The forecast was for another solid week of rain. I just couldn’t bear the thought so I loaded up Beatrice my car, called my friend Patrick, and headed south. Patrick isn’t opposed to calling in sick at work for a last-minute adventure. It’s important to have such a friend. Mountain bikes, tents, duffel bags and cooler stretched Beatrice’s capacity as she is a Mini Cooper, but the All 4, four door sort. That’s why she’s named Beatrice. It’s a big girl name and she’s kinda chunky in the Mini world.
Beatrice seemed happy to be on the road too and the three of us hummed along south and inland. The water-logged crumbling roads of the California coast gave way to the Central Valley. Normally the Central Valley is, ah, shall we say aesthetically challenged? But the abundance of rain made it glow with a green normally reserved for the Emerald Isle. Row after row of almond and pistachio orchards sailed by in full bloom. Carpets of white and pink blossoms covered the valley floor making it impossibly lovely. A slow tornado of crows spiraled up into the sky. I sang along with the radio. Patrick feigned deafness. The hours passed and the Mojave desert approached. The road stretched off into the distance, so much space! The speedometer climbed to 80 then 90. Joshua trees whipped by, tumble weed, sand, rock. A multi-colored train snaked through the desert and I joined Lyle Lovett wailing the “Road to Ensenada”.
Finally, the Panamint Mountains were all that remained between us and Death Valley. Beatrice kicked it into high gear and we ticked off the altitude, 1000, 2000, 3000, 4000, 5000 feet up and over, past the snow and clouds and then we were racing down, down, down into the warmth and sunshine of the valley floor. We roared into Furnace Creek in a cloud of dust to realize, alas! Everyone else in the world had the same idea we did. Apparently the desert is a pretty good place to be in February whether you are from Germany, Canada, or California. We were relegated to the back corner of a gravel parking lot for the night. We had a very friendly neighbor who invited us over to his RV for dinner. He had driven for three days to get out of the snow in the mid west. Patrick gaped at the poor man in horror as he told us all about the iceberg lettuce salad, the hamburgers and (gasp) mayonnaise, and the ice-cold Pepsi he had to offer. It was so kind, but you’d have to knock Patrick out with a 2×4 to get him to eat any of those things. I looked down at our kale salad, gourmet bratwurst links, gluten-free buns, and nice bottle of Syrah and realized with a start that we were “those people” the rest of the country makes fun of. I wasn’t sure if I should be mortified or laugh. I supposed the RVers got the last laugh though during the episode where the handle fell off my backpacking pan sending the links rolling in the gravel. In my haste to rescue them I tipped over my camp chair and kicked over my fancy glass of wine. I brushed off the dirt and served them up with a guilty look. Patrick declared them full of flavorful goodness. I looked at him askance and reminded myself of Julia Child’s admonishment “Never apologize for your cooking. They might not have noticed.”
Early the next morning we zipped off to snag a more appropriate campsite, one backed by the snow dusted Panamints, and fronted by spires and towers of desert rock formations. This one held no behemoths with rumbling generators either, so we were happy. We had another friendly neighbor who wandered over to warn us of the desert winds and lent us special stakes for our tents. I had read of winds that picked up picnic tables and small trailers and sent them sailing through the air. These tent stakes looked like rail road spikes and were guaranteed to keep us nailed safely to earth, come what may. We spent the rest of the day cycling through the beauty of the desert, soaking up the sunshine, and trying to remember the name of the fierce desert storms in Saudi Arabia that send sand to China. Pedal, huff, puff…”Habib?” Pedal, pedal, huff…”Kebob! No, Kebib!” Pedal, coast, pedal…”Muhajadeen?” Turns out it’s haboob. Really? How could I have forgotten that?
That night it was just the most delicious thing to sit outside by the popping campfire and be warm and dry. Death Valley is a designated night sky viewing area and after another nice bottle of wine we delighted in intellectual conversation and star-gazing that consisted of something like this, “Hey look at that really bright star! Which one do you think it is?” “Well I’m not 100% sure but it’s glowing like Uranus.”
