My NUMBER-ONE FAVORITE desert adventure of ALL TIME was this trip I took out to the ultra-remote Saline Valley Hot Springs, way the hell out in the farthest northwestern reaches of Death Valley….miles from anything, and WAY out of cell phone range. It was actually kind of scary, and one of the only experiences I’ve had where my life was in actual danger. But that always makes for the funnest adventures…no?
I read about it in some New York Times online article, and knew I had to go. So I rounded up this guy I used to date, a crazy Bulgarian artist/party animal named Boris, and headed out one sunny April afternoon.
Now, I had done my prep work fairly diligently — there aren’t really any roads out there, so you can’t just Google Map it; you have to follow these hokey directions like “turn left at the dry lake bed,” “turn right at the metal bat on the pole.” I wrote down the directions (and the mileage) as accurately as possible, and gave my truck a cursory once-over to see if she was seaworthy enough to make the voyage. The only access road into the Saline Valley is a fifty mile long rutted, severely washboarded dirt road strewn with boulders and the bones of stupid fools like me. The forums I read online advised that one drive no faster than 5 mph (FIVE MILES PER HOUR!!!), or else you might break an axle. Can you imagine driving 5 mph for FIFTY MILES?! It’s an insane test of patience.
You are also advised to bring plenty of drinking water, TWO full-sized spare tires, a can of Fix-a-Flat and lots of food and First Aid supplies. This road is R E M O T E as F U C K, with virtually nonexistent vehicle traffic, and as mentioned ZERO cell phone coverage (this was back in 2011, but I’m sure it’s the same today). So if you break down, you’re fucked.
Well, I sort of glanced at my truck, assumed I had a spare under the truck bed, threw in a couple 2-gallon jugs of water and some firewood and stuff, and took off. I was really lucky that I didn’t end up one of those horrible Death Valley statistics — I was woefully underprepared. Plus, the road was so bumpy that the firewood ended up poking a hole in one of my water jugs, so that it leaked out and I ended up only having 2 gallons for the two of us all weekend. D’OH!
From Vegas, we drove up through Pahrump to Death Valley…and then all the way across Death Valley to the western edge, sort of near Panamint Springs. All that took us about 3 hours, so I thought I was making pretty good time. But I underestimated how long it takes to traverse a fifty mile washboard road at 5 mph. Literally 5mph — you could not go any faster, the road was/is that bad.
It was a beautiful drive, and I kept my eye on the trip odometer to make sure I was following the mileage correctly, since there aren’t exactly any signposts out there. There’s nothing. That place is like the surface of the moon — the most remote place I’ve ever been. No signs of human habitation whatsoever.
I was fine as long as it was light out…but as dusk approached, I got kinda nervous. Some of the landmarks I was supposed to use as signposts would not be visible in the dark, ya know! So I just undid my seatbelt and drank some wine as I drove along, to calm myself down. What else are you gonna do???
To his credit, my traveling companion Boris was a good sport throughout — he didn’t seem fazed at all! We just listened to music and cruised along, and it got darker and darker. When it was full-on dark out, I was afraid we were gonna have to park and camp on the road for the night — I couldn’t see the dry lake bed where I was supposed to turn or anything. But somehow, we figured it out. Someone had left a solar light on a stick at one of the turn-offs, so we were able to follow that — albeit very uncertainly. Some asshole had also left a Hansel-and-Gretel-esque trail of empty beer cans on the road; normally, I despise litter, but that litter sure came in handy. Man, I was really kinda freaked out at this point.
But then we spotted the glint of a campfire, waaay the fuck off in the distance. I tell you, I was never so happy to see a sign of human habitation before in my life!!! We figured it was the Springs…but even if it was just some crazy rancher, I was heading towards it cuz I was freaked the fuck out!
Then we saw the metal bat on a signpost — the bat is like the unofficial mascot of the Saline Valley Hot Springs, since little bats fly out from the caves surrounding the valley at night, so we knew we were close. From there, it was just another few miles — we pulled into the Springs camping area with a massive feeling of euphoria, set up camp, guzzled some wine, and then headed over to the bonfire.
