EPIC Group Travel Writers: Splendor over the Pass

Patterns in Death Valley, California.

Here is another contribution from the EPIC Group Travel Writers, who meet at Savvy Traveler. To learn more, visit www.epicgroupwriters.org.

Three weeks into a Southwest escape, David and I strolled into the Death Valley tourist center, wrapped in contentment. A large woman in a green ranger uniform was commanding an attentive audience with her foreboding voice. By the time we reached the front, she jolted us out of our safe cocoon.

“You do have chains, don’t you?” she barked, leaning into my face. When is it ever a good time to hear that?

My husband and I were still emerging from a warm world of desert air — with no TV, radio and limited cell coverage. What is she talking about?

Her arms holding down the counter, she leveled with us, “The big storm. It’s hitting the coast these next two days!”

Momentary panic set in. We did a quick turnabout. Too many mountain passes and miles before our home in Edmonds to shrug this weather event off.

“Wait — do we even have chains?” I asked David as we climbed into our recently purchased van. He grumbled, ignoring me.

Well, forget stopping at the new Manzanar Internment exhibit in Lone Pine. That would have taken precious minutes off the highway. And so it was that we hightailed it home for the last two days, a sudden contrast from the first sublime weeks — smacking up against us like soothing lightning rods.

We had just completed a circuitous route from Seattle to Boise, Salt Lake to Moab, West Texas to Arizona, and eastern California —exploring the Southwest’s national parks in the dead of winter. No agenda; just an openness to change routes on whim, and kick the retired life up a notch.

While in Utah’s amazing Arches National Park, I hugged our van for good luck. We were thrilled that the state of Utah decided to pay park rangers to keep the visitor’s center open, despite the federal government’s plans. It was the same wonderful welcome in Arizona.

Late afternoon at Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Heading south, we rolled across Nevada and New Mexico, to the granddaddy of remote parks: Big Bend National Park on the Rio Grande. The solemn grandeur and rugged terrain of this nearly million-acre park overwhelmed us. It was easy to find a peaceful spot – not one camper near by. David backed the van near a palapa by the river — $18 a night at Lower Madera Canyon — our only online reservation of the trip and obviously not necessary.

What is it about deserts that seduce? It must be the antithesis of our fast-paced, overly connected lifestyles. A relief valve. We hiked on one of the most beautiful trails in the world: “The Window” in the Santa Elena Mountains. We mountain-biked until we both had flat tires. An weather-beaten, bearded dude re-patched our tires in the village of Terlingua. He laments that he was once a river raft guide, but the Rio Grande is only a sixth of its former self.

We watched sunsets burst over the mountains of Mexico. A kangaroo rat entertained us each night by coming out of its hole and scampering over our boots. Shush, there’s a road runner!  After a skillet dinner and a game of rummy, we commenced to star-gazing into the dark skies from our lawn chairs. The marvel of it all when the Milky Way emerged.

Our nearest neighbors were hundreds of creosote bushes. We listened to their silence. Sometimes I wrote, adding to my contrast list: soothing monotony, subtle spectacles, exciting scares — what’s that rustling out there?

Five mornings later, we emerged from our desert stupor, 50 minutes before seeing a vehicle on the undulating roads of southwest Texas. Time to refuel at the little arty town of Marfa. Is that a fancy Prada store right next to the highway? Ahh — an art installation. Hours later, the contrasts tensed us: quick lane shifting, fast maneuvers around semis, dense traffic in El Paso and Phoenix.

On to Sedona, Arizona: breath-taking beauty but swarming with tourists. Our Sedona friends shared their favorite hike. With beer packed in ice and chocolate to share, the four of us sat on a rocky ledge, taking in space, warmth, light and color. Two nights at the pleasant campground went quickly; so we forged through another photogenic canyon to Flagstaff.

“Want to spend the night in a motel?” David yelled to me, as he pumped diesel.

It took one second to ponder. Although we had used the propane shower on the back door of our van, the motel shower’s endless hot water was simply glorious.

David walking in Zion National Park.

We kept moving. The palatial Grand Canyon did not disappoint, even on a snowy day. Many of Zion National Park’s trails were closed in January, but we found an open path to Weeping Rock waterfalls. We opened our van doors for lunch by the Virgin River, letting the warmth of sun embrace us. Seemed like we were invited to the Royal Courts of American Beauty.

Rolling west, David directed us to Death Valley. I only envisioned a flat desert and dying in a stranded car. Instead I found intense contrasts of colors, surprising sand patterns and large mountains. One night the remote Panamint Springs campground was only $10 — no wonder, it had the most unwelcoming toilet; but our roaring campfire softened the edges. Staring into the fire, I pondered the grit of pioneer women. Imagine what those early families, natives or newcomers, had to endure in such barren parts.

“And no one had the comfort of REI boots!” I shared the obvious with David, fixated on the road the next morning.

We drove past desolate hamlets and old trailers forming wagon circles in fields. What kind of person lives so remotely? Eventually buildings peeked over the horizon. We motored into the early stages of a ghost town, using a small park for our lunch stop. I felt conspicuous, so I waved to locals who slowly drive by.

Our playlists and podcasts wove new thoughts as we pushed north. I wanted to discuss anything, but David is a driver of few words. After four decades, I still can not guess his thoughts. He may eventually point out alluvial fans off mountains, unusual colors, sculpted rock faces. Here is the subtle beauty that we share.

Although we can lose ourselves in the miles upon miles of sand, prairie and dark mountains, the ominous thought of putting on chains in snow increases my husband’s urgency to get home. Three weeks of living in our van temporarily morphs us into “contented ole souls”, but —there are more snow-packed mountain passes to conquer.

Returning to Washington, the Northwest’s jeweled greens try to splash their splendor upon us, amid the interstate’s determined desire to clog. David finally pulls into the driveway as heavy snowflakes stick on our windshield. Thank you, Ms. Park Ranger, for your intrepid timing.

Turning off the engine, David looks at me and smiles. We are quiet again — feeling grateful. The diligence it required of my husband to drive all that distance is not lost. We agree that what just happened these past weeks turned into a bewitching trip.  Honestly, I haven’t looked to see if we do have chains.

— By Rita Ireland

David and Rita in Sedona.

Rita and David are Edmonds residents since the ’70s. As a retired teacher, she finds happiness in gardens, books, new places, and reading to little grandkids on her lap.

  1. Thank you, Rita, for your delightful travelogue that made it possible for me to enjoy vicariously through your well-written descriptions!

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