“We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” —Joseph Campbell
This is a quote I like to keep in mind, especially while I’m traveling. It seems whenever I bother to make plans, the Universe always tears them apart.
My plan: spend a few days exploring Death Valley National Park solo, then head south to visit Joshua Tree National Park for a second time with a friend I met in New Mexico.
What actually happened:
I arrived in Death Valley after dark on October 21. While descending into the valley, I drove along the edge of a steep cliff, but couldn’t see anything through the dark. I knew I was somewhere incredible.
I stayed in a free campground inside the park boundaries, which is pretty rare as far as National Parks go. When I woke in the morning, I was not disappointed. I found myself surrounded by mountains on all sides, and I could see for miles in all directions.
Death Valley has some incredible geology at play. The valley is sinking at about the same rate as it is filling with debris from the eroding mountains. At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the deepest place in the entire western hemisphere, displaying marvelous salt crystals from an ancient seabed. The sand dunes within the park are the ground up remains of mountains and are shaped by impressively strong winds.
From the main road, you will only scratch the surface of the park. For vehicles with high clearance and four-wheel drive, the park is practically infinite. Before Death Valley was added to the National Park System, it was a popular off-roading recreation area. When it became a park, the NPS compromised with the off-roaders, agreeing to keep all existing roads but preventing any new ones from being made.
On my second day in the park, I decided on a whim to drive through Titus Canyon, which features a ghost town called Leadfield about halfway through. The official park service map said that high clearance was “recommended” but did not mention four-wheel drive. When I actually arrived at the entrance of the one-way road, there was sign contradicting the map that said four-wheel drive was indeed recommended. I decided to take my chances.
Looking back, I don’t regret driving through Titus Canyon. It is one of the most incredible drives I have ever been on, and exploring Leadfield was a unique experience. I had to drive very slow and deliberately, and my van did bottom out in some places. But I made it, seemingly without any issues. I did notice that my shift stick was jammed up a bit. I assumed it was something that would clear up on its own once I got back on better roads.
This was not the case.
I was on my way to my campsite for the night, and planned to drive to Joshua Tree early the next morning. I stopped and put my van in park so I could read a sign, and then when I tried to put it back into drive, my shift stick dropped straight down. It was disconnected from the transmission. Fortunately, I was within sight of the park’s main road and was able to flag down a couple of young men who took me to an emergency phone.
I sat on top of my van for several hours waiting for a park ranger who never came and struggling to hold a cell signal for long enough to talk to my mom and a Geico representative. Eventually, we were able to get a tow, and I arrived at a repair shop after midnight. It wasn’t until we arrived that I realized I had left my wallet in Death Valley on top of the pay phone I used to call for help.
I spent nearly all of the Oct. 24 at the repair shop in Ridgecrest, about 100 miles outside of the park. The chord connecting my shift stick to the transmission had severed. While they searched for the right part, I told my friend I would meet her in Joshua Tree later that night. A random stranger messaged me on Instagram to tell me her husband had found my wallet and he would be able to bring it to Ridgecrest after work.
Given the option between waiting for two days for the correct chord and making a modification to the chord that didn’t quite fit, I chose the modification so I could leave Ridgecrest sooner. The kind stranger messaged me again to tell me her husband had been called into Nevada for work overnight and would not be able to bring the wallet to me after all. So I resolved myself to driving through the night to get my wallet and then go all the way to Joshua Tree.
When I arrived at the gift shop where the man had turned in my wallet, the employees were unable to find it. They eventually realized that, because it hadn’t been found on their property, the manager had turned it over to the park rangers, who proceeded to lock it up in the visitor’s center for the night. I drove to the visitor’s center in hopes someone would be there to get it for me, but it was after hours and the chances of finding help were slim.
While backing into a parking space at the visitor’s center, the modified chord came undone from the transmission, and I was unable to shift my van. Again. I was now stuck in Death Valley and blocking the roadway for half of the parking lot. Frustrated and in tears, I called for a tow and scheduled for it to arrive at 8 a.m. I wasn’t going to leave again without my wallet.
My friend, who was waiting in Joshua Tree, decided to come to Death Valley. This time, I would stay in the park while my van was towed out, and the two of us would go play in Death Valley while we waited for the repairs to finish (correctly, and free of charge). I recovered my wallet when the visitor’s center opened in the morning. All of my cash and cards were intact.
I didn’t end up leaving the Death Valley area until Oct. 29, and I scrapped my plans for Joshua Tree and headed to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks instead. Despite all the frustration, the time the two of us ended up spending together in Death Valley will remain as a highlight of this entire year of travels. I’ll let the pictures tell that story.
Don’t rush vehicle repairs.
Come to Death Valley prepared. With the heat and the rough roads, mechanical issues with vehicles are common. Even once my friend rescued me in her brand new pick up truck, we had to change a flat tire when we attempted to do a rerun of Titus Canyon.
Let life be.