March Madness 2020 

text: Peter Matusov (Russian version)
photo: Peter Matusov, unless noted otherwise

Nearly three months of the year were already in the past, yet we haven't seen the dirt. Cabin fever of 2020 first hit John Lee from Expedition Exchange, and he poked friends around Southern California to see if anyone would be up to, say, a quick hop to Death Valley, and a good time driving on the washboard and in the dust?

But of course we are.

A couple of weeks is spent discussing routes, food, trucks, and whatnot - but the day of the trip still arrives before we think we are ready.

San Diego to Steel Pass Road

It is dark outside.

I am squeezing the gas pedal of the Range Rover on Interstate 15. Jules The Airedale terrier occasionally nudges me with his nose, so I don't forget he's back there. I am trying to concentrate on what did I forget to bring with me on a three-day trip to Death Valley.

Oh... The rubber donut for the rear driveshaft... Dammit. Have to be gentle on gas in low range. Paper towels... if gas stations still have it, despite the coronavirus panic, will get it. Charcoal, right. What else... Don't have the short-side front axleshaft. Have to be gentle on gas in low range.

Shit like that... In the past, the first half an hour of driving in the dark were full of checking for unusual noises, sloppy handling, or random lights on the dashboard. The Range Rover seems to be void of any of those. I decide to keep the speed around 70 miles per hour, and violate my resolution shortly after.

The skies brighten up between Temecula and Riverside. I leave Interstate 15 in Hesperia, and pull over to Pilot truck stop on U.S.395. Damn is it windy... Take Jules out for a walk, give him water, fuel up, and hit the road again.

Our meeting point is the Shell gas station in Pearsonville, on the outskirts of China Lake Naval Weapons Center. I roll in and don't see anyone; either I am that fast, or I am that late. VHF is silent on our chosen frequency.

About 20 minutes later, the crew arrives - John Lee and Steve Bernard in a Land Rover Defender 110, Sean Reidy in an 80-series Land Cruiser, and Arthur Gee and Jen So in a 2-nd generation Isuzu Trooper. We appear to have three dogs between us - they carry out their acquaintance routine, and, remarkably, no humping attempts noticed between three male dogs of similar dimensions.

The hopes for a breakfast in the Ranch House Cafe in Olancha are dashed - cafe is closed. We decide to take a side trip to Cerro Gordo, to break the monotony of a long highway ride.

It has been close to 140 years since the last time the trip from Olancha to Cerro Gordo involved a steamboat ferry, and close to a hundred since Los Angeles drank up the last water in Owens Lake, so we use Californa SR 190 to cross the dry expanse of what has been a hundred-square-mile lake. From CA 190 - CA 136 junction, it is a short hop to Keeler where the graded gravel road leaves pavement towards Cerro Gordo.

One has to love the grades on these roads. Not the steepest by far and large, Cerro Gordo road nonetheless climbs 4500 vertical feet in 8 miles of its length, making it a 10-percent grade on average. The road is perfectly passable in a two-wheel-drive vehicle, but only if you treat it as you would a rental Chevy Cruze. A proper 4x4 has to have a low range option in its transmission, which is I use almost immediately once we slow down to leisurely 10-15 mph.

Patches of snow appear around 7000 ft, and we are treading wet snow for the last mile of our climb. Cerro Gordo is really snowed in.

We pull over to a small parking area across from the famous American Hotel, and Sean's Land Cruiser barfs out the excess coolant, making us worried for a moment. We meet Bob, the groundskeeper of town recently purchased for $1.36M, and mull around town on foot. John Lee is still wearing shorts and makes his best to convince us it isn't cold at all - I put on a warm jacket, just in case. There must be something I don't know about a Defender's heater.

Soon, we have our fill of the town, so we bail downhill - and towards Lone Pine for a quick lunch. It is already afternoon; we still have about 100 miles to cover till our destination for the day: Eureka Sand Dunes.

