INTO THE VALLEY OF DEATH. Wait, what? Death? Almost. We were lucky. I share this tale with MANY lessons learned. Would I go back? Maybe. I’m that crazy. Or…maybe not. Only time will tell. Yet, our trip to Racetrack Playa, Death Valley, CA to see the “racing rocks” was one that will go down in history as a day of insanity, adventure, and miracles. My children still cry at times when they share the tale. As for me, I recall the trip with a giddy excitement like a child on Christmas morning combined with the fear of a dark alleyway and ending with complete humility and gratitude.
It all started when I took a Landscape Photography class from Doug Steakley back in July and August of 2014. We were challenged to photograph different locations with different focuses and assignments each week. I had always wanted to visit the racing rocks at “The Racetrack” in Death Valley, California as soon as I had heard that this scientific wonder existed, and so I devised a plan to make this bucket list trip a reality.
We were traveling to Las Vegas to go to the airport to visit my family back East. I looked at a map and thought, “Hey, why not stop at Racetrack Playa? It’s on the way!!!” Well, kind of… About a five hour detour round trip, but hey, it’s closer than making it a separate trip, right? So on July 24, 2014, we decided to take a red eye out of Vegas leaving at 11 pm and chose to stop in Death Valley before heading to the airport. It was going to be an epic adventure! 14 hours of driving from our California home, just to get to an airport! I wanted to leave early enough in the morning to have time to take photographs. Dave, my husband, and my six children were kind enough to agree to my insanity.
Because we were going on a plane, I didn’t really pack a lot of food. I had a box of granola bars, a few snacks, and at the last second threw in our 7-gallon water container. I had also packed some sandwiches for lunch and planned on getting dinner at the airport after were were finished in Death Valley at The Racetrack. Big mistake. BRING LOTS OF FOOD and more importantly, WATER!!! You never know what chain of events can happen and it’s better to be prepared.
The trip to Death Valley was, for the most part, uneventful. Luckily I had done some research prior to going and saw a video of a “short cut” via Lippincott to Racetrack Playa that was CRAZY – large rocks and steep drop offs. No thank you. We decided to play it “safe” and go the normal way. This way consists of entering into Death Valley on 190, passing Stovepipe Wells and then turning left onto Scotty’s Castle Road.
While it was hot, these roads were nicely paved and pretty straight forward. (Lovely cell phone pic from my car:)). We stopped at the Visitor’s Center to make sure we were going the right way and spoke with a really nice ranger who ALMOST talked us out of our trip altogether. But he didn’t.
Every blog I read in preparation for this trip said to ignore the rangers’ advice. Apparently, said one person, “all the rangers” say it’s a dangerous trip and we were advised not to listen to them, but to proceed. So we did. My husband talked with the ranger and told him of our plans to go see the racing rocks. The ranger said, “I wouldn’t go out there if I were you. It’s a really dangerous time of year.” Dave came back to the car, concerned, and I retorted, “They all say that. We’re going!” Hindsight, LISTEN TO THE RANGER. Just maybe they know what they are talking about? After traveling down Scotty’s Castle Road, we got to a fork. We went left, down Ubehebe Crater Road towards the crater. Just past the turn around for the crater, there is a gravel road leading towards Racetrack Playa.
Going Off Road
Off roading it is like driving on a GIANT washboard. You can only go 5-10 mph and you have to travel down this shaky road for about 27-29 miles. It’s all technically off-road but was pretty clear on where you needed to go.
We have a GMC Yukon Denali with AWD, so we figured this would be no big deal. Although it was super shaky, it was pretty uneventful. We went slow and enjoyed hearing our voices crack and break up with every word we spoke. Everyone was in good spirits and the adventure was real. We even sang songs, laughing at the way we sounded.
6 miles from Racetrack Playa, you hit a wooden marker known as “Teakettle Junction.” Why people hang teapots in the middle of a desert I’ll never know. But there it was. There is little to no cell reception out in Death Valley, but here at Teakettle Junction I had a bar, so I took a picture and texted it to my sister back East.
