Week 35: Death Valley Is Incredible

People often ask us what our favorite place has been so far on our trip.  Well, there have been quite a few. We covered one of the places in our last blog post: San Diego, “the land of perfect weather and also lots of beer.”  As luck would have it, our next stop also turned out to be one of our favorites: Death Valley, “the land of perfect February weather and also has some beer.”

Whoopsie Goldberg

It’s a long 362 miles from San Diego to Death Valley, and we unfortunately had a bit of a rough start.  About 20 miles out of San Diego, we stopped to get gas in a suburban gas station that looked like it would be big on the GasBuddy map.  Unfortunately, the station turned out to be very small.  Stubbornly, we tried to drive into the station anyway, but we ran into some problems.

Well, more accurately, we ran into a cement pole.

It was really just a scrape along the side of the RV, but we got a little stuck.  A little-known fact is that an RV pulling a car towed “flat” (i.e., not in a dolly) cannot back up without causing serious damage to the car.  As you probably guessed, that is how we pull our car, so it took a little while – and some frantic unhooking – to get things sorted away.  In the end, it wasn’t so bad: the RV was basically fine, minus an inconsequential dent and some paint, and the cement pole didn’t even seem bothered.

Our takeaway from this misadventure?  Never leave San Diego.

Drive into Death

After feeling like novice RV drivers, we shook off our little blunder, and marched on to Death Valley.  The drive took us back past Los Angeles, up and over a fairly serious mountain pass, and then into a long descent into a broad plain.  The population began thinning out, and we passed Barstow, then Baker (home to a giant thermometer – don’t visit in the summer), and the road to the Scrabblicious town of Zzyzx.

We turned off the interstate, and towards Death Valley… another 120 miles away.  It was dark by the time we made it to our campsite, basically a painted rectangle in a big dirt parking lot.  We definitely annoyed our star-gazing neighbors with our headlights as we tried to back into the spot in the dark.

We couldn’t see anything outside except for a different neighbor, who was watching a black and white movie outside, on a big-screen TV, using a fairly loud generator.  (We declined his invitation to join.)  So, we went to bed, and the next morning, we awoke to a pretty magical place.

Welcome to Death Valley

The first thing you should know about Death Valley is that it’s a National Park, which means that it’s awesome, and the second thing is that it is huge.  More than 5,200 square miles – roughly the size of Jake’s home state, Connecticut.  It is in California, which is the size of 32 Connecticuts, and it’s tucked away in the eastern part, near Nevada.  There isn’t a whole lot around.

Now, just about everyone has heard of Death Valley, and they probably know it is dryhot, and low.  All of those things are true – much of Death Valley is dry and hot, and the low parts are very low: at 282 feet below sea level, it is the sixth-lowest place on Earth (just ahead of the smelly Salton Sea). But most people (like past Jake and Heather) do not know that Death Valley is also full of stunning mountain ranges, beautiful rock formations, and towering sand dunes.

If you go hiking up in the mountains, you’ll find some very unexpected things, like a waterfall.  And if you are lucky enough, and visit during just the right February, you will be treated to something spectacular: a once-in-a-decade wildflower superbloom.

Death Valley National Park is a totally unique, beautiful, and surreal world, the ultimate desert. The mountains and rocks here are not gray and featureless, but vibrantly colorful.  There are salt flats, shimmering white, covered with undulating patterns.  There are sand dunes, canyons, and arches, and the stars shine brighter in Death Valley than almost anywhere on Earth.  And when we were there, it was carpeted with wildflowers.

Flower Power

Death Valley experienced a wildflower “superbloom” this Spring, basically because it rained last October.  We understand it is normally bare, but when we were there, the flowers were growing everywhere throughout the park.  Vast fields of yellow flowers covered the rock, flecked with white and purple flourishes like paint from a flicked brush.

The flowers were a constant companion in our exploration of Death Valley.  Unlike most places you see flowers, these grow on what otherwise looks like bare rock, so there’s nothing green behind it.  The effect is totally unique, seemingly flaunting the impossibility of what nature has produced.

Like everyone else at Death Valley, we also took their picture!  A lot. It wasn’t unusual to see people pulled over on the side of the road, wandering into the wildflower meadows with their cameras.  We did it too, and we have to say – frolicking through a wildflower meadow was definitely not what we imagined when we decided to visit Death Valley.