Time change works in our favor: it is still bright and early in the evening when we pull over from North Death Valley Road towards the dunes. Somewhere around the final descent into Eureka Valley, I start hearing Paul von Klosst-Dohna on the VHF - the way he came through reminded me of a great Russian cover of "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer" - like a faint but very clear transmission from far away.

Here I should mention that it is an unbelievable case of Eureka dunes being the least photogenic object in the valley - while the peaks of Inyo and Panamint ranges are adorned by the low clouds lit up by the evening sun, a "strategically-placed" low cloud casts a deep shadow over the dunes, turning them into one big featureless gray lump. What a disappointment.

By the time we reach the dunes, the wind is howling, and trying its best to pull the low clouds over the mountain ridge. Anytime I poke my head outside the truck, I feel the sting of sand grains hitting my face. It might not shape up to be a pleasant camping night if we decided to stay here.

We meet with Paul a few miles behind the main body of the dunes, and he suggests plowing on into Dedeckera Canyon to find somewhat more-sheltered area to camp. Paul's driving his beautiful Series 2A 109, on the factory 2.25-liter four-cylinder engine but with enough tricks up Paul's sleeves to go over some sizable obstacles.

Middle bottom photo: John Lee

Photo by John Lee

The Dedeckera Canyon meets us with a series of narrow dry waterfall ledges; I am apprehensive of those having scaped the rear bumper of my Discovery a few years ago, but the nearly-factory Range Rover with open differentials glides up and over the rocks without even a hint of a wheelspin. These guys knew what they were building, back in 1969 or so.

Soon we're out of the canyon and driving on Steel Pass road. We have still one crew member behind - Jack Quinlan - and he is expecting us to camp by the dunes. The wind seems to reach every place we're looking at for camping; we finally pick a wide spot at the foothills of Saline Peak. The place is easily large enough for the group; we try to figure out how to park the trucks to afford us at least some leeward cooking space.

Jack Quinlan comes through on the radio in about an hour. Out of his remarkable stable of off-road warriors, he picked a Toyota Tundra. There's no doubt that it is a far more comfortable vehicle for a 400-mile drive than an old Ex-MOD 110 Land Rover or a ROW 70-series Land Cruiser, but when Jack arrives, he confesses to having had to winch himself up one of these ledges. I am not sure if he's serious or joking. Another amazing thing he confers is that there was no wind at the dunes when he was driving through - if so, we missed out on Eureka Dunes sunset and sunrise. But.. maybe we didn't.

Soon the sun comes down, everyone's done with their separate dinners and congregating near John Lee cooking yakitori on the grill. Despite releasing everyone from community meal duties, John kept committed to his - and so he makes a vast variety of yakitori enough for everyone. The Macallan is out and poured around. The conversation quickly leaves the mundane subject of expanding coronavirus pandemic, and meanders for a while between our vehicles. Somewhere in the middle of vehicle-related discussion, Jack advances his theory that a trip to remote places must include no less than three vehicles, lest one becomes stuck or disabled and too heavy to pull or tow out with a single truck; and absolutely, under any circumstances, no more than five Land Rovers must be present - otherwise the chances of a catastrophic breakdown increase to unacceptable levels.

Then the discussion veers off and stays solidly on the firearms, very educational and incredibly peaceful, with occasional mild disagreements like a feeling of a Glock or a Sig in one's hand.

Life's perfect.

* * *

March Madness' vehicles

Steel Pass to Hidden Valley

We are supposed to have an early start today: the plan is to drive through Saline Warm Springs to Saline Valley, on to Lippincott Road, over the pass into the Racetrack Valley, then on to Teakettle Junction, right towards Hunter Mountain, and camp somewhere in the Hidden Valley.

