Desert Southwest

Panamint Valley

unbaked Earth at the mud flats of Panamint Valley. The Panamint Valley is a long basin at the Northeastern edge of the Mojave Desert.
Parts of the valley lie within the boundaries of Death Valley National Park.

Panamint Valley Roach Motel

You want to hear about a hotel nightmare? Notes from Panamint Valley, California.

I

had been sick for months, and being bedridden makes you more anxious to leave. Without action, you only dream. Where will I go when I'm better?

In bed, I made sketches of my truck, imagining it like a small vessel, and I its captain. The road out there - the infinite North American landscape - is like a great sea. Without deadlines, you can go anywhere. All you need is your health. Your health and some road will be open to you.

All captains of ships need to go to extreme measures to maintain order. Even the solo captain of a small vessel spends evenings in port scrubbing decks, lathering wood, organizing ropes. The harbour is perpetually a place of spring cleaning. Sometimes, even, the smaller a space, the more time you spend cleaning it.

I am repelled by cars filled with junk. Get in the passenger's seat, and the guy is like, 'Oh here, don't mind that stuff,' as he helps you with CDs, napkins from Jack-in-the-Box, paperwork from the office, some envelopes from bills. And then you dig under the seat cushion and find some packets of ketchup, and you’re like ‘what do you want me to do with these?’

That kind of disorganization is disheartening to the long distance driver. Keep yourself clean-shaven, keep your dashboard dust-free.

I'll be at the wheel for thousands of miles; long weeks this summer. You see how people on the road stop shaving, how they stop eating well. Those days - 'I get by on mountain dew and beef jerky', those days are over with. Now its organization, health, water, and more water. Fresh fruits and vegetables. Pasta to be cooked on the stove. Good olive oil and canned clams.

Panamint Range

I pulled in to the hotel in Panamint Springs. Setting up a tent in the desert is cheaper, and often-times more comfortable, than a hotel. The coolness of the night-time ground makes up for the heat. But today was particularly hot, and I felt no guilt in the expense of a night at the hotel.

My plan was to hike two miles on a mud flat at the center of Panamint Valley. The valley is gigantic, and parts of it fall within the Death Valley National Park boundaries. The Panamint Valley can defy imagination - at once it appears lifeless and desolate, and with the falling of the sun - warm and otherworldy, filled with the colors of ancient stone.

When I returned from my hike, it was to my great displeasure that I learned the room had no air conditioning. I decided to spend the evening cleaning my truck, and talking to the hotel's guests. One couple - "I'm Sheryl and this is my husband Eddie" - offered to join me for a hike in the morning, and bought me a cold beer. "Eddie used to be in the trucking business," Sheryl said, "but years at the wheel made his belly big and his back bad."

Sheryl did most of the talking. She said, "Now Eddie's doing his dream job. Works for Harley." Eddie, who wore an American flag for a bandanna, raised his beer and grinned at me. "It allows us enough time to go wherever we want. Tomorrow, we don't know where we're going."

I said, "me too...I think I'm going north, to Oregon." They liked this, and so Eddie bought me another cold beer.

I went to sleep in that daze you get after walking a good distance in the desert. That daze of sweat and dispassion.

I turned off the light, and wandered into that half-awake state where thoughts and dreams are indistinguishable. I was sweating in the heat, but resolved to sleep, because I had six hundred miles to drive the next day. I became entertained by the static shocks on the dry bed. I found that, by kicking the bed, I could generate a dozen shocks, a quick generation of lights across the bed.

Western Fence Lizard

Western Fence Lizard

Later, mostly asleep, I found that the static shocks would happen whether I kicked or not. They would occur in succession, up my arm for example, like a climbing bug.

I was mildly fascinated with this strange occurance. It would wake me, only for a few seconds.

After several hours of this, I would begin to slap my moist arms; an involuntary reaction to the sensation that resembled being crawled on. I would kick the bed and see the sparks light up again.

It was maybe three in the morning when I slapped at my arm again, and in my palm I felt a bulge, a crawling organic bulge. I looked at the bed and in the faint light, I could see it crawling away. A giant cockroach.

I was momentarily disgusted. The cockroach is our collective image of vileness and uncleanliness.

Then I fell asleep again. A while later, and I slapped again. This time, I turned on the light and found a dozen half-dead cockroaches on the bedside. These, that I imagined all night as electric shocks.

This is the point where you freak.

I jumped out of bed, and went for the bathroom. I needed a shower. I went first for the wash, but there were roaches clambering to escape. I jumped toward the shower. Roaches everywhere.

I remembered this lesson. Leave on the lights, the roaches will go away. I did this, and slept fitfully. Hotels - they can seem innocent enough, but the roach infestation reminded me of all those horror stories. A few years ago at a Des Moines Holiday Inn, the police were investigating a murder case. Unfortunately for their case, the bedspread they were analyzing contained 106 stains. 36 of them were semen. I longed for my tent.

Early in the morning, furiously packing my truck, a petite woman from England said in her sweet voice, "not a very pleasant place for a night's rest."

I regretted this as I said it, "Fucking cockroaches!"

"I noticed you kept your light on all night."

I barked, "leave on the lights, you get rid of the cockroaches!"

I left that hotel in a hurry, forgetting my hiking partners. The desert like the sea, my truck smelling fresh. Tomorrow night, I pitch my tent.