The next day we leave the city for Death Valley, heading north on U.S. 95 close to commute hour. The timing's a mistake: Traffic is slow for miles. We're heading into the red tile-roofed suburbia that has sprouted like desert wildflowers around Vegas. Once free of the city, our overstimulated brains let off pressure, like heat waves off the highway. "Las Vegas did me in," Red admits.
Hey, goomba, I love how you
dance the rumba
But take some advice, paisano,
Learn-a how to mambo*
*from "Mambo Italiano," by Bob Merrill
A couple of hours of quiet desert landscape, singing and snapping along to Dean Martin's "Mambo Italiano," then a pit stop in Beatty to pick up some of Gus's Really Good Fresh Jerky revives us.
We drive through foothills on State 374, following the pass downward. The land begins to open, and wind buffets the car. In the distance, giant dust devils rage across the valley floor. Red can barely open the door to check out the visitor information kiosk we encounter. Her long hair in a frenzy, she's stymied by the visitor permit machine and quickly retreats to the car. Dust is flying everywhere, pebbles patter the windshield.
We've reached Hell's Gate, the central entrance to Death Valley.
Death Valley National Park marks the beginning of our reeducation with the concept of "vast." The park is more than 3 million acres in size. Even obscured by dust, the valley stretches so far that estimates seem futile―10 miles? 50? It's halted at last by the Panamint Range, rising dark and dreamlike on the horizon.
We didn't plan far enough ahead to secure a room at the renowned Furnace Creek Inn; in fact, I only just manage to grab the last available room at the more economical, less upscale Furnace Creek Ranch.
The ranch is a collection of low-slung buildings that make up comfortable-but-nothing-fancy motel rooms, a market, and a cafe side by side with a lounge and steakhouse. There's a large lawn area (incongruously) and a pool. We enter our room and discover why it was the last available: separate beds. "Well, it fits our retro theme," I offer.
After dinner at the Wrangler Steakhouse, we drift out to the lawn, and lie down, beat, in the darkness. The stars flicker as bats flutter past and palms rustle in the wind. Sinatra's in my head, singing,
Fly me to the moon
Let me play among the stars*
and Red, as if hearing, holds my hand.
We rise early for a full day of Death Valley "don't misses," and experience sunrise at the Stovepipe Wells Dunes, a scramble into (and, more significantly, out of) Ubehebe Crater, a tour of Scotty's Castle, and sunset in Golden Canyon.