We Went Down, Down, Down

There was a lot to see in Death Valley, so we’re going to start at the bottom and work our way up.  The most famous part of Death Valley is the salt flats, specifically the area named Badwater Basin (named for a small pond you definitely don’t want to drink from). As we mentioned, it sits at -282 feet below sea level, making it one of the lowest places on Earth.

The salt flats are the result of thousands of years of flash floods, which wash salt and other minerals off the nearby peaks and into the low-lying valley before evaporating.  The salt forms into an array of geometrical patterns, endlessly shifting with the wind.  Although the temperature was comfortable, the sun was blazing; if we had visited in the summer, it would have been brutally hot.

An amazing fact about Badwater Basin is that it runs along a mountain range, or really, is part of it – imagine a flat plane, like a piece of plywood, that has been flipped up nearly vertically.  The result is that the peaks just a few miles away rise to more than 11,000 feet.  Seeing something that high from one of the lowest places on earth is surreal.

After Badwater Basin, and some more wildflower frolicking, we came to the awesomely-named Devil’s Golf Course. Speaking of an endless array of geometrical patterns, the shapes formed here are truly fascinating. However, the little salt and rock spires are sharp, and extremely coarse – signs warn you very strongly not to fall over onto them.

But we went out and took a few pictures anyway, because #YOLO.


The geology of Death Valley is extremely varied, and goes far beyond murderous salt flats.  One of our favorite features was the numerous slot canyons.  We walked through the Golden Canyon, which twisted and turned before opening into a much larger canyon.  We met a woman here on crutches – she had apparently just broken her foot, but decided to go through with her vacation anyway.  Hardcore!

We also drove up to Mosaic Canyon, which is about 1.5 extremely bumpy dirt-road miles off the main drag.  It featured incredibly smooth marble walls that were glorious to touch, as well as coarse, aggregate walls studded with millions of tiny rocks (the “mosaic”).  Extremely cool.

We also walked through the canyon at Natural Bridge, which unsurprisingly features a… natural bridge (arch). The views of the salt flats from here, seen over a verdant field of wildflowers, was simply stunning.

Painting With Minerals

Death Valley, like the Petrified Forest, offers lots of vibrantly colorful badlands.  We drove the park’s popular loop road, the beautiful Artists’ Drive, and gawked at the scenery the entire way. The crown jewel is called Artists’ Palette, a rock formation that looks as though each face was painted a different hue.  We don’t really know how this happens, but we suspect the culprits were highly aesthetic witches.

Nearby, but on the other side of the mountain range, was Zabriskie Point. This spot is known for its beautiful sunsets, and we saw a good one, albeit not as mind-blowing as it can apparently become.  Frankly, it didn’t matter – the infinitely varied badlands and the views of the valley are pretty under any kind of light.

Sand Dunes and Star Wars

One of the most famous features of Death Valley are the Mesquite Sand Dunes, which appear in lots of movies, including the first two (original) Star Wars.  Actually, lots of Star Wars scenes were filmed in Death Valley, as this fascinating guide shows.  In any event, we love us some sand dunes, since they are great for photographing.

With all the other things to do, we didn’t spend as much time here as at White Sands National Monument, but we did find time to recreate our Nothing Mundane mark

High Desert

Alright, enough of this low desert stuff.  We spent an entire day driving west from our campground (reminder: Death Valley is huge) to explore the numerous mountain ranges in Panamint Springs.  We went up and over a high pass, down into a low valley, and up and over another pass.  Whew!

We’re definitely glad we did all this, because this was one of the most unique drives we’ve ever taken. The horizon is so flat we often couldn’t even tell we were going uphill!  At one point, we thought our car was having mechanical problems because the RPMs were so high. However, we realized when we drove back the same way that we had just been going up a massive grade – totally unaware of it.

Flat or inclined?  It’s surprisingly difficult to tell.

At every point along the way, the mountains and the views were magnificent. The highway hugs the cliffs while spiraling around the peaks – definitely not the kind of place you want to speed (although, of course, lots of people did).  Also not a good place to have your brakes fail… and ours did not, so thanks, fly-by-night mechanic from New Jersey!

In between two mountain peaks, we entered a crazy valley, traversed by a steep but perfectly-straight road. The flats here, different from Badwater Basin, offered their own grand views.  And since it’s 2016, beyond the normal selfies, there were people modeling here for a photoshoot.  In the absolute middle of nowhere.  We live in strange times.

