Secluded, stunning, silent, the Eureka Dunes were an experience to adjust one's perspectives. We came there on our third day in the park, after a morning spent circumambulating Ubehebe Crater. We had camped the first two nights in Death Valley proper, exploring the Devil's Cornfield on foot and driving to the top of Echo Canyon in our four-wheel-drive Escape. The air at both crater and dunes was unexpectedly still and calm, a reprieve from the relentless wind of previous days. We arrived at Eureka Dunes Dry Camp several hours before sunset, and as I raked sites for the tents, Max and Ian bounded directly from the pit toilet toward the sand. Watching the boys shrink in my sight as the dunes grew before them, I decided I had better follow. With the towering mountain backdrop, I had underestimated both the distance and the scale of those dunes, the tallest to be found in North America.
We learned to walk carefully, climbing the fine sand. The leeward side is soft and unsupportive, but the windward side is packed firm enough to resist evenly distributed pressure so long as the slope is shallow. On steeper inclines, Nick made better progress walking backward, but after a threshold each step breaks the surface tension and the sand flows like water. At that point, I found it better to either step in another's footprints, or to climb four-footed like a dog. Slipping my hands into a child's discarded shoes made a broader surface for quadrupedal motion. Barefoot in the desert cool, the boys engaged in dry winter sport. They flopped on their backs in the sand to make angels, and slid on their rumps down the silky slopes.
That night the temperature plummeted from tee-shirt temperate to well below freezing. As the early waxing crescent moon set, we let our cook fire die and hid inside our tents in snow gear and mummy bags. Even so, we shivered. Breakfast over the campfire the next morning was tricky, the pan alternating between tepid and searing. The milk in Ian's little cup iced over within twenty minutes. Everyone was eager to break camp and get moving, so by eight o'clock we were on our way to the back of Eureka Valley and the four-wheel-drive trail through the canyon to Saline Valley.
Our guidebook rated Steel Pass an easy-to-moderate climb, but after successfully navigating the first few obstacles, we encountered a boulder beyond our vehicle's capabilities and judged it best to take a different path. In a wide patch of gravel, we turned around and started back down. As is our custom, Nick was in the driver’s seat while I spotted from beside the track. Retracing familiar ground, we both were a little too hasty. The car came down hard on a jutting rock and I saw the free flow of liquid from the cracked oil pan. I alerted Nick that he would soon be losing oil pressure, and he quickly managed the last of the rocks. We cut the engine to coast the rest of the way down the canyon until the soft sand of the valley absorbed the last of our kinetic energy and the last of our engine oil.
This is not the sort of situation one expects membership in the Auto Club to solve, even if any sort of phone service could reach this remote wilderness. But we were within striking distance of the campsite now, so as Nick set out at a trot with a few liters of water in his pack, I pulled out a camping mat and a book to read while the kids played in the sand around our disabled Ford. Diversion is essential in these waiting times, when an idle mind sifting limited data will more likely produce panic than useful thought. We had the equipment and provisions to survive even if Nick had to hike the whole fifty miles to Big Pine, but that wasn’t likely to be required.
Within an hour Nick returned with two new friends in a Toyota four-by-four. Eli and Matt of Berkeley, CA were half of a group of young men who also pitched tents beside the dunes the previous night. Matt’s softly honking laughter had punctuated our restless sleep as the smoke from their campfire lingered in the windless night, lightly triggering Nick’s migraines. We idly discussed going next-door and showing them how to tend a smokeless fire on a cold night. It’s a trick we had to master for Nick’s sake, splitting the wood thin and feeding it carefully to maintain sufficient heat and optimum ventilation for complete combustion. But we chose tolerant silence over uncertain confrontation. It sounded like they were having a good time, and we didn’t wish to disrupt their evening. I was glad of them now. Their late night became a late morning, so they were still in camp at a quarter to ten when Nick trotted up the road in search of extra muscle.
From the Toyota's kit, Eli produced an old climbing rope, which I pulled through a safety chain eye to loop around the receiver hitch. Then I secured the ends to the Escape’s pulling eyes with a bowline and two half-hitches each. I get a lot of satisfaction out of tying knots, and these ones pleased me well. Nick took the wheel again, with the transmission in neutral and no power steering or brake assist. It took a little work with shovels and strategically positioned stones to gain purchase in the deep sand, but before long both vehicles were rolling along at a reasonable pace. Trotting up from behind, I mounted the Escape’s back bumper and stowed my shovel on the roof, then enjoyed the ride with the best view of Eureka Valley all the way back to camp.
