Chris Roams

Travel, Adventures, and Photography


So, the trip is coming to a close. Nature has finally caught up to me after a solid week of good weather. I was planning on hitting a few more places on the way back. I woke up just down the road from Zion on Tuesday and I was planning on heading up to Escalante, but the skies were cloudy, the snow was moving in, and I was too far from home to be getting stuck in a mountain snowstorm. As it was I caught some afternoon flurries coming through Utah and again in western Colorado. It was really light stuff, just some wispy snow blowing across the road, but even that seems so much more sinister out west. There are no trees and the open distances are so vast that even the lightest flurry causes the road to disappear into what seems like a whiteout, except it's a whiteout with 10 miles of visibility. The afternoon flurries were fun, but things got a bit more sinister in Vail Pass as the sun went down and the elevation went up. At night in the mountain snow it's easy to lose touch with the ground, "spatial disorientation" in pilot jargon. You wonder why you can't accelerate even though the gas pedal is on the floor. Your head tells you that you're driving level or even downhill, then you switch on the GPS (trust your instruments, not your head) and find out that you're at 10,000 feet and climbing, rapidly (at least as rapidly as possible with the engine starved by the thin air). On flat land the snow wouldn't have been an issue, but mountain roads turn things white-knuckle driving in a hurry. There is one picture I kick myself for not taking where I-70 hangs off the side of snow covered mountains following the Colorado River through a narrow gorge, but I was too busy for photography (staying on the road is fairly important). And now I'm somewhere in Ohio waiting for another ice storm to get out of the way so I can make it home. At least I'll be in my own bed tomorrow night.

I did manage to swing through Death Valley before heading up into the snow (Panamint Valley to be exact, the park is actually made up of a few distinct valleys separated by mountain ranges). It is such a nice place in the winter, I could spend a whole week getting lost in there with the Jeep and never see the same place twice. The park is absolutely enormous and most areas can only be reached with a 4x4 or on foot (hardly advisable as there is almost no water anywhere, even in the winter). I did hike in to a place called Darwin Falls, a little oasis hidden a short way up a canyon. I got there as the sun went down but it was worth the hike. From outside the canyon there is no stream or plant life that would hint that there is a rogue source of abundant water only a short mile away, although nowadays there is a piece of pipe snaking its way up into the canyon. I'm assuming the spring that feeds the falls is also the water source for the Panamint Springs Resort just down the road (no complex civil engineering here, just a simple piece of PVC laid on the bare ground). Walking up the canyon small sprouts of grass start appearing, then grow into a larger until they cover the whole width of the canyon and become interspersed with trees, almost a miniature savannah. Turning the corner reveals more trees forming a complete canopy, and the ground becomes a soft wet marsh. Finally at the end of the canyon is a waterfall with a small pond beneath it in a scene that looks more like the Catskills than Death Valley. It's hard to believe that all of that water just disappears before making it the mile back out of the canyon, but such is life in the desert.

Another night scene worth remembering that I didn't get a picture of was Las Vegas. I was desperately trying to avoid the place on this trip, but one of the other facts of life in the desert is that all roads lead to Vegas. If you want to pick up an interstate that's where you have to go. The road from Death Valley passes through Pahrump and then a few miles over a lonely mountain pass before dropping into the southwest corner of Las Vegas's urban sprawl. The view coming over that mountain pass at night is incredible, and the drive in gives an impression of the city that you could never get from coming in on a plane or the interstate. Las Vegas sits in a desert valley penned in by mountains, not all the different from Death Valley. The city's light pollution is obvious all the way from Pahrump, it's a huge contrast to the darkness in the rest of the desert night sky. Getting closer the white beam coming from the Luxor is visible before even getting to the pass. Coming over the mountain the old center of the city and all of the hotels along the strip are plainly visible, even from so far away. Dozens of jets buzz around the night sky like honeybees around their hive, a big change from elsewhere in the desert where none were visible. It's immediately obvious that the edges of the sprawl are constantly expanding, and driving in on a surface road takes you through the various layers of the city. Coming off the mountain the road passes through an empty stretch of the desert floor, then a layer of freshly broken ground covered with construction equipment, followed by a layer of buildings under construction, then new buildings mostly complete but not yet open for business, then a layer of clean new buildings that must have just opened. Every block closer to the highway and the strip after that looks exactly like the previous block, only a bit older and more run down. It's like driving along in a time machine and seeing the eventual fate of the empty unbroken desert that still lies outside the sprawl. My road atlas is a just a few years old and it shows this whole area as empty desert, they've been building fast. I wouldn't be surprised if some day in the not-so-distant future the Las Vegas sprawl expands all the way out to the mountains themselves.

