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Lost in Death Valley

Sometimes when people are travelling, they like to be highly organised. They take the right maps, they plan their route out in minute detail and conform to a strict schedule. With this approach, you end up seeing exactly what you want to see. Obviously, you need to have some sense of where you are going. However, if you are too organised, there will never be any room for surprises. Your views of where you are going may never deviate from those that you had before you set off on your trip.

When I had the chance to visit a friend in California, I did not bother to organise anything. Why bother? We were in California, so surely nothing could go wrong? How could we possibly have any surprises from somewhere that was always on the television and always in films?

Unfortunately, despite his assurances, my friend proved to be even less organised than myself. As he lived in Los Angeles, I was at least relying on him to have some idea of how to get around California and the neighbouring states. At first he proved quite convincing. He had drawn up a list of places to see and had planned the route out on a map. He wanted to get out of the big city and head through the desert to see some of the national parks. That suited me as I was not particularly interested in staying in the cities. Little did I know that the route that he had planned was not on the map.

Don’t ask Faiz where he took this picture..

At first things went well. I hardly had to do any navigating because even in the desert everything was so well sign-posted. After touring the magnificent Grand Canyon we set out for a quick look at Las Vegas. We were in the right area so we thought that it would be worth visiting. After this we planned to head for Death Valley National Park. My friend told me that he had a found an excellent route that we could use to get there.

Always take a good map:

It was fun travelling through the Californian desert and we took our time driving. The desert was wild and beautiful and we stopped to take some artistic photos. It began to get dark, but still we did not worry. In fact we used the time to admire the desert sky – once in a while we would even see shooting stars.

The journey appeared to be a little longer than we had anticipated and so we stopped for some petrol, but not long after we left we had the feeling that something was not right. The signs no longer appeared to be showing the places we had been heading to a little earlier and there were fewer indications of civilisation.

It was obviously time for us to use the map. Eventually, I found it and tried to work out our route. The odd thing was that nothing on the map appeared to correspond to the signs we were looking at.

Through a process of elimination of all the towns that we had passed we suddenly realised that we had ‘dropped off’ the bottom of our map! We had been heading for a small town called Baker in order to look for a turn off to another town called Tecopa, but had somehow become lost. Of course this led to a big argument, with neither of us wishing to take the blame for doing something so stupid as to have brought the wrong map.

As we trundled along various desert roads, we began to wonder where on earth we were heading. It soon dawned on us that we were not sure which way we had come, so we could not even retrace our route. As with many roads in the United States these were all dead straight and were indistinguishable from each other. They possessed nothing in the way of lighting or road markings and there appeared to be no traffic. We even wondered why there were roads at all in these remote parts.

In our desperation we decided that if we came across a sign, we would try that route. These roads must have been built for a reason. Our logic was that any route with a sign meant a route to civilisation. At least this way we might meet someone who could tell us where we were. The problem was that some of the roads became more like dirt tracks and were extremely creepy. I remember one signposted as Yates’ Well.  It looked like the place where a mad psychopath might want to live and would have been ideal for a horror film.

Death Valley Junction:

Fortunately, we did find signs of civilisation, but not as we expected it to be. After miles of seeing nothing, we suddenly passed a small airstrip with a hut next to it. It was such a bizarre finding in the middle of nowhere that we had to stop to make sure! We could not actually find anyone there but it made us hopeful that that the small road would eventually lead to a town of some description. Perhaps it was a good thing that we had not found anyone at the airstrip. Who knows what these people were doing flying from the middle of nowhere? We decided not to dwell on those thoughts and get moving. The last thing we wanted to meet were smugglers – or aliens.

Our confidence in pursuing this route proved justified and to our relief we eventually found ourselves back on normal roads. By midnight we had reached a small desert town called Shoshone. Sadly for us, the one motel there was closed and so we decided to push on. Perhaps it would be a good thing if we could stay as close as possible to Death Valley.

An hour later we reached the tiny town of Death Valley Junction. Considering that we had been lost in the desert we were very happy to see it. Even the fact that the one motel in Death Valley junction was closed and that it looked like the archetypal ghost town failed to dampen our spirits. At least we knew where we were!

