I pull up to the Crowbar, at the edge of Death Valley, and there are actually two black crows perched on the sign, training their insolent, beady eyes on me.
Instagram gold! I creep to a stop in the parking lot, pull out my phone and crack the window. The birds wait until I sight my device, then take wing at the exact moment I tap my screen, leaving me with a shot of the now-vacant pole. Goddamned crows. Fortunately there’s a cool drink or three to be had inside, so I head on in. You can’t find a more classic Western dive than the Crowbar Saloon and Cafe.
I’m en route from L.A. to Vegas, but not via the I-15 dash familiar to many a party-loving, SoCal denizen. Newbies may imagine that trip as a soulful, Swingers-style sojourn, but the reality is a soul-denting, bumper-to-bumper mash, especially on Fridays and Sundays.
This way will take me longer, but I’m fine with that. The friends I’m meeting are up for a three-night romp in Sin City, but two nights is my absolute max there. So instead I’m going to overnight in Death Valley National Park, then follow a route through the oddball town of Pahrump before hitting Vegas from the west. I’ll still show up by tomorrow afternoon, “sacrificing” only a single night of Craps (and crap bottle service) and the next morning’s hangover. I’ll be in a happier, more meditative state for it.
I want to breathe the dry desert air. To lose myself in the long distances and to wonder what might be at the end of those random, dirt, desert roads that meander toward distant bluffs. Surely there are lost caches of gold out yonder, or a tribe of outlaws descended from Jesse James. Or, absent any real killers, at least a killer view of a sunset.
Less than 100 miles from Vegas, I exit the interstate at the town of Baker and jig hard north onto Death Valley Road (also known as CA State Route 127). I’m throwing my dice in a different direction.
If you were to go way out on a limb and guess that traffic is light on Death Valley Road, you’d be absolutely right. But the 56 miles to the hamlet of Shoshone are positively deserted. Midday, in only moderate heat, I pass only two other cars the entire way. One is a VW bus.
This stretch is a cinematographer’s delight: straight out of Central Casting, when the script calls for a two-lane strip running through an Old West landscape. Dimpled khaki mountains rise in the distance, and you can follow 127’s trajectory toward them for miles and miles and miles, the dotted yellow lane markings growing ever fainter until finally lost in the haze of heat. Cumulus clouds buoy overhead, bobbing in the bright sky.
This isn’t like the flat expanse of the Mojave outside of L.A., nor the dunes of the Sahara. There are humps and twists and turns on 127, so you can’t drive in a robotic trance. The topography changes as you speed along, the earth twisted and pushed up in thrusts by the mysterious undercarriage of the planet. Still, if you’ve ever wondered just how fast your vehicle can go, this is the place to find out. The cop patrolling out here is a very bored cop indeed.
Eventually you’ll see foliage — trees on the horizon! — and that means you’re nearing Shoshone Village. The population numbers in the dozens. There is a general store and gas pumps (important), a modest motel, and the Crowbar. Mostly Shoshone is known as the southern, most accessible entrance to Death Valley National Park.
As for the Crowbar, I’ve spent the majority of my visits in the saloon section, playing pool and knocking back beer-and-whiskey combos, eventually stumble-walking directly across the road to the Shoshone Inn, a serviceable bolthole. But today I still have miles to go, so I settle in at the cafe, availing myself of the basic but tasty vittles. (As far as restaurants are concerned, there’s no competition around for many a mile.)
Every time I’m here, I wonder why so few people actually go to Death Valley. It’s legendary, and really not that far from Vegas. Perhaps it sounds too inaccessible, not to mention inhospitable. You could easily lose yourself out here for a week (or forever, as is the case with some hapless travelers) but you can also easily take in several highlights in a day.
Badwater Basin, for instance, is reached off of Route 190. At 282 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest place in North America. The salt flat comprises some 200 square miles, but the salt crystals themselves are extremely fragile. There’s a walkway at the basin which allows visitors to step out into the alien environment — pure tourist bait, but utterly worth it.
Towering above is Dante’s View, the 5,400-foot-high yang to Badwater’s elevation-challenged yin. Close as the crow flies, but about an hour’s drive by a circuitous route. Equally worth it.
Mostly, though, I like to wander. Depending on which vehicle I’m in that day, I sometimes take a dirt road just to see where it leads. There are almost 1,000 roads criss-crossing these 3.4 million acres, more than in any other national park. (Caution, of course, is advised: a spare tire, a jerry can of gas and extra water are all good ideas.)
Once I enter the park proper, my speeds drop back to (mostly) legal. You’ll be tempted, trust me, but the park rangers are strict.
Also, stay a night. Just so you can walk outside once it gets truly and properly dark and take in the world of stars above you. It seems like you can drink them in, and that alone is worth the detour. (I bed down at the hotel at Stovepipe Wells. Not palatial, but they have decent food and drink.)
Next morning, I retrace my route, hang a left just past the Crowbar and onto Route 178/Charles Brown Highway. This is a fine and desolate drive, and you’ll pass into Nevada and reach the outskirts of Pahrump in about 30 minutes.
Ahh, Pahrump. How best to describe it? Well, the X Files is returning to TV and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the back story will include Mulder having been in retirement here.
An unincorporated town, Pahrump is one of those special Western places where the ethos is live-and-let-live and many a freak flag flies. Prostitution is legal inside of brothels like the Chicken Ranch. Fireworks are legal and sold in megastores like Area 51 Fireworks. (Stop in and browse. They’ve got cannons bigger than your torso. Insanity.) And though it’s not exactly cheek-by-jowl with Area 51, there’s a preponderance of alien-related merchandise, stores and lore.
Today I stop and get lunch at Mom’s Family Diner, which calls itself the “heart of Pahrump” but might as well insert “attack” as the second word in its tagline. Either way, Mom’s lets me indulge my abiding passion for chicken-fried steak. It also allows a fine view of the mountains outside town, which I could spend hours contemplating.
But, I’ve got friends to meet. I shuffle outside, enter my now steaming car (the temps are rising) and pull onto Nevada State Route 160. Tonight the sky will be lit, not by the stars, but by the spotlight from the Luxor, and I’ll be drunk on something other than nature. But that, too, is part of the yin and the yang of any good road trip. Otherwise, this would just have been a drive in the desert.
Photography by David Walter Banks