2018-3-1 | Chevy New Roads Magazine
Our writer takes a Tahoe on a search for gorgeous night skies in Death Valley and beyond.
Living in Los Angeles, I missed out on the thrill of the first total solar eclipse to cross the United States since 1979. I was too far south of its coast-to-coast path to see much of the action. But it left me yearning to commune with the stellar majesty of the night sky, which is equally elusive in LA. The city is full of stars, but not the ones I’m after. That’s why I’m behind the wheel of a 2018 Chevrolet Tahoe, driving away from the setting sun on Highway 190, about to cross the threshold into Death Valley National Park. This desolate desert landscape that straddles California and Nevada is my first of three stops on a Southwestern road trip where daytime itineraries will be an afterthought, and nighttime plays a starring role.
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Death Valley: Beyond the Oasis, a Starry Desert | 268 miles from LA
Death Valley, site of the highest ambient air temperature ever recorded at the earth’s surface (134 degrees Fahrenheit, in 1913), is best avoided in summer. But in the cooler months it is well worth a visit, whether to traverse the rippling Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, to cross Badwater Basin (the lowest point in North America) off your bucket list, or, in my case, to go stargazing. The National Park Service went to great lengths to reduce outdoor lighting in the region, which earned Death Valley a designation by the International Dark-Sky Association as the largest International Dark Sky Park.
In the Tahoe with its mighty EcoTec3 V8, I confidently cruise down the highway and past the unpaved turnoff that winds its way to Twenty Mule Team Canyon, named for the means by which early 20th-century prospectors transported ore out of the region. I pass Zabriskie Point, where I make out the silhouettes of several stragglers taking in a panoramic view of undulating rock formations and flat salt plains, just before the sky fades to black. Four miles up the road, I pull into The Ranch at Death Valley, my Western-themed accommodations for the night.
The Ranch features a spring-fed swimming pool, tennis courts, a playground, two restaurants, a bar, and an 18-hole golf course. It’s part of a date palm–filled compound called The Oasis at Death Valley, which includes Fiddlers’ Campground and the upscale Inn at Death Valley—a AAA-rated Four Diamond resort. Unless you’re game to set up a tent in the wilderness, The Oasis is the place in the otherwise desolate Valley where you’re most likely to put down stakes.
After sating my hunger with a pulled pork sandwich, I drive a couple miles up 190 to Harmony Borax Works. It was here in the 1880s that pioneer William Tell Coleman employed 40 men and twenty-mule teams to excavate, process, and haul borax to the railroad depot in Mojave. Tonight, there isn’t another soul in sight, save for a lone coyote stalking in the moonlight. I luxuriate in the peace and quiet of the Tahoe’s comfortable cabin, then crawl to a stop, kill the lights, step out, and lean back on the vehicle, gazing up. At first, I use a stargazing app to locate Gemini, Pisces, and Taurus. Then I put my phone back into my pocket, where it belongs. I’m on the hunt for Capella, the eye of the constellation Auriga the Charioteer. I learned from the daily flyer the park service distributes that Capella would be sparkling low in the northeast. Capella is actually two stars, 16 times as large across as the sun and nearly as bright as Vega. From the bowl of the Big Dipper, I shift my gaze eastward. And there it is, inducing a type of quietude in me that I’ve never experienced before. The brightest yellow star in the sky, 42 light-years away.
Las Vegas: An Off-Strip Night Crawl, Writ in Vintage Neon | 124 miles from Death Valley
The next stop on my stargazing tour is Flagstaff, Ariz., the world’s first International Dark Sky Place. But the route leads directly through Las Vegas, so I figure why not stop in the City of Lights for a night?
Lucky for me, the Tahoe is as much at home in the city as it is in the desert, so I feel comfortable cruising down the strip surrounded by luxury sedans and limos. My evening begins at Carson Kitchen, a retro-industrial comfort-food eatery that proudly runs counter to everything you imagine a Vegas hot spot to be. Tucked into the corner of a renovated midcentury modern hotel, Carson Kitchen is intimate and welcoming, with less than a hundred seats (patio included) and no item on the menu over 20 bucks.