After depositing our vehicle in our original campsite, Nick rode out with Matt and Eli in the Toyota to find cell reception while I redeployed our larger tent before joining the boys on the dunes. Nick returned in time for lunch; he had contacted his father, Craig, who agreed to load up some tools and drive out in our little Ranger pickup to provide assistance. We bid the four young men from the neighboring camp good-bye, exchanging well-wishes and contact information. That afternoon, while Ian and I napped in the shelter of our sun-warmed tent, Nick and Max took another jog up the road, partly to occupy their energies, part in vain hope of finding sufficient cell signal to check Craig’s progress. Having burned the last of our firewood that morning, I broke up the shipping pallet we had strapped to the top of the car. Our redneck roof rack provided plenty of fuel for our needs. Nick and Max returned just after sunset, and I pitched an extra tent for Craig while Nick cooked our dinner over the campfire. As the kids and I bedded down, Nick waited up to greet his father at ten-thirty when he arrived.
The cold wasn’t as bothersome that second night, maybe because we were growing used to it, maybe because we had four bodies in one tent instead of two in two, but probably mostly because I put the rain covers on. An amateur mistake, I know, but I really hadn’t expected temperature swings of fifty degrees or more. Sufficiently motivated for the first time, I finally figured out all the drawstrings in my mummy bag, discovered the right way to use a scarf, and fell in love all over again with my wool-lined muck-boots. Native of temperate climes, this trip found me applying all the little lessons I’ve learned sitting on cold aluminum benches at the ice rink during Max’s figure skating lessons. These are skills I acquired too late in life that I’m happy to share with my sons.
Bundled for a midnight visit to the pit, I looked up and saw Orion’s bow for the first time. I had seen the brighter stars of Pi Orionis before, but in the clear, dry air of a moonless desert night, the constellations are no longer crude connect-the-dot figures. The overwhelming mass of tiny, unnamed stars challenges the domination of bright stars with the subtle shading of pointillism. Like my old favorites the Pleiades, they tease at the corner of vision, shining bright to a slightly averted gaze, but growing shy and faint under direct scrutiny. They flesh out the figures in the sky with shining detail that can’t be captured by a star chart. I begin to appreciate the strangeness of our night sky. Within our terrestrial domain, where clear visibility is less than a hundred miles, the horizon seems so very distant. While directly overhead there are distances beyond imagining that feel somehow much closer, with so much nothingness between.
By the time I woke the next morning, the men had already abandoned repair in favor of recovery. Craig left camp again at eight o’clock with both grandsons and the broad directive of acquiring means to drag our Escape out of the wilderness. Cut off once more from communication, Nick and I struggled to keep faith as the hours stretched into yet another full day beside the dunes. We spent the morning on the sand, observing the still desert majesty and the machismo of US Air Force fighter jet pilots. The day brought nearly as many flybys as visitors in terrestrial vehicles, passing nearly as close. After lunch, at a loss to explain Craig’s continued nonappearance, we set out along the road together on foot, resolving to play chicken with the setting sun. We lost that game, turning back as the cool shadow of evening began to fall. In the time between, we played lightheartedly with all of the contingencies of finding our way out alone, in the case that Craig remained AWOL. Perhaps he was teaching us a lesson in adulthood. Perhaps he had rolled the Ranger into a ditch. Perhaps he would appear shortly, with a U-Haul van and auto transport trailer. In that case, I would kiss him, I said.
Craig earned that kiss. I had just finished pitching our smaller tent yet a third time in the lingering twilight, when Nick detected the faint but distinctive sound of a trailer rig on washboard, and the equally faint but distinctive marker lights of a large U-Haul rental van crawling steadily through the valley into camp. Craig had spent his day driving fifty miles to Big Pine where he was told to try Bishop, then fifteen miles north to Bishop where he was told they had what he needed in Ridgecrest, then a hundred and forty miles south to Ridgecrest where he obtained a four-day rental on an excellent van to pull the appropriate auto transport trailer the final hundred and seventy miles north back through Big Pine again to Eureka Dunes. On that last leg, the trailer shredded a tire. When Craig finally rolled into camp around six o’clock that night, the trailer was wearing the spare from the little Ranger pickup it carried. No small miracle the bolt pattern matched.
