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Back to Death Valley (Apr 2018)

A Struggle from the Start

If our first trip to Death Valley taught us anything, it was that our adventures there were far from complete. The three days of exploration had just scratched the surface of the vast wilderness before us.

So, when I found out that @mrs.turbodb was headed out of town for a week, I was quick to make plans for a return trip. Going solo, my route did include a few of our favorite spots (Butte Valley and Goler Wash), but focused on several new areas as well - most outside of Death Valley proper (West Side Road, Charcoal Kilns, Saline Valley + Warm Springs, Steel Pass, and Eureka Dunes).

It was a lot to cover in such a short time, and I knew I'd be once again be left wanting more. But that was good in my book - so as departure time arrived I turned on APRS and headed out.

Headed south, I was keen to make good time. I'd gotten started 90 minutes later than our first trip, but I figured I could make that time up with a little speed and no detours (we'd had a 2-hour goof-up on the previous trip). And then, 30 minutes from home, this orange light meant that I had a decision to make...

Engine lights are never a welcome sight, but I figured it was better to get one close to home than in the middle of nowhere, so I set about diagnosing the issue. Of course, I kept heading south as well - time was of the essence.

I quickly determined the code to be P0171 (bank 1 too lean); unfortunately not an easy code debug and fix. Essentially, running lean means that there's either too much air or not enough fuel, so any of the following might be at fault:

  • Dirty air filter
  • Dirty or failed Mass Airflow Sensor (MAF)
  • Vacuum leak (introducing extra air)
  • Failing Air-to-Fuel Ratio (AFR) sensor
  • Dirty fuel injectors (restricting fuel flow)
  • Dirty fuel filter (restricting fuel flow)
  • Bad/weak fuel pump (restricting fuel flow)

So my approach was twofold: first, I stopped at Napa to purchase some MAF cleaner (since I've previously dealt with codes that were resolved by cleaning the MAF); second I asked the good folks on TacomaWorld three questions:

  1. What would they try to diagnose the situation?
  2. Was it serious enough to abort the trip?
  3. What was the worst that could happen if I drove 2500 miles with the error code.

After a couple questions about fuel trims (my Long Term Fuel Trims were in the 30%+ range), the general consensus was that P0171 is most commonly caused by a vacuum leak, so @Speedytech7 suggested spraying some starting fluid around in the engine bay - if the engine started to rev, I'd know the vacuum leak was near. @Blackdawg was emphatic that "fuck no, you'll be fine to wait" with regard to aborting the trip, and that if I were to do more damage, it'd be to the catalytic converter and associated AFR/O2 sensors.

I pulled over an hour later for my first refueling, and whipped out the starting fluid, spraying it liberally in the engine compartment, hoping to hear the engine rev. Nothing. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I quickly pulled out the air box and MAF sensor (which was definitely dirty) and cleaned it thoroughly. @m3bassman suggested resetting the ECU (rather than just clearing the code) so I disconnected the battery for 15 minutes to do that as well.

30 minutes later, I was back on my way south. Hoping.

I made it into the fog of Oregon before the light came on again, 96 miles later. But, at this point I was committed. I knew it could cost me a new catalytic converter, but I chalked it up to part of the adventure.

As the fog turned to rain, I continued. Out of the Oregon rain and into the cold and dark of northern Nevada. Having picked up two sandwiches earlier in the day, my only stops were for fuel, and by midnight I was just outside of Austin, NV. @mrs.turbodb had been following my progress on APRS and suggested a nearby Forest Service road where I might find camp - so I headed that way and found a nice little spur where I setup the tent and promptly fell asleep, mentally exhausted.

-  -  -

I was up early the next morning, not to capture the sunrise, but to get on the road - I still had a few hours to my last fuel stop in Beatty, NV and I wanted to have as much time as possible exploring Death Valley. As I passed through Austin and an early morning snow flurry, I marveled at the road ahead - the clouds were clearing and the sun was out.

I continued south until I hit Goldfield and the Enchanted Car Forest. I knew I had to stop to capture the vivid colors, and unlike the last trip, there was no concern about running out of fuel, so despite the 40-50mph wind gusts, I spent some time exploring. The art here changes regularly, so it's always worth a stop. I was also excited to see a new addition - painted, but not yet planted - with just the sort of cha-bling attitude that you'd expect out there.

From there it was a straight shot through Beatty for fuel and then into Death Valley. Worried about time (which I shouldn't have been), I opted not for Titus Canyon, but instead for Hwy 374 into the park. It had been newly resurfaced and the going was easy.

Then, as I came over Daylight Pass, I realized that the 40-50mph winds in Goldfield were at least that strong in Death Valley. And today, it was Dust Valley. I could just barely make out the Last Chance Range across the valley floor.

Not to be deterred, I headed south - hoping that the southerly wind would mean clearer skies where I was headed, and it wasn't long before I was airing down at West Side Road. Happy to be on dirt, I made my way through Devil's Golf Course (much cooler from West Side Road than from the main viewing area) and past several markers and mine sites. And I drove through fields of green scrub as the sky continued to clear of dust.

Behind me, there wasn't much to see.

At the southern most point of my trip, I started up Warm Spring Canyon to Butte Valley, keeping a good pace, but also exploring several sites we'd missed on our last trip.

The canyon was full of color and life. While no super-bloom, several species of flowers were abundant, painting the surrounding hills with streaks of brilliant yellow. A hummingbird nest, sheltered by the shade of dried reeds, partridge's with bright red beaks, and burros.

And then, the first glimpse of Striped Butte and it's valley. Even looking at the back side of Striped Butte, this is truly a special place in our world.

At this point, even though my original itinerary made camp in Butte Valley the first night, I had all but made my mind up that I was going eat a quick lunch at the Geologist Cabin and then push on - into Goler Wash to get a jump start towards new-to-me areas of the park.

But as I ate lunch I realized that Butte Valley itself was still new-to-me. We'd stayed a night on our last trip, but we'd arrived at dusk and left early in the morning - and we hadn't really investigated any of the roads, mines, cabins, or other sites in this beautiful place.

So I stayed.

And I explored.

And it was amazing.

Several of the roads were washed out in various places, but nothing was impassable - even when you're sporting a P0171 code - so I had fun doing a bit of flexing and poser-ing here and there as well.

It's clear that the Geologist Cabin is the premier cabin in the valley. Though there usually seems to be someone at Stella's Cabin (and there would be on this night), it's much more rundown. And the Cave "cabin"...well, it's hard to get to, and so reasonably safe to say that not many people make it up there.

Having explored most of the roads, it was time to settle on a camp site. Having experienced the Geologist Cabin on our last visit (and the associated wind), I opted instead for the more sheltered camp site a bit further north - still with a great view of Striped Butte - and set up camp as the sun got lower in the sky, eventually casting a purple hue across the mountains and valley floor. It'd been a long two days. Beef tacos with guacamole and chips made for a great dinner, and then it was off to bed. I knew the next day would be a long one, but it'd be nearly all new territory - the whole reason I'd come back in the first place!




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