Seeing the dust devil dance into view, my son finally snapped out of his teenage malaise. We were barreling 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.
"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 mark.
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Yes, I was breaking the law - the speed limit along this lonely stretch of highway was 65 mph - but I decided it was worth the risk. I saw no other cars for miles. No curves or hills or intersecting roads. Hitting 110 mph, I let out a self-conscious, "Dukes of Hazzard"-style "yeeeeee-haw!" and eased my foot off the accelerator just about the time the dust devil vanished. Sometimes, during moments of pure joy and spontaneity, pushing limits seems appropriate.
Besides, the thrill of the drive was the main point of this trip. Luther loves cars, especially fast, high-performance cars. He knows all the makes and models, engine specs, prices. During his junior year at Chantilly High School in Fairfax County, Va., he learned to fix dents with a ball-peen hammer and airbrush paint in an auto-body class. Luther's a car nut, plain and simple, but one without a driver's license and no sense of urgency to get one.
As a teenager, I was his opposite. I didn't care about cars. But the morning I turned 15, I rushed to the DMV to get my learner's permit and soon after tucked my South Carolina driver's license into my orange Velcro wallet. For me, cars meant one thing: freedom. Specifically, I found freedom behind the wheel of a hand-me-down, pewter-gray Chevy Nova, which my buddies and I dubbed the "Grey Ghost."
In my sleepy town, driving was easy. In Fairfax County, on the other hand, we live amid sprawling suburbs, where driving to and from school, soccer games and shopping malls in stop-and-start traffic is both nerve-racking and mind-numbingly boring. When Luther's along, he often fills the time looking for sports cars and then reeling off facts and figures about them. As a result, I've learned a lot and have grown to appreciate cars more. Every year, we try to attend the annual Washington Auto Show together. Last year, I was inspired enough by what I saw to trade in my 10-year-old silver Toyota Camry (the spitting image of the "Grey Ghost," I realize now) for a spiffy forest green, four-door Fiat.
As a nondriving teenager, Luther's part of a trend. Data shows that the members of his generation are less interested in driving and owning cars. In many ways, that's fine by me. Our insurance rates haven't skyrocketed, and my wife and I rest easier knowing he's not behind the wheel. On the other hand, I want Luther to follow his passion for cars. That's what brought us here. People travel for all sorts of reasons - to learn about history and art, to experience the food of other cultures, relaxation and physical fitness. I wanted to give Luther a taste of the freedom and excitement that a powerful, finely tuned automobile driven on the right stretch of road can bring. What better way than a road trip through the American West?
In March, we set out from L.A. on a four-day round-trip circuit through Death Valley to Las Vegas and back via a different route. The route echoed a trip my wife, Heather, and I made 17 years earlier, when she was six months pregnant with Luther. I had work in Las Vegas, and she flew out from our home in Brooklyn to meet me. Joking that this was our last hurrah before parenthood, we rented a convertible Chrysler and drove to Death Valley. I still remember the rush as we ribboned over desert hills on those open roads. Entering one long, lonely valley, I pushed past the 100-mph mark, wind whipping our hair. We topped out at 110 - my upper limit, I guess - feeling freer and more alive for taking the risk. It seemed fitting to return with Luther. Halfway into Day 1, the open road was already working its magic.
After the dust devil encounter, Luther and I drove on, stopping at a scenic overlook called Father Crowley Vista Point. He jumped out with his camera and marched to the edge of Rainbow Canyon. The distant floor of Panamint Valley winked at us in the sunlight.
"Hey, Dad, check that out," Luther said, nodding back toward the parking lot. I had paid extra to rent a shiny, black Dodge Challenger with a throaty engine, wide tires and beefy lines. A couple of foreign tourists were admiring our American muscle car, rakishly angled against a backdrop of mountains and low-slung clouds. He handed me the camera and said, "Look through the viewfinder. That could be a car ad!"
As we cannoned toward Death Valley, we munched beef jerky, which we had bought during a pit stop at Gus's Really Good Fresh Jerky in Olancha. Gus sells his dried meat out of a converted vintage gas station topped with a giant hand-lettered sign, "FRESH JERKY." He also sells online, we learned while paying for our purchase. His beef, bison and venison may be part of the digital economy, but it continues a long tradition dating back more than a century, when miners and others relied on dried meat to survive in the harsh desert.
We pulled into Stovepipe Wells around sunset. A sign read "Elevation Sea Level." Originally a tented provisioning camp for gold and silver miners founded in 1906, Stovepipe Wells became a way station for tourists during the mid-1920s. Part of Death Valley National Park, it's home to the full-service Stovepipe Wells Hotel and General Store.
Dusty and parched, I headed straight for the pool. Luther plopped down in front of the television. We reconvened for burgers at the hotel's pub and fed quarters into the pool table after dinner, until bedtime.
When Heather and I visited Death Valley, our hopes of desert hikes were dashed by a pregnancy-related case of sciatica, which sent searing pain from her lower back into her legs. We became that which we most dreaded - car tourists - following a line of vehicles through the nine-mile geological rainbow known as Artist's Drive and stopping at destinations such as the Mesquite Flat Dunes, peering through the window and driving to the next site.
