Friday, March 25, 2011

Death Valley II: Is that a gun in your pocket or... oh, it is?

Finally, the day arrived for my departure. Leaving Amynah with Sana and her uncle’s baby-blue minivan, I swapped the baby seat for my backpack, booted Raffi out of the CD player and replaced him with some AC/DC and hit the highway for Las Vegas, where Jon and I were to rendez vous.

Our plans for our one night were pretty mild, given that we were far more anxious to enjoy Death Valley to its fullest than we were to


…and then I fell asleep, head spinning, clutching the twenty five cents I’d won like it was a teddy bear.

The next morning, after an excellent breakfast at a shady off-strip casino that apparently had a Western Buckaroo theme, yet had decorated its main dining room with paintings depicting the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie between British and American naval vessels. Those martial scenes got us in the mood for the last activity we had on our Vegas itinerary before heading to Death Valley.

That’s right, boys and girls, Jon and I shot some guns.

This was entirely Jon’s idea, but I won’t pretend I wasn’t happy to go along with it. Jon had spent some time in Canada’s military reserves in an artillery unit, and apparently had a hankering to revisit the glory days of pretending to blow things up. Vegas has a sin for every taste, and so we made our way to the imaginatively names “Gun Store.” After parking my Honda Civic between a jacked-up pickup truck and another jacked-up pickup truck, we made our way to the entrance, passing a couple of enormous gentlemen whose stetsons and sideburns were locked in mortal combat over which would earn the honor of being their hosts’ dominant head furniture. They in turn, were gawking at a Las Vegas city cab pulling up to the front of the store.

“That’s a cab” one observed. “What the hell?”

“Who the f*** takes a taxi to a gun store?” said the other, clearly affronted.

Always curious about the social mores of different cultures, I was going to turn and ask why one wouldn’t take a cab to a gun store, but was saved from a probably embarrassing faux pas by a female voice.

“You boys looking to shoot today?”

“Uh, yeah,” said Jon. I turned from my investigation of Gun Store transportation etiquette to behold a pair of pulchritudinous young women in extremely tight t-shirts manning the welcome booth outside the store. They beckoned us over, and leaned over their table to show us their guns.

Pointing to the helpful diagrams on the counter, they explained that the store had a large variety of weaponry one could rent, ranging from modern combat weapons to “The Dirty Harry.” You could also rent “packages” – the “Coalition Package” of three or four assault weapons from different NATO countries, or the “U.S. Military Package” of their army’s weapons (one of which looked like it should have been mounted atop a tank).

“There’s also the World War II Package, of historical weapons,” the blonde girl said, adding non-judgmentally “if you’re into the Nazi thing.”

Jon, being into the whole HOLY CRAP DEFINITELY NOT A NAZI thing, rented a vintage gun from the British Army (also used by Canadian troops in WWII and, for all I know, still is today).

I stepped up to the booth, looked the blonde straight in the eye (not easy) and said, “Look, I’ve never fired a gun in my life. I’m looking for something really simple. Also, you should know I have girly wrists,” flapping my hands by way of illustration.

“Uh…” said our hostess while Jon stifled a laugh. Behind me, I heard a sideburn bristle menacingly.

Recovering, blondie recommended a gun whose name I forget but contained a bunch of the more macho consonants (in case you’re wondering: X, T and K are macho. L, H, F are not. Y was for a while until it was outed as a closet vowel, which are totally not macho).

Our menu selections complete, we entered the store, at which point we were signed our release forms (In signing this document, I recognize that guns are dangerous, as are the fumes, the noise, the bullets emanating from them, as are other Gun Store customers, and so I hereby release the proprietors and staff from any liability. I further affirm that I did not take a taxi to this Gun Store). We were then invited to pick our targets, which ranged from generic bulls-eyes, to images of Osama Bin Laden, to zombies. There was also a pair of brown guys holding handguns that I guess were supposed to be terrorists, but were dressed like average North American dudes, and were even depicted with friendly smiles on their faces. They could have been customers of the Gun Store, if the Gun Store existed in a parallel universe in whcih it had non-white customers. Maybe they were supposed to be taxi drivers? Slightly creeped out by the options, Jon and I selected generic targets without faces, and were handed our clips and told to wait.

Eventually, it was our turn to be ushered onto the range. We donned our ear covers and eye protection, and took our places. Jeff, our range instructor, started with Jon – loading the gun for him, placing each of his hands on the weapon, and telling him how long to squeeze the trigger.

Of course, Jon had only paid for fifty rounds, and the Tommie gun is an automatic rifle. It is designed to shoot quickly. Jon paid $70 bucks for this experience, and did not want to shoot quickly. Yes, he rented an automatic rifle in order to shoot slowly. This is why he is my friend.

Jeff: You have to hold the trigger down, for at least four rounds.

Jon: Ok (Rat-tat!)

Jeff: Ok, good – but you have to hold the trigger longer.

Jon: Sure! (Rat-tat!)

Jeff: Ok, aim a little lower, and really, hold the trigger longer. Four rounds.

Jon: Right! (Rat-tat!)

Jeff: You’re going to jam the gun.

Jon: (Rat-tat-tat).

Jeff: Harumph.

After Jon’s Tommie reluctantly expectorated the last of his rounds, I was up. I will be honest – I was nervous as all get out, and had been trembling slightly ever since we set foot in the store. Just holding a gun was getting my adrenaline pumping, which was not helped by the fact that I kept getting hit by hot shells waiting for Jon to finish mangling his paper target.

