Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Death Valley, Part I: I had to start this story in 1985? What?

Death Valley is the most deadly and dangerous spot in the United States. It is a pit of horrors - the haunt of all that is grim and ghoulish. Such animal and reptile life as infests this pest-hole is of ghastly shape, rancorous nature and diabolically ugly. It breeds only noxious and venomous things. Its dead do not decompose, but are baked, blistered and embalmed by the scorching heat through countless ages. It is surely the nearest to a little hell upon earth that the whole wicked world can produce. New York World, September 16, 1894

My trip to Death Valley began 25 years ago, in my fifth-grade classroom in Nova Scotia. My teacher had – foolishly – assigned me a seat within easy reach of the in-class stash of books, which I would read indiscriminately and heedless of whatever lesson was happening around me.

The books ran the gamut – I read “The Hobbit” that year, the entire Narnia chronicles (twice), a number of Enid Blyton “Famous Five” books, Farley Mowat’s “The Dog that Wouldn’t Be.”

Other than Joan Clark’s “The Hand of Robin Squires” (which led to adventures of an entirely different kind) no book that I read under my desk sticks in my mind as much as… well, I don’t remember the title. It was some compendium of “Amazing Tales” drawn from the U.S. designed to get boys to read, and was filled with AMAZING TALES indeed: Escape from Alcatraz! Evel Knievel jumps Snake Canyon! Rocket Cars! The Sabre Tooth Tiger of the Tar Pits! The Corvette! And, of course, Death Valley!

The name alone would have got me, as is has many thousands of others, but there was more: It was below sea level? But dry? My ten-year-old mind couldn’t even understand how that worked. It was the hottest place in North America? Wow! The driest! Sure! It had scorpions! It had rattlesnakes! It had gold mines, and cowboys, and con-men and ne’er do wells of all sorts! Sweet Rabbi Jesus, I wanted to go there.

When we found out, two years ago, that we were moving to California, my first thought – I am not exaggerating, literally my first thought – was that I would be getting my chance to go to Death Valley. It was the only place in all of California I really wanted to see – not L.A., not San Francisco, not the beaches or the celebrities.

I had not had a chance to actually visit the place, despite it being a tantalizing three-hour drive from my home. I was waiting my moment, and my moment arrived when my friend Jon called from Ottawa. He wanted to come visit and
per established practice, bond over the experience of shared hardship, canned food, and non-existent plumbing. And what better place to re-capture our camping mojo than in a place that features mountains (in which we’d never before camped), desert (in which we’d never before camped) and a variety of poisonous animals (with which we had no familiarity). I mean, surely Death Valley is only called that to attract tourists, right?

Once we’d decided on the locale, and the method by which we’d get there, we decided to do some research (this goes against every camping principle I hold dear, but hey, I’m a Dad now). And so, I called up the Death Valley Park Rangers in order to get some advice on how one might go about camping there.

Before this phone call, I was interested in Death Valley. After the phone call, I was excited about Death Valley. The reason for the shift was the man I reached, Jay Stone. Is that not the perfect Death Valley Park Ranger name? Go on, say it out loud in a Clint Eastwood voice. Even better, he had just about the most agreeable horse ridin' tobacco chawin' cattle-drivin' drawl I ever did hear.

He told me that camp site we’d want on the first night, when we were driving in, was Texas Springs. “It's generator-free,” he explained. “Is it tent-only?” I asked. “I don’t reckon,” he reckoned. “But you’re not like to have much in the way of company that time a' year.”

For water, we should have 4 liters per person per day ("That's what I count on when I go canyoneering") Temperatures, he informed me, “get up to 80 easy, even in March.” I forgot to ask about the nighttime lows, such were my palpitations at his manliness.

For backpacking, he described Surprise Canyon, for which we were to park outside the park and hike in: “That’s what I’d do,” he said, in a tone that made it clear that this being America, land of the free, he wasn’t about to impose his will on our dreams by offering an endorsement stronger than that. All in all, he seemed amused by my tenderfoot apprehensions, and gave me his direct office number so "I don't have to walk all the way over here from my desk if you call again," which gave me a mental image of his office being at the far end of a converted cow barn or something, with an ole’ style telephony machine at the far end at which he would occasionally shoot with his Colt Revolver.

He also promised to mail me "Everything we've got" in terms of pamphlets as he held scant hope the dude-ranch posers and layabouts he worked with got my message requesting same from the week before.

I think I fell in love with Jay Stone, Death Valley Park Ranger, just a little bit.

IN THE NEXT POST: Mommas, don't let your sons take a taxi to the Gun Store!

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