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With gas prices close to $4.50 as we left the Thrifty rental car parking lot in downtown San Francisco, I didn't even question our decision to wait an extra hour to receive our pre-ordered compact car as opposed to immediately taking the free Jeep upgrade. Had I just a tiny bit more foresight or perhaps done a little more research, I would have jumped at the offer of a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
The previous week it had been 120 degrees in Death Valley and the weather predictions said it was only going to be in the 80s or 90s the Saturday we were going to be there. I was totally disappointed. What's the point of going to Death Valley without really getting the Death Valley experience of 120-degree heat? Why go to the hottest place on earth when I can get 80 degree heat in my backyard? Because of our unexpected adventure, it turned out that I was so relieved we didn't have to additionally concern ourselves with the possibility of heat stroke or an overheated radiator.
I was at the helm of our plastic Fisher Price Dodge Caliber, as we turned onto the unmarked (leaving me with some doubt that it was even the right path) dirt road that leads to Racetrack-—the first sight among many that I wanted to see in Death Valley. Racetrack is a dried up lakebed scattered with rocks that range from 10 to 700 pounds. The interesting thing is that these rocks move (even the several-hundred-pound ones) and when they do they leave a trail behind them that lasts for years. The mysterious thing is that no one knows how they move. Studies have been done and theories abound, but no one has ever actually seen them move so the answer remains a mystery. However, there is one explanation seen by many scientists as most probable. You can read more about it here:
With our "Check Engine" light on, we approached Racetrack from the southern entrance, which happened to be the unmarked, road-less-traveled way to get there [and it made all the difference -Alex]. The map left no indication that this route was any less maintained than the northern route and since it fit in along the path of our tour of Death Valley, I figured this was the way to go. However, I was grossly wrong as it turned out that this trail had no signs and many forks leading us to constantly wonder whether we were even on the right path. Not to mention, the road was a narrow path that wound along mountains and down into valleys with many deep ruts and washed-out conditions. After driving for hours, I felt a similar vibration to what you feel after pushing a lawn mower for hours, yet I couldn't' tell if it was solely from the washboard trail or my nerves that hit their crescendo after driving through two huge sandpits. That's right, if it wasn't enough that we came across a herd of cattle blocking the narrow mountain road delaying us by 20 minutes, we had to drive through two enormous sandpits housing enough sand to please an army of 5 year olds. The first one I drove through was fairly deep and long, but nothing compared to the second one, which was deep enough that, as I drove through it, sand flew up and covered the entire car leaving me with zero visibility until we made it through the pit and could turn on the wipers. If there is anything that growing up in rural Michigan taught me, it was how to drive through sand and snow and I now thank that experience to having been able to maneuver the roads through Death Valley. I was actually able to locate the sandpit on Google Maps here if you want to take a look:
Also, here's another perspective of this massive sandpit.
In the middle of the map there are two white areas. The larger one is Racetrack (you can see The Grandstand in the northwest section of it, which you can see from our photos is enormous, but looks tiny on this map) and the one to the right is the sandpit. This is where the generous offering of a Jeep from Thrifty would have come in handy and the only time I've regretted not choosing a gas guzzling vehicle.
Speaking of gas...this happened to be another concern. What if we ran out of gas wandering along these roads? Not only did I have to worry about potentially breaking down or getting stuck, but since the drive took far longer than I had anticipated the thought of using every last drop of gas in our tank before reaching any destination crossed my mind. All of this lead to a very stressful drive to Racetrack. At one point when I wanted to cry, I remember Alex telling me "Well, we're in this situation now so we might as well enjoy the adventure! There's not much more we can do."
You know, it wasn't just the thought of getting stranded or dying that freaked me out, but I really didn't want to become an example. As we exited the north entrance to Racetrack, I picked up a pamphlet at the deserted ranger station and in this pamphlet there was a "How Could this Death Have Been Prevented?" piece. Can you imagine dying in Death Valley--how sadly ironic and morbidly embarrassing. You not only have to die, but you also become an example of what not to do. This exacerbated my fear as we were lost roaming through ragged mountain roads. It would be almost as mortifying as receiving a Darwin award.
In retrospect everything was worth it (party because we made it safely home), because being on the playa of Racetrack was absolutely breathtaking. Even after studying numerous photos the weeks leading up to our visit, none of them compare to actually experiencing it. And the element of being so remote, so far from civilization made it that much more impressive.
I can't end without mentioning that the finale of our Death Valley trip culminated in realizing that we had a flat tire and I was so glad that we didn't know about the flat until after we had safely made it to Ridgecrest because I think that would have been fried my very last nerve keeping me sane. The final three and a half hours of our trip were spent going 55 mph on the small donut found in the trunk of our car. As we approached LA, I couldn't help but start laughing hysterically—cars were driving past us 80, 90 mph while we couldn't go more than 55 in our tin can, donut for a wheel car.
I learned that Death Valley is not to be messed with--and if you must grace yourself upon its natural beauty, I suggest coming prepared....or just stay on paved roads and visit only when it's not excessively hot. I will certainly be back!
