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Tranquillity base

Seeking solitude in Death Valley, a welcome respite when the world is too much with us.

March 30, 2003|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Death Valley — Sometimes a person needs to hunker down in a place that dwarfs headlines and silences cell phones. You don't have to be a survivalist to understand that, though I did think about renting a Hummer to make me invincible on a trip earlier this month to Death Valley National Park, about 300 miles northeast of L.A.

On two previous visits, I had seen all the popular, easy-to-reach sights, including the sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells, Scotty's Castle and Zabriskie Point. This time I wanted to drive some of the park's back roads to more remote beauty spots -- Saline Valley warm springs, Eureka Dunes (taller than the ones near Stovepipe Wells) and Titus Canyon in the Grapevine Mountains at the park's eastern boundary.

Lined by ancient cracked pavement, gullies, gravel and washboard, these roads often require a four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance, according to Corky Hays, chief of interpretation at the park. But when I mentioned a Hummer, she laughed. "That's overkill," she said. So I chose a four-wheel-drive Ford Explorer, which, as luck would have it, came with a satellite radio. I checked the tire jack and spare, loaded up on bottled water, peanut butter, rice cakes and oranges, packed my trusty Swiss Army knife and hiking boots, and took off.

I went in high season, which lasts from mid-February to mid-April, peaking, when the conditions are right, in a display of spring wildflowers. It was 85 degrees, clear and slightly breezy, a far cry from summer, when the temperature can easily hit 120 and you start perspiring just looking at the valley from the insulated pod of an air-conditioned car.

There are several ways to enter Death Valley, including California 190 from Death Valley Junction to the east. It's the most frequently used portal because the pass over the Funeral Mountains is just 3,000 feet, low enough so that an RV usually can handle it in the full heat of summer. The stunning western approach, by California 190 from the Owens Valley hamlet of Lone Pine, crosses two mountain passes, both higher than 4,000 feet. There's also a long, mostly unpaved road in from the north that passes the turnoff to the Eureka Dunes. This time, though, I came in from the south, on California 178, which yields to Emigrant Canyon Road inside the national park.

Along the way I glimpsed snowcapped Telescope Peak, at 11,049 feet the highest of the mountains surrounding Death Valley. It's just north of Trona, a lonely, dilapidated mining and chemical processing town that sits on the bed of a dried-up lake. Pretty soon the desert gave way to piles of rock that kept getting bigger until I realized they were mountains that, in the harsh light of midday, were all the colors of oft-laundered clothes. These are the Coso, Argus, Slate and Panamint ranges, which boomed briefly during the tail end of the California Gold Rush.

Not far away but hard to reach by car is the secluded Barker Ranch, where the Manson "family" hid out in 1969 after the Tate-LaBianca murders.

I am drawn to Death Valley for its timeless quietude and edginess; it's one of the few places I know that manages to have both. The drive north on partly unpaved Emigrant Canyon Road, with hardly another car in sight, was serenity itself. A side trip about seven miles east to Aguereberry Point in the high Panamints seemed like an adventure, even though a two-wheel-drive passenger vehicle could probably handle the gravel and washboard road, at least in fair weather.

On the way there, I investigated Eureka Mine, worked by Pete Aguereberry from 1907 to the early '30s, then rounded the shoulderless hill to his beloved viewpoint over Death Valley. There I sat on a rock eating a power bar and thinking about nothing, a restful state of mind that this place seems to encourage.

The road on to Furnace Creek Ranch, where I had a reservation for two nights, took me past the Stovepipe Wells sand dunes and the Devil's Cornfield, where photographers converge at sunset. I drove on, through the kind of exquisite twilight only Death Valley can provide, while my satellite radio picked up a New York classical station playing Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." In the distance, I could see the reassuring lights and lofty date palms of Furnace Creek.

It's a real desert oasis, watered by thermal springs in the mountains to the east and bordered by a windbreak of bushy tamarisk trees. The little enclave started as an alfalfa ranch that fed the valley's famous 20-mule teams in the days of borax mining. Ranch wives opened the place to tourists in the early '30s. Now Furnace Creek has an 18-hole golf course, two restaurants, a general store, a stable for trail and hay rides, tennis courts, a campground, a museum and a swimming pool, one of the best in California, I think, filled with clear spring water, always a perfect 80 to 85 degrees.

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