Friday, March 30, 2012

Acquiring our new home in Vegas (of all places!)
Thursday March 1st

Finally our new home - the Sportsmobile - is ready, but to avoid Californian sales taxes we have to pick it up in Vegas. This required us to spend a couple of nights on the strip, where we quickly figured out that the various gaming options  were all on a one way street - out of our wallet and into someone else's - the Casino owners! Now, I know that gambling can be addictive, but when some stupid machine just sucks up your cash with not even the slightest hint that it is going to give any of it back, why would you keep doing it? Maybe we were lucky enough not to win anything on our initial splurges, so hence the absence of incentive to continue. On the up-side - we quickly figured out that the cheap food and margaritas were available regardless of whether you gambled or not, so we focused on the former and ignored the latter. 

And then....drum roll.... the delivery of our the front door of our “New York, New York” hotel. Some papers signed (by a casino notary who presumably normally does instant marriages and divorces) and we were out of there - to another planet, called Red Rock - a beautiful mountainous wilderness just 20 minutes out of town.  

First camp in the new wheels!

Near Death (Valley) Experience
Sunday March 4th
Sure, coming from Vegas, you do approach Death Valley from the desert, but suddenly the desert becomes a lot more deserty We never cease to be amazed by the extraordinary diversity of rocks in the US and, in Death Valley, much of that diversity is packed into a relatively small area - let the pictures do the talking - although even they don’t do it justice. 

One of the great things about Death Valley is that you can free camp on the small 4x4 backroads provided you are more than 2 miles from the main roads. So after watching the sunset from Dante’s View, we found the nearest side road, drove 2.1 miles and found a place to spend the night under brilliant stars. 
The next day was spent driving around the valley interspersed with hikes up side gorges. As the sun dipped we climbed up a 4x4 trail on the western side of the valley till we had a vista over the flats and settled in for another not insignificant evening - that of our first home-made margaritas! Yes, our fridge actually produces ice. 

It’s tough in the desert!

So - what is the beast capable of?
 This morning saw us continuing our circumnavigation of Death Valley, passing firstly through the abandoned mining town of Rhyolite, before passing through the aptly decorated Teakettle Junction, then over the corrugations (“washboard roads” here) into a dust storm being whipped up from a huge player lake that is home to some famous rocks that, on very rare occasions, skate across the muddy surface, their circuitous paths reflecting the vagaries of the  strong winds that propel them.

From here, pretty much everybody turns back to the resorts, but our map indicated a 4x4 road that could potentially take us out of the west side of the valley, which is sort of the direction that we were wanting to go. After an uneventful initial climb, we came to a crest and before us was a daunting descent - the Lippincott Rd - a precipitously narrow track with drops of hundreds of meters below and no obvious room to pass should someone come from the other direction. After some nervous moments, we walked the first section to a point where  we could turn around if it got worse, and then drove it. In this manner, we walked, then drove, section after section of the trail.

Eventually we could see the track emerging onto the valley below and, thinking that the worst was behind us we threw caution to the wind and committed to pushing on - we had reached the point of no return! For a while all was well and our confidence mounted - until - the track cut across a cliff face, through the middle of which, an erosion gully had cut its way, taking a significant portion of the trail with it. Previous travelers had hammered some metal posts into the ground on either side and put some cable across, piling rocks behind the cable. Some sections clearly had lost their rocks, presumably falling down the 50-60 meters to the creek bed below, as previous vehicle crossed, so we piled some more in to try to level it off. Our problem was that the wash-away was in tight bend in the road so, whilst I could get the front wheels around the crevice, the turn meant that the rear wheels would take a shallower angle and the left hand rear would have to go over the loosely piled rocks. The cliffs would not allow us to take a wider angle - in fact, we had to take the bikes off the back so that they didn’t get taken off by the overhanging cliff. After inching forward bit by bit, we had the two front wheels across and one rear still on solid ground. We convinced ourselves that with three wheels on solid ground and sufficient forward momentum, we would be able to drag the fourth wheel across the loose rocks, even if they were to give way. So, hearts in mouths, we (actually I - Christine had got out and was watching - or trying not to watch - from a safe distance) pushed forward , and the rocks did indeed slip downwards under the weight but our momentum took us across! Fortunately from there on, whilst a slow and bumpy grind, there was no real drama apart from a huge dust storm that swallowed the sun and the surrounding mountains.

Climbing another range took us into the snow and cold, but above the dust, and we found a spot of the side of the track where we set up camp and drank to our first successful but intimidating off-road adventure in the new beast.  We subsequently bought a guide to 4-wheel drive trails of California that said of this section - “extremely remote. Suitable only for experienced drivers. Go with another vehicle” Question is, can we now consider ourselves experienced? Or just dumb?

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