There was joy and laughter and much talking all around as we unloaded the Ranger, positioned the trailer, and risked the Escape’s dry engine to make the brief climb up the ramp. I’m sure three new camping parties that had rolled in for the night, an international mix of languages I couldn’t identify, were glad to see the back end of our noisy little caravan. Nick and I piloted the rental van while Craig brought up the rear in the Ranger pickup, with the two boys split between us. An hour of painstakingly slow washboard road brought us to the pavement, where we checked the load and let the Ranger pass in front to provide guidance and light on the winding mountain road ahead.
Sometime between Craig’s ascent from Big Pine with the van and trailer, and our return through the same dark canyon approximately four hours later, a man named Eric Gustafson, an Inyo County local, lost control of his vehicle on a straight but steep section of Death Valley Road. His little white pickup must have rolled multiple times before coming to rest cab-down across both lanes. The camper shell had come to pieces, its contents strewn wide. When we came upon the wreck, the truck’s engine was already cold, as was the driver’s body. His death had been bloodless. Judging from a lack of skid marks on the road, he may simply have fallen asleep at the wheel, never to wake.
Inadequately bundled against the cold, Craig, Nick and I searched the hillside for passengers possibly thrown from the cabin or, heaven forbid, the camper compartment. All we found were the scattered belongings of a competently equipped outdoorsman. A book lay open, face-up on the pavement. I wondered what he had been reading out here in the wilderness, but couldn’t bring myself to shine light on the page. A man’s library might tell you something about him, but a single book could be misleading.* I didn’t want to label him, to reduce his complexity to a caricature in my mind. Yet Nick did pause, he later told me, to scan the chapter title at the top. It read: Does God Love You? The author might have the question backward. But if this man found satisfying answers, passing his last days in this awesomely beautiful, lovingly cruel desert, we will not know in this lifetime.
The road was blocked, but the wide shoulder allowed us to clear a path around the wreckage. We sent both boys with Craig in the Ranger to drive toward cellphone service and alert local authorities. Nick and I stayed with the trailer rig, illuminating the hazard for any vehicle that might come upon us. In the hour we were there, none did. Shivering in the warm breath of the van’s heater, I made a tactical error. For lack of anything else in my field of view, my gaze fixed upon the scene in the headlights. Unambiguous from our angle, the overturned truck and the broken body within etched themselves into my memory before the emergency crew arrived to end our vigil. Later that night, at a rest stop on Highway 395, I asked Craig to tail the trailer rig, because I found it intolerable to watch our own pickup truck on the dark road ahead.
We snatched a few hours of sleep at a rest stop just before dawn, and arrived home Tuesday morning, barely in time to send the boys to school, having missed Monday entirely. I was relieved to confirm that our dogs had not eaten our chickens, nor had our cats eaten too many things they were not supposed to. Nick took an additional day off work to unload our disabled vehicle, return the van and trailer to the local U-Haul, and drive Craig home. A new oil pan and gasket for the Escape arrived on our doorstep today.** Nick intends to fabricate a skid plate as well.
This past week since our return has been marked by a renewed sense of purpose and well-being, and by long nights of deep, untroubled sleep. I sometimes forget the restorative power of these sojourns, sharpening my perceptions and strengthening my constitution. I am no longer harried by the hectic pace of my schedule, and more able to maintain good humor despite inconvenience. Hard teacher, the desert has made me light and flexible again. For the moment at least, I can retain what is of value, and discard the rest.
* I surely would rather not be judged for a library copy of The Two-Income Trap.
** The old one leaked a little even before the puncture, so it needed doing. Now we have an excuse.
For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.
The Adventure Begins
“There’s oil coming out”, Jan calls. I guess I didn’t come off that rock slowly enough. In hindsight, a skid plate would have been a great idea, but now we’re six miles from the campground at Eureka Dunes, over fifty miles from the nearest town, and about twenty miles from cell reception. The course of action is clear: 1. get off these rocks, 2. cut the engine, 3. get the car back to the campground, and 4. find reception to call my dad.
