The outside temperature display on the rearview mirror registered 116 degrees Fahrenheit. Our maxed-out air conditioner was keeping things surprisingly cool inside but the sun load through the windshield felt like flames on my hands as I played the steering wheel, avoiding boulders and ruts gouged into the narrow track across a remote section of California's Mojave Desert.
The "Drive at Own Risk" sign, honeycombed with bullet holes, we passed an hour earlier had been a nice touch. When I opened the window, it felt like I was sticking my face into a gigantic pizza oven. Even the smatterings of scrubby desert bushes and hardy cacti seemed to be suffering.
To my right, the southern expanse of Death Valley shimmered on the horizon like a ghostly mirage in a spaghetti western movie. We hadn't seen a sign of life for hours and the fuel gauge, hovering at just over a quarter tank, seemed to be falling by the minute.
Lisa and I were adamant about solving the last piece of a routing puzzle for an upcoming media driving event between Las Vegas and Morro Bay, on the Pacific Coast midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. We had driven a distance the equivalent of Chicago to Los Angeles over California back roads the previous week and, if we could find our way through the next 50 miles, we would have the basis of a workable program.
Questioning whether stubbornness was blindsiding common sense, I recalled the conversation with a road maintenance foreman we encountered before turning off the main road onto the desolate track.
"You can get to Death Valley by keeping right at a fork about 10 miles. Go left and it takes you somewhere out there in the middle ..."
He seemed perplexed by our desire to find a short cut across that part of the expansive Mojave Desert.
It was my first drive in a Mitsubishi product and after pounding the rented all-wheel-drive Montero Sport sport-ute for the past seven days, my respect factor was high. It was peppy, comfortable and well appointed. At first I felt guilty about the torture I was putting it through, but then I figured if it was in Alamo's rental fleet they had to be prepared for people to use it in applications it was designed for. The torment was, in an adolescent way, my duty.
Lisa and I weren't talking much, just staring at the compass ensuring our direction jived with the desert map she was fixated on. To break the silence, I slipped in the only CD we had on board, "The Best of Buck Owens and His Buckaroos" that we had picked up at his show bar in Bakersfield the day before. Just one more go at "My Heart Skips a Beat" when the ominous sign appeared.
"China Lake naval weapons center -- live bombing range. Do not pass this sign without permission from the installment commander."
Our old friend, the bullet-riddled "drive at own risk" warning sign, seemed rather docile as I considered getting vaporized out there in the Mojave Desert while Mr. Installment Commander tested a top-secret new weapon. I ejected Buck and his Buckaroos, turned around and headed back for the Death Valley fork.
Descending to the valley floor, we decided to drive to Ridgecrest, in the high desert just east of the Sequoia National Forest, where we could hole up for the night, chill out and reconsider our options. We passed the likes of Badwater, Devil's Golf Course, Devil's Cornfield and the luxurious Furnace Creek Inn while watching the scorching fireball set behind Telescope Mountain. At 282 feet below sea level, even after sunset, the outside temperature was still 104 F.
About 10 p.m., we arrived in Ridgecrest, a forgettable place with a string of motels and mangy-looking eateries. To our dismay, every accommodation in town was occupied except a room with a broken air conditioner.
A conglomeration of construction trucks was hogging the parking spaces so we parked down the street and lugged our bags into the sauna-like room. Too sweaty to make notes, I flicked every button on the TV remote to no avail. Bobby, the chatty receptionist, offered two more remotes that didn't work. Then finally through a series of random gyrations, Lisa managed to turn on the television.
It was stuck on one station, a sci-fi network showing a movie about space men trapped on a sweltering red planet that looked like the Mojave Desert through a red filter. I finally drifted off well after midnight watching the original black and white version of "The Fly."
Then at precisely 4:45 a.m., it started. The rattle of diesel trucks firing up in the parking lot snapped us out of our sticky sleep. The heat in the room was staggering. Drenched in sweat, all I could think of was the air-conditioning knob on the dash of the Montero.
In my haste to escape the inferno I accidentally ripped the security lock off the door. Then an unexpected blast of chilly dry air hit me in the face.
"Duuuh", I thought, remembering those geography lessons about cold nights in hot deserts.
"Losers," Lisa muttered. "Let's get the Montero's heater fired up."
Garry Sowerby, author of "Sowerby's Road:Adventures of a Driven Mind," is a four-time Guinness World Record holder for long-distance driving. His exploits, good, bad and just plain harrowing, are the subject of World Odyssey, produced in conjunction with Wheelbase Communications. Wheelbase is a worldwide provider of automotive news and features stories.