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