Also, more photos from our trip can be found on my flickr page here: www.flickr.com/photos/fru...5490036523/
The Maglev, named because it operates by electromagnetic force, accelerates so quickly and goes so fast that it feels like you are in an airplane about to takeoff or perhaps an amusement park ride. It, in fact, accelerates so quickly that after we boarded I was beginning to wonder if perhaps I should be wearing some kind of seatbelt or harness around my shoulders like on a roller coaster in case there is some kind of collision or the train needs to make an abrupt stop. These questions didn't stop as we approached a speed of 200 km/hr, then 300, then 350, and 400. I was starting to get a little uncomfortable and was thinking "Thank god I didn't have to be the first person to ride this train" because even after knowing that it's been operating without a hitch since 2004, going at such fast speeds on a train feels so abnormal. The top speed we reached was 431 km/hr, which was maintained for a while, but since it's going that fast it's not long before it has to decelerate and stop because we reached the destination. After the ride was over all of the tourists clamored by the Maglev for a photo next to the world's fastest train. And all I could think was of how I wanted to ride it again and again forgetting that it was merely supposed to be a method of transporting me from the airport to the city.
As I rode the BART to work from the airport yesterday, I was noticing myself being highly critical of it and, in general, all US mass transit. Why don't we have any super cool levitating trains that are propelled by magnets?
"Passing through a vegetation corridor, you will be amazed to find seven or eight monkeys standing in a line along the path holding triangular flags or saluting to welcome their honored guests. Some naughty ones are wandering with their flags in their hands, and even some are imitating their visitors' odd ways of walking. How funny they are! Walking and laughing, you will see young monkeys chase and fight with each other, and a stout one jump into a pond from quite a tall tree with an excellent 360-degree turn in the air. What perfect spray he has made that only a master sportsman could make! Not only is their jumping skill masterful, but also their swimming technique is quite superb. In the pond, some of them dive, some swim freestyle, and even some do the breaststroke. While watching, you will be amused and amazed, and you won't be able to help yourself applauding and clapping for them. In addition, you will enjoy yourself with the displays given by the monkeys in the circus performances. If you wish, you can take photos with these cute monkeys and play with them. However, one must remember not to wear red clothes in order to avoid the naughty monkeys who might be annoyed with you, and be careful when feeding them."
Additionally, it was wonderful seeing some of the countryside and rural parts of this country. While this place is a tourist destination, it's also still a predominantly farming and fishing village. You will not see large cruise ships docking anywhere near the beaches here.
Something I've very perplexed by that perhaps someone could shed some light on is that there have been numerous instances on this trip where I've been asked by people on the street to be photographed with them. At first I thought it was a little strange, but cute. My thought was that I'm a foreigner and therefore, they wanted to get a photo with someone who comes from so far away, but then I realized that there are plenty of other white tourists here who they aren't asking to be photographed with so I'm not so sure that's the reason. There are three possible scenarios that I can think of and perhaps someone else could provide insight as to why so many people have approached me for a photograph. 1. Seeing an American is a complete novelty (I've kind of ruled this out, but perhaps it is actually the case.) 2. I'm some kind of freak of nature. 3. Very frequently I'm told by strangers on the street, cashiers at check-out counters, wait staff at restaurants, and any other number of people and places that I look like Sarah Jessica Parker. Since all white people look alike, perhaps they thought I actually was SJP. It seems like a stretch, but at one point on this trip I actually had to stand there for 10 minutes while a series of people waited to get photographed with me! It felt like what I imagine being a celebrity feels like.
Quite a few people have figured out the first destination, but no one has correctly guessed where this second destination is, so keep emailing me!
After landing we exited the plane from the back and took a bus to the airport. At first the hot gusts of air were welcomed, but the longer I stood in the heat, the more uncomfortable I was becoming with having layers of clothing on. I shed some layers and felt better, but found it interesting that the longer I was in the heat the more I needed to shed. I didn't really reach a point where I felt comfortable in what I was wearing until I was in a tank top and my legs were bare.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to book a hotel ahead of time because we had such little time to get to the airport to catch this flight, so our first mission was to find a place to stay. We soon realized that this was going to be more challenging than we had thought because we could not find a single person in the airport who spoke English. There were a few women at the information desk who claimed they spoke a little and clearly had some English training, but they still couldn't understand our phrase of "We need a hotel for tonight." In all the traveling I've done, I've never had such a communication barrier. To make things more complicated, we only had $7 worth of local currency and there was not a single place at this little airport to exchange money. Thankfully, Alex and I are both the kind of people that find these situations fun and enjoyable. Despite having no money and no way of communicating that we need to book a hotel, we remained calm. In fact, we both reveled in the adventure. Eventually, one of the very friendly women, who were working so hard to help us, used her cell phone to call someone she knew who could translate. We got the phone numbers to several local hotels, were able to book a place and got in a cab (that was clearly not an official cab) to our hotel with not enough cash to pay the driver. However, as all people in this country are incredibly congenial, he was understanding and waited for me to exchange money at the front desk to be paid.
No one has figured out the city yet, so keep emailing me your guesses!
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