Photography by: Jim Bob Barnett - Additional Photography by: Jandy Mendo
Jandy sent out a message to our group chat: “Death Valley Veterans Day weekend.” That's all he said, but we all knew we had to be there. Andy, aka Jandy, is a good friend of mine and a master trip planner who regularly tries to get a group of friends out as often as he can, but with so many conflicting schedules and lives, it’s been harder and harder to all get together. A few had to drop off from the planned trip but I knew I was gonna be there, so I immediately requested a couple of days off work and got to work getting ready. We had a few weeks to do so but my truck was having some issues, I’d just gotten the truck re-geared with Nitro 4.88’s and an ARB front locker was added, so I had to break them in and service the diffs. I also was dealing with failing tie-rods, which forced me to replace those and get an alignment along with putting on new pads and rotors (which will come back up later…). It was okay though, because it wasn’t much work, and like I said, Andy was doing all the route planning which was a nice change of pace for me. We got the word from him on what time to meet and a GPS waypoint for where to meet, which ended up being in the Trona Pinnacles. I’d actually never been to Trona proper, I’ve been all around the surrounding desert but never to the actual pinnacles and they were definitely pretty cool to finally see in person. We left work early on Friday and hit the road towards Trona which got us arriving to the waypoint as the sun was setting. We had just enough time to set up and cook some dinner before gathering around the campfire for a night of catching up with our friends as others were arriving.
The next morning we had a bit of a late start due to some late sleepers…. This can be tough with rather large groups and varying arrival times, as people are tired and we don’t like to have a schedule, because it’s camping we’re supposed to be relaxing. Sometimes, though, in order to make it to camp before dark, we gotta boogie. We packed up and hit the trail towards Mengal Pass where we’d be entering the park. We didn’t make it maybe more than 5 miles before Alex came over the radio saying his hood latch mounts sheared off and we needed to fix it, so out came the giant zip ties at the gas station and off we went. This was to be the first of a few trail fixes that we’d be facing.
I didn’t take many photos this day because we were running a little late and I didn’t wanna stop to hold the group up just to get some pics, so I really only took photos if we were stopped looking at something. We did stop at Baker Ranch which is always a cool stop if you’ve never been, this is where Charles Manson was found hiding out after the Sharon Tate murders. He was found under the bathroom sink which you can still see where it was, but the Baker House unfortunately burned down a few years ago so all that remains is the foundation and a few rock walls.
After walking around the ranch for a while we set back out to finish Mengal and head towards camp. There was a big event going on in the Panamint Valley so we did run into a few rather large groups, which was to be expected, but we made good time otherwise. We stopped near Stripped Butte which is always a site to see as you drop into the valley. We needed lunch so another stop was made to stretch and make food before heading off to find camp.
We still had a ways to go before camp so we skipped some mines Andy had planned for us to check out and had to make a plan for camp cause there was no way we were making it to where he had planned for us to stay. He and I got together and looked through our maps and tracks hoping to find something one of us had been to but landed on a waypoint we both had saved but never been to. Off we went to see if it was a suitable spot. Turned out it was and we had a great place to camp that fit all the trucks... barely... but we made it work by stacking rocks so everyone had a somewhat flat spot to park.
With it getting dark so early, we had nearly 7 hours of campfire time, which was much needed, but the next morning there was a decision to be made. Some of the group wanted to head one direction and the other part of the group wanted to go another direction, so we made the decision to split up. It was unfortunate; I hate to have the group break up and go different directions but sometimes that’s the best way to make everyone happy. We all were headed out the same way before splitting off and the first group left before us, but that wasn’t to be the last time we saw them. As we were heading down the road we heard on the radio that Kira had lost a tire and they potentially needed more help so we got there and after fixing a few things and getting her spare on, we were all off, but little did we know we’d actually be seeing them again….We split up again and headed towards an old talc mine that I’d camped at before, and they headed towards their destination.
As we were leaving we heard them come over the radio once again saying this time they really needed help, Jay had lost his radiator somehow. It was leaking with a big hole in it, like the fan made contact with it. This was a big problem given where we were in the park and a radiator isn’t exactly an item we carry as a spare, so we jammed over there and started assisting Jason fix it. Sure enough there was a hole and we pooled together all of our JB weld and radiator stop leak and got to work trying to patch it.
This ended up being the final straw for us on this trip, after waiting to let the JB weld set and get his truck up and running there was just no way we were gonna make it to the destinations we wanted to hit, as it was now approaching 3pm and we only had 2 hours of daylight left. So after getting his truck sealed up which we were able to do well enough to get him back on the road so he could get a spare, we all kind of went our own direction, some continued north, some had to go home but Andy, Anna, Matt, Olivia and I weren’t done so we headed south to an area I’d been before. At this point Andy just let me lead since this was an area I was familiar with, so we set off towards a mine I knew was a great campspot. The roads there are smooth, wide dirt roads so we were able to get after it at a good pace which left us some time to explore the surrounding area of where we were to camp.
This night was one of those nights that makes you realize it doesn’t matter if you hit everything you want to or if everything goes to plan, this was one of the best nights camping I’d had in a long time. We got to camp in time to get settled in and get a fire going where the 5 of us just got to really relax and enjoy being outside. That’s the most important thing to me when traveling is just slow down and enjoy the area you’re in and that’s exactly what we did, we sat around that fire for 6 plus hours telling stories and watching the shooting stars fall above our heads.
With no plan except to go home on Day 4, we got up early, made coffee and tried to see if there was anything else we wanted to do in the area. We spent a while trying to find a route to something we saw in the distance, but after many dead ends and blocked trails we gave up and headed way south towards Baker where we would exit. But the trip wasn’t over, we weren’t ready to head back that early so we grabbed lunch and gas and decided to jump over to Mojave where Matt would take over leading, as Mojave is like his second home. Matt’s FJ is easily my favorite with it sporting a 3.5” Total Chaos Long Travel kit, Kings w/ bypasses and a currie rear axle. He really gets after it so it’s always fun to be behind him and try to keep up out on those roads. He took us to some pretty awesome places that I’d actually never been to so that was a treat.
As you can see it was now my trucks turn to break After leaving the mines I heard what I thought was a grinding noise, so we stopped and got under the truck to inspect it. Everything seemed fine... I couldn’t get it to replicate the noise after a few attempts. We just assumed it was a rock caught somewhere that fell out, so we hit the trail back towards the highway so we could all head home and that’s when the grinding got real. As we were coming to a stop to make a turn I heard it, and this time it was way worse and slowed the truck down almost to a stop. We pulled off trail and I saw a huge gouge on the inside edge of my rim and noticed the bottom caliper bolt had backed out from the countless miles of washboard, resulting in the caliper hitting the wheel. This potentially could have been a real issue because the closest part store was easily 2-3 hours away, it was approaching dark and there was no way we could miss work the next day. Luckily though I had a spare bolt in my box of bolts that actually fit, it wasn’t the right length but I was able to get a few threads in and really tighten it down which would allow me to get home. After that we all just needed to get home, so we got to the highway, said our goodbyes and headed towards home.