It’s quite a lovely thing to unzip one’s tent in the morning, and be greeted by a warm breeze, to sit in your chair with a steaming cup of coffee and watch the sun creep over the desert floor and up the other side of the valley, changing the scene like a live painting. The colors change from pastel and muted to fiery and astonishing. You actually want to get out of bed for that. As captivating as the scenery from our campsite was, we were eager to explore. One of the funny things about Death Valley is the enormous space and how deceiving it can be. You look at a natural feature or even a map and think, “Oh, I’d like to pop over there and see that.” Then you drive, and drive, and drive and it never seems to get any closer. Perhaps it’s from living in the forest. Anything you can see is fairly reachable. Our eyes were simply not accustomed to having to account for such incredible distances.
As we sped along the valley floor towards the north end of the park and the Ubehebe volcanic crater, the winds we were warned about began to make their presence known. Beatrice shuddered and shook as blasts hit her from the side. Another funny thing about Death Valley is that it hides its treasures. Somehow you can’t see the slot canyons, the mysterious spring fed creek, the water fall, or many of the other beautiful things until you are quite upon them. The same was true for the crater. How you can hide a 800 feet deep and half mile wide crater is beyond me but again, it wasn’t until we were actually pulling into a parking spot that we both exclaimed, “OH!” We struggled to open the car doors against the howling winds. A few extra layers were donned and we cinched down our hoods, the fabric singing “wapita wapita wapita” in the wind. Our feet crunched in the black cinders as we made our way around the circumference. It was thrilling to lean out over the edge and let the wind hold you up.
Next on the itinerary was a trail run up Titus Canyon with its high, narrow walls and glowing golds and reds. It was also a good way to get out of the wind for a bit. Several times I stopped running and held my breath, head cocked, listening. Sound travels in a peculiar way in a slot canyon. It can be difficult to figure out where it’s coming from as the sounds bounces off walls and around corners. I was wary of rock slides but both times it turned out to be the tink tink of someone’s hiking poles or the crunch of someone else’s feet up around a few bends. It was a full day of driving, hiking, running, and exploring.
Back at camp it became clear very quickly that it wasn’t going to be a fun night to hang around outside. The special desert tent stakes had done their job, and our tents were still there, but everything else was strewn hither and yon. The wind whistled in the dry mesquite branches, the tents bucked, snapped, and popped. The air was full of sand and dust. The haboob strikes again! Patrick suggested it might be nice to spend the evening “exploring” the menu at the fancy resort up on the hill a few miles away. I agreed. After all we’d spend a grand total of $42 on the park entry and camping fees thus far. I put on my last pair of clean jeans and combed my hair after I got in the car. It was most agreeable sitting inside with a starched, white napkin in my lap, looking out the graceful curved picture windows past the date palms, watching the haboob shrieking silently and flinging sand a half mile high. We pretended to be in Lawrence of Arabia. It would have been unwise to start a camp fire and impossible to cook outside so we enjoyed, guilt-free our honey glazed duck and sparkling glasses of wine. We nursed our last glass of wine as long as we could before reluctantly heading back to camp. I crawled straight into my tent but Patrick decided to stay up and hold down his camp chair and attempt to smoke a cigar, wind be damned.
How come the road home is never as exciting as the way out? One can only call in sick so many days, and plus the ice was gone from the cooler so we packed it up to head home. We did stop on our way out and go for a hike through the sand dunes. Sand dunes don’t sound very exciting, but in the morning and evening they are a photographer’s dream. The curves and slopes, the shadows and light, the ripples of texture left by the wind, the tracks left by some mysterious small creature in the night. One side might be hard like walking on asphalt and the other crumbles the moment you step on it. The desert is full of so many types of beauty. We turned Beatrice’s nose towards the north and towards the coast and peeled out, headed for home.