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Lost in Death Valley: From our Bus to a Dark Desert Canyon


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The Mojave Desert, found on the eastern border of California and western Nevada is home to one of the driest and hottest places in North America, Death Valley National Park. After hearing that, you may ask, "why would anyone want to travel there?"

While that question is entirely valid, the Mojave Desert is honestly one of the most beautiful areas I have ever met. At 5,200 square miles, it ranks as the 5th-largest national park!

Death Valley National Park

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Death Valley boasts magnificent sand dunes (Eureka & Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes) and the Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation in the United States - bottoming at a stunning 282 feet below sea level. Mysterious rocks naturally slide across the valley floor, leaving great trails that puzzle the mind at The Racetrack Playa.

You have the absolute privilege of witnessing some of the wildest arrays of colors and natural patterns at Zabriskie Point and Furnace Creek during sunrise and sunset. You may be lucky enough to see the elusive Bighorn sheep scaling the cliff sides of the Panamint Range or see where George Lucas filmed "Star Wars" in 1976.

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Stop by the NPS Visitor Center in Shoshone to learn about other fascinating attractions such as The Devil's Golf Course, Dante's view, and the endangered Salt Creek pupfish. As with most grand adventures, this story takes place off the beaten path and away from dense tourist locations and the safety of the National Park Service. Don't get confused; this may be one of the hottest places on earth in the summer, but Death Valley becomes one of the most visited National Parks in California during the winter months.

The Desert Calls

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RELATED: North America's Lowest Point Sits at Death Valley National Park

This story began when my brother and I were navigating our way through the busy city streets of Los Angeles in a 25-foot converted shuttle bus and still learning how to drive it. We had spent well over two weeks exploring the concrete jungle. We could feel the lure of the California desert pulling us closer and closer to either Joshua Tree or Death Valley.

While confidence in our bus was not at an all-time high, there was confidence in ourselves and our ability to make the best of any situation that came our way. That is what fueled most of our adventures. That and strong coffee, of course.

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Meet Arkansas Billy

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A friend had coincidentally mentioned he had just returned from Las Vegas on an epic tour around the mountain ranges of Death Valley National Park. He offered to return and guide us through his favorite spots like Artist's Drive, Telescope Peak, and Scotty's Castle. So naturally, we invited a few nomadic friends to join our desert shenanigans. That invite turned into one of the wildest adventures we have been on and the theme of this story. Thanks to our guide, "Arkansas Billy."

Arkansas Billy was an older gentleman - a unique and fascinating fellow who considered the Mojave Desert his home. He lived in a fifth-wheel trailer on the edge of the park border. He had an unforgettable southern accent that still rings in the back of my mind when anyone mentions the state. We arrived in a small town with a few hundred residents - no gas stations, no Wi-Fi, and no convenience stores. The word "convenient" is not in the local vocabulary unless the words "that wasn't very" come before it.

There was, however, a small bar and BBQ joint that served as the primary meeting point for hungry, adventure-seeking nomads. It was a beautifully strange melting pot, filled with people from different parts of the world who would gather after their trips to swap stories, whisper secret locations, and band together to form convoys of nomadic strangers.

The Adventure Begins

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We planned on meeting up with Arkansas Billy for an adventure into a hidden system of slot canyons found inside a much larger canyon system. The vague directions to this spot were an adventure, navigating deep sandy roads with vehicles that had no business driving through that terrain. We had a heavy converted shuttle bus explicitly made for paved roads, a Ford Econoline van that was probably more prepared than the rest of us. The bravest was a Toyota Camry that three guys drove from Jersey.

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We parked on the edge of the canyon that night, overlooking abandoned borax mines and decaying ghost towns left from decades of mining various minerals in the region. The canyon itself was massive, and since we arrived at night, we had no accurate idea of where we were until the first rays of light illuminated the valley.

We searched for the entrance into the canyon on our own and could not find a safe way in. Billy came strolling up to our site around p.m. and yelled, "Well, what are y'all waiting for? Let's get down there." As we bring up our initial plans of starting at 11 am, he interrupts with, "I'm right on time here...that's desert time for yuh."

We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and without saying a word, we universally agreed that that is just the way things are out there. We could see the narrow outline of a slot canyon in the distance on the opposite side, so we figured this would be a reasonably short backcountry expedition, maybe two hours max. The trail led us to the cliff's edge, where an old sketchy ladder was just a few feet below on a slight slope. We slid down to the ladder and made our descent to a narrow trail that hugged the canyon walls for the remaining 30' to the bottom.

Into The Death Valley Canyon

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The slot canyon we were heading towards seemed farther as we walked through a dried-up part of the Amargosa and through abandoned mining camps where the Twenty Mule Team transported borax. After an hour and a half, we arrived at the entrance. The slot canyon was wide enough for all of us to walk through comfortably, then it would become so narrow you had to squeeze through one at a time. The light was so perfect as the sun was setting that no one realized we still had to make the journey back. We were enjoying the moment. As the light faded, we made our way out of the slot canyon and to the more extensive canyon system we came from.

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The group realized that we didn't bring flashlights and had to rely solely on our phones to light the way. As we exited the slot canyon and began chatting about the light situation, Billy said not to worry because there was an easy way out of the canyon just over to the left, the opposite way we came in from. Aside from being late, Arkansas Billy hadn't led us wrong so far, so we agreed to follow Billy to the presumably easier way out of the canyon.

It was dark at this time, and with only the light from our phones, Billy could not locate the way out. Hours went by as we searched for the route, tensions rose, and energy depleted. The canyon walls were very steep, and when we finally located a wall with an angle that we safely scaled with minimal light, we made our way up one after another. Pat arrived at the top first, telling everyone to wait while he ensured safety. His inspection reveals that we had climbed into a large plateau in the canyon's center, basically an island in the sky. We had to climb back down.

That was mentally the lowest point of the trip.

Death Valley At Night

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Running on little energy and water, the sound of coyotes fueled us to get out as soon as possible. Google Maps revealed a road leading into the canyon, so we continued away from the initial entry point.

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We had already hiked too far to turn back. We walked for an additional hour before we saw headlights pass by the top of the canyon, and they assured us we were close.

Energy levels hit an all-time high as hitchhiking back to our vehicles crossed our minds. We reached the road, and there wasn't a single car on the road after the one we had seen from the bottom of the canyon. We walked alongside the dirt road through salt flat badlands and blooming desert wildflowers, dragging our feet and trying to collectively manifest a truck to give us a ride.

It didn't happen. Over almost 12 hours, we hiked over 20 miles through the Death Valley area in a massively unnecessary and memorable loop. The journey pushed us to physical and mental boundaries that we had never collectively crossed. Together, we were able to keep each other motivated until the end.

The bond I have with these folks is unique. The bond you build with each person will be special to your situation and how you communicate.

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Don't be afraid of adventure. If something like this happens, stay positive and focus on the solutions, not the problem, because it's how we react to the situations we experience that make us who we are.

 

Raised in Butte, Montana, Josh Monthei is a nomadic photographer, skateboarder, and an over-caffeinated writer who has been traveling North America for over seven years. His travels have spanned over 100,000 miles and include a 3000-mile skateboard trip from Los Angeles to New York City. Instagram: @josh.monthei

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