California Sand Dunes:
A Tale of Two Adventures

by Dinesh Desai

Mesquite Flat Dunes

These dunes are also known as Death Valley Dunes and are very popular with the visitors to the park. Not too far from Stovepipe Wells, they are easy to get to and just a short walk from the highway. The dunes are not very high, the highest being around 120 feet tall. Though my GPS showed 105 feet as the elevation at the top of the tallest dune, I couldn't determine the elevation at the base. The base is below sea level and my GPS would not register a negative elevation.

The dunes are not tall but they are quite extensive. In addition, they have many ridges and isolated hills. From our experience yesterday, I knew that how far we walked would be determined by how long our water supply would last. Though I took an extra bottle of Gatorade, the higher temperature in the valley was probably going to limit our walking to no more than six hours. Yesterday, the high temperature reached 97°F. The last time Death Valley had such a high temperature in mid-March was in 1916. The forecast for the next several days was for continued hot weather.

After yesterday, the ridge walk seemed like a cake walk. But sometimes, going from one ridge to another required climbing the face of the dune. Of the two faces, the leeward face is shorter and thus much steeper than the windward face. We were careful to avoid such a face as much as possible. We both had on short desert gaiters and they worked very well. All during yesterday's walk, I didn't get a single speck of sand in my shoes. But today, in my exuberance, I was a bit careless going down a steep leeward face. My right foot sank in so much that the sand went over the gaiter and into my shoe.

boots and gaiters

Thank you, R.E.I.; these gaiters are great

As we continued, the dunes got smaller in height and were partly covered with vegetation. There were many areas with mesquite trees after which the dunes are named. It took a lot of time to walk around these obstacles but it did provide a much appreciated shade for a brief stop. We covered more ground in three hours today than yesterday. However, the return trip was much more exhausting as the temperature climbed towards the day's high. We breathed a sigh of relief as our car came into view.

sandy field with brush-covered knobs

An obstacle course

in the shade of a brush-covered knob

But it has its pluses

After a short rest in our room, we drove to a gas station 35 miles away. Sure, they had a tire they could sell to us but no rim to go with it. We were advised to go to Pahrump, across the stateline, in Nevada. Since it was after four, the trip couldn't be made that day.

Ibex Dunes

These pristine dunes are located in the remote southeastern corner of Death Valley National Park. They are neither as tall as Eureka Dunes nor as extensive as Mesquite Flat Dunes. And, they are not easy to get to. No wonder they are pristine. We were eager to explore them, but first, we had to go to Pahrump to get a spare.

After a two hour drive, we arrived at the biggest tire shop in town. It had a large, clean, air conditioned showroom. Alas, the salesman had several tires of the right size, but no rim. He could order one. It would take three or four days. I cringed at the thought of spending so much time in Pahrump. Gambling being the only game in town, I could go broke waiting for the rim to arrive. Eventually, I found a place that had plenty of tires and many rims. The place had no name and not even a place to sit down. It can only be described as a tire junkyard. No matter. I got a replacement tire and a rim for $100 cash and we were on our way in less than half an hour.

By the time we were back in Death Valley, on Harry Wade Road, it was time for lunch. We cruised the dirt road back and forth looking for a side road that would take us to the dunes. The two roads we located had signs proclaiming them as part of the wilderness area and prohibiting vehicle travel. The dunes were about six miles from Harry Wade road. On foot, it would take us five to six hours round trip just to the beginning of the dunes. We didn't have time today but we couldn't undertake it even if we had the time. The problem again would be water. We were unlucky to time our trip with the unseasonably hot weather and, reluctantly, we gave up the idea of visiting Ibex Dunes.

As we neared the paved highway, Joy shifted from 4-wheel drive to 2-wheel drive. To disengage the automatic locking hubs, she drove the car in reverse for about 15 feet. But, as soon as she moved forward, we heard some strange sounds. I got out, and to my surprise, I saw that the front tire had gone flat. And this happened while she was moving at less than five miles per hour. "At least it is not shredded and it is not the new tire," I announced triumphantly. Funny how one's perspective changes after a really bad experience. After changing the flat, we drove to Baker.

SUV, flat tire, and spare

Second dirt road, second flat.

Baker is a small town of less than a thousand people. The town is frequently used as a rest stop by drivers on Interstate Highway 15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The town's most prominent feature is a 134-foot tall thermometer, dubbed the "World's Tallest Thermometer". Its height commemorates the hottest temperature ever recorded in the United States, 134°F, in Death Valley in 1913. Baker's recorded high is 124°F.

the World's Tallest Thermometer

Don't complain. Would you rather see the World's Largest Ball of Twine?

It is also the home of the original Bun Boy Restaurant, since converted into a Bob's Big Boy and the "World Famous" Mad Greek Cafe, signs for which festoon the interstate for miles. Across from the Mad Greek Cafe is a store which has sold the most winning tickets in California Lottery history. In recent years Baker has experienced hard times, with casinos just across the Nevada border taking much of its motel trade. There are three somewhat seedy motels, one of which was to be our home tonight. Even a seedy motel with air conditioning can look more appealing than a campsite in the hot desert.

Joy helping the Big Boy statue hold a cheeseburger

I can handle this, lady. Why don't you get the fries and the milkshake?

the Mad Greek restaurant in Baker

Athens West

But before checking into one of the motels, I had to get the flat fixed. More bad news. The garage mechanic told me that the hole in the tire was just too big. It can't be fixed and there was no tire shop in the town. I pleaded my case telling him that I still had many miles of dirt road travel ahead of me and I must have a spare. He disappeared and returned after a few minutes. He then motioned me to follow him to the back of the shop where there were several cars in various stages of repair. Pointing to a small truck, he offered to take off one of its tires and sell it to me. He didn't tell me whose truck it was and, even though curious, I kept my mouth shut. The tire was the right size and had very little wear on it. Another cash transaction and we were all smiles.