11 years ago today, Day 79

This is going to be the hardest post of the trip to write, especially as I don’t particularly want to shortchange what was mostly another lovely day on my Long Trip.  So bear with me, please.

Anyway.  I spent most of the morning exploring more of Death Valley.  First I drove up to Scotty’s Castle, an extremely absurd place up on a hillside overlooking the valley:

The castle
The main entrance

I’ll let you read the link for yourself, but suffice to say that the living history tour (given by a docent who pretended it was 1939 during the house’s heyday) was fascinating.

After that, I drove up to Ubehebe Crater, a placename I never could find the origin of.  It’s a meteor crater, way up on the hillside, and it was very cold and windy up there, at least for someone wearing no more than shorts and a t-shirt:
From the edge

After that I headed back to Stovepipe Wells where I bought, among other things, a small pottery jug as a souvenir, and ate lunch.  Then I headed west, out of the park and over the Panamint Mountains to U.S. 395, the highway that runs north-south east of the Sierra Nevada mountains.  I needed to go south almost to the bottom of the Sierras before I could cross them, because most of the more northerly passes, here in late November, were closed for the winter (I suppose I could have gone north a hundred miles or so to I-80, which stays open all year in spite of the snow, but I don’t remember why I didn’t do that). 

On my way out of the park I stopped to take a picture of a coyote:

He was interesting to me because he was so different from a coyote I’d seen in Yellowstone a couple of months before.  Longer legs, thinner fur, bigger ears, longer tail.  Obviously the Yellowstone coyote was compact and furry because he needed to stay warm during the long, cold winters there, while this Death Valley coyote was lanky and less furry because he needed to stay cool in the desert heat.  At any rate, I found the contrast interesting (and I still regret not being able to get a photo of that Yellowstone coyote to demonstrate it).

Outside the park, I turned south on US 395, a route my parents and I had traveled many times on our way from LA to Oregon and Idaho for summer vacations when I was a kid, and drove south through the desert for an hour or so:

The Panamints from US 395

I was headed for the town of Ridgecrest, which is about the only community of any size in that neck of the desert.  I had just turned east on CA 178 when I glanced at my map, as I had hundreds of times before, for over 14,000 miles in fact, to see how much farther I had to go. 

It didn’t turn out the way it had hundreds of times before.  Apparently I bumped the steering wheel by accident, because the next thing I knew the car was on the shoulder of the road about to plow headfirst into the sand.  I panicked, waythehell over compensated, and, well…

I came to hanging upside down from my seatbelt.  I let myself out of it and, carefully avoiding a number of sharp, pointy things, managed to get myself upright.  I shoved on the door.  It wouldn’t move.  I reached up to the steering wheel and honked the horn.  It worked. 

A few minutes later, I heard scrabbling noises outside the car, and a couple of minutes after that, the door opened.  I crawled out and stood up.

There were about a dozen people, half a dozen cars, and at least three cell phones.  When I asked how they knew to find me, there was a chorus of “dust plume.”  A state trooper arrived a few moments later and took charge. 

I and my car (which had to be loaded on a flatbed tow truck) were hauled to Ridgecrest, where Owl was taken to a towyard (after the trooper liberated some clothes and other belongings for me — including my camera and binoculars, which were undamaged inside the armrest storage thing between the front seats) and I was taken to a motel, after declining a trip to the hospital since I had survived, so far as I could tell at the time, remarkably unscathed (I did develop some interesting bruises and a small sore spot on the top of my head by the next day, but that was it — yes, I know how lucky I was).

I will be the first to admit I was in shock.  My heart is pounding now even just thinking about it.  I made phone calls, insurance and family and a rental car.  “I walked two blocks to a little fast food joint called the Golden Ox and struggled to keep the tears back long enough to eat half a hamburger.” 

Oh, and I tried to run a load of laundry, only to have the washing machine at the motel die in the middle of the cycle, apparently from all the crud in my clothes.  Bits of glass and rocks, mostly — oh, and mud.  If I may make one recommendation for anyone who travels with a cooler, it is to please empty the melted ice out every morning before you set out.  Just in case.

Anyway. I didn’t get much sleep that night.  I spent quite some time on the phone with a friend back home, but I couldn’t close my eyes.  I kept seeing the accident, over and over and over.

And that was how I came to roll my car out in the middle of the Mojave Desert.  As my brother-in-law told me a few days later, “You understand that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, don’t you?”