Howdy from Death Valley NP where we’ve been exploring and getting to know our truck a little better. While we did intend to spend Christmas in these parts, we didn’t plan to do what we did over Christmas.
A few factoids on the park are that it’s the largest in the lower 48, it only got national park status in 1994 but was set aside as a monument in 1933. Its the hottest place on earth by measurement of 134 degrees in 1913. While a portion of it is 282 feet below sea level, that’s nowhere near the lowest as places like Jordan have it beat several times over. The valley drains over 9,000 square miles of terrain, more than the size of New Hampshire. And there’s a river that flows through it- the Amargosa. Most of it evaporates in the summer but in winter there is more water around. That and several springs create more moisture than I ever thought there would be. On the first day we arrived, we walked a trail out to the head of one of these springs that meandered along a salt marsh and it was so beautiful. In the summer you can see pupfish, who are specially morphed to be able to tolerate the salinity of the water that absorbs the salty deposits from the area.
We were hesitant to visit Death Valley because we’d heard and read that California was sort of shut down and on the park website it said that the campgrounds were closed including backcountry dispersed camping. But we figured even if we could only visit during the day and camp outside the park on BLM land it would still be worth it.
The day before, we stopped outside the park to see the old ghost town of Rhyolite. As much of this whole region was and still is all about mining, there are many ghost towns and mine refuse areas scattered all over the hillsides not to mention active mines. At night, looking out at the lights of distant mines reminds me of fishing boats on the horizon at sea. Rhyolite gold mine operated from 1905 to 1920 and in that time a whole town sprung up around it. That included a train station, bank, jewelry shop & a bandstand. And the funny thing is, we actually know someone who’s grandmother was born there! We walked around what remains of the town, including a glass house made of old bottles and tried to picture what it would have been like to grow up there. Unlike the ruins of Europe, these cannot stand the test of time.
The next morning, we headed into the park and spoke with a ranger. Come to find out, dispersed camping on park dirt roads is A-OK and he gave us a backcountry map pointing out all the places we could park up. So once again, you can’t know until you go! So we started hiking all over, doing driving tours of the sights and really enjoyed the varying scenery. There is Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation, where the wind whips up the salty deposits to make very flat but geometrically similar patterns that are crazy looking especially with a brilliant blue sky.
There is the old Harmony Borax Works mine where 20 mule teams used to have to haul this trainload of ore and water to be processed some huge distance away.
There are several areas with sand dunes so we walked one of these at sunset to take in the views. Jon knows I love to be out this time of day.
There are colorful canyons that you can both walk or drive through.
And there’s a whole volcanic area- Ubehebe Crater where only 2000 years ago, the earth exploded here and left a 600 foot crater and a bunch of smaller ones. You can walk down into it and all along the perimeters of each of them. Interesting area.
We climbed some mountains, hiked along a ridge one day, enjoyed the viewpoints and saw a badger one morning but otherwise it feels like all the wildlife is either underground or gone south. We really enjoyed some shorts & shirt weather for a change.
It’s an odd place because when you’re in the valley, it’s very flat but always slanted significantly downward toward the basin, such that you think the horizon needs correcting or that you’ve flubbed up all your photos but its nothing you did.
Then we headed up to the northern end of the park to see the Racetrack- where rocks appear to have moved across the mud flats on their own, leaving a skid path. The Racetrack is 25 or so miles out a rough dirt road that is already far away from anything when you start out. Since the area where the rocks are is day use only, we parked the truck at Teakettle Jct, 6 miles away, where someone once put an old teakettle to mark an intersection of dirt roads and the idea stuck. Now there are probably 100 teakettles hanging there, a rite of passage of sorts for many an overland adventure group or anyone else who wants to leave one behind. The stars are incredible here. On the night I went out to watch the confluence, I could hear the teakettles clinking in the breeze.
We dropped the motorbike to go see the playa where the rocks are.
