Death Valley – Arrival

17. May 2015

Der folgende Blogeintrag unterscheidet von meinen sonstigen Beiträgen in zwei wesentlichen Punkten: Er ist in Zusammenarbeit mit meinem Reisepartner entstanden und daher auf Englisch verfasst. Er handelt von unserem Neujahrsausflug ins Death Valley, dem Tal des Todes in Kalifornien. Ursprünglich als Gruppenausflug geplant, führten verschiedene Umstände dazu, dass wir letztendlich zu zweit um unser Überleben kämpften. Unsere Feinde? Kriegerische Kaktuskolonien, kreisende Aasgeier, messerscharfe Salzkristalle, und die jahrhundertealte deutsch-französische Hassliebe.

[The following blog entry differs from my usual entries in two major points: It is a collaboration between me and my travel partner and is therefore written in English. We recollect our New Year's trip to Death Valley in California. What was originally planned as a group trip, ended up being a cosy camping for two due to various circumstances partly beyond our control. Cosy camping? Oops, am I deviating from the German text? Not really, because the centuries-old deep love between French and Germans culminated in our joint fighting against militant cactus colonies, hungrily circling vultures, razorsharp salt crystals, and bullying all those obnoxious companions in our camping group.]

My contributions are going to be in the normal font.

My travel partner’s comments are formatted like this.

On to Death Valley!

Knowing Christiane’s sweetness and laudatory way of describing people, I expected my ass to be kicked when she started writing a blog entry on our trip to Death Valley. But in an admirable act of fair-play, she gave me the opportunity to give my point of view. Well, “gave me the opportunity” might not be the best description. My life would have been endangered if I had postponed this further.

I won’t expand on our encounter; first because there is already a blog entry about it, and second because there is nothing special to be said. We saw each other for the first time in Utah, a likely place to meet for a German living in Finland and a French living between California and Italy (no, not in the Atlantic). What drove us there is also as ordinary as it can be: a simulated Mars exploration mission in the desert, as part of a selection process that could lead us to the Arctic for one year.

A few days after we left Utah and started our re-adaptation to modern terrestrial life (wait, why did I rehydrate my peanuts?), I received a skype call from my purple-headed crewmate. I don’t remember the reason for this call – probably an appropriate reply she found to some teasing I had done a few days before – but we talked for a while, and then started calling each other from time to time. A couple of weeks after this first call, we had a conversation that went something like this:
- Cyprien, I have bad news for you.
- What? You’re coming to California?
- How the hell did you guess?
- Just thinking of the worst news that I could think of right now.
Even though she was kidding when she first said it, my answer made irresistible her wish to kick my ass. I thus found her a few weeks later, riding her luggage in front of San Jose’s airport.

We started our trip on New Year’s Eve of last year, a Wednesday. Ahead of us an eight-hour drive, behind us a late night of exceptionally careful planning, we got up around eight o’clock in the morning. While I had an extended breakfast with two of the girls we were staying with at the time, Cyprien went to shop for our food for the next few days. After he returned, we grabbed all of our equipment and threw it into the van Cyprien had borrowed from a friend and that we needed to return before our trip. We rented a little red Chrysler, drove to said friend’s place, loaded our stuff into the little red Chrysler, left the keys to the van on the kitchen table for the friend who wasn’t home (I love thee, America!), and finally hit the road at a time that could be described as late noon with some squinting and optimistic euphemism.

The morning of our departure to Death Valley, we equitably shared preparative tasks: I would prepare the camping equipment and buy the needed supplies, and she would have breakfast with two friends. After renting a car and stuffing inside way more things than it was designed for, we hit the road.

Now, who is this Cyprien person I keep talking about? We met at the MDRS in Utah, where we started a quarrel that called for a revenge so loudly that I eventually decided to visit and haunt him in California. He’s French, working on his PhD in Rome, but at that time he was stationed at NASA in California. We exchanged a few skype calls and soon his ego was unable to decline the challenge and he agreed to put up with me for some three weeks over Christmas and New Year’s. Considering how lovely we had been to eath other in Utah, three weeks seemed like a scarily long time, but anything shorter would have resulted in unaffordable flight prices for me. ‘Twas the season…

People at the mansion where we were staying joked about who of the two of us would make it out alive. Cyprien is stronger than me, we would have no cell phone coverage for days, and Death Valley is not exactly bursting with people – I was not the one who people placed their bets on. I had put some hope in Carmel, another crew member of MDRS, and some of Cyprien’s friends at the mansion, but the closer the trip came, the more apparent it became that I’d have to be as nice as possible to Cyprien if I wanted to return alive. Ugh.

On the way to Death Valley we stopped a few times for fuel, firewood and food. Being exhausted from the short night and the extended breakfast, I was glad Cyprien refused to let me drive for a bit and I got to take a nap after sunset. I woke up when he stopped abruptly after seeing a fox, and both of us being curious, we left the car for a bit to hunt the fox. It was a clear moonlit night and the area was very inviting, but we were already running late for setting up our tent in the National Park before midnight and so we returned to our car.