There was no point in going any further and as there were no signs of life, we had to sleep in the car. Unfortunately, it had become very cold and so we had to wake up every half an hour to switch on the engine and make use of the car heater. If that was not enough to spoil our sleep it decided to suddenly rain heavily in the night.

In the morning, as soon as we saw people in the motel we went in. The old man at the desk seemed a bit surprised to see us until we told him that we had to sleep the night in the car. He found this funny and told us that many of the English visitors to Death Valley were a little eccentric. He told us that English people often came unprepared for the desert.

The old man liked to talk and without prompting went on to tell us about the town. According to him, Death Valley Junction usually had a population of 7 and was about 30 miles from the next town. It made its money from the few tourists that took this route to go to the national park. Having seen the meagre facilities around Death Valley Junction, it did not sound like the main route for travellers. I found it strange that someone living out here would consider us eccentric!

We needed some petrol for the car, but he told us that the last petrol station had closed some time ago. However, he provided us with the useful information that Death Valley Junction had an opera house! Apparently, ten German tourists had arrived the day before to see a production, thereby more than doubling the population of the town. We soon realised that if it was useful information we were after we would be better to leave Death Valley Junction.

Death Valley national park itself was beautiful and the views were spectacular. It made the long journey there worthwhile. One of the most scenic points is called Dantes View. From here you can see a vast expanse of white ­ which we stupidly assumed to be snow. We hurried down to the white area to have a look at the ‘snow’ and found out that it was actually salt. Considering that it was the lowest point in the USA, that should not have been a surprise.

Death Valley also gave us the chance to fill up the car as the national park had a petrol station. The only annoying thing was that it was much more expensive than usual. It was an ideal way to charge high prices since there were no rival stations for miles around.

The land of Seldom Seen Slim:

As we left Death Valley we still had the problem that our map was wrong, but someone we met at the exit told us to head to a town called Trona on our way to San Francisco. Unfortunately, somewhere along the desert route we took, we arrived at a fork in the road!

We stopped the car and weighed up the options. As there was no one around to help us, it really was a 50:50 choice. This time we tried to be decisive and took the better-looking of the two roads. We felt quite confident about the logic of this until we came across signs warning us of sonic booms from aircraft! With our luck we were probably heading for Area 51.

Our worries only continued when we came across a group of people standing next to a mysterious plaque along the route. However, they were not undercover agents, there was nothing mysterious about the plaque and we were not in a restricted military zone. According to them we were now passing though an old ghost town called Ballarat and best of all it was on the way to Trona. The plaque, they informed us, was in honour of Ballarat’s most famous resident, Seldom Seen Slim.

Seldom Seen Slim had been a prospector in the early part of the twentieth century and ended up being Ballarat’s only resident. Apparently he had left school at a very early age and decided to run away to the west to make his fortune. By the time he settled near Ballarat the town was in decline as the gold rush faltered. Although everyone else left, he stayed on and somehow managed to scrape a living out in the desert for about seventy years. Legend has it that when Ballarat became unbearably hot in the summer, Seldom Seen Slim used to disappear into the desert. No one knows where he used to go to or what he did, but it might have accounted for his unusual name. Standing in that lonely and lifeless place, I had considerable respect for Seldom Seen Slim. It must have been a very tough life in the desert as a loner. How and why did he stay here?

Having taken in a bit of local history, we carried on to Trona. As we worked our way to San Francisco, we passed a number of these desert towns and they all seemed to have their own odd character. Some people were friendly and wanted to talk to us out of curiosity, whereas others were extremely wary of us and did not seem to welcome strangers. In some of these desert towns the inhabitants had every modern appliance known to mankind, yet in other towns they lived life at a more basic level.

Obviously, there is another side to life in California. It is not all San Francisco, Los Angeles and Silicon Valley. A lot of the time I could not see anything that would persuade someone to live in these remote areas. However, the locals were obviously content to live in the desert so what was the secret? Was this the antidote to big city life in California?

It may have been misadventure rather than adventure that led us to these strange places, but it was a worthwhile experience. Every time I see the stereotypical image of the USA on television or in the news, I wonder what the seven residents of Death Valley Junction are doing and what Seldom Seen Slim would have thought about the state of the world.

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