February 28, 2011 by Leah
I’ve been wondering… if I ever achieve my pipe dream of off-the-grid self-sufficiency, would I then be so tied to one place I couldn’t travel? I just started reading “The Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing, and they specifically set up their first “live-off-the-land” experiment (in 1932!) so they would have six months of every year free for traveling, speaking engagements, etc. So, it’s doable (especially if you are vegetarians as they are/were). I worry, though, about the environmental effects of our collective habit of jetting around the globe all the time, and I wonder if travel generally turns out to be worth that impact. I think learning how people experience the world in other places and through other cultures is extremely valuable when it comes to leading a full, thoughtful life, so I’m inclined to think that travel is a good thing, in moderation. (I really hope the Jolie-Pitt clan buys carbon offsets.)
Aaron and I went on two trips in February. Unlike last year, when we were flying around the country all the time, we managed to have some pretty cool experiences while staying reasonably close to home and keeping costs down.
Three weekends ago, we went to Joshua Tree National Park for a night. We took Duke, we packed a cooler full of yummy things (butternut squash bisque with tatsoi, tamales, soaked oatmeal, and, of course, yogurt), and drove on out. The round trip was probably around 400 miles in the car including two days’ driving in the park and our attempt to find a non-chain restaurant in Palm Springs.
This was the second time we tried camping with Duke, and we discovered that he definitively does not like camping. He whines and tries to get in the front seat when we’re in the car (this is not awesome on long car rides). At the campsite, he kept giving us this look that said, “you expect me to lie around on dirt WHY?” and then spent the freezing night curled in the toe of our double sleeping bag. To top it all off, dogs aren’t allowed more than 100 feet from campgrounds or roads in many of the parks around here (ostensibly to avoid scaring sheep so badly they stop breeding or eating for days – according to a ranger, this happens when they smell members of the genus Canis).
We did go for a long walk on an unpaved road, which was enjoyed by humans and dog, and Aaron and I really enjoyed the scenery and getting away from the urban sprawl that is Los Angeles County. (Even if the campground we were in was basically in suburbia and there was a boyscout leader talking nonstop at the campsite across the street.)
So, buoyed by the Joshua Tree excursion and a timely recommendation from a friend, we set out for Death Valley this past weekend. (This time, Duke stayed home under the watchful care of our good neighbors.) We stayed two nights, and what could have been a miserable trip due to conditions (high winds with gale-force gusts, snow, dust storms) was actually a fun adventure.
Death Valley is more than twice as far of a drive as Joshua Tree (300 miles vs. 130), but we left on Friday and came back Sunday to spread out some of the driving pain. We drove to the park up Highway 395, which was surprisingly fascinating and more than a little dark (metaphorically, not literally). We drove past shooting ranges, electrical substations, federal prisons, and finally into the creepy town of Trona, where we stopped for lunch. The town sits next to a dry lake bed from which they mine (or maybe pick up?) the mineral trona, and the place was dominated by huge mining structures and what seemed to be a mineral dust storm. Heading out of Trona, though, we drove over some smallish mountains and came upon a literally breathtaking view of the Panamint Valley. Over the next mountain range was Death Valley, where the winds were raging so hard by the time we decided to make camp at Emigrant Campground that we ended up drinking whiskey and wine behind the bathrooms (the only place out of the wind) with three new friends and spending the night in the car.
The next morning the winds had died down to the point where walking was easy again, although there were dust storms in several parts of the valley and many of the roads in the north of the park were closed due to snow. It was actually a pretty fun day to play tourist as the light was constantly changing. By evening the weather was crisp and clear and we walked from our tent at Texas Springs Campground to Sunset Campground (basically an RV park) to hear a ranger give a presentation called “Lost in Death Valley” (we were the only non-retired attendees except for one teenager who was traveling with his grandparents).
Getting home yesterday was a long haul (particularly as I insisted on driving the whole 5+ hour route), but because Death Valley is so much more remote than Joshua Tree, both Aaron and I feel like we had a more complete mental escape to go along with our physical escape.
For all the distance covered, these two trips didn’t cost us all that much. 1050-1100 combined miles in the car translates into just under $100 in gas at 45 mpg (this includes the eight gallons at $4.59 we bought in Shoshone on the way home). We had two restaurant lunches (one in Palm Springs, one in Trona) that probably cost $35 total, and we bought two six packs of beer, so that’s another $14-ish. (I bought the first one so I could cut off the tops of beer cans to make a tamale steamer in Joshua Tree, which worked so well we repeated the whole process in Death Valley.) Camping fees were $26 total (our night at Emigrant Campground was free) and park fees were $35. Oh, and the five oranges and two apples I had to throw away at the agricultural checkpoint we passed coming home probably cost another $6-7. (Mind you, we never even left the state. I was – and am – really steamed about my apples and oranges.)
All of that totals about $200 more than we normally would have spent being at home. This is a LOT less than it would cost to fly the two of us anywhere, and, in fact, less than we spent the weekend between Joshua Tree and Death Valley two trips when we were just playing tourists near home in L. A. (museum admissions and a rare dinner out). I’d say two weekends full of meaningful experiences in our national parks were totally worth $200.
[For an interesting look at the carbon impact of different travel methods, I like this link.]