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Exhilaration, and anxiety

September 9/Day 54. This morning when I wake up my toes are frozen, despite three layers of blankets. It’s 40 degrees inside the camper. I can’t run the furnace because my house batteries are too low; I don’t want to fire up the generator because it’s too early and other campers are asleep in tents nearby. Bundled up in sweat pants, woolen socks and a hoodie, I sit and shiver.

I decide to check out early; my destination, Death Valley. I’m starting at 10,000 feet and will finish below sea level so it should be downhill most of the way, right? Certainly once I’m over Tioga Pass, the road leads steadily down for 12-15 miles to US Hwy 395. Heading south on 395, the Sierra Nevada stand up immediately to my right for the next 100 miles. Rugged and jagged as a saw blade, they easily rival the Rockies in splendor. Across the valley five miles to my left is another long mountain range, of lesser stature, the Inyo Mountains.

When I turn east toward Death Valley, I still have two mountain ranges to cross, the Inyo and the Paramint Range. So for 75 miles it’s pretty much up and down, with a little more down than up each time. I handle the Inyo Mountains with ease. Climbing the Paramint Mountains gives the truck a demanding workout, but she handles it with aplomb.

Somewhere near the summit of the Paramint Mountains is a scenic vista point named after one Padre Crowley, who was a fixture in the area for decades, ministering to people of all faiths and unfaiths. The vista overlooks a narrow V-shaped canyon void of vegetation. Perhaps a half mile down-canyon, the V opens up to a stunning view of Death Valley about 2000 feet below. I’m standing there with a quiet group of 30-40 other tourists who’ve also pulled over and are peering over the railing into the canyon, snapping pictures.

What the fighter did

That’s when one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever witnessed happens. We hear a sound we can’t identify, perhaps a gust of wind whistling up the canyon. An instant later, a fighter plane swoops into view, hugging the left edge of the V right at the level of the little hump you see in the picture, just below our line of sight. With a deafening roar it screams up the canyon, barely 100 feet above our heads! You can’t imagine how close it is. As it passes us it veers sharply upward to avoid disaster at the end of the box canyon. I can clearly see directly into the fiery exhaust of his engine as he disappears into the clouds. I’m certain the pilot is laughing his ass off.

We are all absolutely stunned. We wander around in circles, babbling. Strangers grab strangers by the shoulders and exclaim, “Did you SEE that!”  to deaf ears. We resemble cackling chickens running around in a barnyard when they see a hawk overhead. Nobody leaves the vista point for at least ten minutes, too disoriented to drive.

I go back and retrieve my camera from the truck so I can record the location, at least. Usually I carry it with me when I stop at a viewpoint, but this time—no. If only, if only….

At last I clamber into the truck to continue the final downhill run to Death Valley, from 4,000 feet to 0 feet in about 12 miles. I start by downshifting into third gear with the transmission in tow/haul mode, but even with judicious application of brakes the truck, with 14,000 pounds of trailer pushing from behind, begins to outrun the road. I shift into second gear. I pump the brakes a lightly as I can, then let them cool. Pump. Cool. But the truck still wants to outrun the road. For the first time on the trip I smell burning brakes. I can’t get the truck to slow enough to downshift into first gear. I’m starting to sweat, in spite of my air conditioner.

Finally the road levels out slightly for a hundred yards and I steer off onto the gravel shoulder, hoping for the best. I manage to wrestle the rig to a stop amid a great cloud of dust. Plumes of blue smoke and the acrid smell of burning brakes billow from the wheel wells. I turn off the engine, then exhale for the first time I can remember. Just inches off the pavement, I intend to wait as long as it takes for my brakes to cool. I can see the road ahead; it runs straight as an arrow, downhill to a vanishing point. I’m still 9 miles from Stovepipe Wells Village, where I hope to find a campsite.

After 30 minutes, I start the start the truck and pull the tranny into first gear, counting on the engine’s back-pressure to slow my downward momentum. I ease back out onto the highway.

First gear holds. I turn on my 4-way emergency flashers and creep down the hill at 12 miles an hour as cars zip around me on the narrow two-lane road. Tapping the brakes only rarely, gently, so the engine doesn’t rev over 3500 rpm, I slowly descend.

I finally coast slowly into Stovepipe Wells, which turns out to be not a town, but a rather charming little one-company resort with nice motel rooms, a saloon, restaurant, gift shop, gas station, and…a swimming pool! The 20-place RV park is brand new and I happen to be their first and only tenant.

It’s been a good day. But the roar of that fighter still reverberates in my ribcage as I drift off to sleep.

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