With the engine off, we all loaded into the car and began our unpowered retreat to the dunes. At first we moved well. Being that we were in a wash, leaving a slot canyon, the grade leaned in our favor. The going got rough when the road got level and soft; about two miles from camp we sank into the sand. The only way the car would reach its destination now was at the end of a rope tied to a four-wheel drive, and the only way we were going to get one of those was for me to trot down the road until I found one.
It’s always nice to slow down and experience a place on foot, and I’ve come to find that the best experiences come when running about four to six miles per hour. The deep sand was annoying, but the scenery was extraordinary. The dunes rose 700 feet to my left and jagged mountains, colored like a Harley Davidson jacket, completed the embrace to my right. If not for the emergency I would have preferred more time.
Time wasn’t on my side, but luck was. At the campground I found a group of guys who had been our neighbors the night before. I explained our plight and they eagerly agreed to assist. Their T100, old climbing rope, and Jan’s knots won out against the sand. Ely, the Toyota’s driver, performed expertly, keeping his speed low and easing power onto the rope. As we prepared for the pull, he had admitted he was still young to driving off-road; I think he earned his ‘heroic save’ merit badge.
With the Escape safely back to firm ground, and a pit toilet, I climbed back into Ely’s truck and we went cell hunting. Between all members of our party we had four cell carriers at our disposal, and AT&T won (maybe about 5 miles out). I had to tell my dad about the cracked oil pan twice before he realized I wasn’t joking. I laid out my plan for a roadside repair. He would gather a tool kit and jack, drive my truck 300 miles to meet us, and we would repair or replace the pan in the morning. The plan was lofty, and we wouldn’t be able to communicate again until he arrived, but we were both old veterans at extracting Leporidae from our nether regions. We’d figure it out.
The Waiting is the Hardest Part
Almost immediately after setting it in motion I began to doubt the reality of my repair-in-place plan. There was virtually no chance anyone would have the part in stock, and if the pan couldn’t be replaced I would need to find a shop that could repair it. The boys enjoyed an extra day on the dunes, and their joy bolstered me against despair. At 2:30 I went out for a run to “get reception and call my dad”, knowing full well I couldn’t cover enough ground before dark. In any case the run occupied my mind and killed time.
All through dinner I stared through the darkness to the north. After the food was all packed away, the fire had died, and my family was tucked away, I remained transfixed on the formless void of the night. Then, what I wanted, an unnatural glow over an alluvial hill became a pair of point lights. They drew closer and my spirits lifted. I greeted my father and directed him to a tent Jan had erected for him. I retired to my own tent and slept peacefully, knowing I wouldn’t be sleeping here a third night.
My phone’s alarm went off at 4:45, normal for a Monday. I was already a quarter-hour into disassembling my car and it was freezing. I didn’t have a thermometer, but judging by the rate at which my water bottle froze, I’d have to say it was below 20°F. I could only hold a wrench for about 10 minutes before I had to stand up and move around to warm my hands. Progress was slow but steady; then it seized. Or should I say I found that three exhausted bolts were seized. I broke one and the other two refused to move. That was it. The pan couldn’t come out until the exhaust did, and the exhaust wasn’t going to come out. Plan A moved beyond the veil at 6:00 AM on December 5th, 2016.
On Second Thought
With no time to waste my father and I began to discuss our next move. Clearly we needed to get the car out of here. Hastily, we settled on pulling the Escape with my pickup; but we didn’t have a strap for that. Naturally, the salvation of this new plan B was for my dad to drive into town and buy a strap. So, with little deliberation, we loaded the boys into the warm truck, with their grandfather, and sent them on. Jan and I just needed to break camp, reassemble the car, and wait.
It didn’t take long for Jan and me to finished our part of the plan. So again, we wallowed in the infinite possibility space of waiting. It wasn’t long before we climbed the dunes to stare north again. We were up there for about an hour before we heard the first jet. Perhaps five miles away flying closer to the valley floor than we sat, was an Air Force fighter plane. We were so transfixed by the maneuver that we didn’t notice the second jet until it was a few dozen yards away climbing directly overhead. We saw a total of five jets that day, but none was as awesome as the first two.