The Final Approach
Finally, with much anticipation, we saw our destination. There it was!!! Racetrack Playa. Off in the distance we saw “The Grandstand” floating in a sea of cracked earth. It was beautiful!
We passed The Grandstand and found parking at the end of The Racetrack.
Arriving at Racetrack Playa, Death Valley, California
Yes, I’m grumpy in this photo, dirty, and travel weary. I didn’t know Dave took it:) The sign says, “No Vehicles on Playa,” however, there were tons of foot prints and tread marks all over the place. I was really disappointed. The earth was baked firm, so I knew I could hike to find a place for photos, but it was really hard to find anywhere that wasn’t marred. I had to walk out a good distance before I was happy and ready to set up my tri-pod. Even then, there were foot prints, but at this point we were behind schedule and I didn’t want to waste any precious time as I wanted to catch a plane later that evening and see my family.
Then the heat began to sink in. It was hot. REALLY hot. I don’t even think I fully computed just how hot it was. After doing a little bit of research hindsight, I found out that it was the third hottest day in the year. Death Valley for the longest time was known as the hottest place ON THE EARTH!!! Why didn’t I check the weather forecast? It’s like I was so obsessed with going that I forgot reason or logic. It was 125 degrees F that day. Higher than the average for that area. HOT.
People die in that kind of heat. I don’t remember how long I was out on The Racetrack. Maybe 20 minutes? Maybe more? Time lost all meaning in that moment. My children had already gone back to the car. It was so hot that my camera began to malfunction. Buttons that used to work stopped working. Focusing mechanisms were going haywire. I was naive and didn’t think to bring a canteen of water with me.
The Dangers of Too Much Heat Exposure
Ultimately, I laid down on my stomach to get this above photograph of the racing rock. All I remember is laying my head down on the hard baked earth and closing my eyes. Thoughts of falling asleep and never moving again swam menacingly through my brain. Then I heard a distant voice calling my name. “Mom…MOM!!!” I opened my eyes and saw a hazy image in the distance. My two older boys were running across “The Racetrack” carrying a cup of water. Quickly, they lifted me up and gave me water to drink. I didn’t even know I was dehydrated or suffering from any kind of heat stroke. Wasn’t I taking photos? I looked up at them and said, “I think it’s time to go.” Oh yeah… Definitely time to go… Past time to go I think…
Lesson #1: DON’T GO TO RACETRACK PLAYA IN THE DEAD OF SUMMER!!!
It’s called Death Valley for a reason. My uncle later said, “That’s why God created winter.” I didn’t understand at first, but I do now. You are vulnerable that many miles off road in that kind of heat. It’s hot. Your organs begin to swell and your mind begins to fog up. Walking to find a ranger would likely kill you before you ever found one. So…lesson learned. IF I ever went back, it would be at a cooler time of year. Maybe October or early spring or winter. NOT JULY, and certainly not on the third hottest day of the year!
In addition, I assumed that heat and miles of jarring would not have any impact on my AWD “super” car. I WAS WRONG. We headed back up the gravel road, later than we wanted, hoping to get to the airport in time. One mile into our journey our car stalled. The engine completely cut out. Zilch. Nada. Nothing… I looked at Dave, horror struck and feeling stupid, and asked him to try and start it again. It thankfully started, and then not one minute or so later, it cut out again.
Lesson #2: RENT a jeep, or better yet, TWO and go with a group so that if you do get stuck, you will have someone to help.
To make matters worse, our car had started to overheat. We had to open windows and turn on the HEATER…in 125 degree F weather!!! When the car cut out a second time, we decided to say a prayer. I am a woman of deep faith. When you are in a situation like this, with only a couple granola bars left and a little bit of water with six children in the car, you pray. I don’t remember who prayed first. I just remember the prayer asked for our car to start so we could get to the airport on time. We started the car up again. Almost immediately it stopped. This continued time and time again. Every time we went over a few miles per hour the engine would cut out. Consequently, our trip became painstakingly slower, hotter, and scarier by the minute.
The Power of Prayer
At one point the car cut out completely and wouldn’t restart. Dave and I got out of the car and my kids took a blurry photo. Dave was considering walking the rest of the 27 miles to see if he could find help. We thankfully didn’t proceed with that plan. I’m not sure he would have made it.
