Panamint Valley Days

On Wednesday, November 9th, myself and my pal, Anton Morec, set off for the Panamint Valley Days (PVD) desert four wheel drive run set for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (11, 12, & 13 November, 2005). My ‘03 Rubicon was loaded to the gills with camping gear, tools, parts, and optimism as we drove highway 80 to Reno. We spent the night with friends in Reno, then headed down Hwy 395 behind Mammoth mountain. We marveled at the jagged, snow covered, zillion miles high crags of the Sierra Nevadas as we passed along their eastern flanks. At Lone Pine, we headed east on 136 and 190 until we refueled at Panamint Springs. Thank God for credit cards, because the only gas station there is unmanned, and only the plastic enabled one to get fuel. Turning south onto Panamint Valley Road, we turned right onto Slate Range Road, found the large PVD sign where we were to turn right. We then drove four miles up the “dirt road to infinity” where at last we came to the encampment. 300 rigs, tents, and campers of all types occupied this wide spot in the desert. Eighteen miles to Panamint Springs, thirty eight miles to Trona, no trees, no water, no facilities; just lots of creosote bushes. The Sierras were to our west and the Panamint range to the east (it separates the Panamint Valley from Death Valley). Wow! Big Sky became not just a Montana adjective!! I LOVE the desert.

We arrived about 4:00 PM; barely enough time to put up our tent and cots, and get in on the early birds vehicle safety checks. Darkness, and I mean DARKNESS, descends on you 30 minutes from sundown, like you’re a puppy under a blanket. I nearly did not erect the rain fly over my tent (hot sunny day, clear skies—didn’t think we’d need it), but put it up anyway for shade. At 3:00 AM, we awakened to thunderclaps that shook the ground and reverberated in your eardrums forever like a summons from Hades. The skies opened up and it rained like a cow on a flat rock for three hours. God bless my rain fly!!! I feared flash floods would take out twenty or so tents in the wash across the road from us, but although warned, all of them elected to remain where they were camped. No flash floods! The desert was as dry as a spoonge, and absorbed all the rain without even a trickle through camp.

Early Friday AM, we headed up Jackpot Canyon to the top of the Panamint Range, an all day run. Steep ascents of a very narrow jeep road ran along the spine of a ridge (500 feet down on the right, 1,000 feet down on the left), uphill, across the face of a cliff where the road was only about a foot or two wider than a jeep, and up around a knob onto which we pulled over to get out and watch the rest of the thirty or so jeeps serpentine their way up the mountain. There was abandoned mine equipment galore at the top of the climb where we lunched near the old miners’ shack. We were witness to the incredible ingenuity and perseverence of the miners of over a hundred years or so ago. A tramway that was seen to rise at a dramatic angle rose up the escarpment to the source of ore at the base of sheer rock cliffs, cliffs that seemed even today determined to fall on and crush these puny humans who dared invade their rocky sanctuaries or climb their alluvial fans.

On the descent, we veered off and up another canyon where ruins of a lost mine and its owners habitation were in a state of decay. This canyon was my favorite place of our whole trip. There was a year around supply of water somewhere under the gravel of the wash on which this miner had settled, lived, and worked the soil for gold. We exclaimed over the carcass of a USMC military equipment trailer that nature had interred in the wash. Buried in the gravel, one side , one wheel, part of the tow hitch bar, and the Marine Corps initials were all that lay exposed to view.

There were trees all up this wash—glorious trees. Desert Tamarisk trees abounded, and crows ruled the skies. Beside the old cabin grew four huge pomegranate trees that were laden with four and five inch diameter tree-ripe pomegranates!!! We knocked a few down and ate of the tree of knowledge! That is, I KNEW with total certainty that these were the sweetest and best pomegranates anyone had ever eaten. Near the pomegranate trees grew about five large fig trees (no figs—too late in the season). A veritable garden of eden in the desert. Tracks and scat of wild mountain sheep and wild burros along with rinds scattered on trails leading away from the wash convinced me that said desert creatures probably patrolled those trees nightly for the dropped fruit of the day! There was probably water at the surface somewhere farther up the canyon, however we did not have the time to explore for it.

On the Jackpot run, Esprit de Four did a good deed. My five gallon jerry can of gas saved the day for two jeepsters and their sons who’d started the all day run on half a tank of gas that, to their chagrin, they learned was not enough. Several groups of people commented positively on my bright red Ed4 T-shirt, and on our saving les miserables sans fuel.

On Saturday we tackled Goler wash. After a stop to airdown at the ghost town of Ballarat, we headed into the Panamints. Some waterfalls early in the trail presented problems for low vehicles, but all were helped as needed. At one of our stops, we discovered watermelons growing wild in the Goler wash. They were about five inches in diameter, and had an enormous taproot that was half exposed due to recent erosive torrents. We came to the famous Barker Ranch with its year around water after coming out of the Goler canyon. This was CHARLES MANSON’s (of Helter Skelter) hideout in the desert. He was arrested by the Feds while curling himself up within the small cabinet under the sink in the bathroom of the house there. I was photographed sitting in Charlie’s favorite (and only) folding chair on the south-facing veranda at the ranch. Cool!

Next we traveled over the Mengel Pass, and from its summit could see far. Parts of Death Valley, including Striped Butte, a triangular rock formation of alternating ebony and white rock layers lying at a fortyfive degree angle that jutted abruptly like a sail above the ocean up and out of the otherwise totally flat bottom of Death Valley were visible. It was somewhat eerie to learn from a placque that old man Mengel’s ramains are actually burried under a packrat infested six foot tall rock cairn atop the pass. Undoubtedly, he saw and did a lot in his time in the area under conditions in which we would not ever want to live.

We encountered two cabins in the Death Valley area that were possessed of year around water that are now controlled by the BLM. We were told that you or I or anyone could go to and stay in one of them for up to one week anytime we should find them vacant—for free—no charge!. Raising a flag up the flagpole at one of these cabins tells jeepers approaching from miles away that this particular cabin is occupied. What a getaway! We got back to camp after dark. A full and very satisfying day.

At camp, we dined at the Chef Andy’s Ruff Rock Cafe. Mesquite barbequed chicken and all the fixings!! Great grub. At the huge Saturday night raffle, yours truly managed to win a party basket of wines, candy, cheeses, etc, that I sold for $50 to a guy trying to impress his girlfriend or wife. All the people we met were true four wheelers. Willing to help anyone, and eager to talk the talk of off roaders. We both really enjoyed the comaraderie.

Sunday morning after breakfast, Anton and I headed back the route we had come by. We stopped at Mono Lake, and in the ghost town of Bodie on our return trip. We stayed in Gardnerville, Nevada where we enjoyed steak and lobster dinner. In the morning, we traveled over Highway 88 and back to Santa Clara. The trip was over before I knew it. I am already scheming on next year’s trip to Panamint Valley Days in November.

The only “experiences” of our trip I do NOT want to repeat (but to which I guess I’ll ‘fess up) involved my forgetting to use low gear descending one steep slope (it was wheeeee bumps on the way down), and having to fashion a gas cap from a water bottle top and duct tape because of leaving the real gas cap atop the taillight and driving off into the night during our Trona refueling trip Friday night. As my Dad used to say, “too soon old, too late smart”. By the way, the impromptu gas cap worked very well—no spillage even during steep, rough trail parts. My check engine light came on, and stayed on for fifty miles before resetting itself once we’d obtained a real gas cap. All’s well that ends well, I guess.

Here’s to next year!!!!!