The Continental Pt. 11: The Valley of the Shadow of Death
(This article is part of the 15-part series, The Continental, written by Christie Grotheim with photography by Niklas Andersson as the couple takes a six-week road trip across and around the United States in their 1979 Lincoln Continental. Click here to catch up on the full series.)
It was 5:45 in the morning, and we were already on the road with bags under our eyes and fighting bad cases of dry-mouth. Niklas and I were a little apprehensive about our next destination (the ominous Death Valley) and wanted to beat the midday heat. Judging by her recent performance, The Cream Dream felt anxious too and was acting out. We were all having issues, which were made worse by the fact that two out of three of us were badly hungover.
The night before we had partied hard with a gay cowboy, a chef and a bartender at Bonnie’s Ranch in Red Rock Canyon, just west of Las Vegas. In passing Vegas by, we soon realized we had also passed up all our hotel opportunities. Starving, we were stranded in the desert with nothing in sight for miles. At long last, we saw a small sign for a ranch and restaurant down a dirt road that sure enough led to a little, old town style motel on the edge of the canyon. The place was surreal; wild donkeys greeted us as we checked into our room and peacocks strutted around in the dark.
Unfortunately they were no longer serving food. The bar, however, was open. It became clear we’d be drinking our dinner. And to be honest, I didn’t mind. Our empty stomachs made for a stronger buzz, which we strengthened further with whiskey until we were both quite drunk. Hanging out with the staff, we closed down the bar, even knowing we’d have to get up in a few short hours.
What, you might ask, brought on this untimely drinking binge? Earlier that day, several hours out of Flagstaff, It started with a rattle.
“Do you hear that? Sshhh, do you hear that?” Niklas asked.
Of course I heard it, but I was trying to ignore it. I had turned the radio up. Niklas turned it off. To me it sounded like it was coming from behind the radio and I pointed out that it stopped if I pushed hard on the dash. Niklas felt it was coming from the engine and wanted me to pull over and pop the hood so he could examine it. In other circumstances I might have, but (hello!) we were in the middle of the Mojave Desert. I drove on.
“Well, what do you wanna do, ignore it?” He asked me. “Run her into the ground? Just drive her until the whole entire transmission blows up?” He paused for effect. “Sometimes it feels like you don’t even care about the car.”
“I do care about the car… but it’s just that I kinda think we should push on,” I said, holding her at a steady 75 miles an hour.
I turned the AC off to try to appease him with a small compromise to prove that I didn’t want to overheat her or “run her into the ground.” Still, he gave me the silent treatment. We drove for seven hours in 110º heat to nothing but the sound of the rattle, which ironically stopped by the time we arrived in Red Rock.
So we began to unwind and chat in the woodsy bar at the ranch. We discussed what to do about the car. Lately, like a headstrong thoroughbred, at the end of a long day she would let us know she was tired by not responding to the gas pedal. When it was pushed, she pushed back in a matter of burps and jumps, slowing down instead of speeding up, which made it difficult to navigate traffic.
Upon hearing about our road trip and car troubles, the bartender poured us a round of shots. Upon hearing we were headed to Death Valley, he advised against it and poured us another.
Hence we were suffering the consequences, on the road at dawn in our condition. And not long afterward, another incident added to our fears.
I was fighting a bout of nausea when Niklas started to gas it and then brake like a bad cab driver. Turns out Niklas wasn’t doing it—the Continental had taken over. The cruise control wouldn’t turn off no matter what Niklas did. He tried to slow her down but she motored onward, propelling up hills and then flying down them all of her own accord. Wrestling with the car, he finally used the emergency brake. We screeched to a stop. The smell of burning brakes increased our pounding headaches as we tried to figure out what to do next.
Were we insane to be headed towards what is simultaneously the lowest point, the hottest point and the driest point in the country with hangovers and a car out of control? Probably. But we were too close to turn back; we let her cool down awhile and got right back up on that horse, so to speak.
We were all in it together, for better or for worse, as we entered the Valley. Deeper and deeper we drove. We descended when I thought we could descend no further. There were no cars or houses as far as the eye could see—we were isolated, and it felt like we were traveling into the bowels of the earth. It was breathtaking but nerve-wracking, knowing the hours of downhill would be followed by equal hours of heading uphill.
Once again we heard the rattle.
Knowing that without a shadow of a doubt there were no Triple AAA response vehicles around Death Valley.
Reaching the absolute lowest elevation in North America, we walked around on the white salt flats, crunchy and cracked. Scared to turn off the car for fear she wouldn’t start again, we let her idle. Despite our intentions, after the long and winding drive we were still in the heart of Death Valley in the midday heat. The thermometer read 120 °F.
The leather seats burned our backsides as we began our climb. The Continental followed the curving roads ever twisting onward and upward. The cliffs and drop-offs outside the passenger window made my head spin. It was stunning and scary and fantastically frightening. The miles of switchbacks and slow climbs proved challenging, but The Cream Dream continued to creep along. At times she barely reached 35 miles per hour even with the pedal pushed to the floor. Niklas downshifted, and the car fought onward. The mountains and valleys turned grey with black-and-white streaks followed by sand dunes and golden canyons. I had no idea looking “death” in the face would be so beautiful.
Cars much newer than ours sat overheating on the side of the road, and we crawled past them with baited breath.
A few hours later, we exited the National Park. We had made it. Our girl pulled through!
Feeling empowered, the next morning we drove half way up Mount Whitney (the highest elevation in the continental United States) and took in the view. Our fear had been unfounded, or maybe we just got lucky. Maybe it was just a matter of managing risks, which was the basis of our argument in the first place. After all, what is life but a series of decisions based on one’s best judgment in the moment? Life is controlling fears rather than being paralyzed by them. Death is never trying. And we had defied death in the valley and come out on the other side.
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Niklas Andersson is a lighting designer and photographer from Gothenburg, Sweden, who has recently set his sights—and lights—on New York City. With a passion for ’79 Lincoln Continentals and a love of the open road, he offers a unique perspective, from both behind the wheel and behind the lens.
Christie Grotheim is a New York-based writer whose personal essays can be found at Ducts, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and Smith Magazine. Though her workspace is in the West Village, she prefers writing longhand from the passenger seat with the world whizzing by and the wind in her hair.