Don’t Make Me Walk!

Swathes of wildflowers in Death Valley CA
Swathes of wildflowers in Death Valley CA

Though I am a bit of a lapsed American, I’m always amazed and proud when we drive through rugged and inhospitable landscapes, like Death Valley or the Rockies, and know that my country’s early explorers and settlers trekked across blistering salt flats, over snow capped mountains and many miles of dust or mud defended by rightly indignant Native Americans just so that I could sing “from sea to shining sea.”

Note motorcycles on bottom right for scale
Note motorcycles on bottom right for scale

Some of these plucky adventurers were gold crazed 49ers looking for a short cut to a fortune. Others, like the family in James Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, were driven in the 1930’s by poverty, desperation or a simple quest for the security that owning arable land could bring.

As we drove over a rise in the road in our comfortable car in Death Valley, a wildly patterned mosaic mountain range in layers of gold, red, brown, black, even green was displayed before us, and we exclaimed, “Oh, look at that. Isn’t that incredible?”Death Valley CA

An early settler on foot, horseback or pulling a wagon at the very same spot may have thought, “Oh, please God not another mountain range.” Every place we stopped to gasp in awe and take a photo, the intrepid fortune hunters would have stopped to gasp for breath and pray for a flat piece of fertile land with a source of water so they could quit their journey through fierce, sterile, rocky territory.

You go first. I'll follow!
You go first. I’ll follow!

Leaving Pahrump, Nevada, we struggled through the Spring Mountain range and sneaked between the Funeral Mountains, the Greenwater Range and Amargosa Range lining one side of Death Valley, because someone had thoughtfully put a road where the terrain was relatively level.

You want me to walk across that?  Salt flats of Death Valley
You want me to walk across that? Salt flats of Death Valley

Once past the salt flats of Death Valley which are five miles wide in places and peaked at

Let's walk through here.
Let’s walk through here.

134° F one summer, we were faced with the Cottonwood Mountains, the Panamint Range, the Inyo Mountains and the Argus Range. Two steep climbs and wild rides down with our trailer in tow resulted in our engine overheating on the way up forcing us to stop while it cooled. On the way down the oil pressure rose dangerously high with engine braking assisting the brake braking because the brakes would fail if overheated. Minor problems compared to thirst, hunger and Indians defending their land rights.

I'm right behind you. keep going.
I’m right behind you. Keep going.

A few miles west of Death Valley the Sierra Nevada foothills looked low and doable. Faced with a life-or-death situation and a back-up team carrying food, water, blow-up bed, tent, sleeping bag and my special soft pillow I might have been able to climb one foothill. But the snow-capped ridgeline just beyond the soft brown hills appeared as a near vertical face. I could see no peaks and troughs, just a massive wall the highest point of which was Mt. Whitney at 14494 feet, twenty miles to the north.

Where we were going
Where we were going
Where we'd been
Where we’d been

“You couldn’t drive across here could you? Or take your team of horses across? Or even climb them without special equipment?”

“You’d have to go north or south.”

“How would you know which way to go before there were roads?”

“You wouldn’t. We’d end up in Canada or Mexico or in a ditch and never find California.”

The mountain barrier directly in front of us at a t-junction where we were considering our options joined the Cascade Mountain range which meanders up into Canada. A glance at a topographical map before our trip may have had us heading back east again possibly to Florida where sand dunes are considered mountains.

Once we proceeded the Sierra Nevadas still made themselves known to us and we began the overheating, brake-smoking, white-knuckles-on-steering-wheel, cliff-face-on-my-side-of-the-car ride again. Jimmy became exhausted merely by hauling the car and trailer around switchback after switchback. I became tired with the effort of fending off terror.

The promised land
The promised land

To get to a lush California valley we battled two more Coast Ranges of mountains with our 5.3 liter 4WD comfortably leather-seated car.

California poppies - fore and aft
California poppies – fore and aft

Our predecessors were made of sterner stuff. My hip ached from sitting for so long in the car. I had to go lie down after a hard day of being a passenger.

43 thoughts on “Don’t Make Me Walk!

  1. What a journey! Love the photos and narrative, I love driving in the US and can feel a new road-trip coming on. Those poppies are delightful but what are the purple flowers in your penultimate image?
    Jude xx


  2. The photos and editorial is awesome!!!!! Not that I have ever been on an adventure as you are on, I do, when traveling around this state wonder how the pioneers were able to accomplish what they did!! Thanks for sharing


  3. Reading your tales reminded me of our trek there, a reverse of what you did. We came from Lone Pine and boy that drive in the mountains is awesome. But we almost overheated on our last stretch approaching Death Valley. That was some drive, up and down, switchbacks and down we go.
    Death Valley is a fascinating wonderland.


  4. I think the photos are amazing and having never been there they depicted the overwhelming vastness perfectly. Your first shot with the eagle/vulture? drifting on the thermals is spectacular.


  5. Thanks for the guided tour, all without leaving my kitchen. The photos are just fabulous – you have yellow poppies in the States? I can imagine how well you slept after all that adrenalin – I get vertigo, and I hate driving alone cliff edges.


    1. Thank you and yes California poppies are yellow. And now I’ve learned something thanks to your question. California poppies are Eschscholzia californica so they are a different species to the red poppies we are familiar with which are Papaver something-or-other. And why is the cliff edge always on the scaredy-cat’s side of the car?


  6. The will to survive is really strong – like you, I can’t imagine how the early pioneers did what they did! As usual, your pictures are amazing and I’m guessing they pale compared to the real thing!!


  7. I love Death Valley and would enjoy revisiting when the flowers are in bloom. Did you say you were there at the end of March? We visited the 2nd week in February. I was awed by the desolate beauty 🙂


    1. We were there at the end of March and it was very pleasant, but I still wouldn’t have made it on foot or in a wagon. And my skills as a navigator have been found wanting at times, even with a map, a computer and OnStar! What time of year did you go? VW bug engines were air cooled – not much good at 134F!!


      1. I usually headed out cross-country after the kiddies returned to school, so probably late Sept to early Oct. The little buggy did fine no matter what I put her through… 😉


  8. I love this post… I have often wondered about our Pioneering forefathers who battle over the terrain in our country heading north looking for a piece of land to settle on and farm… we have followed a few of the old routes and in one place the “voortrekkers” had to stop and dismantle their wagons and carry them down the mountain ridge piece by piece… it is written that this stop cost them three months to be able to continue… they were made of sterner stuff than us…


  9. Driving through Death Valley definitely brings a huge respect and awe of those who traversed that land pre-automobile (and air conditioning). It’s a grind, as you say, in all our present day creature comforts.


    1. Just imagine Las Vegas or the Phoenix area without all our creature comforts. At certain times of the year they are only attractive when viewed through the glass of an air conditioned room or car! I know there were Indians in the area way back when. They must have been hardy souls indeed.


    1. There is nothing better than sitting with a road atlas on your lap as your circumnavigate a country to learn its geography, which I should really have learned at school. If it makes you feel any better I lived in England for 30 years and still can’t place all the counties without consulting a map, or the fount of all knowledge – himself, the Englishman.


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