My adventures with the radio continue. Utah has a whole series of radio stations playing songs that at first sound vaguely like singles from well known bands, but on closer listening they all turn out to have overtly religious subject matter. It seems like there's a whole thriving religious music knockoff industry going on out there. There's the Christian pop station, the Christian rock station, and even the Christian heavy metal station. They also have Christian Dr Phil knockoff radio talk shows and the usual radio preachers and country stations. After careful consideration I have determined that there must be no more than 5 country songs in existence, because that's all they seem to play. On that topic, there is something in particular that jumped out at my while I was listening to National Public Radio somewhere in Utah. The host of the show was talking to some expert guest about how the big corporate conglomerates like Clear Channel and Cumulus Media have destroyed local flavor in radio, how they pipe the same feeds all over the country, how they've gotten rid of local news, and how something must be done to put radio back in the hands of locals for the interests of the people. After driving across the whole country I found the whole conversation absolutely absurd. On this trip I've heard bluegrass in Kentucky, the blues outside of Memphis, religious pop music knockoff bands in Utah, bible thumping preachers in Kansas and Missouri, rock music near major cities, and country music just about everywhere pickup trucks are sold. Local news seems to be alive and well too, all the way down to the high school football schedule in Kansas that I heard this morning. The irony is that about the only thing that I've been able to pick up semi-consistently across the whole country is NPR (whose host seemed to agree that all of this corporate conglomerate piped in content was a bad thing). The drive was pretty boring and I thought it would be amusing to call in and point out the inherent irony and to suggest that their expert guest partake in a road trip of his own, but as it turns out the whole program was being piped in by NPR from somewhere far away so I never got my chance to call in.

I will say that road-tripping solo is tough. I have been going non-stop since I left, driving, hiking, setting up camp, tearing down camp, driving some more... There really is no downtime. You can't just take a quick nap while somebody else drives, you can't have somebody set up the tent while you cook dinner, there's nobody to look at the map and tell you where to turn. Any time you take to stop and rest, or look at the map, or grab food is time that you aren't covering ground and it feels like time wasted. Even the most mundane things can become incredibly frustrating. Just this morning I was trying to put some air in my tires and had to stop at 4 gas stations before finding one that 1: had an air pump, 2: had a hose attached to the air pump, and 3: didn't have a broken adapter on the end of the hose. A minor waste of time, but when you're trying to cover 1,000 miles in a day minor wastes of time all seem to add up. It does get lonely on the road, and I think that's a big part of the experience of this trip too. This is a big country, and driving across it you realize just how spoiled we are on the Atlantic Seaboard with cellular service and 2 dozen radio stations just about everywhere. There are enough cellular dead-spots on the highways (especially in the mountains) that carrying on any reasonable length conversation is nearly impossible, and I was almost constantly scanning for new radio stations. At one point I spent the better part of 3 days almost completely out of contact with the world as there was no cellphone service anywhere between I-15 through Death Valley (which alone is nearly the size of the entire state of Connecticut) all the way out to the Sierras.

