With a Name Like Death Valley, What Could Go Wrong?


I love the desert. It calms me.

My husband planned a surprise weekend away to Death Valley for my birthday. Into the vast emptiness. Into the suffocating heat. With an infant. Because that’s the kind of geniuses we are.

From the very beginning, it felt as if the trip was cursed. Erratic traffic almost caused a handful of accidents before we left the city limits. The gas pump at the station wouldn’t work. And worse yet, the Popeyes drive-thru ran out of biscuits! If that’s not a sign the world is ending, I don’t know what is.

An hour into our trip, the GPS inexplicably had us exit the highway and start going back the way we came.

You’d think that when the universe clearly screams to stay away from a place called Death Valley, I would listen. I’m not very smart.

Miraculously, we arrived at our hotel in the small tourist town of Shoshone, Calif., at 11:30 p.m. The town — which consists of little more than a post office, gas station, cafe and inn — was pitch-dark. No worries. Shoshone only exists to cater to out-of-towners like me. I wasn’t concerned.

I should’ve been concerned. I knocked on the office door. Nothing. I tried to call the hotel number. No cell service. I tried using OnStar. Forget what the commercials say; the OnStar didn’t have service, either.

I still wasn’t too nervous when a patron of the hotel approached and said the office had closed at 10 o’clock. No one would be back until morning. He pointed me in the direction of the nearest town, 30 miles away.

Six hours after setting off on our trip, we found ourselves driving down a dark road, past midnight, looking for open motels. Every place was closed or booked. Even the super-skeezy casino inns were closed. What casino closes at midnight? Don’t they rely on the poor choices of the exhausted and inebriated?

By this point, my baby had enough and was in hysterics in the back seat. I was near hysterics in the front seat. We contemplated sleeping in the car but thought Child Protective Services might look down on that.

We kept driving. At some point, OnStar service began working again. They booked us at the closest hotel that was open — another 40 miles away.

When we arrived (after getting lost because we were given the wrong hotel name), we were greeted by a black cat. The owner said his name was Spooky. It felt fitting.

It was nearly 2 a.m. The heater only blew frigid air. The lights were broken.

Our hotel once housed military personnel working at Area 51. I wondered whether aliens were punking me. I truly hoped the Ashton Kutcher of Mars would jump out with a sideways trucker hat and video camera.

Have you encountered minor inconveniences that wouldn’t normally register but, when you’re already irritable, seem huge? I hear you and raise you my morning: I lost my contact in my eye and had left my deodorant at home, and the continental breakfast was Little Debbie cakes and a coffee pot that looked full but was actually just stained, and the only maps to Death Valley were in Spanish, and the carpet left a film on our feet, marking the first time I bathed my child in Purell. Mm, alcohol-y clean.

When my husband left to get gas, I was walked in on while breast-feeding and then promptly kicked out of my room, left to wait in the cold with my baby.

Pacing outside the front office, I overheard two hotel workers chatting.

“Room 14’s complainin’. Same ol’, same ol’. AC don’t turn off. Lights don’t turn on. Window’s broken.”

“Guess I’ll get tinkerin’ then,” said the second worker.

“Best turn off the ‘lectricity ‘fore ya tinker.”

“Don’t worry,” the worker said. “I tweren’t really gonna tinker.”

We grabbed breakfast in a smoke-filled casino, where I was served bacon inside my vegetarian omelet because, apparently, pigs don’t count as animals.

At long last, we made it inside Death Valley National Park, where we were greeted by a broken pay machine. I panicked we’d be arrested by park police. The jails in Death Valley can’t be comfy.

But driving around that breathtakingly beautiful basin, the desert began doing its job. It calmed me. Heaven knows how. Maybe it was the bacon.

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