While driving was the theme of this spring-break trip, I hoped to get out and explore on foot, even though Luther's not much of a hiker. But he surprised me at Mosaic Canyon, near Stovepipe Wells, by leaping parkour-style onto the water-polished marble walls near the formation's entrance. We followed the snaking narrows in and out of shadows. The canyon widened, and Luther led me up a goatlike trail along the right shoulder. Peering down on those walking the main trail reminded us both of an early scene in "Star Wars," some of which was filmed at Death Valley, when the short, brown-robed Jawas abducted R2D2. We were close, I later learned: That scene was filmed in nearby Golden Canyon.
Though the sun beat down on us, the March temperatures during our stay never topped 85 degrees. The wind, however, was a problem. Earlier, Luther had picked up a gunmetal-gray beer can on the shoulder of the road.
"It's been sandblasted," he said. "It looks like the cars in shop class."
Sipping coffee that morning, I overheard a woman say, "I woke up wondering if there'd be any paint left on our fifth wheel," referring to her towable recreational vehicle.
Forty-five minutes into our Mosaic Canyon walk, the wind picked up. Sand, whipped up by gusts, burned our eyes and stung our bare legs. Back at the car, relieved to see the paint intact, I tossed Luther the keys and asked if he wanted to drive the two-mile stretch of gravel road back to Route 190.
"Yeah!" he said, hitting the clicker to unlock the doors.
He did great, even through washboard sections that rattled our spines and even when a van hugged our tail, flashing its lights to pass. It wasn't like Luther was creeping, especially given the gravelly conditions. "Idiots," he mumbled as the van blew past. I'm guessing he picked that up from me back in Virginia.
I drove the rest of the trip. Our next stop was Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level, where we parked and crunched out onto the blinding salt flat. We drove past the Devil's Golf Course, a jagged expanse of halite salt-crystal formations. We explored Furnace Creek, once a borax-mining center, where the famous 20-mule teams hauled wagons filled with the white, multipurpose mineral out of pits and across the Mojave Desert. Like a lot of kids, Luther always has been fascinated with world records - thank you, Guinness - so it was fun traveling to Furnace Creek, site of the highest ambient temperature ever recorded on Earth: 134 degrees on July 10, 1913.
After lunch, we pressed on for Las Vegas, 150 miles to the east. Driving conditions were ideal - clear sky, vast stretches of open road, plenty of music on the satellite radio, which was a worthwhile upgrade considering the spotty FM options in the desert. We entered Nevada and cruised through the Amargosa Valley. When little green men began popping up on billboards, we realized we were near the U.S. military site known colloquially as Area 51, a perennial favorite of conspiracy theorists.
The traffic lights and congestion of Vegas broke the road-trip spell. We parked the Challenger and explored the Strip on foot. Luther and I aren't gamblers or shoppers, so we dug deeper for something to do. Luther really wanted to drive a dune buggy, but every place I called required a driver's license.
"Aw, man," Luther said, dejected. I felt bad for the guy. Maybe this would be added incentive once we returned home.
Instead, we went to the Gene Woods Racing Experience go-cart track just south of McCarran International Airport. Even though Luther did not need a driver's license, this was no summer carnival ride. We wore head socks, full-face racing helmets and thick neck braces for stability. The high-performance carts could top 50 mph. We completed two races around the winding loop. Both times, Luther beat me and most other racers. I was impressed. He was skilled and confident behind the wheel, totally energized by the experience.
Driving back home is never that exciting, nor is it as liberating as our road trip through Death Valley. But it's nice for Luther to have both experiences as reminders of what's possible behind the wheel.
Where to stay
Stovepipe Wells Hotel
51880 Route 190, Death Valley
One of only a few Death Valley lodging options, this centrally located full-service hotel has a restaurant and lively saloon, plus a swimming pool. A general store and national park office are across the road. Rooms start at $140.
Furnace Creek Resort
Route 190, Death Valley
The sprawling resort has two properties: the luxe Furnace Creek Inn, built in 1927, with a posh pool, fine dining and an 18-hole golf course; and the more affordable Ranch at Furnace Creek, with a restaurant and general store. Ranch rates start at $150 and Inn rates at $400.
Where to eat
51880 Route 190, Death Valley
Among the two options at the Stovepipe Wells Hotel, this one has more personality, plus 20 beers on tap and a pool table. The Mexican- and Western-influenced pub food is hearty and exuberantly named. (Examples include 49er Miner's All-Business Chili, Badwater 282 Below Tostada Salad.)
What to do
Death Valley National Park
A surreal place of extremes, including hottest, driest and lowest of all U.S. national parks. Winter and its shoulders months are the time to visit. Summer temperatures well above 100 degrees can be dangerously oppressive. Rare rains last spring brought on an explosion of wildflowers known as the Super Bloom. Vehicle-entrance fees are $25 per vehicle for seven days, $50 for one year.
Gene Woods Racing Experience
121 E. Sunset Rd., Las Vegas
In Las Vegas, experience go-carts on steroids on this half-mile track. The price is $20 per 15-to-20-lap race.
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