While the park is very quiet, there are people touring around but when we got to the playa, we had the whole place to ourselves for a long bit. Mud sediment drains off the mountains and ends up at a low point called a playa. It dries in a crazy but predictable pattern and is perfectly flat and distinct except where people have been disrespectful and driven on it. In windstorms, rocks get tossed out onto the mud and in winter, when an ice sheet forms & slides on the mud, it surrounds the rocks and sort of skids the them along and they leave the tracks. I mean, it is an interesting phenomenon but probably most interesting when you’re there in person to ponder it. But you can’t witness it, because it happens glacially slow, although people have been known to ask “are the rocks moving today?” The landscape is beautiful to look at. The pile of black smooth rocks in the center is called The Grandstand because it is front & center to it all. We hiked up a mountain there and had a birdseye view of the whole area.
We had a really nice few days together. Then the next morning we headed out early in the truck to backtrack the 25 miles of dirt road and go toward Fall Canyon for a hike. With about 10 miles of dirt left to go, we suddenly heard this horrible grinding, clunking sound coming from the engine. We stopped and noted antifreeze draining onto the ground. We needed to get the truck off the road so started it back up and the sound went away. So we cautiously drove a little further to find a proper pull off. What had happened was the engine coolant pump had blown apart and the bearing was ultimately destroyed, hence why the noise stopped- the pump stopped. There are 4 belts on the engine, 2 went slack when the pump blew and then with antifreeze spewing out on the engine, the other 2 belts got wet and started slipping so we had no antifreeze circulation, no tach because the alternator belt was slipping, the power steering pump couldn’t function with no belt so it was very difficult to steer and lastly, the air brake compressor couldn’t work with no belt so the default of no air pressure is the brakes slowly lock up. So we didn’t get to a pull off before the truck was dead. It is a quiet road with only 4×4 vehicle access but still, we needed to get off the road and figure out what to do next. Just up about 200 yards further was a good pull off campspot if we could get to it. Jon, the ingenious man that he is, used our tire inflation compressor to pressurize the air brake tank so that he could move the truck over to it. Then he firmed up that it was indeed the coolant pump, dropped the motorbike and drove to the nearest town 75 miles away to get internet and try to find a pump. It was very stressful for him and very stressful for me to not know how he was doing or when he would come back to me. We are never apart really.
There was a matching pump in Ohio believe it or not and he ordered it. Then he drove 75 miles back, 10 of which is on the slow, rough dirt road, now in the dark. It’s 2 hours each way. But the pump he ordered wasn’t going to arrive until the end of the month as there wasn’t an option showing to have it overnighted. We didn’t want to wait that long of course so we drove back in the next morning together and called the company directly to arrange to have the pump overnighted instead to the post office in the little town of Beatty, where feral burros walk the sidewalks and ocassionally stand out in the road blocking traffic and the only “grocery store” is a Family Dollar. The best part about Beatty is the lady that runs the post office. She took pity on us and agreed to have Fedex deliver the package there, to leave us a message when it came in and to give it to us when it arrived late in the day Christmas Eve even though the office was closed. We know from experience with shipping especially recently, that you can’t count on anything and we were dubious at best about whether the pump would indeed arrive the next day but we were hopeful. We got some power steering fluid and a gallon of un-homogenized milk (that’s a first- a Beatty specialty?) and headed back to the truck, my backpack heavy with that weight.
Every time we had to drive back and forth to the truck it took several hours and at least one gas stop since you can’t get there and back on one tank. The glorious weather we’d had was gone and it was colder and more overcast so riding on the bike at 55mph was stretching the limits of our ability to keep warm. We would even feel cold for hours afterward. And of course our motorbike is not intended for this kind of thing really so there is no wind guard to alleviate the buffetting. All I could think of is how bad this sucked and why in the world would anyone ever want to ride a motorcycle anyway?! Even with all the weight on my shoulders I felt worse for the weight on Jon’s since he is the one who has to figure out and repair all these problems.
