Stuck in Death Valley, Part II

So I had myself stuck in Death Valley. My car has overheated driving up the Towne Pass and I was caught between the rock and the hard place trying to decide whether I should try to push it and keep going up the pass a bit more in hopes of everything cooling down after that or turning around and heading back to Panamint Valley. Considering returning to he valley behind me

Something seemed to be seriously wrong with the car. Even after I would let it cool down, I could not drive for more than a couple hundred feet before the engine temperature would jump up again. On top of that, things that should have made it better, like running the fan on full heat, didn't. Anytime the engine was running, it was overheating.

What really was killing me is that it didn't make any sense. Why was this happening? Why were the other cars just coasting by while I was having these major issues? Those that drove with me know that many times the fans would keep on running even after I shut down the car. Could this have something to do with this? Was my cooling system messed up enough that I didn't even have a chance of making it up these steep hills and just didn't know about it?

Nevertheless, I decided to turn around and head back.

Even going downhill, the engine temperature started to rise so I shifted into neutral and coasted down into the valley. So far so good.

And then I hit the flat valley floor and had to shift back into Drive just to watch it start overheating again.


So I was back to now-familiar drive-few-hundred-feet-pull-over-cool-down cycle. Slowly the reality started to settle in. There was no way I could make it back to the nearest town as I would have to climb and drive through the Argus Mountain Range on the other end of Panamint Valley. Not even to Panamint Springs just a couple miles away.

It was time to leave the car and catch a ride. Thankfully, there were quite a few cars coming through and I was able to catch a ride to the gas station right away with a Swiss family from Zurich.

My little streak of good luck ended there. The phones weren't working at either the gas station or the motel there and the closest services would be in Lone Pine - a small town I passed on the way here. 50 miles away...

Panamint Springs

Catching a ride back to the car proved a bit more difficult. Now that I wasn't clearly stranded next to my car, folks probably didn't know what to think of a guy trying to hitchhike from the gas station so I watched quite a few cars pass by before I was able to get a ride from a French couple.

Back at the car, I grabbed a few clothes, my electronics and some snacks, wrote down a note to stick to the windshield, popped up the hood for better effect and started waiting for the next car.

Folks passing through would either be going north after Death Valley to Yosemite or south to Los Angeles. Those going up to Yosemite would be passing through Lone Pine, so I figured I had a 50-50 chance of any given car going to Lone Pine. The problem was that it was already 7:30 in the evening, the sun was setting behind the Argus range, and while the valley was even prettier with hues of red everywhere, the stream of cars coming through all but dried up.

Beautiful sunset in Death Valley… I wonder if anyone is still coming this way

I guess in the worst case, I could stay inside my car for the night. I had food and water and it will cool down a bit. But that would not solve my problem of getting a tow truck out here.

Luckily, soon a couple Swiss guys were coming through on their way to Yosemite so I was able to get a ride to Lone Pine from them in exchange for information about Mono Lake and Yosemite. Coincidentally, they were from Bern - a city I felt in love with during a few hours I had to check it out while on the way to Interlaken.

Being a small town, there was only one option to get a tow truck out the next day - Miller's Towing. They quoted me $345 to go get the car. Armed with (almost) all my credit cards, I called American Express to see what they can do through their roadside assistance program. Turns out, for their Gold card holders, AmEx pays first $50 and then passes on the remainder of negotiated rate. After over an hour and a half on the phone (they could not figure out how to make their system accept the location of my car), they came back with Miller's as well - $327 after their $50 share.

Not much I could do about it, so after lunch John picked me up and off we were to go get the car.

John is hooking up my car

Once we were on our way, I kept bombarding John with questions. Partially to get rid of the awkward two-hour long silence and partially to see if I can learn something for the future.

Turned out I wasn't the only dummy around here - on average week they pull out 30 to 40 cars from Death Valley and surrounding areas. Which has slowed down quite a bit compared to 30 years ago. But it is not just cars - recently they have recovered two F-16 jet fighters and five helicopters for the military, a dozen private planes and constantly participate in search and rescue efforts (well, mostly the rescue part).

Not the view of Death Valley I had in mind

It made me feel better that I wasn't part of those stories - people going miles offroad in rental cars, dirt biking with not enough water, getting lost following erroneous GPS guidance (40 miles off the main road!) - many ending tragically with people dying from heat exhaustion, dehydration, and even drinking coolant when they ran out of water. Brrrr.

But it's not just offroad types. With the current road through Death Valley built in 1940s, the railings at its most dangerous spots were not installed until just a couple of years ago so, according to John, there are still plenty of cards lining up the hillsides of this treacherous drive.

Listening to these fascinating stories, I started feeling a bit better about myself and my decisions I made last night.

Good bye, Death Valley!

Lessons Learned

That got me thinking. Sure enough I screwed up big time. But what should I do better next time? What did I do right this time? Hopefully, some of this would also be helpful to others.

What I screwed up

  • Not educating myself on proper driving techniques in the mountains. Sometimes I just forgot, other times I didn't have time to look it up. I didn't make it a priority.
  • Not pulling over sooner when I noticed temperatures rising. Sure there was no pull outs, but somehow I could have probably sandwiched myself away from the traffic.
  • Shutting down the engine once I did pull over, instead of letting it idle.
  • Not having AAA coverage for this entire road trip. Sure it would of cost me $100+ but one free tow for under 100 miles would of easily made up for that. Oh and I wouldn't have to spend 45 minutes pry-opening the car when I left the keys inside back in Kansas City.
  • Not giving up on the idea of trying to make it to the top of the Towne Pass sooner and abandoning the car there rather than continuing to kill the engine going back to and then through the Panamint valley.

What I did right

  • I was prepared for the worst case - if needed, I could of easily survived the night there with plenty of fluids, food, and gear with me.
  • I did turn around and back to the valley. It would probably get even worse if I actually made up to the top of Towne Pass.
  • I left the car and hitchhiked back to civilization to get help.
  • Leaving the car, I got it a little bit up the hill so not to keep it at the bottom of the valley that has gotten flash flooded recently (there were still some muddy ponds around). I also left a note on the windshield stating where I went, date, time and my phone number so that people knew what's up if anyone stopped to check on the car (park rangers especially).
  • I did call American Express and got a little bit of a discount for the tow.

What will I do next time

  • Downshift to 2nd gear if the speed slows down below 40mph.
  • Turn off AC but keep the fan blowing on full heat.
  • Pull over as soon as the temperature starts to rise and keep running the engine while parked.
  • In the case of Death Valley, start from the east (Las Vegas) so I am going down and not up the steepest part.
  • More importantly - not try something like this with my current car.

So, now what?

I really messed it up good this time. There was a radiator leak so first thing the shop did was put in a new radiator and a thermostat. About $600 - on top of $327 tow.

Once the system was sealed again, they added coolant and started the engine just to have all that coolant spit back at them. They used a special tester tube that reacts to exhaust gases present in coolant and it sure did react, meaning that the head gasket inside the engine is blown.

This is one of the nastiest things that could happen to a car. It takes about ten hours to take things apart and put a new gasket in - meaning another $1000. But that's not even the worst part. Because of the extreme heat, there could be other nastiness awaiting inside the engine - cracks, warps, etc. So I am stuck at the mercy of the shop here waiting on them to squeeze me in between all the other things they are working on.

Fingers crossed.