Sunday, December 10, 2006

Death and Desert Travel

Recent messages in which I mentioned driving my old bus to Alaska, Mexico and throughout the desert regions of the western United States brought a number of private responses. Most were from folks wanting to hear more about such trips but some were from people who felt I was making desert travel sound more hazardous than it is.

For any of you who might share those views, I suggest you read the newspapers. Here in southern California the desert claims about a dozen lives a year. The victims tend to be youngsters or tourists. The cause of death is usually listed as exposure but in the overwhelming majority of cases, they died because their car broke down, they couldn't fix it and hadn't provided themselves with enough water to survive such an event.

Here's an example. A couple of college girls, new to the area, decide to drive over to the desert. Their car breaks down on an unpaved track three miles from a ranger station. They decide to hoof it. Another vehicle comes upon them about a mile from the ranger station. One girl is already dead; the other suffers permanent damage from the effects of severe dehydration and sunstroke.

The girls hadn't eaten breakfast that morning. They did not carry any drinking water in their vehicle. They wore shorts and T-shirts. Neither had a hat. Neither knew anything about cars nor had any experience driving off-pavement. The temperature that day was not especially hot, barely 110 degrees.

In the final analysis, the girl died because of a loose fan belt. Not broken, merely loose. Driving on pavement, their forward speed provided enough air through the radiator but grinding along an unpaved track in second gear, the engine rapidly overheated.

Another case involved a German tourist and his girlfriend. They rented a 4WD, air-conditioned suv-type vehicle and set out to 'explore' the desert. They managed to bog the vehicle in a sandy wash and exhausted themselves trying to dig it out. That night the temperature dipped into the low 30's and the man died from a combination of dehydration, sunburn and hypothermia.

These deaths don't make the national news. Indeed, if the local politicians have anything to do with it such deaths barely rate a one-paragraph filler tucked away under Local News. ('Motorcyclist Found Dead') Like earthquakes and muggers, dying of thirst is bad for the tourist trade.

I'm not blowing smoke here, I'm trying to pass along some straight skinny that could save your life. If you want to check it out just dig through the newspapers from communities in and around the desert regions.

A second point I'd like to make is that an air-cooled engine is not the best thing to have in a desert climate. Among the several reasons Ferdinand Porsche opted to use an air-cooled engine was because it had nothing to freeze rather than not having anything to boil.

Air-cooled engines do best in cool climates, at higher latitudes and high altitudes. They don't do well in the desert simply because the ambient daytime air temperature is too close to their normal operating temperature. (Don't be too quick to buy into the popular myth of how well the kubelwagen did in the 'Sahara.' Most of the African campaign was fought along the Mediterranean coast, hundreds of miles north of the Sahara Desert. Even so, according to German mechanics who were there, the bucket-car was prone to sucking in dust, overheating and swallowing #3 exhaust valve, which should sound painfully familiar to modern-day veedub owners who spend any time off- pavement.)

If you wanna go boondocking in your veedub, fine. But don't go solo. If you absolutely gotta get off on your own, let someone know where you're heading and when you expect to be back.

Running in the desert, you should carry lots of water. I know that sounds so simple it's almost stupid - who'd be dumb enough to head for the desert without water? The answer is kinda strange because, while most carry some water only one in a thousand carries enough. How much is enough? About three gallons per person per day. Beer doesn't count, by the way. Nor does anything containing sugar. On the other hand, you don't need to worry about carrying much food. If you have a really bad day in the desert you'll be dead before you work up an appetite.

If you break down out in the boondocks don't put too much faith in your cell phone. Out in the desert the only coverage is along the paved roads and is pretty spotty even then. There's no cell-phone subscribers out in the bush so there's no reason to provide omni-directional coverage. What coverage there is, the antennas are aligned with the roads.

If you spend any time boondocking and you're serious about wanting to call home now and then, get yourself an Amateur Radio license. Cell phones use the UHF band; they are literally line-of-sight communication devices. With short- wave, you can talk around the world. When my wife and I went down to Baja for the eclipse in 1991 we maintained daily contact with other amateur astronomers from Russia to Australia via short-wave. (We were looking for 'sun-grazers'. [Ask an astronomer.] :-)

When you go boondocking, dress for the occasion. Long sleeves. Sturdy boots and a good hat. Dress with the assumption that once you leave pavement you may have to walk back, even though walking out should be your absolute last resort. The wiser course is to fix what broke and drive home, otherwise just stay by the vehicle and wait for them to find you.

(Ed Note: If you are in the desert then you are automatically a creature of the desert and must obey the desert’s rules, one of which is that you perform most of your activities at night. And that includes walking. Desert skies are generally clear and the stars make a gigantic pin-wheel around Polaris. Orient yourself relative to it, check every quarter hour or so, and you can’t get too far off your course. Assuming of course that you know what your course should be.

Don’t know? Then don’t go. Guessing will kill you as surely as a bullet only slower.

Stay with the vehicle. Dig a trench for shade. Rig a solar still. Do everything right, it’ll take you a week or more to die, by which time someone may come along. But if you try walking out and have even the tiniest bit of bad luck, you’re going to die, as did a good friend and experienced desert traveler who we finally figured out had mistaken Jupiter for the light of a near-by rancho... that lay in exactly the opposite direction.)

Have you got lots of spare parts onboard? A kit of tools? Do you know how to get out of sand? Got your high-lift jack & sand mats? Plenty of fuel? Boondocking, you're typically running at low speeds in a middle gear. If you get ten miles to the gallon you're doing pretty good. (My bus carries 45 gallons of fuel in its tanks and I can strap on another 25 gallons in jerry cans.)

Yeah I know... You're just going to run over to Dripping Spring, take some friends up to Big Rock or maybe an afternoon trip to check out the wildflowers between Borrego and the Salton Sea. No big deal, right?

But about a dozen times a year such casually planned jaunts prove fatal. The worst thing about such deaths, and the reason I'm writing this, is that they should never have happened.

One fellow read my message as saying an old VW bus was better than his SUV and spent a lot of time telling me about his 4WD, V8 engine, positraction and so forth. Which told me he'd missed the whole point.

Fitted with proper tires and sensibly driven, a 1967 or earlier VW bus does real well off-road because of its sturdy suspension and good ground clearance. The engine and running gear is easy to maintain and repair. The large cargo capacity allows you to carry spares and tools for virtually any failure. And it's economical. But any number of vehicles can meet those requirements. My grandfather and my dad traveled all over the deserts of the American west, initially in a Model T, later in a 1924 Dodge touring car. When I was a boy, my dad and I covered much of the same territory, even camping at some of the same sites, in a 2WD Ford pickup with a camper on the back. My vehicle of choice just happens to be an old VW bus.

(And yes, I took my son along too :-)

I don't know if wanderlust is a genetic trait but I do you know you don't need a forty thousand dollar land yacht to scratch the itch. I also know that common sense and experience aren't things you can buy.

-Bob Hoover
-10 February 2000

1 comment:

Surly said...

Real world, practical advice rules. Thanks.