(for great pictures, check out Jeff´s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/undercountry?fref=ts)
We ride up to the big hole in the ground from the east. East Rim Drive. It’s the middle of the night and we are wired. This has been a big X on our map since the get-go. We drink beer and play guitar until day break because my buddy Scott told us that is the best time to see it. We find a cool spot to walk out to the edge, which is an obstacle course in itself and just keeps going down. There really isn’t a distinct edge at all. Sleep deprived and drunk, this is not a real wise move, but here I am to tell the tale. The first time you look at the canyon (the only word I can find to accurately name it) it looks like a cheesy post card. Then you blink a few times and say well there it is. Next. Then you realize that you can’t look away. For hours. It feels like it is the biggest thing I have ever looked at. Maybe because the ocean is somewhat uniform in texture and color, or maybe because I’ve seen it so many times. Either way, the Grand Canyon is one of those over-played scenes that loses all meaning until you are standing in front of it.
After a few hours and the light is evenly distributed from the sun’s tall angle, we go back to the van. The breakfast crowd is flooding the village as we draw the black curtains.
The rest of the day and next are spent struggling with wifi to post pictures and story. At night on the second day, I am finishing up my blog post when one of two dudes 16 feet away from me reads from a grocery bag, “Don’t take rides from strangers.” Then he says, “Strangers are sometimes the nicest people you’ve ever met.” I looked up and said, “Hell yea!” Two hours later, Tim and Scott grab their backpacks and jump in the van with us Vegas bound.
The Hoover Dam is not worth seeing in the middle of the night. Mega weak sauce. We park in the garage at Treasure Island around 4am. With little time to spare, Tim (red) and I (blue) each down a bottle of MD 20/20 for $3 a pop as a means to save money. After all it’s Vegas. If I get out of here without spending $400 it’s a win. If you want to understand how a bum thinks, chug malt liquor. It seemed perfectly reasonable to join the group of morning runners in blue jeans and flip-flops while holding a cigarette and spilling my coffee all over my shaman looking Thai shirt. It wasn’t our idea. The runners egged us on and cheered the whole half mile down the strip.
After some more hunting for the illusive $5 black-jack table and an almost endless search for our parking garage, we finally got to sleep around bright:30. Tim got some rest during the drive from GC to LV, which must have been the enabling factor for him to not go to sleep at all. When the 3 of us rose at almost the same time, Tim is walking to the van. Food. The four of us now walk and think as one on our quest to find a buffet. After talking to some locals, the buffet turns into China Town with such simple directions as, “Next light, turn right.” Not simple. The road turns into a freeway which ties the streets into knots, runs out of side walk, drops 4 levels via stairs, and stars off into at least 4 different directions. Two miles later with damp jeans from a crisp sun, we find an oriental looking multi-tiered shogun roof. It’s Quizno’s. Luckily, across the street is Kung Fu, a Thai-Chinese restaurant. It is LEGIT. It’s even built the same way as my buddy James’ house in Bangkok. We tell the waiter to just leave the water pitcher on the table. Pot-stickers, Thai iced coffee, and all kinds of num-nums. We walk quickly after paying to avoid becoming epoxied to the leather booth. During the walking conversation I realized we picked up the right backpackers.
You know how sometimes new groups of people meet and naturally break off into mini-herds where the conversation is so intense you look forward to listening to the other person chime in just so you can take a breath? It was like that. Scott and I couldn’t wait to hear what was going to be said next. Hive minding vocalized. (Hive minding is the subconscious interaction that I think is always going on between people.) We talked about traveling and living in the U.S. versus abroad and whatnot. In America, we kind of grow up believing that this is the only place to live. People have been living in various locations around the globe for a long time. It’s possible that there is a place more pleasant to live in than where each of us grow up. I can get my teeth cleaned in Thailand for $40. I don’t have to apply for an insurance policy, make monthly payments, and add tension to my shoulders and dreams about who is gonna jerk their lawsuit pistol first. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying this is the reality of today’s world. And guess what, Thai people read the same dental hygiene books as us. One thing that I really appreciated him saying was, “When I get to my place, my home, I’ll know as soon as I feel the dirt.”
