Refusing to stop at a liquor store for breakfast, we fueled at a local gas station and loaded up on $40 worth of their finest road grub. Our overloaded plastic bags held a generous assortment of sports drinks, orange juice, doughnuts, shrink-wrapped sandwiches, and burritos. Having to sign a release form to purchase the homemade breakfast burrito didn't phase Brian, who eagerly chomped down the warmed Mexican treat.
Our high-calorie meal was consumed as we drove about 20 miles north to the dirt road leading toward the ghost town of Ballarat. Galloping through town on our 6400-pound steed, we barely slowed to honor the frontier phantoms as we sought our first major destination, the Barker Ranch. More commonly known by desert explorers as the infamous Manson Cabin, this final outpost for the crazed, crime-spree family is well hidden. A near-perfect place to avoid federal entanglements, the cabin lies at the end of a strange tree-lined trail that twists through blind turns.
Thanks to directions from desert rat and actor Perry King, along with Kiwi's dimming memory, we found the dilapidated house with little trouble. The stone structure sits isolated in the rock-strewn valley, seeming very out of place with the harsh surroundings. Raising the single-board gate, we drove on to the property and into the Twilight Zone.
Although the swastikas and animal skulls reported in the recent past had been cleaned away, there was a decidedly creepy vibe from the place that once served as the final refuge for the deranged criminal group. The main house is no stranger to visitors, as a sign-in notebook attests. Canned food rested on the shelves, along with other comforts such as books, current calendar, working clock, and numerous decorations. Sadly, Vincent Bugliosi's "Helter Skelter" was not on the shelf. The in-ground pool was bone dry, and the small outbuildings were run-down and peppered with rat droppings. We shot several commemorative photographs and spent time filming a video tour for posting online. Emanating evil, the cabin killed our lavalier microphone when the cord was crunched in a doorway.
While stopped, we took a midday lunch break outside the cabin. Kiwi dined on a massive burrito in a package labeled "The Bomb," which he had been slowly heating on the dash for more than an hour. Seeming like a sure-fire recipe for gastrointestinal disaster, he not only ate the burrito, but he lived to tell the tale.
As we made our way deeper into Death Valley, the sandy trail became progressively rocky. Sharp angles threatened the tires as we calmly drove on, seeking the right combination of trails to bring us to Striped Butte and then on to Badwater. This tough territory was exactly the challenge we sought for the H2. Winding through the desert with a single vehicle emphasizes the need for good judgment and raises the level of risk should something go wrong. Despite facing some climbs that would have been daunting in a lesser vehicle, we never experienced doubt with the H2.
Due to its extreme width, the Hummer was often limited in its side-to-side trail movement, but the 10.5 inches of ground clearance allowed it to straddle bulging rocks. Likewise, the 41.7-degree approach angle enabled the H2 to tackle a couple steep rock faces as if they were simply oversized speed bumps, rather than requiring us to carefully climb the more gentle sides.
Trona locals had suggested we try to stay in the well-maintained cabins in the national park. While we encountered numerous relics from the gold-rush mining days, it wasn't until late afternoon that we found an available cabin overlooking the striking Striped Butte. Perched atop a hill, the modern structure offered good shelter, with a futon-type mattress, card table, fireplace, and various camping sundries, such as food and reading material.
Bounding through the searing desert, race enthusiast Bart greatly enjoyed listening to the Brickyard 400 live on the XM Satellite Radio, keeping up with the status of the drivers in his numerous NASCAR pools. Having already been on the road for so long, it proved a real treat to keep up with some aspect of the outside world even in one the most remote regions in the United States.
One of the most memorable finds was the Warm Spring Camp, a modern collection of buildings that once supported a nearby talc mine. Complete with a pool, kitchen/mess hall, and main building, this collective was established in the 1930s and eventually became property of the National Park Service. A hundred or so yards away, a massive mine opening was sealed with a metal grate, allowing us only a peek at the giant operation that once pulled powder from the earth.
In the course of working our way through the Panamint Mountains, we encountered no true challenge to the H2's ability. While in some regards this may sound like wimping out when we should be pushing the full-time 4WD Hummer to its limits, conquering all challenges and emerging from the desert safely is considered a success. Trust us, with heat hovering around 115 Fahrenheit and help being hours away even when summoned via sat phone, returning to pavement unscathed is reward enough in itself. That we made it without even a flat tire was a great ending to our off-road adventure.
Luck can be both fleeting and fickle, as a horrific single-vehicle accident on route 178 reminded us. A minivan from a large group of French tourists rolled tragically, seriously injuring at least one occupant. By the time we arrived at the scene, park rangers, fire/rescue specialists, and a medical helicopter were in action. To protect the workers, GM engineers blocked the road with an experimental full-size bus. Undergoing evaluation, the bus was fitted with an Allison electric drive parallel hybrid system, and it was trailed by several caravanning trucks from the Arizona Proving Grounds. All we could do was give the distraught French travelers the icy drinks from our cooler, then wait for the road to clear.
Although the sun was beginning to set behind the Panamint Mountains, now to our west, we maintained a somber speed in reverence to the accident victims. Long minutes later, we arrived at Badwater for mission-critical photos chronicling one of the four pillars of our nation-wide trip: the lowest point in the United States. Aptly named for the nasty standing water pooled in the dry lake bed, Badwater has the distinction of being 280 feet below sea level. This now leaves the highest driveable road and southern-most road left to be checked off our list.
Our plans to refuel in Furnace Creek were foiled by our long day and an early closing time. We had sandwiches at a restaurant and got directions to the nearest gas station. Pahrump was well within our fuel range, but it was a little nerve-wracking watching the fuel range display tick quickly down. Especially when, for a while through the mountains, we were sucking down gas at 5 miles per gallon.
With the tank topped off and our cooler replenished, Bart drove the Hummer on to Las Vegas. Becoming weary, the group listened to more Fred and chugged energy drinks to stay awake. Kiwi worked the PowerBook for the entire trip, resizing, and color-correcting images in preparation for upload.
Not quite finished when we rolled into the neon-lit town, Kiwi put the Apple computer to sleep while he got the essential establishing shot with the Vegas sign. Another prerequisite shot involved driving back and forth on the strip with a tripod mounted on the roof, trying to get a great action photo with streaking casino lights.
Bart needed to fly out the next day, so the group pulled into an airport hotel around 1:30 a.m. Kiwi worked the images for another 45 minutes, then he and Brian hit the road again. Desperate to escape the Vegas morning traffic and keep on schedule, the duo continued on to Mesquite, Nevada, a short distance from the Arizona border.