It is said there is a point where the rubber meets the road. Well, what happens when the rubber has no more road to meet? Well, let me tell you my friends, there is a place there the road or at least the tarmac ends. That place is right by the dry bed of Panamint Springs in Death Valley, CA. Let me share my discovery with you, I will do this by telling you I got to this point. By the way, have you ever wondered why it is called Death Valley? I am sure most of us assume it is called so because it is a desolate place and one where you can imagine dying if you were to get caught out there on a bad or get lost there. Well, if you are thinking like me, you are not far from wrong. Apparently, Death Valley got it's name back in 1850 from a group of pioneers that got lost here in the winter of 1849-1850. While it seems only one of the group actually died there, at the time they all assumed that this valley would be their grave.
Let's talk about my own Death Valley experience and story. I was headed west towards California, the Pacific Ocean and home. I had enjoyed my rest stop in Las Vegas and it was time to head further west. Many times when I had visited Las Vegas in the past I would head to Vegas via US Highway 15. I would pass by the signs that directed you to Death Valley. A lot of us have heard about it at one time or the other and for me, I was always curious to find out just what it was all about. I remember an episode of Top Gear when Jeremy, Richard and James drove through there. It was described by them as a dry, hot and pretty much desolate area. I tell you what, they weren't straying from the truth there.
So... my plan for the day as I left Las Vegas was to head to California through Death Valley. It was of course the height of summer, temperatures were boiling hot and that day, the temperature in Las Vegas was already 90° plus by the time I was leaving. I left Las Vegas and started making my way into Death Valley. Even from the outskirts of the Valley or the National Park itself, you already got an impression of what to expect. It was already hotter than all heck, so that expectation was already met. Then there were the truly impressive mountain ranges and sand and dust. The topography really does grab the eye. It is majestic and very picturesque - however you are left wondering what early settlers must have thought when they got here on their way to the West and how many poor souls lay buried under the surface with their horses and such.
To get to Death Valley, you drive through the dusty town of Pahrump, NV. You take US Highway 15 and then Highway 160 to get to Pahrump, from there you turn left at Bell Vista Road and make your way to CA 127. From there, Death Valley is all yours to see. When I first got to Pahrump, there were quite a few cars on the road. However, as you head deeper into the valley, car sightings become more spaced out. There were times you seemed to be the only car on the road. I remember being amazed and impressed that anyone actually came out to this desolate area to build some pretty darn smooth roads.
As I made my way to Death Valley, I reached Death Valley Junction and the Amargosa Opera House. I have to say, it was quite a fascinating sight. In the blowing dust and stifling heat, you would be forgiven for thinking it was just an abandoned building out in nowhere. However, they had have performances there as recently as May of 2016. And if I am correct, it is still fully functional. You can go check out more details about the Amargosa Opera House on the good ole interwebs. That day, I was not stopping to see any performances - not that there were any at the time. I made a quick right and then left turn on to CA 127 and continued on my fair way into Death Valley.
CA 127 from Death Valley Junction is a lead footed petrol head's dream! Long straights stretched out ahead of you as well as gently banking turns left and right. It takes a fair amount of restraint to not just plant your right foot into the floor and let it rip. You hear that Jeremy??? Temperatures were high, the A/C was on high to match and the car was singing joyfully and I was heading into a place that had the lowest recorded point in America. And I had no thoughts of getting lost out there - there were roads, maps and for that moment my GPS was working just fine. Clutch in, match revs, shift up to over drive, plant right foot (almost completely) and let her rip...... a little bit :-)
Apart from the mountain ranges, tons of sand and huge sand dunes. I really want to tell you there was a lot to see as I drove through the desert. Nope! Not so much. Maybe if I stopped like your normal tourists were doing.... I'd get to see more. Sadly, this fellow was on a mission to get through Death Valley.... so I was literally driving through. However, let me not dismiss this place. It is a sight to behold and to experience.
I eventually started making my way towards the Panamint Mountains and the dry lake bed there. I came to a point where I could make a left turn which would save me about an hour's drive or keeping heading straight on the previously planned route. It was at this point that I realized my GPS no longer had a signal. Heck! My phone no longer had a signal period! I was going strictly by the previously save route on the screen. This was that paradoxical moment for me where the downside of the modern age and technology had caught up with me and I was paying the price for our current dependence on it while leaving basic old school, hands on skills behind. Now listen up Millennials! I know you are changing the world with incredible advancements in technology and pushing the envelope and all that - that's all good and well. However, when even your fully charged Tesla S and it's incredible technology can't save you from getting lost (because you got signal Nigel), then you better have a good old paper map on you like the ones they still give free at AAA and you better know how to read it. Guess what this wannabe new age techno guru did not have with him!
Remember that story of guys lost out here in 1850? Well, as the story goes, the survivors were saved by an able chap who happened to have learned Boy Scout skills - yep, you heard me - Boy Scout skills. This means he was probably able to read maps, could tell the Sun Rises in the East and all that, and got them out of there!
