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Chapter #387: Panamint To Furnace Creek - 12/23 - July 2, 2024


Two motorcyclists head into the Panamint Valley on Highway 190 - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)

From Panamint Springs To Furnace Creek - December 2023

Around noon on December 5, 2023, I departed Panamint Springs, heading again on Highway 190 toward Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. Along that highway, Towne Pass is a test for any towing rig. Although the elevation change is only about 1,500 feet, it all happens in just a few short miles. For the unaware, ambient desert temperatures can make for engine overheating and breakdowns. Each time I try it, I wonder if the trip up the pass is more difficult and daunting than the trip down the other side and into Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley proper. 

Emigrant Station, now abandoned, was the original entrance station to Death Valley, at the top of Towne Pass - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com) Once down on the flats of Death Valley, the somewhat desolate settlement of Stovepipe Wells takes only about two minutes to travel through. With its dry alkalai surroundings, I often wonder what the attraction is for so many campers, lodge dwellers and other visitors. Although there is a general store and a gas station, they do not provide diesel fuel at that location. Surprisingly, there is an air field at Stovepipe Wells, although there is no fuel or any other aviation services available there. Although the Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek air fields can be used by rescue and reconnaissance helicopters, there are limiting factors. In the extreme heat of summer, the "density altitude" may be too high for takeoff or landing. In essence, the warm air rising negates any lift induced by the helicopter blades to. From the air field, it is a half mile walk through Death Valley heat to reach the general store and the Lodge. For me that day, there was no reason to stop in Stovepipe Wells.

The long descent from the top of Towne Pass to the floor of Death Valley can make for excess speed and danger to motorists - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcfgillis.com)Farther along, the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes appear to the left of the highway. Once again, during the hot weather months it is a formidable hike from the parking lot to the actual dunes. Next up is Devils Cornfield, visible briefly on each side of the highway. Although there are no cornstalks there, hardy evergreen Arrowweed plant gives the area its distinctive appearance. Passing through on the highway, frequent dust devils makes it a windy and somewhat treacherous place to stop.

Next on our rolling map is the junction of Highway 190 and
North Highway, also known as Scotty's Castle Road. During my visit, Scotty’s Castle Road, Daylight Pass to Beatty and all points off Highway 190 remained closed to travel. Signage indicated that the ban applied all vehicles, including motorcycles, bicycles and unicycles. Even hiking was prohibited. If you ignored those rules and became stranded or broke down, there was no one out there in A dust devil arises from the Devils Cornfield in Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)the vastness of Death Valley to find or save you.

In dozens of places between Panamint Springs and Furnace Creek, I spotted fresh road repairs. I rumbled over one or two washout repairs and many patches along the edge of the highway. The casual observer would think that these were normal repairs, but their simplicity denies the profound damage to every form of infrastructure within Death Valley National Park. The torrential remnants of Hurricane Hilary in the summer of 2023 came on the heals of huge thunder storms during the summer of 2022. Some remote desert tracks may take years to repair, if ever.

In the history of the area, many storms have permanently cut off mining and even camping opportunities in the far out-
lands. It almost seemed as if the park wanted  to go back in time to the In December 2023, the entire North Highway to Scotty's Castle and Daylight Pass to Beatty, Nevada were closed to all traffic - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)age before vehicular travel, internet connectivity and cell phones. Upon my arrival in Furnace Creek, there was no cellular signal at all. Only the Visitors Center had Wi-Fi, which took some practice to use effectively. Two evenings in a row I sat in a deserted courtyard behind the Visitors Center, hoping that Wi-Fi calling on my Samsung Galaxy phone would work. Luckily, the National Park Service had invested in satellite connectivity, and I was able to transport my voice to Simi Valley during my telephone calls home.

While I sat on the patio, I could see inside the Command Center that was set up to coordinate emergency response  and infrastructure repair throughout Death Valley National Park. The center was staffed twenty-four hours per day,
No, it was not actually 176 degrees at the Visitors Center at Furnace Creek, Death  Valley National Park, but it can feel that hot almost any time of year - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)coordinating everything from road repairs to fire, police and all other forms of recovery. Inside workers sat at computer monitors and used white boards to chart various activities. When some people complain that our federal government is incapable of doing anything positive for our country, they should come out to Death Valley. There they could peer through the windows into an emergency center recreating the infrastructure of a vast and unforgiving national park. They might just change their minds and appreciate what these people are doing for us all. After my initial wifi call home, I headed back to my dry campsite.

When camping off-grid, my fifth wheel has 200-watts of solar panels on the roof and two six-volt deep-cycle batteries to power its vital systems. As soon
Sundown at Furnace Creek ended my solar battery charging, leading to a cold night of dry camping - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)as I pulled into my dry campsite at Furnace Creek Campground, the sun dipped behind some cottonwood trees, thus cutting my access to free electrical energy. Even running the engine on my truck while setting up camp did little to decrease the electrical drain on my house batteries. By the time I was indoors and preparing for 50-degree outside temperatures overnight, my battery monitor indicated about 12.5 volts remaining. Anything less than 11.8 volts would send my hard-wired carbon monoxide alert monitor into an endless alarm mode. The only cure for that eventuality would be to hook up my truck, run its engine and use its alternator to recharge the batteries enough to shut off the alarm.

Anticipating such situations can produce anxiety. As a result, I disconnected, unplugged, or did not use anything that I perceived could further drain my
A wood fire burns at the deserted outdoor dining area at Furnace Creek, Death Valley National Park - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)limited electrical reserves. In other words, I sat in the dark with no heat. After an hour or two, I felt like one of the original 1849 emigrants, who were stranded for a year in Death Valley. My only salvation was battery operated lights, of which I had a few. The scene made me think about Abraham Lincoln ruining his eyes reading books by the fireplace. Until you experience the lack of adequate electrical power, you do not remember what it was like to live in a time before nightlights and Ring doorbells.

Before bedtime, I dressed up from head to toe. I wore socks, sweatpants, long-sleeved layers and piled on as many blankets as I had. All of that extra weight kept me cemented in place for most of the night. With only one cold bathroom break, I was mostly warm, even if weighed down by so many covers. At exactly 7:52 AM, I awoke to an incessant alarm noise. I sprang out of bed, believing that I knew exactly what it was. My house battery power had dipped too low, and the carbon monoxide alarm in my rig was displaying its power as the
This ultimate over-landing rig was not the cause of the early morning vehicle alarm I heard at Furnace Creek, - Click for larger image (https://jamesmcgillis.com)batteries faded below 11.8 volts. In my panic, exactly where the noise was coming from, I could not tell.

Slowly, I realized that the incessant sound emanated from outside my coach. In the 50-degree morning air, I thrust open the door and used the parallax sensors attached to either side of my head. My ears told me that the alarm sound was coming from some sort of vehicle parked across a dirt field, behind some scrubby trees. After realizing that the sounds were beyond my control, I went back to bed, shaken but not stirred. Later, I discovered that it was an unattended SUV that had spontaneously gone into panic mode to awaken me.

This is Part Two of a Seven Part article. To read Part Three, Click HERE. To return to Part One, click HERE.

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