Only two days after returning from Big Sur, I take off with Van Stein, the artist, to Death Valley, where we plan to view the Full Blood Moon and total lunar eclipse with desert clarity.
For a whole month earlier, a rugged leather bag in Civilianaire’s display window had been talking to me.
I finally talked back and bought it, the perfect road bag, though Van Stein dubs it “rogue” bag.
We launch after quenching the COW’s thirst at the local 76 Station: low octane gasoline and a side of engine oil.
A couple hours later we get our first taste of desert: bright, barren, and dry.
It spills us into Mojave, a town whose name should be Fast-Food-and-Gasland—because that’s what it is, and nothing more.
We skip the grub but top up the tank.
Before Indian Wells, we cut onto 178, a road less traveled; certainly, we seem its only travelers this cool (for the desert) spring day.
We cruise through Trona, an old mining town (Borax) converted into a chemical plant, known by its residents as The Pit—for good reason.
It is a No Service town, according to my iPhone, causing twangs of nomophobia. We vow never to return, for any reason.
Soon we enter Death Valley National Park, the hottest place on earth and the lowest elevation in the USA, 282 feet below sea level—a new low for Van Stein and me in our travels.
The road is long with dips and curves, hills and sagebrush, nature at its most stark.
There are two locations for overnight stays in Death Valley: Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek. We, of course, have reservations in neither.
Stovepipe Wells bustles as we roll in. Its rooms are small and sparse and its saloon large and drab. Van Stein learns they’ve got two rooms for this night, none the next, booked out for the lunar eclipse.
Let’s keep moving, we concur, amid gusty winds blowing twenty-five miles an hour.
Thirty minutes later, Furnace Creek: a somewhat more attractive oasis with a bustling ranch and a long queue to register for rooms we don’t have.
And then I realize it’s the Furnace Creek Inn we want, not least because I’d read on Yelp that the Ranch is infested with bedbugs.
“Wrong place,” I say. “We need the Inn.”’
“Up that hill,” says a man in front of us, pointing east. “But you need to book months in advance.”
We jump into the COW and careen toward a castle on a hill that lords over ranch and desert, definitely my kind of place, if not Van Stein’s due to the price tag usually associated with lording over.
But the problem this moment is availability, not price.
A tall, lanky gent greets us. “Checking in?”
“Hope so. Got any rooms?”
“No reservation?” This baffles him.
“It’s against the rules,” I say.
He shakes his head, consults the computer screen, and seems slightly astonished by what he sees. “I’ve got two rooms.” He looks up. “A family just cancelled, last minute.” He eyes us. “Five hundred and twenty dollars a room.”
“They must be friggin’ great rooms,” I say. “Suites?”
“No. Just normal rooms. And just the two.”
“Can we see them?”
We trudge a quarter mile. He keys into a room that reminds me of what I had in Jerome, Arizona at one-quarter the price.
“Other one’s exactly the same, but with a balcony,” he says, “one floor down.”
We don’t have much choice at this point without kicking fate in the teeth. Even Van Stein, for whom this is a large chunk of change, knows we’ve got to bite this bullet.
“No, but I’ll see what I can do.”
By the time we return to reception, he’s decided he likes our wise-cracking ways.
“Tell you what I’ll do.” He scribbles on a notepad like a car salesman, holds it up: $400.
He says to me, “Now he can paint and you can write.”
Van Stein scratches his head. “How’d you know I’m an artist and he’s a writer?”
The guy shrugs. “I don’t know.”
Luna, the Goddess of Chariots, is clearly at work this day, ensuring we are where we’re supposed to be.
We regroup at the bar, a long Bombay Sapphire moment before dining on the patio, the sun almost ready to set, while everyone else is eating inside.
“Can you imagine,” I say to Van Stein, “coming all the way to Death Valley and sitting in that drab restaurant when you can sit out here and look at the desert dusk?”
A Bulgarian waitress takes my order for a rib-eye steak with garlic mashed and spinach.
Dusk turns to night; the first star appears, followed by a second, and soon a large number of stars and constellations, Orion most prominent.
And then an almost Full Blood Moon begins its rise, illuminating the eerily silent desert night.
Feeling creativity about to erupt, Van Stein skedaddles to paint; I content myself with a glass of cabernet, enjoying the silence and the night sky before bed.
I awaken at 12:20 a.m. to a furious wind rattling my window, blowing my curtains (not to mention an internal windiness from all the beef).
A fitful doze follows until 1:55 when I sense a presence in the room. I sit up and discern an elderly ghost with long gray hair in a ponytail smoking something.
So now I’m wide-awake and realize the only sleep solution is half-a-Xanax, not because the presence of an old hippie ghost smoking weed in my room is spooky, but because I just want to sleep.
This puts me down, though I still awaken in time to witness the desert dawn followed by a sunrise reflection on the Sierras.
My first novel about a road trip has been acquired by Skyhorse Publishing in New York City.
It will be published in Fall 2016.