Finding Your Path

If I were asked to name my favorite car that I’ve owned over the years, I’d probably first default to the Z. A 1971 Datsun 240Z bought in Hawaii while in the navy and sold some seven years later. I virtually rebuilt the car, including an engine rebuild, a transmission overhaul and a new paint job that I sprayed myself in my garage (big mistake). Numerous performance upgrades too, as well as exterior improvements (front air dam, rear spoiler, rear window louvers). It was truly ‘my’ car and I shouldn’t have sold it when I did. At the time (1985), I was living in Charlotte, NC with plans to take a new job in Southern California and I had recently bought another car – a new Audi GT Coupe. Transporting two vehicles across the country seemed unreasonable so the Z had to go. A local radio talk show guy bought it – said he wanted it for his teenage daughter. Given the car’s performance characteristics, I told him that was a bad idea but he bought it anyway. I wonder how long the car survived.

But was the Z really my favorite car? True, I had a lot of history in the short time I owned it, and as mentioned, I spent a lot of time working on it. Moreover, an early model 240Z was simply a great car. But is seven years enough time for the Z to retain its top spot? Or is there another vehicle that really is my favorite?

In all, including those jointly owned with my wife, I’ve had fifteen cars and trucks.

  • 1967 Chevy Chevelle with a 283 V-8.
  • 1972 Chevy Vega GT Kammback
  • 1971 Datsun 240Z
  • 1985 Audi Coupe GT with a 5 cylinder engine
  • 1985 Nissan Sentra wagon
  • 1989 Toyota SR5 pickup
  • 1992 Audi 90
  • 1967 Dodge Coronet R/T with a 440 magnum engine, a beast
  • 1967 Chrysler 300 convertible with a 440 engine, a battleship-sized car
  • 1972 Datsun 510 2 door, a little hot rod
  • 1996 Honda Civic
  • 1998 Nissan Pathfinder 4WD
  • 2004 Acura TSX
  • 2008 Toyota Corolla
  • 2014 Subaru BRZ

Looking at the list, a few stand out. Besides the 240Z, the TSX was a great car; the R/T was my only foray into the ’60s muscle car scene; the 510 was a blast; the Toyota pickup was solid, as is the Corolla. With maybe the exception of the Audi 90 (big disappointment), all were great cars. My first – the Chevelle – took me and my buddies to a lot of ball games in San Francisco and Oakland while in the navy. I went to see Willie Mays and Reggie Jackson in that car! The Audi Coupe was my first new car and I don’t regret buying it even if it prompted me to sell the Z. The BRZ – which we call Blue – is my current ‘fun’ car. A joint design between Toyota and Subaru, the BRZ is a joy to drive, although it does get put into hibernation during winter here in Bend. Blue don’t do snow and ice.

Have I left one out? Sure have. The vehicle I’ve had the longest and which has taken us so many places we otherwise couldn’t go:

The Pathfinder

A new 1998 Nissan Pathfinder, 4WD with manual transmission and low range transfer case. At the time, Nancy was in Atlanta starting her new career while I finished up my job at the San Onofre nuclear plant, having also recently completed a degree in geology, which stoked my desire to explore the desert. Nancy liked the desert too and we wanted a vehicle that would take us off-road into the Mojave but would also travel the highways without too much pain. After all, we’d be traveling cross-country from Atlanta to get to our preferred stomping grounds. So dedicated off-road vehicles were out and because we had a limited budget, high-end vehicles like the Range Rover were not an option. In 1998 – as now, surprisingly – there were few choices if you wanted an affordable, reliable, capable 4WD vehicle that would also behave itself on asphalt. Pretty much just the Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota’s 4Runner in 1998. Maybe also the Mitsubishi Montero and Isuzu Trooper. Jeep Wrangler’s were (are) more capable but suffer(ed) from reliability problems and are too small. Other American models, such as the Dodge Durango, I also considered unreliable.

