While literally coming down California Highway 190 in Death Valley National Park I came upon a car broken down between Panamint Springs and Stovepipe Wells.
The road is between 5 and 6% grade in this area, fairly steep. It was also about 105° F around 1:30 in the afternoon.
As we were returning from a harrowing drive out and back from Father Crowley Lookout we saw a silver car on the side of the road. CA-190 doesn’t have much of a shoulder to pull over on in this location. The silver car was about half way into the outbound lane and halfway into the ditch.
I saw a young guy in front of the car with a gallon jug of radiator fluid sitting on the road in front of the car. Seeing the jug and the condition of the car, I figured that they had over heated coming up the long steep hill.
I decided to stop and make sure they were okay. That is the travelers rule in Death Valley. The place can be unforgiving.
There were two guys in the car and one standing in front of it. I asked if they were okay and the guy standing in front of the car reached into the engine compartment and pulled out a black strip of something. I wasn’t sure if it was a wire or what. He told me their radiator belt snapped.
If they had a radiator leak, I could go get water. With a broken belt, they were screwed.
I was parked on the down hill side of the road heading into Stovepipe Wells and kept my eye on the rear-view mirror.
There was no cell phone service in the area and my rental car didn’t come with a spare belt. They were about 12 miles up hill from Stovepipe and 10 or so from Panamint Springs. I don’t think either community had more than 100 residents or a proper auto garage. I hadn’t seen AAA or many US Park Service or any other official vehicles in the park all week.
What could I do for these guys? They were literally in the middle of no where. Even if someone else stopped, they probably couldn’t do anything for them either.
I asked the guys if there was anything I could do to help. I had nothing for them and felt helpless. But I had to offer.
They all said no, and then the guy outside the car asked if I could take a number. I quickly found a pen and a brochure for him to write on.
As we drove off it dawned on me that we had not asked for his name or whose number this was. Was it his, his mother’s or girlfriend? Who was going to pick up and how would they react to some stranger with a New England accent calling them?
We didn’t even take their plate number or make note of the model of the car. It was an older silver hatchback or wagon of some sort.
My attention had been split between them and keeping an eye on the road behind me.
Broken Down between Panamint Springs and Stovepipe Wells
As we drove off I noted the mileage on the odometer so I would have some idea how far out of “town” they were. Turns out they were over 12 miles uphill from Stovepipe.
I sat in the parking lot of Stovepipe General store and called the number. My wife went into the store to tell the clerk what was going on and see if they could help. She went to three different places and got no where. None of the clerks knew anything.
I called the number wondering what to say and how to say it, not wanting to incite panic.
A woman’s voice came on the line “Hello?”, thankfully in English.
I explained that a car full of young guys was broken down 12 miles outside of Stovepipe headed towards Panamint Springs. She sounded a little skeptical so I added that they were in a silver car.
The tone of her voice changed as she asked where they were. I repeated that they were 12 miles out of Stovepipe headed towards Panamint. At the time I couldn’t recall if it was Stovepipe Wells, Flats, Gulch or what ever. And Panamint? WTF?
As the words left my mouth they sounded utterly absurd. This lady must think I’m on acid or pulling a prank with names like this, I thought to my self waiting for her to hang up on me.
I could tell she was taking notes so I asked where she was. I wanted to get an idea of how far these guys were from home and how big of a pickle they were in. She said “Baker” which meant nothing to me. She seemed to know where I was and said it was about two hours away from Stovepipe!
It was well over 100 and probably over 105° F in the middle of the afternoon.
What else could I do for these guys? Driving back out there wouldn’t help and we had notified family and people working in the stores down the hill from them.
The lady said thank you and hung up. Her tone had gone from skeptical to inquisitive to “what the hell do I do now” in all of three minutes.I felt bad, but I had done all I could do.
As we drove back to our hotel I thought about those guys sitting on the side of that highway in that blistering heat. I hoped that they were okay and that someone had sent a truck to tow them out of there.
I have the number I called in my cell phone. Maybe I’ll call it to see how they made out.
Drive carefully my friends!