In any case, I had two clips of ten rounds to work my way through. My first shot came closer to the target adjacent to mine that what I was aiming at. I think my second shot hit the floor before reaching the target. My third shot probably alarmed the target quite a bit as it whistled by into the sand pile on the rear wall. The next few shots hit more or less on the paper, but never within a foot of where I thought I was pointing the gun. This I will blame on the aforementioned girly wrists.

For the second clip, Jeff explained how I was supposed to line up the sight. “You see the white dot? That should line up right in the center.”

“Uh, yeah,” I said. That was a lie. I didn’t see a white dot. My heart was pounding so much, my vision had gone blurry, even with my glasses on. Nonetheless, I fired off the next ten shots with much greater accuracy, but I have to say, I cannot imagine being able to operate one of those things effectively if I was actually trying to hit something that could move, let alone shoot back at me. Of course, I was slightly distracted by the pair of sideburns firing an anti-aircraft gun in the booth next to mine.

We took our targets as souvenirs, and exited the store, passing a giddy woman with a pink M-16 and an Osama target on our way out. Suitably pumped up, we climbed back into the Civic (which had stayed nice and cool in the Vegas heat, thanks to the shade cast by the neighbouring monster-trucks), and hit the road for Death Valley.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Death Valley, Part I: I had to start this story in 1985? What?

Death Valley is the most deadly and dangerous spot in the United States. It is a pit of horrors - the haunt of all that is grim and ghoulish. Such animal and reptile life as infests this pest-hole is of ghastly shape, rancorous nature and diabolically ugly. It breeds only noxious and venomous things. Its dead do not decompose, but are baked, blistered and embalmed by the scorching heat through countless ages. It is surely the nearest to a little hell upon earth that the whole wicked world can produce. New York World, September 16, 1894

My trip to Death Valley began 25 years ago, in my fifth-grade classroom in Nova Scotia. My teacher had – foolishly – assigned me a seat within easy reach of the in-class stash of books, which I would read indiscriminately and heedless of whatever lesson was happening around me.

The books ran the gamut – I read “The Hobbit” that year, the entire Narnia chronicles (twice), a number of Enid Blyton “Famous Five” books, Farley Mowat’s “The Dog that Wouldn’t Be.”

Other than Joan Clark’s “The Hand of Robin Squires” (which led to adventures of an entirely different kind) no book that I read under my desk sticks in my mind as much as… well, I don’t remember the title. It was some compendium of “Amazing Tales” drawn from the U.S. designed to get boys to read, and was filled with AMAZING TALES indeed: Escape from Alcatraz! Evel Knievel jumps Snake Canyon! Rocket Cars! The Sabre Tooth Tiger of the Tar Pits! The Corvette! And, of course, Death Valley!

The name alone would have got me, as is has many thousands of others, but there was more: It was below sea level? But dry? My ten-year-old mind couldn’t even understand how that worked. It was the hottest place in North America? Wow! The driest! Sure! It had scorpions! It had rattlesnakes! It had gold mines, and cowboys, and con-men and ne’er do wells of all sorts! Sweet Rabbi Jesus, I wanted to go there.

When we found out, two years ago, that we were moving to California, my first thought – I am not exaggerating, literally my first thought – was that I would be getting my chance to go to Death Valley. It was the only place in all of California I really wanted to see – not L.A., not San Francisco, not the beaches or the celebrities.

I had not had a chance to actually visit the place, despite it being a tantalizing three-hour drive from my home. I was waiting my moment, and my moment arrived when my friend Jon called from Ottawa. He wanted to come visit and
per established practice, bond over the experience of shared hardship, canned food, and non-existent plumbing. And what better place to re-capture our camping mojo than in a place that features mountains (in which we’d never before camped), desert (in which we’d never before camped) and a variety of poisonous animals (with which we had no familiarity). I mean, surely Death Valley is only called that to attract tourists, right?

Once we’d decided on the locale, and the method by which we’d get there, we decided to do some research (this goes against every camping principle I hold dear, but hey, I’m a Dad now). And so, I called up the Death Valley Park Rangers in order to get some advice on how one might go about camping there.

Before this phone call, I was interested in Death Valley. After the phone call, I was excited about Death Valley. The reason for the shift was the man I reached, Jay Stone. Is that not the perfect Death Valley Park Ranger name? Go on, say it out loud in a Clint Eastwood voice. Even better, he had just about the most agreeable horse ridin' tobacco chawin' cattle-drivin' drawl I ever did hear.

He told me that camp site we’d want on the first night, when we were driving in, was Texas Springs. “It's generator-free,” he explained. “Is it tent-only?” I asked. “I don’t reckon,” he reckoned. “But you’re not like to have much in the way of company that time a' year.”

For water, we should have 4 liters per person per day ("That's what I count on when I go canyoneering") Temperatures, he informed me, “get up to 80 easy, even in March.” I forgot to ask about the nighttime lows, such were my palpitations at his manliness.

For backpacking, he described Surprise Canyon, for which we were to park outside the park and hike in: “That’s what I’d do,” he said, in a tone that made it clear that this being America, land of the free, he wasn’t about to impose his will on our dreams by offering an endorsement stronger than that. All in all, he seemed amused by my tenderfoot apprehensions, and gave me his direct office number so "I don't have to walk all the way over here from my desk if you call again," which gave me a mental image of his office being at the far end of a converted cow barn or something, with an ole’ style telephony machine at the far end at which he would occasionally shoot with his Colt Revolver.

He also promised to mail me "Everything we've got" in terms of pamphlets as he held scant hope the dude-ranch posers and layabouts he worked with got my message requesting same from the week before.

I think I fell in love with Jay Stone, Death Valley Park Ranger, just a little bit.

IN THE NEXT POST: Mommas, don't let your sons take a taxi to the Gun Store!