Tuesday, October 7 (continued)
After the lake visit, I hook up and it’s back on the road. We scoot through the southern side of Vegas, then head West through the oddly named town of Pahrump and get on 190 heading into California.
This is my first time in California which is exciting, it always feels rewarding to see a state for the first time. Although on this side, it looks an awful lot like Nevada. But where are we headed? Death Valley National Park, which on a sunny day in October is still over 100 degrees, yeesh.
Death Valley is a neat place, no doubt, and it’s possibly the most desolate place I’ve ever been in. Unlike I think every other National Park I’ve visited there are no ranger staffed entrance stations, just a couple self pay stations and miles and miles of open road framed by ridges and badlands in varying shades of brown. The extreme heat makes wildlife sightings very rare during the day, you feel sometimes like the only living things in the world. We take a quick walk to an overlook with good badlands views, and are excited to return to the A/C afterward.
We glide down (and down) into the valley and make it to sea level, then below sea level. Salt flats shine all around us, and vegetation is scarce. There is camping, a visitor’s center, and a shop down in the valley complete with gas, but we have no real desire to stay here. We’d just be holed up in Cas the whole time with the heat like this. Signs near the sand dunes on the western side of the valley proclaim this the hottest place in the world. Have you ever been in a place so devoid of moisture that your nostrils dry out? Take it from me, it’s an odd feeling.
I’m glad we’ve driven through, but here’s one problem with driving down below sea level – there’s a lot of climbing back up to do.
At the sand dune stop, Julie gets behind the wheel for her first time ever towing a RV, and only her second towing experience ever. If I’d known what was ahead, I never would have let her. We did some preliminary road planning when we thought about coming out this way, but we’re woefully unaware of what’s to come on the western side of the park.
With temperatures still over 100, highway 190 starts climbing up. I tell Julie to take it slow so that poor Bertha doesn’t overheat, and she does an admirable job. A sign looms up ahead: Elevation 1,000. Soon we’re creeping along at only 25 miles per hour. A Class C rental passes us at a faster pace, but that’s okay. Elevation 2,000. The red needle on Bertha’s engine gauge creeps up past the 2/3rds mark, and we turn off the A/C. I tell Julie if it gets above 3/4ths to pull over. Elevation 3,000. The Class C that had passed us is pulled over letting their engine cool down. It’s a tortoise and the hare moment. Chance (Julie’s cat) is complaining louder in the back seat – it’s heating up inside the cab now with the A/C off. Elevation 4,000. The engine temp gauge is holding steadily below 3/4ths with the A/C off. Let this be a lesson to you wannabe RVers out there: no one ever complains about having too much tow vehicle when you’re in the mountains.
At last the road levels out, and with higher elevation comes lower temperatures, phew. The A/C comes back on and we’re all a lot more comfortable temporarily. But alas, it’s only a brief reprieve, because the hardest part of the drive is still to come.
As I’m congratulating Julie on a job well done, the ground falls out from under us and a new sign looms ahead: 9% grade next 7 miles.
Geh! I’ve never towed Cas on an extended descent that steep before. I frantically scan the road but alas, there are no turnoffs where I can take over driving. Julie naively asks “Is this where I switch into 2nd gear?”. I’m panicking inside but I keep my voice steady as I respond “Yes, 2nd gear would be good. And pump the brakes, don’t ride them.” I hold onto my seat for dear life as we start back down the mountain. Ahead the ribbon of road resembles one of those super steep curvy water slides you pay the big bucks to ride in a fancy water park. I know it’s not really that steep, but it sure looks like it from where I’m sitting.
We keep up idle chatter during the descent, and I do my best not to let my nervousness show. An interminable amount of time later, we reach the bottom (in one piece!) and only then do I admit to Julie that I’ve never towed Cas on a drive that steep before. “Oh.” She says. “I’m glad you waited until the bottom to tell me.” She didn’t know to be worried.
At the bottom is another gas station where unleaded is $5.89 a gallon, the most expensive gas I’ve ever seen. I’m guessing getting fuel trucks into this valley is quite a chore. Semis are directed to turn left onto another road out of the valley, but we need to keep going straight on 190, up the other side and into the mountains again. This is, without a doubt, the most mountain driving I’ve done in my life. I’m ever so glad that Bertha is rated to tow 6,500 lbs and that Cas is 4,000 lbs at most.
Bertha dutifully chugs back up the other side, with me behind the wheel this time. The sun sets in the mountains behind us, and at the top I get out and snap a picture of the mood rising over the valley. There’s going to be some night driving ahead, because Julie and I want to get closer to our last destination before Amazon: Yosemite National Park.
190 meets up up with interstate 395 near Owen’s Lake, and from there it’s a scenic drive between mountain ridges north. Moonlight reflects off the western range, making it visible in the dark. Just north of Independence, CA we pull over at a rest stop that I researched on www.overnightrvparking.com/. Tomorrow should be a good day!