I only get up around 7, and don't see too much activity around. After yesterday's long drive, nobody's in the mood to over-exert themselves. We leave the camp around 10, for a short hop on Steel Pass to a yet another new-for-me side attraction in Death Valley: Marble Bath. In one or another diatribe about our past excursions into Death Valley, I mentioned that it looks like one giant toy box for me - every nook and cranny has something ugly, or beautiful, or bizarre. This is one of these nooks and crannies - the story has it that one Wendel Moyer, a scientist spending all his free time mountaineering and exploring the desert, in early 1990s decided to make a prank in the area that was BLM lands then but would eventually be annexed to Death Valley National Park later. He rounded up friends to haul the cast iron bathtub into a small canyon emptying to Steel Pass Road, and filled it with blue marbles.

But before we make a side trip to the Marble Bath, I get to learn another gem of the Queen's English - hearing Paul on VHF, announcing a "Tippy Bit." That's an "off-camber section" for you Yanks. Paul definitely makes the best of the tippy bit, coming close enough to the loose gravel edge of the trail for the rest of the crew to worry. Jack performs spotting duties at a rare level of perfection, communicating to Paul not only what to do, but also what's about to happen.

We follow through the Tippy Bit without much drama, and pull over to make a hike to the Marble Bath. Since Moyer's time, many little toys have been added to the tub, making it very entertaining. We take a bunch of photos and get back to our trucks.

Bottom left photo: John Lee

Photo by John Lee

I think that's where I mentioned five-land-rover-disaster-limit concept on the VHF. The Range Rover flat out refuses to allow me to shift out of Park. It takes about half a second before Jack calls back inquiring about the brake lights - sure enough, Sean behind me reports none with my foot on the brake pedal. The classic cause - the brake switch. In this case, not even a year-old straight from the United Kingdom of Land Rover Parts. Fortunately, after a few taps on the brake pedal, it came to its senses, and hasn't been a pest ever since.

From there, the drive to Saline Warm Springs is probably the roughest part of Steel Pass Road - it follows the edge of the large lava field, so the pumice rocks are all over the place, including the road bed. It is bouncy all right; Jules is swaying around on half-bent legs, trying to keep himself upright in the back of the Range Rover.

The views along the road are mind-blowing.

The Springs are insanely crowded. Both tubs in the Upper springs are full of people; we slowly roll through the area to see the "overflow parking" near the Lower springs' restroom and a line of people to use it. Ugh.

We stretch our legs a bit near Lower springs, and head back - and across the whoop-de-doos of the Saline Valley alluvial fan. Ahead of us - the worst washboard Saline Valley Road has to offer. My Range Rover's 7.50-16 Michelin XZL tires are aired down to 28 psi, from street-friendly 42-45, but far from being Death Valley washboard-friendly. Anything, everything I do - speed up, speed down, ride high on the berm at the edge of the road, ride on the opposite side of the road - has been tried and proven futile by thousands of other desert wanderers.

Paul decides to break off from this torture for a bit, and pulls off towards the center of Saline Valley - to the former location of the Salt Tram Station at the valley floor.

The nasty salt marsh here was mined for borax in the last quarter of 19th century, and salt mining began early in the 20th. The salt was carried out from the desert by mule - but with increase in production, better means of transportation were needed. It is worth quoting a Wikipedia article on Saline Valley:

"An electric aerial tram was constructed in 1911 to carry the salt 14 miles (22 km) over the Inyo Mountains to a terminus northeast of Keeler, California in the Owens Valley. It operated sporadically from 1913 to 1936, but ultimately proved to be too expensive to run. The tram, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, was the steepest ever constructed in the United States. It rose from an elevation of 1100 feet (340 m) in Saline Valley to 8500 feet (2600 m) over the mountains, and then down to 3600 feet (1100 m)."

I should also mention that the town of Cerro Gordo also served as location of the highest tram station.

