Steven and Sean on the Polar Bear Cam
Steven and Sean on the Polar Bear Cam

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Living Strong in Death Valley: Day 1

The Salt Flats at the Devil's Golf Course

Doug and I have a longstanding tradition of making a journey to Death Valley for the Memorial Day weekend, going back to the days before we were married.

Almost every year we went, until life's circumstances dictated changes in our routines. We didn't feel that bringing babies and small children on an 80-mile stretch of deserted dirt road over a mountain pass in 100+ degree heat in an area over 100 miles away from cell phone reception was a safe thing to do.

Memorial Day 2003, 3 months before Steven's brain tumor reared its ugly head, we decided the kids were finally old enough. We had a great time, despite the fact that it was much hotter than it had ever been on any of our other trips, 123 degrees in the day and 100 degrees at night. So hot that even though we have always camped, and we had all our camping gear packed in the car, we decided that it was worth paying $130/night for an air-conditioned room.

Last year, Steven wanted to go again, but it seemed like too much of a trip for our pale, bald, just-got-done-with-chemo son and his paranoid and shell-shocked parents.

This year Steven wanted to go again and I said yes, it sounds like the perfect trip for us this year.

So we headed for Death Valley in a rented Toyota 4Runner 4WD. We stayed overnight in Ridgecrest on Friday night, well-positioned to begin our off-road adventure in the morning.

Sign at the turnoff to Ballarat

Saturday morning we drove to Ballarat, formerly a mining town serving multiple mines in the Panamint Mountains, now a ghost town.

Sean and Steven exploring the ruins

Ballarat is now home to a campground, ruined buildings, Boot Hill, and a single resident who sells ammunition and cold drinks and has put together a museum with old newspaper clippings and photos about the history of Ballarat.

The notorious Manson truck

Ballarat was also frequented by Charles Manson and his followers, since it was on the way to Barker Ranch, where they were living. Manson's truck is pictured here in the 1960's at Barker Ranch. The truck was abandoned in Ballarat, and Ballarat's token permanent resident told me he thought they were just a bunch of hippies until they started killing people.

Descending Mengel Pass

We left Ballarat and drove up Goler Wash, which winds through narrow Goler Canyon, past a number of recently abandoned mines, crossing the Panamint Mountains at Mengel pass. We decided to forgo the short side trip to Barker Ranch this time and began our descent over large boulders into Butte Valley. People actually go and stay in the ranch house sometimes, I'm not really superstitious but staying there overnight would give me nightmares.

Butte Valley and Striped Butte

We picked our way down the mountain over big boulders. We descended into beautiful Butte Valley and past several more abandoned mines, to the salt flats of the Valley floor.

After 80 miles of dirt road, we finally hit pavement and drove to Furnace Creek where we set up camp under cloudy skies, ferocious winds, and 110-degree temperatures.

Yes, you've got to be able to live strong to be able to camp in Death Valley this time of year. We are ever so thankful that we were all well enough to go this year.

- Kathleen


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