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The Shadow of the Valley

26 November 03

Lake Skinner

I'm sitting here stuffed completely full of turkey and pie, looking at a map of California. There are several ways back to Texas from here. And that's where I'm going, by December16th. A friend of mine is having surgery.

I could go south, pass by the Salton Sea, and on to Phoenix. Or I could go north, through Las Vegas, and on to the Canyonlands, and a corner of Colorado beyond. A little out of the way, but an easy road. Just get on Interstate 15 and set the cruise control. Nothing to it.

So I did. And it was easy, through San Bernardino, then up the cliff and on to Victorville, the land drying out, turning to caliche before my eyes. Then Barstow... Barstow? That sounds familiar....

Good Lord. Death Valley. I'm right outside Death Valley.

That brings back ill-met memories. I was there. In early March, around my birthday. 1978.

And I had ample reason to reflect upon the name before I left.

I drove out from Texas in a rattling old teal green Chevy pickup, drinking beer and throwing the cans in the passenger footwell. Those were the days. I had a Honda motorcycle strapped down back in the bed. A small bore twin cylinder road bike. Maybe 450cc. And maybe just the tiniest chip on my shoulder.

Rollin, rollin, rollin. Though my head is swollen.

It was the first vacation I'd had since recovering from a slipped disc in my neck. Amazingly, the accident and my recovery made me cocky rather than cautious. Like I was one tough dude. The weather was alternately springlike and iffy all the way out, some sun but mostly windy and cold across West Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

I stopped in Las Vegas for the first time. Yes, Mr. Giddings. Of course, Mr. Giddings. We'll be happy to cash a check.

Won a pile of chips at blackjack and pissed it all away. Stayed up all night. While I was still flush, one of the prettier dealers told me about a hot spring out in the desert nearby. Mostly broke by morning, I couldn't remember her name, even if she used her real one, but I drove out into the desert and somehow found it. A little windblown and grubby place, attached to a cheap motel. But I soaked in there for 2 or 3 hours.

What was the name of that place? Somewhere north, I think. Probably not there anymore. It was barely there then.

That part is a blur. But I remember driving on to Barstow and getting a room. Then early the next morning I left the truck in the parking lot of a grocery store and rode back to Baker on the bike, then up through Shoshone to Furnace Creek. All the way there the sun was shining.

I was feeling pretty smug about -finally- doing something irrepressibly cool. I blew down the backroads all afternoon, trailing alkali dust like clouds of glory.

Then it started to rain. Hard. In Death Valley.

Thoroughly surprised and sodden, I set up the tent and spent a rather frosty and self-critical night in one of the campgrounds. I woke up numb to an overcast sky, and decided I'd had enough adventure for one trip.

But I didn't want to go back the way I came and just see the same old stuff. How boring.

Consulting a map, I saw that it was possible to make a big circle west and back to Barstow. Great idea. All I had to do was glide up over some low passes beyond Stovepipe Wells. One of them was called Emigrant Pass. I remember the name because the sound of it brought back a little of that romantic devil-may-care sense of adventure I had started with.

And I was doing pretty good until it started sleeting.

The windshield on the bike quickly covered over with an opaque, built-up, slushy rime of ice. Colder and colder. The wind blasted past the windshield. I drove with my head weaving back and forth around the sides, putting together a kind of strobing, uncertain, intermittent notion of the road ahead.

Meanwhile I was hugging the motor with my legs for the least vanishing hint of warmth. When my boots began burning at the ankle I'd go a little bowlegged for a bit, then cozy up again. I had to stop at the tops of hills to clean off the glacier goggles I was using for eye protection, and maybe try to get some feeling back in my fingers. My gloves eventually froze into a talon-like immobile curve, clinging to the handlebars by themselves.

Then, between two passes, the throttle cable broke. I coasted gently to a stop and looked around. Not a soul for miles, either way, and the sky looked lumpy and troubled, black as hell. Come to think of it, I would have paid dearly for a roaring fire right about then, supernatural or not.

It was a situation little improved by cursing. The wind came on in battering gusts down the mountain, flinging small stinging shards before it, sharp as regret.

Tears went solid in the crinkles of my eyes.

After a little uncomfortable investigation I found I could just keep going by running up the idle adjustment on the carburetor as far as it would go, then popping the clutch and piddling along at maybe 10 miles an hour, nursing the middle gears. I'd slow down to almost nothing going up a hill, then scream down the other side at 30, even 35 mph.


Obstinately clinging to the unnecessary pain of life, I rode and rode, on and on, for what seemed like hours.

What else could I do? Something came to mind. But even at the best of times, which this was not, I don't bend in the right places to kick my own ass.

Just in case you were wondering, I lived. This is not a posthumous note, found on my dessicated, coyote-gnawed body the following spring. But I had some blue, blue, blue fingers by the time I checked into the motel in Trona. I think it was Trona. Someplace.

What I remember well is that it took both hands to turn the knob on the front door. The little bit of remaining articulation I could summon up was at the elbows. I stumbled through the door and leaned back against it, trying to straighten up. My coat crackled and shed thin plates of melting ice on the welcome mat.

The lady seemed taken aback, as though not sure she wanted to deal with me. Then, with infinite gratitude, I saw the pity in her eyes.

It probably also helped that I had cash.

Jesus. Maybe I should go up there, check it out. I weighed the proposition. On the one hand, ahead of me was Las Vegas, City of Lights and Sin. On the other, Death Valley. The name says it all.

Las Vegas it is.

I blew through Baker like it wasn't there.


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