Death Valley is best defined by what’s missing. A desert where nothing happens and nothing lives. The list of things that aren’t here is a saga. There’s no vegetation, just cacti and weeds here and there under a perennial patina of dust and matte blue sky, usually empty of clouds. There’s no rain and there are no buildings. I’ve driven miles and miles in every direction and found one, maybe two gas stations. No man-made stuff apart from the sign that says “Death Valley National Park”. The only thing you have is a road, miles and miles of it. Scolding hot tarmac with hard sand and hazardous terrain on either side of it.
I believe that this is exactly what springs to mind when people think of the great American open road. It is open. And great and empty. You can see the curvature of the Earth.
I’ve been here twice, both times with the same car albeit two different generations of it, and both times I couldn’t get any signal with my phone which is bliss, being unreachable feels nice for a change.
This isn’t the land of torque, this is horsepower territory. You don’t need a car that can do 0-60 in 1 second, you need a car that can sit quite happily at one-hundred-and-sevent… sorry I meant 70 mph. In all honesty, because of the heat, you don’t need a convertible either but that’s what I got, the silver Ford Mustang you see in the pictures.
The Mustang is America’s flagship car and it is special. In my view, it defines American motoring because no other country in the world could have invented the Mustang. I’m going to cut to the quick here and just say that this is a rental, and that means it is underpowered and not exactly “packed” with optional extras. The seats are made of cloth and there’s a radio. That’s about it. It is a fifth generation, M.Y. 2012, convertible Mustang powered by a Ford 3.7 L Duratec V6 making 305 bhp and 280 torques. It’s a decent engine, meaty and smooth, certainly a lot better than the 4 L V6 it replaced because that only made 210 hp. This is not a racer, it is a cruiser.
Our starting point is Las Vegas, an insane city that grew out of the desert. It was kick-started by a mobster who was swiftly taken out because the casino he’d opened, the Flamingo, wasn’t making a profit and “investors” weren’t happy about it. The Flamingo did eventually take off and a vast array of big casinos and hotels were built all around it until Las Vegas became the gambling capital of the world. More than that, it became Sin City, a surreal town made of plastic with no clocks and no windows. I love it. Anyway, driving to Death Valley requires a full tank of gas and plenty of water, so we stopped at a deli for supplies at 6 AM and got going when the temperature was already going up. Guidebooks will direct you to several different spots in Death Valley but the most spectacular view is provided by Zabriskie Point, a natural terraced viewpoint overlooking a gorge made of sediments from Furnake Creek Lane, sculpted by erosion and wind.
The most extreme place in the Valley is Badwater, 282 feet below sea level. Acres of salt flats which, eons ago, would’ve been a lake. It sits in the heart of the Valley and you’re going to have to keep on driving through this sort of scenery to get there. The thermometer in the car hit 122 Fahrenheit / 50 Celsius at some point.
This is one of the purest forms of driving, it isn’t difficult and it needn’t be. While fast driving can be stressful, driving a Mustang in the desert can be done by using your internal autopilot. You settle in for the ride and do nothing and think of nothing for miles. And I can’t think of any other car I’d rather do it in, actually. Challenger, maybe. Or a Camaro. Or a Corvette, perhaps. But that’s about it. And that’s because the Mustang fits the environment, the context, better than anything else.
Driving the Mustang in Nevada is still, today, one of the best driving experiences I’ve had because it was a case of “all-pieces-to-the-puzzle”. The right car for the right environment at the right time. Speaking of which, about a month from now, I’ll be on a plane to Belgrade to celebrate my birthday with friends. They’ll be waiting for me at the airport in a Zastava Skala. Talk about context.