Summer in the Valley: a road trip through America’s desert highways

As part of the Bradt Travel-writing competition, Sylvia Dubery depicts her nail-biting road trip through Death Valley.

The desert highway quivers in the heat haze. I keep one eye on the petrol gauge which quivers above zero, as if watching it will stop it from dropping to empty.

Summer in Death Valley. Inside the car, we are cocooned in a cool air-conditioned microclimate which is draining the petrol away but outside is a furnace. Every road sign is a metaphor for the hopelessness this land offered the ghosts of doomed pioneers. Funeral Mountains, Dead Man’s Pass and Last Chance Canyon. It’s like a devil’s word association game with an edge of reality because if we run out of petrol, we’re really up the creek.

Furnace Creek at dawn. All night long, a fierce hot wind has blasted our balcony but the morning is still. Before sunrise, we swim in the pool, still bathtub-hot from the previous day. The sun races up from behind the ochre hills and it’s as if someone has flicked a switch to instant heat.

We buy coffee and cookies for breakfast and drive to the Devil’s Golf Course. Sipping steaming coffee, we tread among the miniature white pinnacles, listening to the salt crystals crackle like a breakfast cereal. I crouch down to photograph the evaporated lake floor and see little snow-capped mountains through my lens. We stand on an ocean bed at Badwater, 282 feet below sea level. Tiny fish defy gravity in the salt-saturated shallows, bobbing around, going nowhere in their last dregs of sulphurous ocean. The heat slows you down and we simply forget about filling up the car.

We explore a trail through a valley landscaped by heat. The extreme climate has eroded the rock into smooth contours in an artist’s palette of colours, layers of burnt umber, oxide red and raw sienna lined with pale scrub flowerbeds. It has sucked moisture out of the earth to produce concrete-hard mud flats. We stand on ground that is dried out and cracked, a mummy’s skin, drained of its colour and vitality. Mysterious moving stones shuffle around, leaving a mud trail behind them, though they only move when nobody’s looking. A bit like that petrol gauge.

At Stovepipe Wells, there is a last chance to refuel but we are distracted feeding the birds from our water bottles. Little brown starlings and a desert red oriole peck gratefully at the splashes of moisture that we scatter on the ground. We climb the scorching dunes and run back down, our shoes heavy with sand. We photograph sandblasted driftwood and follow the tracks of a fleeting coyote. And all the time, the temperature is rising.

Common sense just slips away, until we are on the long desolate stretch of highway, heading west, speculating on how many miles are left once the fuel light glows. There is nothing but dry rubble and bleakness for miles. Ahead of us, the Panamint Mountains form a formidable wall, just as they did for the Forty-Niners, the pioneers who crossed the valley on the gold trail. Our transport is more reliable and hardy than their mules, so long as we keep it well fed.

At last, we begin to rise from the valley floor and some Joshua trees appear, their spiky stunted arms reaching skyward. I want to photograph my husband standing beside them, frowning into the sun like Bono.

‘No,’ he says, eyes ahead, ‘Too risky. It’ll use too much petrol.’

I watch the trees pass with regretful longing and store the image in my memory instead of camera.

At last, far in the distance, we see Panamint Springs, a lonely mirage in the barren landscape. We drive in silence towards the yellow signs, only breathing again as we reach the lonely, unmanned gas station. We have made it; together we have triumphed over the elements. Other cars are stopping, more relieved faces, laughing now that the worry is over.

We snatch up the nozzle and slip in a credit card.
The card is rejected.
There is nothing to be said. We turn off the air conditioning and keep driving.


About the author

Sylvia Dubery comes from the island of Anglesey in North Wales and grew up beside the sea and mountains. She works as a teacher in a first school but likes to spend summer holidays on archaeology digs and travelling. She loves visiting ancient ruins and her favourite place, which she keeps going back to, is Pompeii. She loves the drama and adventure of deserts too, but would definitely recommend being better prepared for Death Valley.

New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2022

The above story was taken from Travel Write, an anthology celebrating 20 years of Bradt’s annual travel-writing competition.

The 2022 competition is now open! The theme this year is ‘it was strangely quiet’ and entries close on 7 November.

Click here for more information on how to enter.