Road Trip – Chapter 11

I was unusually tired yesterday afternoon. Some combination of two walks at higher than usual altitude and further weakening of my diaphragm I assume. I’ve recently started looking downward as I walk, not just to avoid tripping. My head feels heavier. It requires effort to hold it vertical. 

The pass over the Sierras on the way to Death Valley crests at almost 10,000 feet. Felicity is worried the altitude could be too much for me. I, of course, imagine I’d be okay but I don’t want to worry her. She says we’ll go south around the foothills.

We head toward Fresno through the forest, some of it burned, and stop at the tunnel to view all the famous peaks. The native Americans who lived here used to burn the valley bottom regularly. It’s a winding road up then down so I have to concentrate on the road ahead. We stop periodically so I can enjoy the remarkable views. 

The forest is very beautiful; redwoods, pines and deciduous trees, a few still with green leaves, most bright yellow or gold. 

We stop for lunch a little earlier than usual near a gently flowing river. As I walk down to join Felicity my leg muscles feel weak. They might not support me if I stumble.

Also I have a little discomfort in my belly. Too much coffee with breakfast? Not good to have a beer every night? Too much sausage spice in my formula? The curry powder? So I add only water to my lunchtime formula. 

We descend from the forested mountains to a jumble of rounded hills dotted with granite boulders and California oaks. There are ranches when the valley widens. 

Gradually the land flattens. The ranches grow much larger. Then comes irrigated crop land and tracts of grapes, fruit and nut and olive trees. 

Now we’re bowling south along a highway past the occasional concentration camp for cattle. There’s a referendum on California’s ballot that would require more humane treatment of farm animals. Cattle would get 43 square feet of space each. That’s 6 feet by 7, a bit bigger than a cow, it’s true, but…

The last part of today’s drive when we turn east is along an exceptionally narrow and winding road along a canyon. One side of the road is a jumble of granite, much of it vertical and some of it hanging over the road. The other side is in many places a vertical drop. The important difference between this and a road in Nepal’s mountains is the good road surface. It’s growing dark fast, though. There would be fine views in daylight if I wasn’t driving. 

We arrive at Kern KOA. I feel good but a little tired. “Shall we stay here tomorrow?” Felicity asks. “We could potter around. Or we could go on…  Let’s decide in the morning.”

Next day – we’ll go on to Death Valley where my friend John who grew up in wintry Chicago always said he would go to live one day. He did move at last to Tucson. 

We drive east a little over sand plains with Joshua Trees then north alongside the heavily eroded Sierra mountains. This is desert country. A vast area to our right has been set aside as a restricted area for our military to practice with new weapons. 

We turn east again at a tiny settlement where there’s the store selling jerky that has been advertised on billboards for the last thirty miles. Beef cattle who will become jerky are sheltering in the shade of three large and lonely trees.

The plain we’re on now is increasingly bare. Sand is piled against the edge of the hard shoulder, blown by winds like the one buffeting us today. There are road signs warning of gusty winds. It seems that enough windmills and solar panels deployed here could power our entire nation and more.

Now we must cross the Panamint Mountains. A sign warns drivers to turn off the air conditioning for the next ten miles to avoid overheating. Ours is not on, anyway. The climb of close to 5,000 feet is steep. Henry’s temperature gauge barely moves even though he can’t manage more than 25 mph on the steepest climbs. 

The winding descent into Death Valley is exhilarating. I change down to second gear and enjoy glimpses of the mountains from the straight sections of road. And we arrive at Stovepipe Wells campsite. 

Next day – We both want only a short drive today and to see more of Death Valley so we’ll go on to the campsite at Furnace Creek. 

We stop at Salt Creek Trail where to my great surprise there is a stream. It’s tiny for sure but allegedly it is home to pupfish whose ancestors have been here for thousands of years. Long ago there was a five hundred to six hundred foot deep lake here that was a hundred miles long. Camels and other large animals were plentiful. There’s very little water now and it’s very salty. 

There’s a boardwalk alongside the first part of the stream. We walk slowly around it and meet a man who grumpily tells us he has not seen a single pupfish. “I was here six years ago and I didn’t see one then either. I think it’s a hoax”.  The colors and shapes of the hills are very beautiful. 

Next we stop at a long abandoned borax mine. There’s not much of it left and it was only operated for five years. The owner somehow enticed enough Chinese workers here and had the borax shipped out on wagons hauled by teams of twenty mules. It must have been brutal work in this heat.  

Furnace Creek is a low key resort with palm trees. Next to it is a village of Shoshone Indians who work with the National Park Service folks at the Visitor Center so the museum includes information and exhibits about them. The two were in dispute for many years because the Park Service folks wanted no impact on the land by humans while the Native Americans wanted to live as they always had. Eventually the Park Service decided what those who live here wanted to do is historically authentic. 

Felicity makes a camp fire and I sit with her for a while. I’m wearing shorts today for the first time in quite a while. When I lift one leg and balance it on the other I notice the shrunken calf muscle. The skin sack is the same size as before but it now contains only a small muscle that hangs down leaving an empty space between it and the bone. 

Since I’m reporting symptoms I’ll mention also that I’ve had great trouble with blocked nostrils the last couple of days. Not much coughing except toward the end of yesterday’s relatively long drive. The belly discomfort went away quickly. I’ve been tending to feel tired and not cheerful but I can change my mood now I’ve noticed that.

Next day – Felicity climbs the hill overlooking the campsite after breakfast. I feel a little sad I can’t do that any more but at least I can still walk. 

We start the short drive south through the desert toward Tecopa. The valley floor here is sprinkled with mesquite. 

There’s a turn onto a single lane Artists Canyon road. Will we take it?  Of course we will and it’s spectacular. The heavily eroded mountains are made up of yellow, white, dark and light brown, black, red and even blue rocks with every variety of texture.

Further on we come to Badwater named so by a prospector because his mule would not drink the salty water. Enormous numbers of visitors have trodden a wide path out onto the salt flats. We start the long walk but Felicity thinks it would be better not to push myself. I think about it and realize it will be very little different further out. So we go back to the RV and have lunch. 

The ground further on is extremely dry. Nothing grows here at all. Then the road right angles east and we start to climb. The colors of the mountainsides remind me of Upper Mustang in Nepal but their rounded shape is very different. 

We cross the pass, make the descent then motor south to Tecopa. We never imagined ourselves in RV parks and would have looked down on people in such places when we were young tent dwellers but we no longer need such prejudices. 

There is a hot spring here.  I can’t immerse myself fully now because of the feeding tube in my stomach wall but it’s great to sit in the hot water to just below that level. 

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