The dirt in Death Valley has a strange energy. It feels empty. Nothing lives here. Nothing can. We weren’t worried about scorpions or snakes because there weren’t even plants and it was hot at night, so they wouldn’t need to get warm in our sleeping bags. We parked at Golden Canyon and walked neatly through the dark between the closely spaced oven-dried clay hills. The air is still hot, blowing through the narrow valley at 9PM. After a mile and a half of weaving between these life-sized ant hills, we reach the end of the wash, which is also the foot of a giant dirt mountain. The ground is faintly lit by the bright stars and for the most part it is dead silent. The tops of the hills occasionally crumble and it sounds like something is following us.
The first time I try to climb a low cliff, the “rock” I’m holding onto comes off the wall in a chunk about the size of a trash can. I fall a foot onto an incline and slide 5 or 6 feet to the bottom again. This stuff is crumbling all around us. We are basically in a huge kiln climbing on nature’s fired clay statues. Scott and I decide we are going to camp on top of a big hill so we’ll have a good first desert sunrise. We climb to the top of our hill and then seeing that it’s connected to a taller hill. This repeats for about an hour, balancing on the collapsing ridge of the never-ending dirt mountain range. We finally reach a peak, that is clearly too steep and fragile to climb. We name this place The End of the Earth and get make our beds. Our beds are slight bowls scraped into the ridge with our feet so we won’t tend to roll off into the abyss so easily . We are very comfortable and wake up at first light. The air is still warm, but not hot so we hit our own snooze buttons a few times. A couple hours later it starts warming up and we finally get up to join meet up with the others who look like ants at the bottom of the next hill. A few war bird cries are echoed back and forth through the cracks. The panorama view is sick.
Most of the day is spent driving around the desert and hanging out at an oasis. At before driving to deeper into California (gas prices are $6.20/gal) we drive 30 miles east to fill up ($3.79/gal) in the small, old gold mining town of Beatty (pronounced Bait-ee). The wings at Sour Dough Saloon were almost too tender to pick up. I walked up to 3 strangers next to us to find out what the locals like and dislike about their part of the country. They are all seasonal workers at the park from various reaches of the country. Almost everyone in the town is from somewhere else. We finish a game of pool and follow our new friends to the town brothel. They aren’t regular customers, it’s just a small town dive that’s entertaining to tour.
On the way out the door of Sour Dough’s, a skinny man, appearing to be in his early 60’s, with a Canadian tuxedo, suspenders, cowboy hat, white beard and twinkly eyes marches in. There’s a warm vibe emitting from The Prospector and he says, “Everyday is a holiday and every meal’s a feast!” Jeff tells him he’s coming with us to the strip club. Without hesitation he says, “Ok, but I’m bringing my truck because I don’t want to get stuck there.” The Prospector is a cartoon character. He has a catch phrase for every situation and we are folded in half laughing most of the night. I bought shots, Moxy gave us a tour of the facilities, Scott did his spot-on Mikey Jackson dance moves on stage and showed Moxy a couple moves on the pole. We go to leave the bar and The Prospector invites us for an after party at his place. After 20 years of working in the National Parks system, he retired and moved to the ghost town of Ryolite, NV. He’s the only resident. Our other friends told us not to go, but how many chances do we get to hang out with a real prospector?
Nothing too strange happens, but we all have the feeling we´ll wake up in the middle of the road and there will only be a placard of ¨The Prospector¨ from the 1860´s. This guy can´t be real. After The Prospector shows us around the ghost town and with a flashlight and fails to summon his neighbor through the floorboards, we sing around the fire for a couple hours. We wake up and he and his house are still there. After breakfast, we clean up and take off before we wear out our welcome. A couple of confused tourists visiting the ghost town ask us questions to which we can only say, ¨You gotta ask The Prospector.¨