Dave got back in the car and our prayers began to morph and change. We took turns, a different person saying a prayer every time our car broke down. “Heavenly Father, please help us to get to the airport in time.” “Heavenly Father, please help us get out of the desert.” “Heavenly Father, please…don’t let us die.” Once again, the car came to a complete stop.
It’s Amazing How our Perspective Changes When a Trial Comes
My kids were all crying at this point. Even the teenagers. Through a tear-streaked face, one child said, “I never wanted to go here in the first place.” Another chimed in, “Mom, why did you take us here to die?” Then another, “Mom, the ranger told us not to go.” Mom, mom, mom… I knew it was my fault. I prayed, “Please, don’t let my actions kill my children.” I thought about the text I had gotten through to my sister. At least she would know what happened if we didn’t show up at the airport in the morning. Would she send help? Would it be too late? The car started.
Ultimately, what should have taken us one hour to drive the 27 miles on the gravel road took us over 4 hours. We sang, we prayed, we cried. At last we made it to the paved road near Ubehebe Crater and then, to my horror, the car cut out completely. We were still deep within Death Valley, out of food and low on water. Every time we tried to start the car, nothing happened. At least we were on paved road. There was hope. Maybe someone would find us? But the sun was getting lower. We looked off in the distance not sure what to do and then we saw him. There was a solitary man standing by the Ubehebe Crater.
My husband began to run around the bend in the road hoping that the man wouldn’t leave before he got to him. It was a good distance away. My oldest son, Timothy, seeing the man heading towards his car, darted across the desert, bypassing the road. They caught up with him in time. They pleaded with him to alert a ranger to our situation. In the mean time, my other son, Jordan, tried to help push the car while I tried to start it. Nothing. Nothing again. Another prayer was given. I tried again and then…it started. Jordan jumped in the car and I drove around to meet Dave, Tim, and the man.
While leaving the car running, I jumped out and asked the stranger what he was doing this far out in the desert at Death Valley. He said that he had come out to get some air. Who comes to the desert to get some air? He was headed towards CA, however, he felt like he should follow us. Forget the airport. We needed to get out of the desert the quickest way possible, and that was towards the northeast, the opposite direction of Las Vegas. Miraculously, our car didn’t stall again.
Getting out of Death Valley
As a result, we drove really slow in front of this benevolent stranger, and made it out of Death Valley and onto US 95. We were followed by his car for a little bit on 95 and then, without warning, he was gone. Nowhere to be seen. There were no exits that I remember. No car in our rearview mirror. Perhaps he had slowed down? Maybe he turned around? I’ve even wondered if he were a mirage or heavenly messenger. We may never know. He was certainly heaven sent to help us that day. I don’t even remember his name, but if he ever reads this, I just want to say, “thank you.” You may never know what you did for our family with your kindness but we are grateful.
What I do know is that he was there when we needed him and now we were on a major highway with cell reception and hope. We stopped to get gas. I called my dad and told him we would keep driving towards Vegas but that we would likely not make the plane in time. We would look for a hotel and a car repair shop. But…that was not necessary. We were able to drive at highway speeds and went straight to the airport with 30 minutes to spare. Running like the family in Home Alone through the airport, we boarded our plane, knowing our car may not start when we returned to Vegas. When the plane took off, I said a prayer of gratitude. As we missed dinner, we ate what we could on the plane.
The end of the story is too long for this post. Suffice it to say that after getting home from our vacation, we ended up getting stuck the next day and had to pay $800 to get our car towed and repaired. The problem was that the grounds on the engine had become completely severed due to the jarring. Every time we hit a bump at a certain speed, the connection was broken and the car would cut out. The tires were so hot that every rock we hit took a chunk out of our tire. It looked like a mottled mess of rubber. We were lucky we didn’t get a blown out tire.
In conclusion, it is truly a miracle that we made it out of what my kids now refer to as “the valley of death” that day. I will cherish the photos I got at Racetrack Playa. It ended up being an expensive trip, to say the least. That said, I am wiser and stronger because of it, but mostly…just grateful.
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