"Oh hey, do you guys know how far the nearest gas station is?" The guy was sunburned, clearly dehydrated and living in a fantasy world as he staggered into our hidden campsite, 25 miles or more from the nearest road. With a flat tire and no ability to read a map, gas was the least of his worries. His...companion, sassily sipping on a PBR in the background, seemed to agree.
In need of some adventure, some friends and I had loaded up a Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma with dirt bikes, camping gear and party girls and headed to Death Valley National Park for the weekend. We figured we'd do some hooning, sit in some hot springs, get sun tans, cook over a campfire and head back to LA on Sunday night with stories to tell. We didn't figure we'd get to tell one about saving two people's lives.
I've written about off-roading in this particular part of Death Valley before. Well, since it's a national park, it's not so much off-roading as it is unmaintained dirt-roading. It's really not too difficult, so long as you have high-clearance, decent tires and an iota of common sense. Sadly, Impala Man, as he became known, was lacking all three.
Saline Valley is located in the park's Northwestern corner. It's not as sexy as Death Valley proper, mainly because "death" sounds way scarier than the vaguely salty "saline." One 87-mile road runs through it, a road that hasn't seen a lick of maintenance in what looks like at least half a century. That's why I like going there, it's desolate, remote and, most importantly, very, very few people go there. Yay, nature.
Like Death, Saline is extremely hot, extremely dry and extremely dangerous. It's not the kind of place you'd want to find yourself with, say, a rental Chevy Impala complete with bald tires, an 1/8th a tank of gas and an ample supply only of cheap beer. Regardless of vehicle, it's probably not the kind of place you should go with zero preparation, zero driving skill and no ability to navigate whatsoever. You might at least want to know how to locate the spare tire in said rental car. Getting an idea of why Impala Man was so screwed?
So there we are, relaxing in the noonday sun post dirt bike riding, enjoying an adult beverage or twelve, when Impala Man shows up on the scene. Impala Man seemed to have an interesting list of priorities. Initially convinced that he was a meth head trying to rob us, I confiscated his car keys and agreed to sell him one of our five-gallon jerry cans full of gas for $20. I grabbed my friends Sean and Mark and threw everyone in the Frontier to drive up to where the Impala was waiting, I thought just for said gas. The two of them were there for security.
Once it became clear that Impala Man did, in fact, have $20 in actual money things became a bit friendlier. At least until we saw the state of his car. So far, we'd only heard about the gas problem, so it came as a bit of a surprise to see that the right front wheel was totally flat and that he'd been driving on it that way long enough to damage the rim.
Bear in mind that this dialogue is filtered through my memory:
"How'd this happen?" I inquired.
"Well, I was driving along just fine when it just started to feel like the tire was low. Then we got here and stopped and it was totally flat."
"Where are you going exactly?"
"Oh, we've been out here for two days, just heading to Joshua Tree [250 miles away] now."
"When will we get there?" Pipes in the dumpy blonde, complete with thick accent.
"Oh, tonight I think," responds Impala Man. Remember this dude has no gas, a broken car, can't read a map and is driving in the opposite direction from his destination in the middle of one of the harshest environments on earth. Had he continued in the direction he was going, it was 60 miles or so to the next paved road. He would never have made it that far.
This is when I started to realize things were a bit off.
It turns out that I'd been to the chick's hometown in Siberia, which seemed to perk her up a bit. She's just moved to Colorado to live with Impala Man and he was taking her on a grand tour of the American Southwest to celebrate.
Somehow, they'd gotten the idea to drive into Racetrack Playa, a dry lake bed in the park where giant boulders create mysterious tracks as time and weather slowly scoot them across the surface. Then, somehow, it was over a mountain range (on incredibly tough dirt roads, mind), in the rental car, before making a wrong turn to head into the most remote corner of the park.
"Don't worry, I got the insurance," added Impala Man at some point. I think after he'd cleared out his trunk, declared there was no spare tire, repacked it, been told there was actually a spare, unpacked his trunk again, watched us pull out the space-saver, then dropped the car off the jack after putting it on the wrong point. Getting some idea of the situation here?
Here's a video my friend Alex made that weekend. Impala Man does not make an appearance.
Equipped with two brand-new press trucks complete with full-size spares, our own tools and extra gas, we weren't too worried about our own ability to get in and out of park. But, packed to work on dirt bikes in the field, we weren't really ready to perform major repairs on an unfamiliar car. Damaged wheel off, donut on. After half an hour of pumping by hand, it became clear that our little tube of Slime (again, packed for dirt bike tubes) wasn't going to achieve adequate pressure to make it through. Impala Man was going to have to drive out on the donut, we really didn't want him spending the night in camp with us.
Old wheel in the trunk, five gallons of gas in the rental car and it was time for them to head out. I took Impala Man aside, put both hands on his shoulders and looked him in the eye.
"Don't ever do this again," I said as seriously as I could muster.
"Umm, ok," he responded shiftily.
"No, I'm serious. This is not the place for you. Do not ever drive off-road again. Do not ever come into the wilderness. Do not ever do anything this stupid again."
"Ok, I won't."
"You could be dead right now. She'd be dead too. Your actions have consequences, you need to take responsibility for your own life. When you drive out of here, you're going to have maybe a 50/50 chance of making it. Don't go faster than 10mph. Don't drive over sharp rocks. Pay attention to what you're doing and be extremely careful. If you have to stop for the night, do it somewhere close to the road where people can see you. If you break down again, stay with the car and we'll be along tomorrow afternoon to give you a lift."
I think that sunk in, because Impala Man looked nervous as he shuffled back behind the wheel, scooting a few empties out of the way to do so. But, just then, the sound of salvation came to us. Saline Valley is so quiet - as near to complete silence as I've ever experienced - that we could hear the dozen or so vehicles of the SoCal Land Rover Owner's Club coming from miles away. They'd have shiny toys, fancy tools and relish the chance to be heroes. More importantly, they'd get this idiot off our hands, I was sure of it.
Well, sure of it until they got one look at Impala Man and tried to drive on. I had to appeal to their inner sense of duty to get them to help, but man, help they did.
Out of the trucks came tools the likes of which you wouldn't believe exist. A giant orange airbag went under the rental car, inflating off the exhaust pipe to lift the entire right side of the Impala feet off the ground. An LR4 driver opened his trunk to reveal a digital display indicating that the fridge that took up half the space was chilled to precisely 34 degrees. The other half held an air compressor, which he used to reinflate the tire after plugging it. They had a good tire off the rear and onto the front in under five minutes and the patched tire onto the rear in about the same time.
Airbag deflated, lots of eyerolls, everything packed up and it was time for the club to roll out.
"Can I follow you?" Meekly asked Impala Man. Cold stares were all he was left with. We climbed back into our Frontier and drove back to the campsite, watching Impala Man head up the road, in the right direction, through the rear glass. The next day, he was nowhere to be found on the way out. We'll never know if he did make it to Joshua Tree, but one thing's for certain: he won't be back to Death Valley. I hope.