Cruising California’s Death Valley in the (very) fast lane

4 years ago
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Seeing the dust devil dance into view, my son finally snapped out of his teenage malaise. We were barelling east through the Mojave Desert on California Route 190, two hours into a four-day road trip. In the rearview mirror, the shrinking Sierra Nevadas. Ahead, treeless desiccation beneath the big, blue sky.

Luther, 17, straightened from his slump. He wanted to play video games – “no way,” I said – and pointed as the milky ghost, all shoulders and narrow waist, came churning across a salt flat that used to be Lake Owens until Los Angeles diverted the Owens River in 1913 to quench its thirst. The size of San Francisco, it’s the single largest source of dust pollution in the United States.

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Luther Ward sits outside Gus’s Really Good Fresh Jerky, a popular roadside attraction 320 kilometres north of Los Angeles in California’s Owens Valley, on the first afternoon of our road trip. Gus’s is the last taste of civilisation before entering Death Valley.

“Crap,” Luther said. “I left my camera in the trunk. Can you stop so I can get it?”

“Of course,” I said, pulling onto the sandy shoulder. I popped the trunk, and he grabbed an old 35mm film camera my mother had given him after she learned to snap photos with her iPhone, and we were off. He peered through the telephoto lens at the vortex. I stomped on the accelerator, and the Challenger roared in response. The needle raced past the 90 mph (145 kmh) mark.

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