Searching for the right one took some time, mainly because a manual transmission was a must and those were fairly scarce. Being in Orange County helped as there are a lot of car dealerships, so I eventually found the maroon beauty you see in the photo. Bought new, it now has over 230,000 miles on it and has traversed the country several times, including a round-the-nation run in its first year: California-Atlanta-New York-Montana-Utah-California. 230,000 is actually not that many miles for a now twenty three year old vehicle, which reflects its long history as our ‘road trip’ car. Over the years, it has sat in the driveway many times for months on end, waiting to be called into action.

I’ll point out right now that the 1998 version of the Pathfinder bears no resemblance to the bloated pigs Nissan is foisting off on the market today. I would not consider buying a new Pathfinder today. Back in 1998, the Pathfinder was very capable: pretty good ground clearance, an excellent transmission and relatively little extra weight (still heavy though). It was built to go off-road. Moreover, because Nissan makes quality vehicles – it is very, very reliable. Really, the only problem that left us on the side of the road was a failed distributor in the first year (warranty fix). The alternator went out after ten years but gave us enough warning to drive a hundred miles to a dealer. Other than that, routine stuff only.

On the negative side, the Pathfinder does have a few faults. First and foremost is abysmal gas mileage. On a good day with a tailwind, it’ll get 17 mpg, usually less. You can buy a Corvette that does better than that. Mind you, you’d think after two decades manufacturers would be able to improve on that. Nope – the likely replacement – a new Toyota 4Runner similarly equipped does little better. The Pathfinder doesn’t have a huge, powerful engine that might excuse its gas hog nature. In fact, it’s a relatively small 3.3 liter V6 with not a lot of horsepower. That would be the second fault – it struggles to get over mountains when loaded. And when I say struggles, I mean you’re sometimes driving in the slow lane with the 18 wheelers. Fair amount of torque but not horsepower. It’s adequate though. Finally, as is the case with all similar vehicles, the Pathfinder gets squirrely at speed when there’s wind. In fact, I really don’t like driving it over 65 mph even without wind. So high speed runs across Montana or Texas are out.

Over the years, Nancy and I have teamed up well off-roading in the Pathfinder. Both of us know how to handle the vehicle and on treacherous paths, we have a good system of one person getting out and guiding while the other drives. We’ve both taken the vehicle deep off-road alone as well and Nancy has spent some time camping with it (I don’t prefer camping due to a bad back). Although Death Valley NP is where we’ve most off-roaded, the Pathfinder has found itself on rocks and dirt in many states. Canada too, on a Sierra Club outing. It’s safe to say that the Pathfinder has shown us ‘the path’, the places where we like to go. Places where lesser vehicles can’t go. Places where other people aren’t around. I can’t even begin to catalog all the trips but here’s a few (OK, quite a few) photos of the Pathfinder in the wild:

Death Valley National Park

While Death Valley is the Pathfinder’s ‘home away from home’, it’s quite happy in other locales as well.

White Mountains, California

Various Places


The Pathfinder mainly served as our ticket to western adventures, often sitting idle in between road trips while we lived in Georgia. But it did get out a bit. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of our Southeastern adventures, which included some forays deep into ‘Deliverance’ territory. The North Georgia mountains aren’t the equal of what you find out west but there’s adventures to be had. I just didn’t take any photos which showed the Pathfinder. Nor do I have any of the most excellent trip we took to Maine and New Brunswick as part of a Sierra Club outing, although if you’re looking for puffin photos, I’ve got ’em!


With our move to Oregon, the Pathfinder gets a lot more work, even if Death Valley is a whole lot closer now. Central Oregon in particular is an outdoor paradise with the high Cascade Range virtually in our backyard and the high desert just outside town to the east. And we’ve yet to explore but a fraction within a day’s drive. The Pathfinder is truly at home here.


