. And that was before we had gotten to the really
rough section. Imagine rocky washouts on steep switchbacks that border sheer cliffs dropping thousands of feet to the valley floor. I was genuinely fearful for my life in only a couple of places. In one instance I had visions of sliding backwards straight over that cliff edge as Little Red refused to go upwards over one particularly treacherous switchback and instead began a sliding retreat. We eventually coaxed her over the rockiest sections and found our way onto a highway that led us to Titus Canyon, a narrow, winding road bordered by rocky walls reaching thousands of feet towards the heavens. I was surprised to see such a narrow four wheel drive road in a country where almost all SUVs are huge monsters designed to fit at least eight passengers.
I was also surprised that death Valley, so hot and ugly during the day, could also be so incredibly beautiful in the evenings. One of the passes into the valley bears the name 'The Gates of Hell', and for good reason. The summer temperature averages 115 degrees Fahrenheit (that's 46 Celsius). The highest temperature ever recorded here (or anywhere in North America) was a blistering 134 degrees Fahrenheit (57 Celsius). That was back in 1913, leaving me pitying the poor ranger who had to venture out into the hottest desert in the hottest part of the year to watch a thermometer.
If you look out across the valley during the day, the floor is flat and blindingly white because it is composed mainly of salt, while the hills around appear dun and grey. However, if you venture out shortly before sunset, most of the canyon walks are shaded and the previously dull cliffs and hills are rendered a brilliant array of golds, reds and pinks by the slowly falling sun. I believe the most beautiful of these landscapes to be the Red Cathedral, an amazing rock formation towering over the aptly named Golden Hills. If caught just before sunset it is absolutely astonishing.
However, such rare moments of brilliance do not last long, and the following day will again be hot, dry and dull. After four such days, I happily drove out of that infernal valley and crossed the border into Nevada. Twice.
When the 49ers, a party of would-be miners with their families heading to the California goldfields, finally made it out of the continent's hottest desert after being lost for more than two months, one of the party turned and happily exclaimed 'goodbye death valley!'. The name stuck. I too was quite happy to say goodbye as we climbed the Amargosa Mountains and pointed the compass East. I was even happier to say goodbye the second time. Why did we return to that barren, scorching hole in the earth after making it almost 90 miles into the cool, breezy hills of Nevada? Because Michael left a couple of tent poles at our last camping site. Actually he left them on the roof of the truck a-la-Chevy Chase in that classic road trip story of the National Lampoons. The tent poles are not the only thing we left behind in Death Valley. We also lost two plastic plates (not so much lost as shattered); one fork; possibly my camera charger, although it could be in Santa Maria or anywhere else; and my truck's exhaust pipe. The last item we must have lost on the roughest four wheel drive road I have ever experienced. Little Red, as my truck has been dubbed, was not the only vehicle to lose an appendage on that road. When we pulled over to camp for the night, we spotted a Nevada number plate, complete in a newish-looking plastic frame, lying on the next bend in the road