Liquid Treasures

On the way back from our trip over the mountains, we stopped at a magical little place called Darwin Falls.  It was a bumpy 4-ish mile dirt road ride – calling to mind Big Bend – which is not uncommon for Death Valley sights.  We later found out you can rent a Jeep right by our campsite. We drove past the rental place in the dark and had no idea!

We then hiked out to the falls, about two miles away.  We weren’t sure what to expect, or even if we were in the right place, but we were heartened by a conspicuous – and leaky – water pipe running along the trail.  Slowly, the canyon narrowed, and the vegetation grew thicker.

It was practically a jungle by the time we turned a corner, hopped across a stream, and ducked around a tree. There, before us in a grotto, was Darwin Falls, the hidden jewel in the heart of Death Valley.  Few things we have seen before or since were so magnificently unlikely.

We headed back to our RV on a cloud.  We stopped near the sand dunes at the Stovepipe Wells general store to get a sticker (yep, there are stores in Death Valley), and were greeted with something else magnificently unlikely: a huge and refrigerated wall of drinks, including craft beers.  We got a six pack of Stone Ruination for less than we used to pay in Manhattan!  Inside Death Valley!!

It is a land of surprises.

Visiting Death Valley

Death Valley National Park is amazing, and you should go. It’s not the easiest place in the world to get to, but you can get there in a few hours from Las Vegas.  If you’re interested, you’ll need to go in roughly November-March, and you’ll probably need an RV, unless you like camping on hard earth or can snag one of the few cabins.  (Because of the RV requirement, the visitors are actually almost entirely retirees, which is unusual for a national park.)

It’s magical and cool, and there’s so much we didn’t even get to see, like Scotty’s Castle (currently closed due to flood damage), or the incredible sailing stones – featured on Planet Earth – which require a 4WD vehicle to access.

If you can, try to time it up to a superbloom.  The next one should be in about 11 years.  We’ll meet you there.

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Heading out of Salt Lake City towards the tiny town of Delta, Utah.

Next location?  Lots and lots of national parks!  First up is Great Basin, home of the oldest – and possibly the ugliest – trees in the world.

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Week 30: The Stinking Salton Sea

After camping out for three days at Elderly Burning Man, we headed west from Quartzsite into California.  Before we crossed over the border, we stopped to get some gas, because California’s gasoline taxes are insane.  At this time, in mid-January, gas in most of the country – including Arizona, but excluding the Northeast – was at around $1.70.  In California?  $2.60 if we were lucky.

So, we filled our RV’s 55 gallon tank to capacity and crossed over the border to the Golden State, our home for the next 2.5 months.  After a short distance, we turned south off the interstate, and drove through a narrow box canyon and past sprawling farmlands to our home for the next five days:  the Salton Sea.

The smell hit us almost immediately.

This Should Not Be

If you’re not from California, you probably have no idea what the Salton Sea is – we certainly didn’t.  The short answer is that it’s an ecological disaster, but the story of how it got that way is worth telling.

Let’s take a quick jaunt back in time.  In 1905, workers were attempting to cut an irrigation canal from the Colorado River into an extremely low-lying area of California, only 5 feet higher than Death Valley.  However, the canal was cut too deeply, and the water flow overwhelmed their ability to stop it.  The Colorado River poured into the valley for two years before the damage was repaired, and the resulting inflow formed the Salton Sea – California’s largest lake.

In the 1950’s, the Salton Sea was a popular tourist attraction for boating and fishing.  But the lake doesn’t receive enough new water to offset losses from evaporation, and it has been gradually shrinking for decades.  Today, because there is less water, the salt level of the lake has risen dramatically, as have levels of pesticides and other pollutants used by the nearby farming operations.  The Salton Sea is now saltier than the ocean, and the freshwater fish living in the lake are dying.

As we said, the Salton Sea is an ecological disaster.  The lake itself is surprisingly beautiful – the sunsets were some of the best we have seen, anywhere – but it is dying nonetheless.  The shore is lined with the rotting carcasses of dead fish, even at the state beach we were staying at.  From a distance, the beach looks like pristine white sand, but upon further investigation, you discover that it is composed of the bleached bones of fish and barnacles. And when the wind blows in off the water, the smell – oh, the smell! – can be totally overwhelming.  The resort towns from the 1950’s have become ghost towns.

That said, we couldn’t get a damn reservation anywhere else we wanted to go.  So we stayed by the Salton Sea, and closed our windows tight.