Over the years, we’ve not modified the Pathfinder in terms of mechanical or performance-related things. No suspension lifts, rock shields or engine improvements. The wheels are still OEM. We have done a few things to improve the carrying capacity and fuel range. Specifically, the SURCO roof rack has been the biggest addition. While adequate, the Pathfinder’s interior space is not huge – it’s not a big SUV. So a roof rack was essential. We originally tried to get away with a big roof-top storage bag but that wasn’t great. Later on, a specially sized gas container carrier was mounted, one I made myself. That added 7.5 gallons of fuel. As it was made out of wood, it didn’t last long but I knew that when I built it. The last trip to Death Valley involved just the three containers without the carrier – we just strapped them to the roof rack securely. Along with fuel and various big items like camp tables, the roof rack holds the second spare wheel we bought several years ago. Having the ability to suffer two flat tires without becoming stranded really adds to your confidence going out on some of the more remote, challenging roads.

We also bought a side canopy that attaches to the roof rack – great for Mojave desert trips. And after moving to Oregon, we bought a couple pair of kayak carriers, which require removing the roof rack. You can see all these additions and iterations in the various photos but here’s a few showing the roof rack install and the gas carrier.

Moving On

We’re now seriously considering retiring the old girl. Sure, the Pathfinder is still in good shape – lots of body dings but no real mechanical issues – but 230,000 miles is a lot a ‘roads less traveled’ given where we like to travel. Getting stranded deep in Death Valley National Park’s back country is not optimal, especially given our more limited capability of hiking out. We’ve also been considering a trailer and that 3.3 liter engine just won’t hack the load, I think. Mind you, it’s been three years since we sort of decided to get a newer vehicle and still there’s the Pathfinder parked out back. The pandemic has something to do with that.


I promised puffin pictures. The first one is an Icelandic puffin while the remaining two photos are from New Brunswick. Given how puffins operate, that Iceland puffin could well be from the same family as the Canadian ones.

Note: All images are mine but many have been greatly enhanced by @nancyfloydartist.

Telescope Peak

Once again we meet.
How many more times?
A score? None?
None can say the future
save that the sun will
expire in as many days
as it has yet counted.
With your peak that
oversees the valley,
that summit which
drew me to its cold embrace,
your flattest of all places
on Earth.
Your terrible heart which
repels all but the few.
You call me back again and again.

At 29,029 feet above sea level, Mt. Everest gets most of the votes for highest mountain on Earth. And rightly so – that elevation is higher than any other referenced to mean sea level. But is height above sea level the only way to describe the height of a mountain? Of course not, you say. Everyone knows that Mauna Kea in Hawaii is the tallest if you measure from the base of the mountain to the summit. Again, quite right.

But there are other measures, such as the furthest from the center of the Earth. Chimborazo in Ecuador takes that honor, even though its height of 20,703 feet above sea level falls considerably short of Everest’s. Is that it? No.

Consider how a human perceives height. We look at a tall thing and judge how high it is from where we’re standing. You can’t see Mauna Kea’s full height, not even close. You’d have to drain the Pacific Ocean to do that. Similarly, where can you gaze at Mt. Everest and view its full vertical majesty? You can’t. You can stand at base camp and look up from 17,598 feet to the summit, a delta of about 11,431 feet. There’s no arguing how impressive that must be but it isn’t Everest’s full measure. Thing is, you don’t need to trek to Nepal to stand and look up to the summit of a tall mountain.

Telescope Peak in Death Valley National Park rises to 11,331 feet above sea level. It’s not even the highest peak in the area. Mt. Whitney, visible from the summit of Telescope Peak, is 14,505 feet. But Telescope Peak looks down its eastern face to the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, Badwater Basin, at −279 feet. The total relief is 11,610 feet, just short of Everest, at least from base camp. There are even lower points near the Everest massif which would provide even more vertical relief, but you get the picture. Telescope Peak offers a spectacular, world-class view down to the basin and looking up at it from Badwater is awe-inspiring. Photos from a 35 mm camera don’t do justice, particularly the view upwards from the basin.

Death Valley National Park is, to me, simply the best place on Earth. All national parks are freakin’ awesome to one degree or more, but DVNP tops them all. I know, I’m nuts for thinking a place that recently reclaimed the record for hottest recorded, verifiable temperature is somewhere you’d want to be, and I know everyone has their own special place or two. Yours probably doesn’t have weather that camps out in the 120’s every year. Yours maybe has, I don’t know, trees.