Our trucks fill up the small parking area surrounded by the salt marsh, and Jack proceeds to set up a shaded lunch spot with a view of the entire valley. Once he's finished, two dudes in Jeeps arrive and park right in front of his awning - oh so considerate... Jen walks to the water edge, followed by the dogs; I have to catch Jules before he plunges into the stinky muck. It is hot, despite the wind blowing along the valley.

Once the lunch discussion topics are exhausted, it is time for us to move on. The turn-off to Lippincott Road is in relatively short distance from the salt works; the road only takes a mile or so to leave the valley and start its relentless steep climb.

Bottom right photo: John Lee

Photo by John Lee

DesertUSA website provides an accurate, if a little fear-mongering in places, description of the road. Not as steep as Cerro Gordo Road, it nonetheless gains 2000 feet in about 7 miles from Saline Valley Road to Lippincott Pass. It is indeed a narrow shelf road, with "tippy bits" and "steep bits" (that doesn't require translation into American), loose in places and rocky everywhere. I noticed a drastic reduction in VHF chatter about two miles into the road - people must be busy!

From one of the switchbacks we get our last glimpse of Saline Valley on this trip.

I stop frequently to take photos of vehicles on the tight switchbacks far above and far below me. We all stop by the Lippincott Road sign after the pass, and take a thousand pictures or so, before heading downhill to towards the Racetrack.

Mid-afternoon is not the best time to see the Racetrack; it is more scenic early in the morning or late in the evening. Nonetheless, quite a few folks from the group have never seen the this place before, and it does not fail to impress.

Nobody is in the mood to walk all the way North to the foothills of Hunter Mountain - where the most rocks and tracks are; we have about two hours of sunlight left, so we better find ourselves a good place to camp.

Back to the Racetrack Road; this one, in my limited experience, has the absolutely worst washboard ever. Regardless of how heavy your vehicle is and how low is the tire pressure and how fast or slow you're driving, the road WILL find your vehicle's resonant frequencies and exersize them to the limit. This torture is 32 miles long, and takes about two to three hours total, depending on your sensitivity; fortunately, the Teakettle Junction is only six ridiculously long miles from the Racetrack, and here's where we are deviating from the road.

We park near the Junction; Jack and Paul take off to scout a potential camping location West of Teakettle, but come back without a candidate. We turn off to Hunter Mountain Road - what a bliss it is after the Racetrack Road!

Top left photo: John Lee

Photo by John Lee

The road to an abandoned mine goes off to the right; one suitable camping area is already taken. We work our way up the wide canyon, and Paul recalls one more place from his vast Death Valley memory collection. The place is available, secluded, nearly flat, somewhat sheltered from the wind, and otherwise perfect. We go on to set up camp.

... Which takes very little on my part, since Jules and I sleep inside the Range Rover's 78" by roughly 48" flat cargo area. My main problem now is to get the charcoal going in the little grill; the combination of gas-station-issue charcoal, lack of easily-flammable material, old and beaten lighter, and gusty wind. John Lee puts the end to this misery offering me a propane torch - like half a tank later, the coals dry out enough to burn. Onto the grill go two racks of baby lamb ribs and a whole lot of little peppers.

A gust of wind ruins some of our attempts to pour the remnants of Macallan before we move on to the next whisky of choice. We have to hurry dinking it up before more of it is spilled on the carpet inside the Range Rover - add that to the list of hardships of travelling in Death Valley!

In the meantime, Arthur manages to cook a perfect steak, and slice it into many tasty morsels. They disappear in a hurry. Twenty minutes later, lamb ribs follow, chased down by whisky and roasted peppers.

Photos above: John Lee

Photo by John Lee

Photo by John Lee

The wind that seemed to die down picks up again by the time we hit the hay.

All night long the gusts rock the truck, and Jules stands up to look out for the nasties who won't let us sleep in peace. At least, it isn't as cold as the night before.

* * *

Hidden Valley to San Diego

It is somewhat cloudy and windy when we wake up in the morning.