Anyway... at this juncture (how prophetic does that sound aye?), the adventurer in me decided to turn left and head out into the unknown. Hopefully, this would not end up being my own sole 5 year mission to explore strange new places and seek out new civilizations and life forms. To start with, there weren't a whole lot of life forms out there.... save for silly little me of course. So, there I was, making my left turn off the CA 127 onto what I believe is the CA 190. It is an actual numbered highway. Everything seemed pretty normal, other than the fact that the frequency of cars going the opposite direction became more far and and few between. In fact, I daresay I drove about at least 20 minutes or so without seeing another single car, other than the one that was about 1/4 mile behind. Wonder if the driver had followed my lead.
I finally got to the point where the road ended at a T-Junction. There was no way to make anything other than a Right turn. Even though it was a T junction, the road heading to the left was blocked - probably as a humane gesture as there was nothing but miserably looking dessert that way. I turned right and noticed there was a sign saying ROAD WORK - someone had jokingly add NO at the top so it read NO ROAD WORK. I thought it was funny at the time, maybe a play on how long so called road construction sometimes take. Oh Boy was I wrong!
Almost as soon as you turn right and pass that sign, the road ends! I don't mean tapers off, I don't mean there is something blocking the road, I don't mean the road's condition had declined and I certainly don't mean it was due to any road work as there was ZERO road work going in on. What I actually mean here is there was NO MORE ROAD! The tarmac literally ended! Zip! Zero! Nada! NO ROAD! Now I realized the addition to the sign was not a funny ha ha joke, it was a statement of fact. Say it with me this time - NO ROAD WORK as in there NO MORE ROAD! So, here I was in a fancy performance car that was shod with firm high performance suspension, sitting lower to the ground that a tortoise at rest, out in the middle of literally no where with temperatures that would fry an egg in seconds on the hood of the car and out in front of me was just gravel! Gravel as far as the eye could see! Remember when I asked what happens when there is no more road for the rubber to meet? Well, I was about to find out!
Remember what I said about how Death Valley got it's name? At this point, I could not help but wonder if the first part of the name was going to be my fate! I know, I know.... this is the 21st Century. People don't just get lost in a First World Country like America..... yeah right! You better believe I was pretty nervous. The car, or should I say the SUV that was behind me caught up and kept on driving. I figured he must either know something or was more foolish, brave and a crazier adventurer than me. I had just driven across this great country, through many states, rain storms and such - I was determined not to be deterred by this development, so I now started following the SUV.... very slowly. When I say slowly, I mean the car was crawling at less than 5 MPH and even then, as I rattled along the gravel, I started to wonder if I would have any teeth left in my mouth and if my kidneys would survive. There was gravel in front of me as far as my eyes could see. It was not looking very promising. At this point, a little Blue car started coming towards me! OMG - there was another car actually heading in the other direction! I did wonder if they had turned around though and maybe I should start thinking about doing that as well. As if it wasn't enough that I was out here, literally in nowhere land and contemplating how long my water supply would last before I kicked the bucket, I hear a rumble that gets louder and turns into a roar. Next thing I know, there is a military fighter jet - and F-18 to be exact - buzzing over at about 250 feet off the ground! Now I had the added fear that I may just have wondered onto a military shooting range! If I did not die of heat exhaustion or thirst, don't worry..... the bombs and rockets that might eventually rain down on me might do the job! WHERE IN THE WORLD WAS I ?????
I flagged the car down (thankfully they stopped). It was a young European couple (had to be, the driver detailed distance in kilometers). The young female driver assured me there was road ahead, that this gravel was not the end of it and provided I can drive on, I will probably survive this and live to tell the tale. I too assured her that there was road up ahead for her too. Amazingly enough both our GPS systems had directed us here - WHEN WE HAD SIGNAL! I thanked the couple for giving me hope I would live and get through this :-), and we both went on our way. I would say about a few miles later (though it seemed like an eternity) the road started again. There was literally a point and a line where the tarmac started again. I can only guess that at the time the construction crew were out here building the road, they ran out of asphalt and decided no one would be silly enough to come this far and just let it end there. Obviously, they had not heard about me yet! Yep! I am that guy who was silly enough to come out there, in the heat of summer no less!
My sponsors of such things as oil, and suspension parts will be happy to know the car survived this ordeal. The suspension was still working, the oil was still lubricating and the temperatures from the engine were well within limits. Impressive to say the least.
I could have kissed the tarmac when I got back on it. I come close I tell you. From here, the road was simply a pure delight. I mean it was just open road from here till I got to Mojave Desert area. I cherish my experience of Death Valley. Will I go back? Most likely at some point. It won't be as heart pulsing as the first time as I know now there is road beyond the gravel, however I will still state in amazement at the topography, and I will still marvel at the spirit of humanity when I think that not only did Native American tribes live here and still do, but also people not only traversed this place when it was unknown, but a team of road workers actually came out here and build a road...... well, at least built most of it! :-)