I’ve seen some spectacular trees in my lifetime – the redwoods, sequoias, bristlecone pines. There are no trees to speak of in Death Valley. Sure, the odd cottonwood grove has found a viable niche in some the few places where water exists, and Furnace Creek and Scotty’s Castle have a bunch of incredibly not natural palm trees that some people apparently thought would be nice. No, this place is about rocks. Glorious rocks, exposed in all their glorious majesty. There are no forests or grasslands or other biologics getting in the way of the rocks. Not many anyway. Death Valley, as with the entire Mojave Desert and Great Basin, is a geologists playground. Here, you can walk up and get personal with eons of planetary history. The mountains have undergone tremendous tectonic stresses, bending, faulting, folding and overturning rocks laid down in times when the region was quite unlike what it is today. Signs of relatively recent volcanism abound. I love it.

My introduction to Death Valley was back when it was still a national monument, having only been promoted to national park status in 1994. The US Navy had me stationed for a while on a ship out of 32nd Street Naval Station in San Diego and because we were in port quite a bit, I took the opportunity to explore Southern California. This was in 1974. My 1967 Chevelle and I ranged as far as San Francisco, Las Vegas, the Sierra Nevada and Death Valley National Monument. I don’t recall much about those times but I know that that was when I became entranced with the Mojave Desert, within which Death Valley lies. The exposed, rugged, utterly forbidding mountains called to me.

Since then, I’ve been back many times. When we lived in Mission Viejo, California, the desert was virtually in our backyard. Death Valley, the Owens Valley, the Sierra, all within a couple of hours.

It was during one of my several mid-life crises that my interest and knowledge of the desert mountains and valleys ramped up considerably. I enrolled in the geology program at Cal State Long Beach in the mid 90’s. As you might expect, with such a geologic wonderland nearby, my classes took me into the desert quite often. One field trip was exclusively about Death Valley. I began to know the rocks, and that makes a world of difference. It’s one thing to see a gnarly mountain with twisted rocks and a palette of colors; it’s much more to know how and when the rocks got twisted and what the colors mean. It’s much more to know why the mountains of the Great Basin trend north-south and are spaced apart with low valleys between. Why the marvelous Ubehebe craters are not impact craters or volcanic calderas. Why Badwater Basin is so low in elevation. Why the Racetrack is so incredibly flat and know the source of its mysterious moving rocks. Why so many valleys have great sand dunes on one end or the other. Knowing stuff makes life so much more enjoyable and I recommend everyone who likes the outdoors take a couple of geology classes.

The second thing which increased my interest in the desert and Death Valley was my wife Nancy becoming interested as well. She’s become not only interested, she once spent over a month living out of a tent in the park without me! (I was too busy with work). For the past decade and longer, we’ve made regular, almost annual trips to DVNP, usually staying in the Stovepipe Wells motel, which is centrally located and thus convenient to the whole park. We would do tent camping, and have on one occasion, but my back quickly deteriorates into a mass of pain after a night in a tent and that limits my ability to hike. And hiking is what DVNP is all about. Better to rent a room in Stovepipe and save the pain for the trail. Stovepipe Wells is a pretty neat place anyway. It’s a very small oasis in a vast park which has few signs of civilization other than roads. The motel is basic – a clean room, A/C, shower and not much more. There’s a gas station (one of only three in this huge park), a convenience store, a restaurant and most importantly, a bar, the Badwater Saloon. OK, the gas station is important, too. Driving to hiking destinations chews up a lot of gas. But post-hike beer is pretty important, too.

