The point of any backpacking trip, aside from getting exercise, is to get into the wilderness and escape the hassles of modern life. Alas, that was not to be the case for us this weekend.
We woke up at 8:00 am, broke camp, and had some breakfast. It was chilly and a bit windy, but not brutally so. We had to pay the camping fee before we left the campground – $12! For us that worked out to nearly $2 an hour, for the privilege of sleeping on the ground. Hmm.
We headed back the way we came a bit, and then headed up some hills to the west, to Mitchell Caverns.
Mitchell Caverns was developed in the 1930s by a guy named Jack Mitchell. The State Park service acquired it shortly after his death. There is a little house that was where Jack and his wife had lived, which is now the visitor’s center. This is where you pay the $4 fee for the tour, which is given three times a day on weekends. (This is the only way to see the caverns – visitors aren’t allowed to explore unguided.)
To reach the Caverns, there is a relatively short trail from the visitor’s center, along the side of the hills. The trail offers a lovely view of the desert valley below. It was pretty sunny at this point, with a few clouds, breezy and cool.
There are two main caverns, which the State Park service connected several years ago by digging a new tunnel between them. This makes the tour flow much better than it had before. In Jack Mitchell’s day, visitors had to go in and out of the first cavern, then hike around to the entrance for the second cavern.
The tour was fun and the formations were neat. The tour guide was very engaging and the group was well behaved. (Believe it or not there were 20+ people on the tour, in the middle of nowhere, including about 5 kids.) Mitchell Caverns are nowhere near as impressive as Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, not surprisingly. Aside from the fact that Carlsbad Caverns are enormous, it was notable that the formations in Mitchell Caverns were mostly dead – not growing any more. I guess that’s an impressive thing about Carlsbad – they’ve managed to keep people from touching many of the formations, in order to keep them alive and growing.
After the tour ended, we ate lunch on the picnic bench in front of the visitor’s center. Then, around 12:15 pm, we got in the car to head toward our next destination: Cima Dome, home of the largest Joshua tree forest in the world.
But alas, it was not to be. I haven’t mentioned until this point that, ever since the traffic on I-15, we’d been having some doubts about our car. It wasn’t accelerating and shifting quite normally. But we decided to forge ahead, thinking that it would hold out for a few days.
Heading down the hill from Mitchell Caverns, we learned that today was the day the car would stop working. While driving down hill, I had the clutch in, allowing the car to coast down the hill. When I went to put it back in gear, I discovered that stepping on the accelerator accomplished nothing. The engine would rev, but it wouldn’t cause the car to actually move faster. I tried it in a few different gears, but the situation didn’t change.
So we coasted all the way from Mitchell Caverns back to the intersection of the road we had turned off from the campground – about 6 miles, I think. I stopped, turned the car off, and tried starting from scratch, but nothing happened. Dave tried it and of course had the same experience.
I called my parents and they didn’t have a lot of suggestions, other than to call AAA. So, Dave called AAA and spent about 10 minutes on hold. Of course on a holiday weekend they’re probably a bit busy! Finally Dave got through. At first, the woman we spoke with told us she was sending a truck from Palmdale, which was over 150 miles away. I shook my head as Dave talked to her on the phone. He clarified with her that we weren’t in the town of Mojave, but in Mojave Preserve. Once she understood that, she called a truck from Needles, CA, which was about 50 miles away. She said it would take about 45 minutes.
At this point it was about 12:55 pm. I didn’t really think we’d get a tow in less than an hour. We took a blanket out of the trunk and sat on the side of the road in front of the car. Several cars went by, not offering any help. One car stopped, and a guy got out and asked in a German accent how to get to I-40. We pointed him in the right direction and he got back in the car and drove off. Glad to be of service!
We took a few photos of our situation and surroundings, and tried to figure out how to entertain ourselves. The sky was starting to fill up with dark clouds, and the wind was starting to get chilly. So we gave up on the blanket and sat in the car. It was very warm and I started to nod off. I had just reached full nap status when the tow truck showed up, at about 2:05 pm.
It was so sad to see my little car being pulled up onto the tow truck. It had never had to be towed before.
It took about an hour to get to Needles. The tow truck driver recommended a repair shop right off the highway, saying that the “dealership is just going to gank you”. There was a Best Western right across the street, so he recommended that we get a room there. He called the repair shop guy on his personal cell phone, and assured us that although he wasn’t open today, the shop would definitely be open on Sunday. The car would maybe not be repaired until Tuesday, but at least we could find out what was wrong. He also said that we should call AAA and see if we could get “trip interruption” service, which is something AAA offers to pay for a hotel and food if you end up needing roadside assistance.
After he dropped us and our car off at the repair shop, we spent some time on the phone with AAA trying to convince them that they were supposed to give us this trip interruption service. After it became apparent that it was getting us nowhere, we walked across the street to the Best Western and checked in, paying for the night ourselves.
This was, of course, an expense we had not planned on, since we were supposed to be sleeping for free in the desert. Fortunately we had plenty of food with us, so at least we wouldn’t have to spend money on that.
We hung out in the room for a bit trying to figure out what our next steps should be. In the process of getting settled we discovered that there was a bar of soap lodged in the room’s toilet, so we had to call the front desk to send a maintenance guy.
We went through the local phone books and guides provided by the motel to give us ideas as to where we were, and what we could do with ourselves. Dave got an idea to try to rent a U-Haul with a tow package, to take the car back to San Diego. He tried calling them but they weren’t open. We looked at church service times for the morning, but we weren’t sure how far away they were. Plus, we figured we should spend Sunday morning working with the mechanic to get things straightened out with the car.
In the absence of anything else to do in Needles CA at 4:20 in the afternoon, we decided to go for a little walk… to Arizona. The Powerball jackpot being around $350 million, we figured we couldn’t win if we don’t play, and this might be a good opportunity to defray some of the costs we suddenly incurred.
So, we walked through Needles for a while, then crossed an overpass that went over the Colorado River, and found ourselves in Arizona. The nearest shop was a Mobil station, but for some reason they weren’t selling Powerball tickets. The cashier directed us to a shop a few blocks away. It was a pretty random neighborhood, with no sidewalks, lots of mobile homes on unlandscaped acreage, and “ferocious” dogs. There was one house that had two grown dogs and two puppies – all retrievers. So cute!
We got to the shop, which was a random gas station and quickie mart, bought two tickets, then headed back to the hotel. Roundtrip was probably about 3 miles, and we got back to the Best Western around 5:30 pm.
We showered, used the microwave instead of our camping stove to heat the pita pizzas I’d brought for dinner, and watched some TV. We ended up going to bed around 8:00 pm – it had been a tiring day.