Thursday, April 21, 2016

Death Valley...and all that that implies...

It turns out that we really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when we decided to drive Sylvia across Death Valley. What we discovered was that Death Valley + Sylvia = Pure Terror. We can't decide if the smoking brakes, boiling break fluid or the overheating engine was most exciting. I have to give ourselves a little credit because we were at least smart enough to not drive when it was 100+ degrees. Though the day we chose was forecast to be in the 80's, it was still not the perfect day to cross. The winds were howling anywhere between 30-50 mph. Being shaped like a tall brick on wheels, Sylvia doesn't exactly handle high winds with grace. It's a constant battle to keep her on the road. It took us roughly two hours to get to Death Valley from Vegas. Once within the park, the winds were so high we got out of the van to sight see exactly, once. No one was interested in stepping out of the van to get pummeled by a sandblasting storm of sandy sand. We did stop at the visitor center and worked our way through the informative exhibit but then we just high-tailed it out of there. Even though we weren't really willing to get out of the van, the scenery was amazing and other-worldly. The blowing and drifting sand only made the landscape more dramatic and desolate. I can see why they chose to film parts of Star Wars there.

Driving into the park we dropped 5000 feet to -100 feet in elevation. The part we didn't really think about or realize is that we had two ginormous mountain range between us and our destination on the other side of Death Valley. We knew we were in trouble when we started to climb out and there was a sign on the side of the road warning normal vehicles, that have AC, to turn off their AC over the next 20 miles to avoid overheating the engine. We patted ourselves on the back for not having AC so we didn't even have to worry about turning it off and for being smart enough to not do this on a truly hot day. I was behind the wheel at this point and we chugged along in third gear for a while watching as the temperature gauge slowly rose until we were dangerously hot and then had to pull over to let the engine cool down. We had the mixed blessing on this climb to finally have a tailwind. (Yay! We don't have to beat into the wind. Sad. The wind is with us so it is not hitting our radiator and cooling the engine down.) After the engine had come down to an acceptable temperature Jason hopped behind the wheel and away we climbed, this time in second gear. Gulp. At long last we reached the top of the first set of mountains at 5,000 ft., to be greeted by a sign warning us of the 9% grade that awaited us on the other side. 9%?!? We said a little prayer and ventured on in third gear so the engine could slow us down. Jason intermittently hit the brakes to keep our speed in check. It didn't take long for our brakes to start smoking. Anxious to cool down the brakes, a white-knuckled Jason pulled over again. He put all his weight into braking us and we just barely rolled to a stop as our brake fluid boiled. Good God, what had we gotten ourselves into? Afraid of warping the glowing-hot brakes, Jason turned off the engine and kept Sylvia in gear opting not to use the brakes to hold us in place. We were at such a steep angle that the engine couldn't hold us and kept turning over. Slowly, in a slow motion panic, we inched forward in our pull out perched on the edge of the hill, as the engine turned over time and again. Finally we were forced to move on. Downward we coasted hoping to reach the bottom in one piece. We finally leveled out in a valley at around 1,000 feet where we were greeted by a giant dust devil.

In the distance loomed the next set of mountains. Oh man! Is Sylvia going to make it? The grade up the next pass was a bit more manageable and we topped out again at 5,000 feet. The road was so narrow, windy and steep and the wind so intense that Jason's nerves were shot by the time we got to the top. Luckily the drop down into the Owens River Valley was much less steep and we survived. Poor, poor Sylvia. That's a lot of vertical, up and down, for an old VW. I can't tell you how thankful we are that we have put so much work into making her run so well. If we had the old engine we would probably be stuck at the bottom of the valley right now. All that would have been found of us would be Sylvia's dusty carcass and four sets of white bones along side one tiny set of Pika bones. Without the brake work, we would have careened off the first pass into space. But I digress, and mustn't let my morbid imagination run wild. Seven long hours later, after covering only 250 miles, we arrived safely in the old Wild West of the Alabama Hills.

Though Sylvia struggled to make it out of Death Valley, I can't even imagine what it was like for the pioneers. As we crawled along fretting about our engine and brakes, I tried to wrap my mind around the gargantuan struggle it would have been in horse and wagon. Man, those people were tough.

Click here for photos.

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