We bought a Jeep. When I tell people this, I forget that I have to clarify. A Jeep Wrangler. The One True Jeep. We call her « La Jeep ». She was born in 2006 and traveled 93,000 miles to find us. She’s the last year of the TJ generation. Sport trim with a 6-speed manual transmission, midnight blue paint, and 30″ tires. We got her to go off-road.
Two years ago I wrote:
Since we couldn’t take the road to the Racetrack, the next morning we decided to drive the 27-mile Titus Canyon Road instead, which turned out to be a ton of fun. We both agreed to return to Death Valley at our earliest convenience with a proper off-road Jeep—whether rented or our own!
Our earliest convenience was two years later. I returned from the JMT with an itch to travel, but a jeeping made more sense with Stephanie still two years from graduating. I started shopping in September, wired money to a used car dealer in Florida in October, and the car arrived on our doorstep November 5th. Just enough time before Thanksgiving to get it smogged, registered, insured, and checked out by a mechanic. We had Death Valley in our sights, but the real goal—La Jeep’s raison d’être—was the Racetrack Playa.
We got our first taste of the Jeep lifestyle en route, a few miles outside Placerville, when the turn signals died on the highway. After ruling out a blown fuse, a quick search online suggested that we might need to replace the flasher relay—a small box inconveniently located within the steering column. YouTube to the rescue! A local auto parts store had the $18 part, so we removed the steering column cover and replaced the busted relay in a municipal parking lot (Roadkill-style). Et voilà, we had blinkers!
For this, our first foray with La Jeep, running out of gas in Death Valley was my primary concern. Busting a tire (or two) was Stephanie’s. Two cans of fix-a-flat ensured that we could blow three tires and still limp out of the desert alive. Gas was trickier. Without jerry cans, our range was limited by the 19 gallon tank. The only problem: we had no clue what the range was. We got over 18mpg in 6th gear on the highway, but what about four-wheelin’ in 2nd or 3rd gear. 10mpg? Lower? That put our hypothetical safe range at around 190 miles. The longest possible stretch we’d planned through the park and between gas stations was 180 miles—with few options to bail if the situation grew dire. On Thursday morning, after spending the night in Bishop, we made sure to top off the tank in Big Pine before we bid civilization adieu.
Our destination for the first night was the campground at Warm Springs. We arrived Thursday afternoon to a Thanksgiving potluck in full swing. We were a little overwhelmed by the number of people and addled by the drive—the last stretch before the turn-off was heavily washboarded, and the road to the springs was very bouncy. A loop through the crowded, informal campground confirmed that indeed, the namesake springs were clothing-optional. Given the late hour, we decided to take a pass. There’s always next time. Instead we pulled off into a quiet corner and set up our tent. Then we went down to checkout the tail end of the potluck and stumbled upon an impromptu campfire concert. We hung out for several songs before heading back to our campsite to share the warmth of our neighbor’s fire.
On Friday we had a decision to make. Our original plan had us driving the long way around Hidden Valley to Homestake Dry Camp for the night. The alternative was Lippincott Road, a 7-mile “shortcut” to the Racetrack—a technical, high-clearance road recommended for experienced 4×4 drivers only. We took our lunch break at the turn-off, pondering our lack of experience. Two cars came down the road and stopped to chat. In the lead was a built Suzuki Samurai and following behind was a stock Subaru Outback. They described the trail, and suggested that we’d have no trouble in La Jeep. “Just put her in 4LO and take it slow”. That was all that Stephanie needed to hear.
Four-wheel drive low, or 4LO, is a completely novel driving sensation if you’ve never experienced it—and all the more surreal with a manual transmission. It basically turns La Jeep into a tank that crawls along at a snail’s pace. There’s no need to clutch, no need to give it gas. It never stalls. It just crawls—at less than 5mph. And so we crawled, with my head out the window feeding Stephanie information about the position of the right front tire in relation to the edge of the cliff and other upcoming rocky obstacles. Even in slow motion, it was nerve-wracking. We covered the 7-mile shortcut in just under 2 hours.
From there the Racetrack was right around the corner. We got to the Playa as the sun was setting over the surrounding mountains. The famous sailing stones (and their photographer acolytes) were casting long shadows across the flat ground, which had the texture of lizard scales. We had finally made it! And then the wind picked up. So we headed back to our campsite to share the warmth of another neighbor’s fire.
Stephanie had driven most of the way ’til now, so on Saturday I took over from the Racetrack to Teakettle Junction and then towards Panamint Springs. We stopped briefly to check out the Old Burro Mine, but otherwise motored along. I got a little excitement when I hit a thick swath of ice in the shadow of a hillside, lost traction, and started to slide backwards downhill. Stephanie got out on the icy side, holding on to the car for support, and directed me towards the abyss so I could crawl up and over the slippery patch. After 150 miles off-road we reached pavement with a quarter tank and nary a flat. So we continued on towards US-395 in search of cheap gas, hot showers, and warm beds.