Around noon the novelty of the dunes stopped being enough to keep the demons at bay. Lunch was a good attempt, but not quite. So, like before, we struck out on foot. It turns out pessimism is lazy. Every mile saw a greater attrition of hopelessness, as sound solutions precipitated. Just before turning around we concluded that the best way to extract our vehicle was to rent a U-Haul van with an auto transport trailer. If my dad returned with a rope we would turn it down and proceed with the U-Haul solution in the morning. Janet told the breeze that she would kiss my father if he returned with such a rig.
We returned to camp about half an hour after dark. Three new families had arrived and pitched tents. Jan set to our sleeping accommodations and I prepared our cold dinner. A couple crackers into our meal I saw light in the distance. At first it was just headlights, but then I swore I could make out marker lights. Yes, they were definitely marker lights; on the cab and corners of a box. And, there was definitely a trailer. I thought, “there’s only one person, within a thousand miles of here, crazy enough to drive that rig down this road”. The surge of excitement was palpable. We weren’t pulling the car into town, we were going home.
Janet, true to her word, gave my father a big wet kiss.
Success Not As Planned
My father recounted how, that morning, as he drove north from the campground, a nagging voice began to grow louder and louder. Every bounce and jostle, every tight turn and every steep down grade fed the voice, until it was his only thought. Flat towing an Escape with a Ranger, using a rope, was so stupid an idea as to be criminal. He felt terrible changing the plan without being able to tell us, but none of use could afford the time lost if he looped back.
He purposefully drove to the Big Pine U-Haul dealer. He was told there were no truck/trailer combinations in town; he’d have to go to Bishop. Again, in Bishop he was told his princess was in another castle. This time, however, the clerk went the extra mile and called around to find the equipment. My father could find the appropriate rig in Ridgecrest, 135 miles south. After a couple more hours teaching his grandchildren what perseverance means, my father was driving a moving van towing a Ford Ranger on an auto transport trailer.
The rig towed beautifully. That is until a CHP officer signalled my father to pull over and told him one of the trailer tires was coming apart. Now, I like to imagine my father standing on the side of the road, staring at the trailer with a truck on it…at the trailer, then the truck…then the trailer tire, then the truck tire…they’re pretty close to the same. He verified the wheel bolt pattern, with a piece of scrap paper; they were the same. With that, and an hour’s detour for a star wrench, he was on the road again, running the spare from my pickup…I love my father.
Salvation Isn’t Easy
My dad was done driving that moving van, and said as much. So, with the Escape strapped down and everyone in their preferred vehicle, I took command of the towing rig and we set out for home. The road to Big Pine was a mix of horrors. The first ten miles had such heavy washboard, one would suspect the ribs were mechanically installed by sinister park rangers. The best I could do was 10 miles per hour, and very often 5 was too much. The next several miles weren’t too bad, just a mix of dirt and paved straight grades. Then, finally, the road turned into a narrow windy strip of tarmac; every turn, left or right, I was forced to cross the centerline, just to stay on the road. Of course that wasn’t a problem, since we were completely alone.
Perhaps ten miles outside Big Pine, in my dad’s headlights, an unexpected form began to coalesce. “I swear that looks like tires, but why are they on the top?…oh God, that truck is on its roof”. A white Toyota pick-up lay fully across the road, the contents of its bed strewn a hundred feet in either direction, and its cab crushed halfway through the window glass. I grabbed the flashlights we had in the van and my father and I quickly approached the wreck, calling out for survivors. We received no reply. As we got closer, the driver’s left knee and arm came into view. The knee was elevated, as in a fetal position, and the arm reached out the open window, hand pinned under the roof. We called again and I reached for his wrist. There was no life in his veins and his skin was as cold as the air that frosted my breath.
This was clearly no place for children, and we needed to call 911. Jan wordlessly moved both our boys to my pickup and my father beat feet to cell service. Jan and I were left to search the surrounding area for any passengers. There were none; not in the cab, not among the debris and not along the shoulder. This man died alone.
The police arrived about 45 minutes after we found the wreck. I gave my report and we were ushered around the scene. Our journey home continued, like so many through-the-night journeys before it; ending, at home, a couple hours past dawn.
While searching the crash for signs of life, I happened upon a book lying open. I spared a glance and saw the chapter heading, “Does God Love You?”. I have never been able to knowingly adopt any belief, but I have the utmost respect for people’s quest for meaning. It consoled my numbed heart to think this stranger had spent his final days in the aching beauty of Death Valley actively searching for meaning.