The open-plan kitchen is humming as I take a seat at the bar. I scan the menu of updated American staples before settling on the Secret Sunday Chicken sandwich, then look over my shoulder to check out the space. A sign on the back wall reads KEEP CALM AND KERRY ON, a reference to the late celebrity chef Kerry Simon, who singlehandedly reinvented the Vegas dining scene in 2002. After being diagnosed with multiple system atrophy in 2013, Simon opened Carson Kitchen, instantly establishing the Fremont East District as a neighborhood on the rise.
After Death Valley, I thank my lucky stars for these intimate glimpses at the universe.
After dinner, I get back in the Tahoe and drive up South Las Vegas Boulevard to one of the most underappreciated attractions in town: the Neon Museum, which offers a unique opportunity to learn about the city’s history. Out on the Strip, neon is gradually giving way to more efficient LEDs, but here you can appreciate the artistry of signage from the 1930s to the present day. As our tour group wends its way through the “Neon Boneyard,” one particular sign grabs my eye: the Stardust Hotel and Casino. A relic from the 1950s craze for all things atomic, the sign adorned a popular spot for viewing above-ground bomb tests. “The designers would never admit it,” my tour guide explains, “but the look of the sign is based on atomic fallout. All that beautiful stardust coming down.”
Flagstaff: Telescopic Views Atop Mars Hill | 249 miles from Las Vegas
The moon is so big that I feel like I’m about to land on it. When I step away from the telescope, I take another look. The bright full moon is farther away now, ringed by a halo caused by the refraction of reflected sunlight through ice crystals. I’m on the grounds of Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory, on a mesa known as Mars Hill, slowly making my way from one telescope to the next.
In front of the Rotunda Museum, where visitors are taking in a lecture on stars and galaxies, I step up to a 16-inch Newtonian telescope through which I get my first-ever look at the rings of Saturn. Another telescope reveals the gold and periwinkle double-star Albireo, which faintly appears to the naked eye as one star.
After Death Valley, I thank my lucky stars for these intimate glimpses at the universe. My Lowell experience serves to enhance what anyone can enjoy if left only to their own devices. In fact, that’s how the docent who’s guiding me through the galaxy, Pat Benson, wound up here in the first place. “I was in the Air Force and I worked on fighters all over the world,” says Benson, a retired IT professional who volunteers here every Friday night. “I’d lie on the wings of airplanes, look up at the night sky, and ask myself, ‘Gee, I wonder what that is?’”
Getting back in the Tahoe, I check the route back into town on the available GPS navigation system† before making my way back down the mesa into downtown Flagstaff. It’s my third visit to this gem of a town, nestled in the Coconino Forest 80 miles south of the Grand Canyon, where cowboys, campers, hippies, and students from Northern Arizona University seamlessly intermingle. It’s easy to eat well in Flagstaff, but I’ve still never tried a tiny pizza joint located south of the train tracks that’s known for its wood-fired Neapolitan pizza. While eating a pizza margherita, I read about the moon on my phone. Turns out the Algonquins referred to it as the Beaver Moon because “this was the time to set beaver traps before the swamps froze, to ensure a supply of warm winter furs.”
After a cup of house-made gelato, I drive out to Buffalo Park, in the northeastern part of town. I feel as happily alone out here as I did in Death Valley. But I’m also feeling the chill. Back in LA, I’d probably be wearing a light sweater right now. But here in Flagstaff, I could use some warm fur. At this final stop, the sky’s too cloudy to make out a single star, but the desire to go looking for one is reason enough to stay outside.
STORY: LAURENCE LOWE/PHOTOGRAPHY: JIM WRIGHT/MAP ILLUSTRATION: MAX MAJOROS/ADDITIONAL IMAGE SUPPORT: EMILIE DRD/EYEEM/PRODUCED:A+ PRODUCTIONS
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