HOLY HELL! The campfire was set up in this sort of communal area with a big stone firepit and benches and stuff, and there were several drunk/eccentric/conspiracy-believin’ kooks gathered ’round, bullshitting and swapping conspiracy theories. AWESOME!! We joined right in, making friends at once with one of the regulars, a super-drunk naked guy who took us on a moonlight tour of the springs area. We went pretty far afield with him, with nothing but the moon and the stars guiding our way — it was fantastic! The sand out there is such a bright white, that the reflected starlight was plenty bright enough to see by. It was incredible!
After drinking awhile longer we were exhausted, and passed out cold in our tent. But the next morning it was ON — we could finally see the springs in the daylight, and it was a fantastic spot. I don’t like to use corny words like “magical” — but it was! A true oasis, lush and green, surrounded by shaggy palms in the middle of the most forbidden, barren moonscape I’d ever seen.
Apparently, a hardcore desert kook (I use this term extremely affectionately, FYI — I consider myself a desert kook too, ya know) named Lizard Lee lives out there and takes care of the place — unofficially, of course, since it’s part of Death Valley now and he is most definitely not a ranger. Saline Valley is so remote that no one from the Park Service even bothers to fuck with them out there, so they’re all naked all day, every day, and pretty much left to their own devices.
Lizard Lee had a pretty elaborate compound cobbled together out there, made from trailers and spare odds and ends of sheet metal (how he got that stuff in there, I’ll never know — I guess there’s another, slightly easier access road in from the California side)…but alas, at the time of my visit, Lee was out of town visiting his long-distance girlfriend in San Francisco or somewhere, so we didn’t get to meet him (how he was able to maintain a long-distance relationship without cell-phone coverage is beyond me…although there was a satellite phone, for emergencies…so maybe he used that for phone sex). Lee had left this awesome drunken Russian guy in charge, and that dude was tits! He sat around soaking in his private hot tub drinking vodka — that’s the kind of guy he was.
Anyhoo, Boris and I kind of ambled around, soaking in the springs (naked, of course) and checking stuff out. I didn’t bother with any makeup, since why the fuck — but wouldn’t you know it, about halfway through the day these Jeeps came joggling down one of the side roads carrying a bunch of photo equipment, and these two photographers got out and approached me where I was standing around naked.
The one guy started in with a spiel, pitching me on how he could take some tasteful nude photos of me out there if I wanted — he obviously thought he had to butter me up, not realizing I am a wanton, brazen hussy who gets naked for photographers in the desert all the time! When I informed him that I am a nude model, he was delighted —
but I didn’t really want to pose for him, since I had no makeup on or anything. Not to worry, he said — he had an infrared lens that would somehow photograph below the top layer of my skin (?!? I still don’t get how that works), and I could leave my sunglasses on. So, I agreed…and did a spontaneous photo shoot way the fuck out in the middle of nowhere!!!! FABULOUS!!!
After the shoot was over, Boris and I decided to hike up to the Upper Springs, which are totally undeveloped, a couple miles north of the rest of the pools. Stupidly, it was the hottest part of the day when we undertook this, and we were naked…so by the time we got there it was all I could do to lay down in the muck under a bush and pass out for a few minutes. I was so exhausted I don’t know how I made it back to camp…but we did, and all we had to eat was shitty peanut butter and bread and stuff, with more wine. I remember thinking I would have killed for an ice-cold Coke right then, but I made do with what we had.
After we ate, I rallied and we headed to the communal area where everyone was soaking in one of the big pools, telling jokes. This went on for hours — there were people there from all over the world — Germans (of course), Russians, Canadians, even a Hungarian. They all told their favorite jokes, and it was goooood times. Then they talked about the various regulars who go down there from time to time — some people stay for weeks, just relaxing and meditating and reading and stuff; there’s no better place for it, I tell you! Apparently there’s also a chef from some big-time resort in Big Bear who comes down around Thanksgiving every year with an RV full of girls and gourmet food, and he prepares a huge elaborate feast for everyone there. OMG! I have to spend Thanksgiving down there some time! But the bitch of it is, you never know exactly when he’ll arrive — it might be one day, or the next, or the next. So you’d kind of have to camp out and wait for him, I guess.
