The Low Road

Two years before the Pontiac conquered the highest paved road in North America, we took a drive down the lowest road in the Western Hemisphere—Badwater Road in California’s Death Valley, at 274 feet below sea level…

Naturally, I ventured down the final eight feet to the true bottom of things, and sat on the salty floor of Badwater Basin…

A deserted alien landscape like this is just the sort of place I’d love to spend hours, if not days, roaming at will across the basin’s 200 square miles. But this was a cloudless summer day, and though I had arrived at Badwater—and departed—early in the morning, the heat was already noticeable. On this particular journey, I was underequipped to take on such a hike in those conditions. No doubt I’ll return to explore the basin on a future road trip…probably during a cloudy week in January.

Exiting Death Valley on California Highway 190, I resumed course for the coast to visit my friends. The car’s top was up during this drive to give me shelter from the burning sunlight; good thing, too, as I would find out a few minutes later. I was climbing out of the valley on the grade that leads up to Towne Pass. This grade is 17 miles long, and with several lengthy stretches of laser-straight road in front of you, there are times when it’s not visually obvious that you’re ascending a fairly decent slope. But the Pontiac’s drive train certainly felt the tug of gravity that morning as it climbed the grade in the rapidly warming desert air.

In the blink of an eye, my forward view was obliterated by a cloudy, gooey mess. I lost a moment in time and then, as the motor knocked twice and quickly died (thankfully, preventing any internal engine damage), I realized what had happened: a seam on the 27-year-old factory radiator had opened up like a tube of biscuits, and the entire contents of the cooling system flew onto the windshield…the convertible top keeping the hot liquid from getting inside the car.

Forward momentum completely gone, I stood on the brake to keep my place on the hill, shifted into Park, removed the keys from the ignition and sat for a moment listening to the deafening silence and taking in the surreal view that was devoid of other vehicles and humans in every direction. Then, after walking up front and inspecting the carnage under the hood, I wiped off the windshield as well as I could and contemplated my next move (of the very few available to me). Looking back toward the valley, that formerly not-so-obvious slope now appeared to be monumentally steeper.

(Google Street View of the approximate point where the radiator exploded, facing up the grade toward Towne Pass.)

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever tried this, but executing a modified reverse downhill 3-point turn in a powerless vehicle on a narrow highway with sloping gravel shoulders and no guardrails is not a particularly fun thing to do, and I hope I never have to pull it off again, but it worked. I was now freewheeling down the long slope at 60 mph, about a mile or so back to the small rest area I had passed earlier just north of Emigrant Campground, where I coasted to a stop under the partial shade of a scrawny desert tree…

A very basic rest area, it featured the important amenities: a picnic table, restrooms and—best of all—a payphone, with the numbers of the nearest emergency towing companies conveniently displayed. I placed a call to an auto repair shop in Lone Pine, California, then I lounged around in the shade while waiting for my ride.

Once the Pontiac was loaded on the flatbed, we made the 72-mile drive to civilization. And it was a trip that can match any amusement park thrill ride. The highway featured plenty of wicked curves and a dearth of guardrails. Sitting in the passenger seat, I could look down steep dropoffs that came frighteningly close to the edge of the road and see rusted old hulks of cars that had long ago crashed to the desert floor some 50 or more feet below us. But these tow-truck drivers have made the trip in and out of Death Valley hundreds of times, and they have the skills to get you to Lone Pine intact.

My new radiator was ordered and would arrive early the next morning, so I walked to a motel a short distance from the shop and spent a peaceful night in that quiet little town just east of Mount Whitney. In the morning, the Pontiac was repaired quickly by a excellent crew who handles this kind of work on a high-volume basis (location, location, location), and I was back on the road; my Death Valley adventure delaying my arrival on the coast by just 24 hours.

And let’s raise a glass to towing insurance (these days more commonly known as Emergency Road Service), which I’ve always had on my auto policies and still costs me just $5 a year. My insurance agent of 30+ years frequently shares my Death Valley towing story with clients to emphasize the value of towing insurance. Once I had arrived back home, I handed this receipt to my agent and he wrote me a $288 check right on the spot…

P.S. – Gotta love the days when you could get your old radiator removed, a new one installed—plus thermostat, gasket and coolant—all for less than $250, parts and labor.


Kodak Tri-X 35mm film
Kodak Gold 400 35mm film (single-use camera)


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