Death Valley’s (and by that I mean Death Valley National Park, not just DV proper) several mountain ranges – the Panamints, Grapevines, Funerals, Blacks, Last Chance and Cottonwoods – vary considerably in character once you get to know them, but one thing they do have in common is canyons. Lots of canyons. The canyons are where it’s at for hiking in Death Valley. While rain is infrequent, when it does come it can be torrential. With little vegetation to slow the runoff, and with the mountains being so steep, rain often brings flash floods. And as any neophyte geology student knows, water is what erodes mountains (as do glaciers, but there hasn’t been any of those critters in these parts for a while). Death Valley is a study in erosion. Deep, winding canyons are formed by the floodwater rushing downhill. When it gets to the base of the mountain, it tends to fan out, forming aptly named alluvial fans that grow over time with all the eroded material dumped on them. Death Valley’s alluvial fans are legendary. Take a look in Google Maps or Earth at the slopes of the Panamint, Cottonwood and Grapevine Mountains. You can see the huge dry rivers emanating from the canyons into the valley. If you see it in 3D, or better yet go there, you’ll see how the fans are not flat but gently slope from the valley floor to the base of the mountains. I say ‘gently’ but actually hiking across one of these fans can be quite challenging. They’re only smooth in macro view. The reality is endless mini-canyons of rock and sediment.

The experienced hiker does not challenge the alluvial fans unless required. Hiking across them just takes too much time and energy. Instead, what you need is a good – a very good – 4WD vehicle to take you into the canyons, where you want to be. Before leaving Southern California to live in Atlanta, I bought a new 1998 Nissan Pathfinder with a manual transmission and 4WD transfer case. It’s not a superstar off-road vehicle but is a very capable one that has the added benefit of being reasonable to drive on the road. Atlanta is far from Death Valley, you see. We drive the Pathfinder out west on our trips. It takes longer but typically what Nancy and I have done is have me drive the Pathfinder to Las Vegas and pick her up at the airport there. While we’ve been in Atlanta, she’s had less vacation time to use and I don’t mind cross-country driving. I really enjoy it, actually. So, for our DV adventures, we always have the Pathfinder to take us where we want to go. It’s outfitted with a second spare and extra gas, so almost all of the back roads are accessible to us.


That’s Nancy driving. We make a good 4WD team.

We’ve been to so many of the park’s innumerable canyons, driven so many almost impassable roads, to places where there doesn’t appear to have been human activity since the mining boom, that I’ve taken to charting our ventures on a large D-size plot of the park topo map. It provides an easy visual to where we’ve been and where we still need to go. Because we need to go everywhere at least once.

The typical day’s adventure would be rise before dawn, wander over to the motel’s early morning coffee service and then check out the sunrise over the Funeral and on the Cottonwood Mountains …



I can write a novel about our Death Valley adventures but let’s get back on track: Telescope Peak. That mountain in particular called to me. Most of the time I’d spent in the park had been at lower elevation or in the canyons with Telescope Peak pretty much lording over the place no matter where I was. So, I wanted to hike to the summit.

No problem, right? Well, for healthy people, it’s not. At least those with healthy knees. That leaves me out. My knees disintegrated when I was on the submarine but helped along considerably by two hikes to Kalalau Beach on Kauai. That’s a long hike – eleven miles one way – with a severe downhill at the end. Since those hikes, I’ve had trouble doing more than five miles before one or both knees break down, particularly on uneven terrain. The trail to Telescope Peak, which starts at a high-elevation camp site, is about fourteen miles round-trip and ascends 3,000 feet. In other words, well out of my range.

But, to paraphrase Henry Fonda in the great movie Midway, I wanted that summit. So, in the summer of 2010, a time of year when Nancy ordinarily would have nothing to do with Death Valley because of the ridiculous heat, we set off to conquer the top of the (local) world. Knees be damned.


We made the drive up to Mahogany Flats campground early in the morning, passing by the Charcoal Kilns, which are pretty cool themselves. The road past the kilns is one of the few in the park that actually gets closed by snow during winter. Mahogany Flats is a good place for dark sky viewing and we saw a couple of telescopes set up.