Then there was one guy who was like a talc miner from the area — he actually lived and worked on a ranch fairly nearby (within like 50 miles or so), and he came over all the time to soak and chat. I can’t imagine what his life must be like, living way the fuck out there like that, with only a bunch of naked hippies within a 50-mile radius to talk to. Crazy!!!
There was also some talk about the low-flying fighter jets that would buzz past every now and then — I actually had seen one myself earlier that day, cruising along from one of the Air Force bases in the area. I hope the pilot got a good look at my naked ass — this was before I had the misfortune of dating any Air Force pilots myself, so I was still feeling somewhat neutral about that branch of the service. But anyway, it was surreal to be in such a remote place, and then have a fighter jet scream past all of a sudden, out of the blue.
Anyhoo, I turned in kind of early that night because a) I was exhausted from the heat and the day, and b) I was already kinda freaking out about the drive home in the morning. The bitch of it was, I had to be at work at Caesars Palace by 6pm…and it had taken a good ten hours for us to get to Saline from Vegas! If I broke down or anything, not only was I now basically out of water…but I also had no way to call my boss and let him know I was stranded, so I’d probably get fired as a no-call, no-show (that’s how those asses at Cashman Photo are, I tell you!). Also, of course I was kinda low on gas…D’OH!!!
So we got up at like 6am, filled our empty water jugs with totally non-potable hot springs water (hey, in an emergency it would be better than nothing!!), and headed back down that same 50-mile washboard road (the Saline Valley regulars call it the 50-mile bullshit filter, since it keeps out all but the most dedicated — or insane — travelers).
At least this time, I had plenty of daylight…and the way back is always easier than the way in, although there were a couple of hairy spots coming up over the mountain pass where my poor 2-WD truck’s rear wheels spun angrily. I just took my time, and forced myself to go no faster than 5 mph (which is probably the only thing that saved me, in retrospect)….and sure enough, around 3pm or so we finally emerged back onto the blacktop. Man, I have never been so happy to see asphalt in my life!!!!!!
The first thing we did was stop at this burger joint at the side of the road near Panamint Springs and beat the fuck out of some cheeseburgers and Cokes. YUM!!! It was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten, let me tell you. Then Boris took the wheel, and I put on some makeup and stuff so that I could basically go straight to work as soon as we got back into down. And…that’s what I did, astonishingly. And those fuckers at Cashman never gave me one iota of appreciation for it!
Anyhoo, now that a couple years have passed, I find myself thinking more and more about going back to fabulous Saline Valley — and staying a little longer this time! April was the right time to go — the road was in decent shape, the snow had melted, but it wasn’t too hot yet. There’s a limited window of time to get in there, I guess — I think even the other access road, from the California side, becomes impassible in the winter.
But if I go again, I’m taking a 4WD Jeep or other high-clearance vehicle — AND I’m bringing tons of water and supplies, AND I’m bringing spare tires (come to find out, I did not have a full-size spare under my truck bed– just a donut!!! AND, I got a flat tire a couple weeks later back in Vegas…so imagine how shitty that would have been out there!!!!). (And, did I mention my gas light came on while I was still on the dirt road?! I barely made it to that gas station/burger joint!!!!!)
So, in sum: if you have this type of vehicle and you want to go check out Saline Valley, let me know! I’ll do it in a heartbeat. Although, I may need to wear a disguise, since apparently some crusty oldtimer out there thinks I’m an asshole for telling people about it, and encouraging others to go out there. (He claims I don’t stress enough how dangerous it it…but I really think he’s just one of those exclusive types to wants to keep it to himself, the fucker.)
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