Death Valley: A Dash to Panamint Springs (and a Tow)

When Holly’s last post ended, we were zipping across Death Valley in a van without a working alternator. We turned off all possible accessories and did our best to conserve battery voltage as we hustled back to our campsite near Furnace Creek. After much tense gauge-watching, we finally arrived. (Fun fact: A VW Eurovan can run on 11.3 volts.) I had a spare voltage regulator on hand, and set about swapping it in, in the hopes that it might get us on the road again.

When I pulled the old one, there were some signs that the alternator was in rough shape, but the new regulator seemed to do the trick — the van was charging again during some brief tests around the “neighborhood”. It would’ve been nice to have a new alternator to play it safe, but tracking one down in Death Valley was a challenge: There were no car parts places for 70 miles, and while we had a bit of cell phone signal, we didn’t have internet access to help figure out who to call. The mechanic at the small garage in Furnace Creek offered to ferry a part to me if I could find one in Pahrump, NV, but none of the parts places there had one in stock.

In the end, we decided to hit the road the following morning and get to the west side of the park if we could. We had reservations at Legoland in a couple of days and needed to start making some progress. Plus, getting out of the park would bring us closer to car parts if the need arose.

The next day started out well. The van was charging, and sprits were high. Things were going so well that we decided to make a stop at the old Harmony Borax Works to see the remains of the borax-processing plant there, and a pair of old borax carts.

Unfortunately, the alternator stopped working again shortly after the stop. We’d planned ahead this time: I had disconnected the always-on headlights to they wouldn’t consume power, and had done some rewiring to combine the camper’s auxiliary battery with the starter battery to buy us some extra range. We made a dash for Panamint Springs, near the west entrance to the park, monitoring the voltage as we went. We were confident we could make it that far, and thought for a while we might make it out of the park and back to civilization if things went well. Power consumption increased as we neared Panamint Springs though, so we played it safe and decided to stop there to re-evaluate.

There’s a campground and RV park in Panamint Springs, and we were able to get a site and settle in while we planned our next move. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any phone service there at all. We learned from the kid behind the counter at the general store that there was no way to get car parts or service there, and no bus service or car rentals that might let me go retrieve an alternator. In the end, after paying a small fortune to borrow the satellite phone at the general store, we decided to call AAA and have them tow us to Ridgecrest, CA, 75 miles away — the nearest town large enough to have auto parts and services. Less than two hours later, Al was there to haul us and the van out of the park. (And, as an added bonus, a roadrunner kept us company while we waited.)

We did’t have much of a chance to research motels, but asked Al to drop us at the Motel 6 in Ridgecrest — chosen both because it had coin-operated laundry services and a “year-round outdoor pool”. If ever in Ridgecrest, take our advice and avoid the Motel 6. We’ve stayed in some grim motels, but this one’s near the top (bottom?) of the list. They did in fact have laundry services though, which was a big plus. And, to be fair, the pool was outdoor year-round. The ice wasn’t quite thick enough for skating though.

A few quick phone calls and we were in luck! The local NAPA had an alternator in stock for our van! (It was lower output than the old one, but would get us back on the road.) It was too late (and too cold) to make any progress that evening, but I had them put my name on it. The next morning it was 27 degrees out when we got up, and not much warmer than that when I got to NAPA and started replacing the alternator, after dropping Holly and the kids at a Starbucks to hang out and do homework. But by mid-morning we were back on the road and heading in the direction of Legoland!

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