On Christmas Eve, we drove to another slightly more prosperous town, Pahrump, that was 125 miles away in hopes of renting a car for a few days to make things easier and allow us to get all the antifreeze we would need to refill the engine because you can’t get it in Beatty. It took us something like 4 hours to get to Pahrump amid stops to refuel, get something hot to drink and try to get internet and by the time we got internet we were so close we figured, just get to the rental place. And then when we did there were no cars left at Enterprise. Then we got the call that the pump had arrived and we were 70 miles away from Beatty and had to do that distance on the motorbike and get there by 3. No time to warm up. So we grabbed what supplies we could like all new engine belts and brake cleaner to clean up the engine, minus the antifreeze, and put them in my pack to carry. Then drove to Beatty, picked up the pump, kissed the postmistress and checked in to the best looking hotel in that lovely town, a Motel 6. What a dump. And the topper was, there were matching restaurant options to choose from. What did you have for Christmas Eve dinner? We had takeout from a Denny’s that was inside a ratty casino next door to the Motel 6! And again the next morning, we carried out breakfast from there, kissed by the cigarette smoke from the handful of people there gambling that sadly had no place better to be on Christmas morning.
As soon as it warmed up enough, we blasted out of there toward the truck, taking turns carrying the backpack that now had a huge pump in it in addition to all the other stufff, leaving Beatty hopefully far behind. But not before doing an oil change on the motorbike because apparently, it was working so hard over all the miles with both of us on it that something is up with it now too that I won’t bother to explain. But it got us back home and Jon immediately dug into taking the engine apart while I started making a proper Christmas dinner. I feel most unuseful with truck mechanics unlike the boat where I could at least play a role. We both agreed that the best present this Christmas was the arrival of the pump. We lost ourselves in a movie after dinner and sipped limoncello remembering fine summer days in Siciliy on our boat, way, way far from here.
Then yesterday, Jon installed everything and made the truck whole again noting though, that when the coolant pump blew apart it hit the power steering hydraulic lines thereby damaging them. Using malleable metal, he did the best he could to reinforce those spots and hoped for no leaks.
This morning he refilled the coolant system with plain water since that’s all we have until we can get back to Pahrump and we fired up the engine and everything looked & sounded good. We felt cautiously hopeful that we were now back in business and started working our way back out the dirt road. Along the way, a rental pick-up pulled aside for us to pass and then got stuck in the soft shoulder so we stopped to help them get out using our trusty shovel that I had used a few days ago to make the road wider when we were stuck on it with frozen brakes. It was fortuitous actually to be stopped for them because we could see power steering fluid leaking under the truck! Oh great. Of course the gouges incurred to the hydraulic lines by the blown out coolant pump were bad enough that under pressure, they were now leaking badly from those spots. So we got our shovel back, headed down to the next pull off spot and Jon tried again to do a temporary patch so we could get somewhere better. The spewing power steering fluid covered the new belts so they started slipping again but not as bad. We blasted down the dirt road to the pavement to get the heck off of it once and for all and opened things up again because it was still leaking and did a different type of patch to the lines, this time using trusty fiberglass our old favorite. It held enough for us to drive the 100 miles left to Pahrump in our truck, a nice change, where we arrived this evening, nearly out of power steering fluid again. It turns out that the high pressure hydraulic hose for this truck is rated for 1160 psi! So you can imagine what it would be like to steer it with no assist. And no patch is really going to do it for long as the underside of our truck, now covered in oil will attest. We restocked and moved to a campspot on the edge of town. Now tomorrow we will try to have hydraulic lines fabricated, replace all the belts again with newer new ones and refill the coolant system with antifreeze. Hopefully this won’t be too difficult to do.
Needless to say, we are a bit shocked at our bad luck. We are just a tad tired of all this over 6 hellish days although it still pales in comparison to so many other possibilities. We are far from down & out even though we probably appeared that way on the motorbike the past few days! It gives us a chuckle actually. We value our indepence too much to care. But seriously, Jon is a pillar of strength, perseverance and ingenuity, this he got in part from his dad. Still in the anniversary month of his passing last year, he is on our minds several times a day and I just know he would be shaking his head at the obstacles we choose to face rather than the comfort of an easy chair. I mean, that easy chair is starting to look good actually, well not really. But maybe. Give it time!
The burning question being asked the world over is what does next year hold in store??? I truly hope better for everyone, including us! A good long break from diesel mechanics would be a start. Or else we might sink in to the softness of an easy chair and read Overland Journal.