Technology has come a long way. I did a similar road trip with Christian back in 2002. On that trip our idea of a moving-map GPS and in-car MP3 player was a laptop with a handheld GPS and tape cassette adapter jacked into it, all powered by an inverter in the trunk. Wi-Fi hotspots were unheard of and the concept of mobile Internet was exotic at best, we had to download all the maps we could possibly need from Mapquest before leaving and updating a web page as we went was out of the question. Nowadays most cars have built in moving-map GPS displays and iPod hookups (assuming you don't lose your iPod the day before you leave), and my $20 unlimited cellular internet plan has allowed me to send emails from just about anywhere I've had any sort of cellular service. We've come a long way in 6 years, and it will be interesting to see where we are 6 years from now. At the same time it is sad how small the world has become.

I really like the American West, to me it's the land of explorers like Lewis and Clark or just regular people looking for a better life whether it was on the Oregon Trail or in the California gold rush. This is where people came to do amazing things. It took those people months to make a one-way journey that I did alone in a day and a half, and many of them lost their lives in the process. Tough guys had to go out into uncharted wildernesses and live off the land, betting their lives that rumors of reliable water or easy river crossings or low mountain passes were accurate. Now the frontier is closed. Gone are the explorers, the lone forts standing in the wilderness, the settlers, the Pony Express, the men who built the first railroads, the cowboys, and all of the people who fought against the environment to bring some semblance of civilization and normalcy to the west. To their credit they succeeded in what they set out to do but it does make me sad that there is nowhere for the tough guys to go, nowhere left to explore, no more reason to go thundering across the plains on horseback. What's left of the wilderness is criss-crossed by highways and interspersed with cities, wild places like Death Valley and the Sierras have to share a state with the smog and urban blight of Los Angeles, the canyons of the Colorado River have been dammed up and flooded to provide water and power to cities like Las Vegas that have been dropped in the middle of the desert without any consideration for the consequences. You would think we could build these things somewhere else: dam up lesser rivers and canyons and build cities where they can sustain themselves. It is obvious that these deserts can't support much life, even in the winter this is a dry place and the bathtub rings around Lake Mead and Lake Powell are a clear indicator that they are already using up the precious water faster than it is being replenished, yet they keep on building.

Some of the wild places are still as dangerous as they ever have been. Breaking down in the desert during the summer or the mountains in winter could both be potentially deadly for the unprepared, but our maps, infrastructure, and incredible speed give us the edge. My little car covers as much distance in ten minutes as a pioneer's wagon would cover in a whole day and it can go 500 miles before refueling (1/6th of the way across the continent). I don't have to worry about where to find water when I can cross entire states without stopping. I have paved roads to get me through mountains and over rivers and accurate maps showing me where they are. I have a phone that can tell me where to find food, gas, or hotels. I have satellites to guide me or summon rescuers should I ever get lost or into trouble. The people on the jet cruising overhead at 30,000 feet don't even need to know or care whether they're over the desert or the mountains or even the ocean, they can cross entire continents and oceans at 600 miles per hour. It takes the fun out of it. We don't venture into these places because we have to anymore, we go because we want to.

Even though my early ideas for this trip revolved around climbing Mt Whitney or some other mountain peak it really turned into an exploration of the desert in winter. I had been out here in the summer before, but this is a very different place this time of year and I'm glad to have experienced it. The last time I was in Death Valley it was too hot to get out of the car for more than a few minutes. You can't truly experience places like this from behind the windows of a car or just a few minutes at a time, you have to get out in them. You have to leave the car behind and hike to the bottom of a canyon, or chase a waterfall, or stop in the middle of nowhere and listen to the silence. The summer is just too brutal for these things, partly from the extreme heat and partly from the extreme number of tourists. Winter is more of a quiet solitary experience, especially when you're on the road alone.

As for the car, it seems to have survived its third east to west round trip across the country (add two more if you want to count north to south round trips as well). I have been keeping track of my fuel milage throughout the trip and replacing all the filters in Flagstaff did make a huge difference boosting me from 30mpg to 37mpg. I don't go easy on it but it hasn't let me down at all from 282' below sea level in Death Valley to over 11,000' in Vail Pass even when the temperature dropped down to a brisk 6°. Not bad for a moderately neglected 11 year old car with 190,000 miles on the clock, I think it's a keeper.
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