A day after signing a job offer, I away into the desert. Sensing shackles, I seek freedom – one last mission before retirement. Go south, young man, to Death Valley, not to find myself – for I have already this year – but to reflect on what I have wrought.
John and Tom lament they have not recently camped alone. Tom once slept on the side of a highway on the way to visit a friend, but he hardly calls this camping. The combination of solitary with Death Valley could portend disaster, like the Donner Party in winter. Yet I am the light brigade who marches into the Valley of Death.
Solitary camping hones competence, as if washed up on a deserted tropical island. I prepare for the worst in a San Francisco Safeway Tuesday morning at 9am, one block from my apartment. I race around the supermarket for provisions. I have only a vague manifest for the next three days of provisions. I’m buying just for myself. I careen with the shopping cart from cheapness, like generic oatmeal; to decadence, like nutella and an urge to live only off Fruit Loops; to prudence, like six gallons of water and twelve pints of beer.
I withdraw ten twenty-dollar bills. I keep track of expenses:
Groceries: $85 including $6 for water and $16 for beer.
Gas along Highway 5, in Mohave, at Stovepipe Wells, in Trona, and close to Gilroy: $30, $20, $20, $30, and $35 = $135.
3 nights camping: $36 at $12 per night.
Park entry fee: $0 as I have an about-to-expire annual park pass.
One tour of Scotty’s Castle: $15.
I reach escape velocity from the Bay Area, Tuesday morning at 10am, as morning city traffic is lighter than anticipated. I crest the windmills at Livermore and descend into long swath of the agricultural Central Valley. Orchards burst glowing pink, white, and the most verdant of lime green. Frequent signs lament water shortages and accuse Congress of creating a dust bowl.
I did not book a hotel for tonight. If it grows to dark, I shall stay cheaply at a motel along the highway. Otherwise, I will camp. I cruise through laughable Bakersfield, past the prison at Tehachapi, and turn north at Mohave. Because of the Sierra Mountains, I must drive a long southern loop around treacherous terrain. I enter Death Valley National Park at 7pm while the cloudy sky darkens. I hate setting up camp in the dark.
I reach Stovepipe Wells at 7:30pm, disoriented from the lack of light and signs. I pitch camp quickly, cook two Garden burgers with macaroni and cheese, and open the beer. It will be a vegetarian week full of carbohydrates and a shortage of vegetables. Despite my low 130 lbs. on Superbowl Sunday, I have already gotten bigger.
I’m carting along typhoid tablets in a freezer chest on ice. To prepare for Vietnam travel next week, I’m inoculating myself four times in advance with an attenuated typhoid. This oral vaccine must be kept cold, so like someone transporting a donated organ, I’m hauling around an ice chest with just one pill inside.
My campsite is not as remote as I envisioned. The twenty or so tent sites are pushed to the back of the RV park. The tenters are situated as if in large parking spots for a two-day rock concert. The lack of trees let me see and hear everyone. The nearby Stovepipe Wells hotel glows angrily at night. I’d rather push on into the remote desert and embark on a vision quest. Instead I eat my dinner, drink my three beers, smoke a little pot, do some stretching, read my Nadine Gordimer novel (excellent), and wrestle with a deflating air mattress. Fortunately, I brought along a back-up mattress pad.
I’m not alone on this trip. I travel with my trusty Toyota. She complains ascending hills and has an insatiable taste for motor oil. I brake rarely, careening instead around corners. I happily drive happily as the car’s twists would sicken most passengers. The car and I have traversed over forty states together and many national parks. She even protects. At about seven at night on my way into the park, we hit an owl with a solid thunk off of the right windshield. Drunk and tired, I climb on the trunk at night and lay my back against the rear glass to look up at the magnificence Death Valley stars.