through the park, I agreed to stop briefly on the way for a couple pictures. Unfortunately for me, my less tired friend had the map and she instead led me on a wild adventure back to the same salt flats we had visited earlier today.
Tian wanted to make the long hike out to the viewing spot we'd skipped, but I knew I wouldn't be able to handle it on so little sleep. Luckily, another visitor came by with the same goal in mind, and the pair went off on an astrophotography adventure through the salt flats while I desperately waited in the dark car, in the creepiest spot in the nation, with no cell service. I don't think she realized how badly I wanted to leave, and ended up spending an hour and a half capturing the night sky with her fellow photographer. Her pictures actually turned out beautifully (I'll attach a link when she's done editing them) and I admit there's a part of me that regrets not making the hike. But as soon as she returned, my paranoia from waiting alone in the dark began to seep into her more comfortable state of mind until we were both terrified and desperate to get out of the park. It didn't help even with the brights on, we couldn't see more than a few feet ahead in any direction. The absolute darkness surrounding us only fed our fear. After a couple hours imagining all sorts of horrendous scenarios involving monsters and/or dangerous hitchhikers, we literally swerved into the parking lot that held salvation. It was past 4am.
Today was the first day my entire trip that I didn't end by saying "best day yet!"
At least I can check the park off my bucket list (and never come back).