Arthur and Jen are already up and setting up to cook breakfast; I let Jules and myself out and start rearranging stuff so I could make coffee and toasts on the Range Rover's tailgate. My lighter is only good for the lastest-last flick of flame to get the stove going; Jules, for the first time that I can remember, demands food. He stands five feet away, and barks in three-syllable words, incredulous that after all these years together I still don't speak Airedale. He devours the rest of his chicken, neglects the dry food pellets, and demands at least a third of every bite of my toasts with cheese.

In the meantime, a mug full of percolator-produced espresso makes its way into my bloodstream, and I am capable of performing more complex tasks, like rolling up my sleeping bag and mattress, and start putting things away.

I haven't asked, but I suspect Jules' bark has something to do with the rest of the crew waking up and making breakfast earlier than before. Everyone's just too polite to mention it.

Close to nine in the morning, I take Jules on a walk - which he enjoys immensely, playing with Jen's dog Archer. He returns happy but still pokes Bear, Sean's large German Shepherd, with his front paw to make him get up and play.

Soon, we're rolling up the valley towards Hunter Mountain. The road, while being far better and smoother than Lippincott, eventually steepens up and becomes a twisty shelf road with - yes, tippy and steep bits. On one of them, Paul somberly remarks on the radio that that's where his friend rolled his 109 before.

The occasional sunlight disappears completely as we drive into the cloud layer. The road becomes muddy, with deep ruts and large mud puddles - I'd love to give it a serious go, but the thought of that mud falling into my eyes for years to follow cools me off.

Now we're deep in the pine forest - a pine forest in Death Valley! - which is really eerie silver. There's very little snow, but the clouds deposit a layer of ice crystals on every pine needle and blade of grass, making it all strangely beautiful. Playing the tailgunner today, I stay back to take pictures of guys blasting through the puddles and the forest around. I note the frequent - outstanding - roadside camping spots. I still can't believe that after nearly quarter of century of living in California there are so many places in Death Valley I have not seen before!

In a while, we emerge on the other side of Hunter Mountain - and stop at the Panamint Valley overlook. The wind is simply ferocious, and nobody stays out long enough even for a group photo.

We descend back to Saline Valley Road, and turn South towards Lee Flat.

Soon, I spot fast moving traffic behind - unfortunately, not a low pass by an F-18, but... a couple of lifted Ford Crown Victorias on oversized all-terrain tires. We pull off to the side to let them pass, which they do at a breakneck speed.

All the good things come to pass - so we pull half a mile off Saline Valley Road for the last group lunch at Lee Flat. The dogs get their last congregation, too, and then I'm busy plucking super-sharp nasties from Jules' paws and my shoes. The skies and Joshua trees are spectacular, and the idea of leaving the high desert for the daily grind in the city is not very appealing.

Two middle photos in the bottom row: Jen So

Photo by Jen So

We drive South to CA 190, and air up in a large gravel area near the highway. From now, each is on his or her own, given the wide latitude of destinations and ability to maintain highway speeds. The Range Rover lumbers up to the shallow pass on the 190, and flies happily downhill towards the US 395.

That's where the southerly wind gets me. The poor Classic tops out around 70 mph in the 3rd gear - a hair over the speed limit, a lot less than most traffic maintains. By the time we reach Victorville the wind dies down somehat, and is replaced by mindless traffic.

Three hours later I am at home, to learn that shit's hit the proverbial fan, the toilet paper can no longer be found in stores, and the country is about to shut itself down.

* * *

Oh yes... Still thinking of that five Land Rovers on a trail hard limit.

That Sunday morning in Hidden Valley the Range Rover would only move in the first gear. In a while, all gears appeared and everything went hunky dory. Until the next morning, when the Classic would insist on warming up the transmission in the first gear for a mile and a half. And the symptoms are yet to go away, after two fluid changes.

Dear Land Rover community, please tell me if it is a common thing with ZF 4HP22, or it only happens after 357 thousand miles?