After gearing up, which included a ton of water each, we signed in on the register and headed up the trail. Water is key on this trail as it is on any in Death Valley. You don’t get the extreme heat experienced in the valley but high elevation hiking demands hydration, or you can suffer altitude sickness. It’s a thing even at this relatively modest elevation (we’re not climbing K2 here). Our plan was to cache water just before the switchbacks near the final ascent of the peak, which is a common thing to do on this trail.


Hiking Telescope Peak is much more than the destination. The views of the valley below are incredible as the trail winds along the east side of the range. When the trail shifts over to the west side, you get views of the White-Inyo Mountains with the Sierra Nevada beyond. You walk among wildflowers, pines, and most rewardingly – ancient bristlecone pines. I love these trees. Nearby (sort of), there’s a great expanse of bristlecone pines on the slopes of the White Mountains, including what was until recently considered the oldest tree on Earth (Methuselah, ~4800 yo). In 2013, an even older tree was discovered there with an age just over 5000 years. The trees along the trail to Telescope Peak are not nearly so ancient but they’re still cool and are probably older than any you’ve seen if you haven’t been to the White Mountains.


yellow-wildflowers some-of-many-wildflowers purple-wildfowers red-wildflowers

You can camp up here. The best, maybe only, spot is at Arcane Meadows, which is a wonderfully idyllic field about a third of the way along the trail in a saddle between the two peaks you hike around to get to Telescope (Rogers and Bennett peaks). It’s great place to stop and consider the majesty of where you are.


After coursing around the two minor peaks, we eventually found ourselves getting close enough to sense the summit. And by sense, I mean we could see Telescope Peak ahead of us. We began to gain elevation more quickly. My knees were holding up so far, but I knew I could make the summit easily enough. To get off the mountain, however, I might need a medi-vac.


The final bit of hiking is the most brutal as the trail gets steep and reverts to a seemingly endless string of switchbacks. It was here that that we cached our extra water – no point hauling that up to the top. As we switched back and forth, I really began to feel the elevation. I was getting winded easily and stopped often to let my heart stop racing. Nancy was not having any problems with elevation but had to stop for blister maintenance a couple of times. She hikes prepared, so had moleskin blister pads in her pack.

The switchbacks behind us, the final short piece to the top remained. Nancy, being a great hiking partner, knew that the peak was my goal, my challenge to conquer. A challenge that had seemed beyond my capabilities, but here we were. So she waved me ahead and took photos of me hiking up to the top, culminating in a Rocky-style celebration. Then she casually joined me, because, you know, it’s not like a difficult hike or anything.

_dsc2504 made-it-to-the-top

We spent some time at the summit, which is a small area with a good sitting rock, taking in the views and taking photos. The weather was great all along the hike with pleasant temperatures (keeping in mind that the valley below was maybe 115, 120 degrees). As I mentioned, you can see Mt. Whitney from the top of Telescope Peak. It’s really cool to stand in one spot and see the highest point in the continental US and with a turn of the head, see the lowest. There’s a log book inside an ammunition can, so we recorded our accomplishment and read some of the other entries.

img_4499 img_4500 _dsc2573 my-whitney-somewhere-in-the-distance

We had the summit to ourselves – this is a popular Death Valley hike but not so popular that you meet many people on the trail. At least we didn’t. And that’s the way it should be. When you accomplish one of your dreams, check off a major bucket list item, you need it to be the way you imagined. I imagined Nancy and I standing on top of the (local) world together, looking down on the park that has become an integral part of who we are. We are Death Valley hikers and we have been to the top of the mountain.


*You’ll notice we’re both wearing long-sleeve white shirts and wide-brim hats. These two apparel items are key to surviving to a ripe old age if you spend a lot of time in Death Valley.

Hiking back to the Pathfinder was painful. As predicted, my knees failed, both of them. The last few miles I took very slowly, sometimes even turning backwards to step down off a rock (it’s easier on the knees). In all, it took over twelve hours to hike fourteen miles with a three thousand foot ascent/descent, way longer than most people manage.

After Telescope Peak, my knees now get damaged more quickly and take longer to recover. Summiting that mountain has had lasting effects on my ability to hike.

I don’t regret it. You only live once.