Not dying in Death Valley

When my wife and I were newly-wed, we went camping at Death Valley. It was wintertime, which meant it was hot and dry during the day but cold and windy at night. Cold enough that we huddled in our tent for dinner. We’d brought our bikes, but didn’t end up using them much. Instead we wandered around on foot—my wife taking pictures while I looked up flowers in a field guide.

Next day we visited Scotty’s Castle and the visitors center. Both are now closed to the public due to a flood and, more recently, a fire. After a full day, we decided to drive home using a backcountry road marked as high clearance 2WD. Perfect for my S10 pickup truck. We drove up from the valley floor up into the Inyo Mountains. It’s a spectacular view when the sun begins to set: rugged and desolate.

We were surprised to find snow up in the mountains. After a weekend in one of the driest, hottest and lowest places on Earth, it struck us as incongruent to find snow on the ground. Further on, the snow had melted and formed large puddles in the dirt road. Suddenly we arrived at a large section of road covered in a small pond. Behind us the road was too narrow to turn around and before us was a stretch of water of indeterminate depth. The sun had dipped below the horizon and darkness approached rapidly.

After pondering our situation, I decided to drive through the water and hope for the best. If worse came to worse, we could sleep in the bed of the truck and ride our bikes back to the visitors center in the morning. Fortunately, the water was shallow and the road not so washed out that the truck got stuck. But then we faced a new conundrum.

Beyond the water it was possible to turn around. Should we cross back over and drive to safety? Or continue on and hope there was no more flooding? In the end we decided to press on. Shortly we discovered another flooded section. This time there was an abandoned camper trailer. Presumably another traveler had decided to ditch it in order to avoid getting stuck.

Once again I drove through. Thanks to the high clearance of my truck, it didn’t seem like we were at an any risk of getting stuck. And once again we pressed on. There was more snow and a few minor puddles of water. And soon we were over the pass and headed down a desert road that looked as if it had never seen rain, much less flooding. (Of course desert areas are prone to devastating floods since they don’t have vegetation to hold back mudslides.)

We we arrived at the highway, we discovered a large sign blocking the road. Driving around it, we looked back and saw that the road we’d just used was officially closed from this direction. Why there was no sign going the other direction, I’ll never know. Perhaps we missed it in the dark.

It’s always hard to judge risk. Probably we’d been lulled into a a false sense of security by having gear for camping and mountain bikes. Getting stuck in a remote area isn’t a good idea even if you are prepared. There’s always the chance we would have made things worse by leaving the truck or by getting separated. Who knows if anyone would have come up that closed road to find us? In the end, it was just an adventure and we came home as planned.