Apart from the heat that I would not have expected on New Year’s Eve in this hemisphere (if a Venus Society was created and looking for an analog test site, I would have a few spots to show them between Cupertino and Death Valley), the ride was enjoyable. Driving on the wide, straight American roads when you learned to drive in Paris tends to relax you more efficiently than a spa. When the sun reached the horizon, it became obvious that we were in the right direction: evidence of civilization was scarcer and scarcer. Soon after the sun was fully gone, a small silhouette appeared on the road. A kit fox, licking something on the ground. I stopped a few meters in front of it and got out of the car to observe it (this woke up Christiane; her facial expression made me consider hiring a food taster for the next meal). I was expecting the fox to run away; but no, this arrogant little thing looked me right in the eyes. He clearly found me more annoying than scary. I took a few steps closer, but it did not start walking away until I was less than two meters away from it. I followed it and it didn’t speed up, walking away like a prince. After a couple of hundreds of meters, I walked back. It followed me. When I sat back in the car, it was already back licking the ground in front of us. I hurried Christiane, who was comfortably wrapped in various pieces of fabric and slipping back to sleep, to come outside and see the fox. She looked at me like I was some mold growing on her food. The fox might have been unusually confident, but it was not so daring as to stay in front of a just-woken-up Christiane. It ran for its life.

In the middle of nowhere, one and a half hours before midnight, we passed the sign marking the entrance to Death Valley National Park. There was no visitor centor and the surroundings were rather flat and exposed, so we continued without hesitation. Another half hour later we started ascending towards the mountain chain that still separated us from the actual Death Valley, the Panamint Range. We found a turnout suitable for leaving the car overnight, scrambled the most important pieces of our equipment into our backpacks, worried about the late time and hastily set out to look for a suitable camping spot. I originally insisted on a nice view over the valley behind us, but eventually we settled for a smooth spot just below the top of a small hill between us and the valley.

For those who would like to follow on a map: We stayed a few kilometers before Towne Pass, close to the “29km”, on the other side of the road. The pass is in the middle of the western border of the National Park.

Before we could finish preparing our tent for the night we had to drop everything and rushed towards the top of the hill. The ground was trickier than we expected, with sharp rocks strewn everywhere and the moon revealing basketball-sized cactuses split seconds before stepping on them. Consequently the final ascent took us longer than expected and midnight struck us in the middle of the slope. Cyprien was the one who had kept an eye on the time, and so it was him who stopped suddenly in front of me and made me almost fall over him. Luckily he caught me before I could step into a cactus and we wished each other a happy new year. Afterwards we continued to ascend to the top, drank some champagne and enjoyed the scenery.

From there Cyprien returned to the car to get some firewood, whereas I returned directly to the tent. Finding the tent turned out to be surprisingly difficult, as I could not see it from the distance in the moonlight and the landmarks looked very different from the other direction. Just when I started to worry about having accidently passed it, I could finally make it out about fifty meters ahead of me. I finished preparing the tent and started taking some pictures while waiting for Cyprien to return.

Then started the race against the clock: we wanted to celebrate the year-to-year transition in Death Valley, and midnight was close. If there had been a speed camera on this part of the road, I could have now stapled the ticket to my resume and applied for a test pilot position. When we started to think we were about to make it, we saw that the road we wanted to take was closed and we had to take a detour. We finally entered Death Valley National Park, found a suitable spot, loaded all the equipment we could on our backs, in our arms and between my teeth, and ran, away from the road and up a rocky hill. At midnight I stopped Christiane and breathlessly wished her a happy new year. I then ran back to the car to take some logs and ran even faster back to the camping spot, hoping to find Christiane and not a purple piece of ice. Fortunately she was only halfway through her freezing process, and I could thaw her with a fire.

After he arrived, he made a fire and we had a barbecue. Since we were on National Park ground, we could not make the fire directly on the ground, but instead we made it inside a grill. Lacking both small pieces of wood and the tools to cut some from the huge logs we had bought earlier in the day, we had some trouble starting the fire, and only managed by generously using blocks of fire starter. In the end though, we had an enjoyable barbecue under the starry nightsky, with nothing around us but desert, mountains, and silence.

It must have been closer to sunrise than midnight when we finally crawled into our sleeping bags and went to sleep.

We then enjoyed grilled sausages and Californian Champagne (yes, California labels some of its sparkling white wines “Champagne”) between our rocky floor and starry ceiling. If the rest of humanity had been eradicated that evening, or if the Le Pen family had started a foundation supporting the integration of immigrants, we would not have had any clue about it until late the next day.



Our tent, around 1 a.m. The bright moon allowed me to take this picture with patience and without flash.



They say the French are good chefs. But some sausages were burnt that night…

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