A fa­ther-and-son road trip through Death Val­ley

The Denver Post - - TRAVEL - By Lo­gan Ward

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

Lo­gan Ward, The Wash­ing­ton Post

Luther Ward leaps while scam­per­ing on the mar­ble ledges in Mo­saic Canyon dur­ing a morn­ing hike.

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