The road between Death Valley Junction and Furnace Creek (click here for a satellite map of the route) is open again! This may not sound like headline news, but if you are (a) someone who lives in Death Valley or (b) someone (like me) who loves Death Valley, this is far more important than the opening of a new casino. So, while all eyes in Las Vegas were on the new Wynn resort, mine were looking down a two-lane stretch of asphalt under a warm spring sky. Closed since the torrential floods of last August wiped out significant sections, thirteen miles of Highway 190 reopened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on April 29th in front of the world-renowned Furnace Creek Inn.
The speakers’ dais was a large California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) trailer normally used to haul earth-moving equipment. Nearby on a folding table were dozens of little boxes, and a sign on an easel announcing that they were “Pet Road.” Anyone in attendance was welcome to one of the little boxes, each of which enclosed a fragment of asphalt from the old Highway 190.
After getting my “Pet Road,” a program, and a stapled set of pages entitled “Songs for the Road,” I moved under the shade of one of several small canopies, and the ceremony began with remarks by Death Valley Chamber of Commerce President David Blacker. He introduced Inyo County Supervisor Richard Cervantes, who illustrated Death Valley’s experiences of the last year with a Bible verse. “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” he said. “He gave us the rain and took away our road. But the rain also brought the wildflowers, and the flowers brought the people.” The “Bloom of the Century” brought so many visitors to Death Valley in March that it nearly made up for the dearth of tourist traffic in the winter.
Death Valley Park Superintendent J.T. Reynolds commented on the unusual levels of cooperation between the agencies that joined forces to complete the project. “Gray and green were driving orange, and orange was driving gray and green,” he said, referring to the colors of Caltrans and Park Service vehicles. $10 million of federal emergency relief funded the project, and Las Vegas Paving Corporation was the general contractor.
Caltrans district director Tom Hallenbeck, while admitting that “We just can’t beat Mother Nature,” commented on some of the new techniques used to make the road more flood resistant. One such technique is the gabion, a wire, rock-filled cage installed on the edge of the road to hold the slope. Over three miles of gabions have been installed along Highway 190.
In between speakers, local singer-guitarist-composer Phyllis Nefsky led the assemblage in song. She had modified the lyrics of songs such as “On the Road Again” to suit the occasion: “The life I love is shopping at Wal-Mart with my friends, and I can’t wait to get on the road again.” For residents of Death Valley, the Wal-Mart in Pahrump accessible by Highway 190 has been a sorely missed convenience.
The ceremony concluded on the road itself, where a plastic streamer had been stretched between two barricades. Employing an oversized pair of plywood scissors painted Day-Glo orange, Tom Hallenbeck snipped the ribbon. As soon as the barricade bearing the “Road Closed” sign had been moved aside, three motorcyclists who had been waiting impatiently roared past. They didn’t roar very far, though. Even though Highway 190 is officially open, construction isn’t quite complete. For a few more weeks, while some stretches are still only one lane wide, “pilot” trucks will be escorting vehicles on the road.
Around noon, I joined the short line of cars waiting for the next eastbound pilot truck. After about twenty minutes, I was on my way, marveling at how much damage the floods had wreaked and much work it had taken to reopen the road. There’s still more to be done. The only pieces of evidence that there was once a parking lot at Zabriskie Point are the roofs of two restrooms sticking out of a mud bank. The road through Twenty-Mule Team Canyon, near where two park visitors died during the August floods, is all but erased.
But Highway 190 is open, and that’s something to be thankful for. When I finally do make my way to the new Wynn resort, I think I’ll go into one of its fabulous new bars and raise a toast to thirteen miles, ten million dollars, and a fine spirit of cooperation. You won’t read about it in Vanity Fair, but there are quite a few people exceedingly happy to be on the road again.