A father-and-son road trip through Death Valley
Seeing the dust devil dance into view, my son finally snapped out of his teenage malaise. We were barreling east through the Mojave Desert on California Route 190, two hours into a four-day road trip. In the rearview mirror, the shrinking Sierra Nevadas. Ahead, treeless desiccation beneath the big, blue sky.
Luther, 17, straightened from his slump. He wanted to play video games — “no way,” I said — and pointed as the milky ghost, all shoulders and narrow waist, came churning across a salt flat that used to be Lake Owens until Los Angeles diverted the Owens River in 1913 to quench its thirst. The size of San Francisco, it’s the single largest source of dust pollution in the United States.
“I left my camera in the trunk,” Luther said. “Can you stop so I can get it?”
“Of course,” I said, pulling onto the sandy shoulder. I popped the trunk, and he grabbed an old 35mm film camera my mother had given him after she learned to snap photos with her iPhone, and we were off. He peered through the telephoto lens at the vortex. I stomped on the accelerator, and the Challenger roared in response. The needle raced past the 90 mph mark.
Yes, I was breaking the law — the speed limit along this lonely stretch of highway was 65 mph — but I decided it was worth the risk. I saw no
other cars for miles. No curves or hills or intersecting roads. Hitting 110 mph, I let out a selfconscious, “Dukes of Hazzard”-style “yeeeeee-haw!” and eased my foot off the accelerator just about the time the dust devil vanished. Sometimes, during moments of pure joy and spontaneity, pushing limits seems appropriate.
Besides, the thrill of the drive was the main point of this trip. Luther loves cars, especially fast, high-performance cars. He knows all the makes and models, engine specs, prices. During his junior year at Chantilly High School in Fairfax County, Va., he learned to fix dents with a ballpeen hammer and airbrush paint in an auto-body class. Luther’s a car nut, plain and simple, but one without a driver’s license and no sense of urgency to get one.
People travel for all sorts of reasons — to learn about history and art, to experience the food of other cultures, relaxation and physical fitness. I wanted to give Luther a taste of the freedom and excitement that a powerful, finely tuned automobile driven on the right stretch of road can bring. What better way than a road trip through the American West?
In March, we set out from L.A. on a four-day round-trip circuit through Death Valley to Las Vegas and back via a different route. The route echoed a trip my wife, Heather, and I made 17 years earlier, when she was six months pregnant with Luther. I had work in Las Vegas, and she flew out from our home in Brooklyn to meet me. Joking that this was our last hurrah before parenthood, we rented a convertible Chrysler and drove to Death Valley. I still remember the rush as we ribboned over desert hills on those open roads. Entering one long, lonely valley, I pushed past the 100-mph mark, wind whipping our hair. We topped out at 110 — my upper limit, I guess — feeling freer and more alive for taking the risk. It seemed fitting to return with Luther.
After the dust devil encounter, Luther and I drove on, stopping at a scenic overlook called Father Crowley Vista Point. He jumped out with his camera and marched to the edge of Rainbow Canyon. The distant floor of Panamint Valley winked at us in the sunlight.
“Hey, Dad, check that out,” Luther said, nodding back toward the parking lot. I had paid extra to rent a shiny, black Dodge Challenger with a throaty engine, wide tires and beefy lines. A couple of foreign tourists were admiring our American muscle car, rakishly angled against a backdrop of mountains and low-slung clouds.
While driving was the theme of this spring-break trip, I hoped to get out and explore on foot, even though Luther’s not much of a hiker. But he surprised me at Mosaic Canyon, near Stovepipe Wells, by leaping parkour-style onto the water-polished marble walls near the formation’s entrance. We followed the snaking narrows in and out of shadows. The canyon widened, and Luther led me up a goatlike trail along the right shoulder. Peering down on those walking the main trail reminded us both of an early scene in “Star Wars,” some of which was filmed at Death Valley, when the short, brown-robed Jawas abducted R2D2. We were close, I later learned: That scene was filmed in nearby Golden Canyon.
Forty-five minutes into our Mosaic Canyon walk, the wind picked up. Sand, whipped up by gusts, burned our eyes and stung our bare legs. Back at the car, I tossed Luther the keys and asked if he wanted to drive the twomile stretch of gravel road back to Route 190.
“Yeah!” he said, hitting the clicker to unlock the doors.
He did great, even through washboard sections that rattled our spines and even when a van hugged our tail, flashing its lights to pass. It wasn’t like Luther was creeping, especially given the gravelly conditions. “Idiots,” he mumbled as the van blew past. I’m guessing he picked that up from me back in Virginia.
I drove the rest of the trip. Our next stop was Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level, where we parked and crunched out onto the blinding salt flat. We drove past the Devil’s Golf Course, a jagged expanse of halite salt-crystal formations. We explored Furnace Creek, once a borax-mining center, where the famous 20-mule teams hauled wagons filled with the white, multipurpose mineral out of pits and across the Mojave Desert.
The traffic lights and congestion of Vegas broke the road-trip spell. We parked the Challenger and explored the Strip on foot. Luther and I aren’t gamblers or shoppers, so we dug deeper for something to do. Luther really wanted to drive a dune buggy, but every place I called required a driver’s license.
Instead, we went to the Gene Woods Racing Experience gocart track just south of McCarran International Airport. Even though Luther did not need a driver’s license, this was no summer carnival ride. We wore head socks, full-face racing helmets and thick neck braces for stability. The high-performance carts could top 50 mph. We completed two races around the winding loop. Both times, Luther beat me and most other racers. I was impressed. He was skilled and confident behind the wheel, totally energized by the experience.
Driving back home is never that exciting, nor is it as liberating as our road trip through Death Valley. But it’s nice for Luther to have both experiences as reminders of what’s possible behind the wheel.
Luther Ward sits outside Gus’s Really Good Fresh Jerky, a popular roadside attraction 200 miles north of Los Angeles. Gus’s is the last taste of civilization before entering Death Valley. Photo by Logan Ward, The Washington Post
Luther Ward leaps while scampering on the marble ledges in Mosaic Canyon during a morning hike.