Desert Religion

There were two areas we wanted to see near the Salton Sea, and the first was Joshua Tree National Park.  We’re going to give that one its own post, so we’ll tell you about the second:  Salvation Mountain, Slab City, and East Jesus.

Salvation Mountain is located east of the Salton Sea off a rough desert road, just beyond the edge of normal living.  It’s the product of decades of work by a local resident, Leonard Knight, who created it from adobe, straw, and thousands of gallons of brightly-colored paint (much of which was donated by visitors).  Basically, he built and painted a mountain with slogans about God and Love.  And he didn’t stop there – nearby buildings, vehicles, and even trees were all brought into the fold.

It’s like Dr. Seuss took a bunch of acid and created a bible study class.

It’s an incredibly trippy place, a tourist attraction in its own right.  We saw at least two dozen other visitors while we were there, which is significant considering how far away it is from normal civilization.  Meanwhile, some sort of homemade flying contraption, basically a glider with a giant fan in the back, buzzed around overhead.  (If we hadn’t captured it on camera, we probably wouldn’t have believed it.)  And amidst all this surreality, a group of young women took approximately 1,000 duck-face selfies in front of the mountain.

Truly a magical place.

East of Jesus

Salvation Mountain is near, or part of (depending on where you draw the boundaries), a place called Slab City.  Basically, Slab City is our post-apocalyptic future.  The government demolished a military base here but left the foundations (the “slabs”), and people live on them in shacks, RVs, mobile homes, converted buses, and anything else with a roof.  It felt like a permanent continuation of the winter-only Quartzsite, only much more on the fringe.  Slab City is a world with no government or services, only what you can build or make use of.

To be honest, it was kind of cool.  This is where people come to live when they no longer want to live in civilization, but civilization persists nonetheless.  There are multiple give-a-book, take-a-book type libraries, and certainly a lot of solar panels.  That said, it’s also pretty trashy, with fences made from tires and beer cans, and drunken / stoned drifters wandering around and yelling in the middle of the day.

We didn’t feel unsafe – everyone keeps to themselves, really – but we didn’t exactly linger.  Instead, we drove through the “town” and around a few bends (thanks, Google Maps!) until we came to an artists’ enclave known as “East Jesus.”  It’s a crazy sculpture park made of repurposed items, and it was really freaking awesome.

East Jesus is not very large, but there are endless things to see.  An elephant made from tires and sewer hoses?  Check.

Alligator made out of… something?  Check.

Homemade desert bowling alley?  Check.

Random propaganda against dolphins (“whose team are they on, anyway”)?  Check.

A wall of TVs with satirical slogans painted on them?  That’s a big check.

The TV wall was actually the reason we came to East Jesus, after seeing pictures posted on social media by some of our new friends from Quartzsite.  The wall is really cool in person (and fun to photograph), but even better, the creator was there when we were, working on adding another layer on top.  He was very friendly, and quite sane – he’s a photographer by trade, with a great Instagram feed – and said we were actually one of the very few to have met him here.

After chatting for a bit, we left him to his building and drilling (there’s a large wood frame back there) and finished making the rounds.  We’ve got a few more pictures below.  East Jesus is deeply weird and utterly whimsical, and one of our favorite places from this trip.

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Portland, Oregon, still getting our blog post on.

Next location?  Seattle and Vancouver!

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A Universal Card For An Uncertain Universe

We have a new product, and at the risk of seeming hubristic, it is the greatest thing to ever exist in the world.

Behold: the Nothing Mundane Universal Card!

The Nothing Mundane Universal Card frees you from the shackles of dischoosing, putting you in the driver’s seat to self-realization.   It’s also perfect for figuratively all occasions, whether a birthday, wedding, valentine’s day, or Tuesday.  You can express every emotion that matters, betray humanity to the robots, and use pronouns – truly, the universe of human experience.

If you are like us, you are unable to plan for important dates more than zero days in advance.   Well, just buy a bunch of these babies (babies are traditionally sold in bunches), and rather than cop to forgetting your 25th anniversary, you can just claim you left the card in your desk – then return a conquering hero.  (Note: do not forget your 25th anniversary.)

But wait, there’s more!  To promote the universal card, we made an online Choose Your Own Adventure game.  It is short, absurd, and we guarantee (no we don’t) it will be worth the few minutes of your time it will take to complete.

Plus, we scattered baby animal pictures throughout because puppies.

Begin your adventure here!