Brian Merriam is an artist and musician, currently devoting the majority of his time to film photography. Originally from upstate New York, he has resided in Brooklyn for the last 8 years. Brian and his girlfriend set out to get lost in America in their first Filson Life post. Be careful what you wish for.
The only oasis in Death Valley is a paved road. I realized this as the car made its final sad, exasperated lurch from dirt onto asphalt. I pushed the shifter into neutral, right where it had been during any downhill portion of the last 2 hours, and breathed a sigh of relief. 16 miles left. All paved. And most importantly, all down hill. Slowly down out of the mountains we coasted.
Prior to this, we hadn’t seen pavement in at least 8 hours, 5 of which we were fairly worried we’d never see pavement again. During the first few hours the worry had been getting lost or getting stuck. GPS wasn’t working, it had been a very long time since we’d seen any sort of sign or marker. There were dirt roads on the map, one of which I’d planned to take, but without GPS or signs I couldn’t be completely sure which was which. Onward we pressed.
Death Valley is littered with abandoned mining camps and dirt roads that simply fade off into the desert. I know this because we dead ended several times at places like this. I had begun to worry that the road we were on might not actually go anywhere, and the conditions of said road had only gotten worse. It was early in May and whatever small amount of seasonal maintenance this road receives had not yet occurred. Several times I took our small SUV over washed-out sections of road that I knew it couldn’t go back up and over. The only other time I’d been in a similar situation was in Iceland, where we had run out of gas in the vast, empty middle section of the country on a very similar road. At least then we knew which road we were on.
Hours passed and finally the GPS gave us an idea of where we were. Not only did it turn out to be the wrong the road, but also one that went all the way back up the west side of the park, 50 or 60 miles, with no intersections whatsoever. Despite the setback, we were extremely relieved to know the road eventually led out, if we had the gas to make it.
The last hour of the drive was spent switching from drive to neutral on the downhills, hoping to save some gas. By the time we finally reached the paved road the gas light had been on for close to 30 minutes. If we had to drive up one more steep incline, I’m fairly certain we wouldn’t have made it. After shifting into neutral for the final time, our slow descent began. I looked up through the windshield and was greeted by one of the most life affirming sunsets I have ever seen. The Sierra Nevadas looked like a great cathedral on fire in front of me. I hadn’t touched my camera in hours, but now I picked it up and snapped a few photos through the windshield as we slowly coasted along.
For having never been in a similar situation, my girlfriend handled the whole thing extremely well. Aside from rationing our remaining food and water and mentally composing goodbye letters to family and friends, she had taken the whole experience in stride. It took a few days for the whole experience to set in. We pressed on with our trip and had a great time, but feelings from that experience definitely lingered. That said, our beers tasted particularly good on that warm May night. And as it turns out, they call it Death Valley for a reason.