Deep in the belly of Death Valley National Park, I pitched my tent up against sage bushes looking out at snowcapped mountains. Campers sat in their vehicles, some huddled in their tents, all dodging the relentless wind.
The campground host came by to get my ticket.
When I asked him how he was doing, he said that he was “ tired-er than the wind” and that I would feel that way too if I had been in Death Valley for six month as he had been. Said, as he glanced down at my license plate, that although he too was originally from Maryland, he couldn’t wait to head back home to Oregon at the end of the month.
There was no denying the wind was strong, but I had camped in all kinds of wind since being in California and have come to know that they just don’t make tent stakes long enough for those that blow across the state in March.
Folks scampered from their vehicles into their tents as soon as the sun set. I fell asleep to the sounds of the couple next to me talking softly to one another, as couples do at the end of day, and finally to the roar of the wind violently slapping my tent. I woke up to them making love at dawn with a gentle, cold breeze blowing off the mountains into the valley.
As I laid there listening to the new day dawning, I imagined the early vagabonds huddled beneath their encircled wagons. I recalled those first expositions in search of wealth and land, of the few women who left behind all their possessions – including babies – to trek across the snowbound Sierras in skirts on makeshift snowshoes on the wild hope of finding the husbands who had preceded them.
Sobering thoughts with which to begin a day, but the springtime majesty that Death Valley exudes softens and lifts the spirits.
After exploring the 600-foot-deep Ubehebe Crater at dawn, then touring Scotty’s Castle all morning (including the cellar tour of the underground tunnels and innovative engineering systems), and after an afternoon spent walking the Salt Flats at Badwater Basin and catching the sunset at Dante’s View (left), I camped at 100 feet below sea level. I was again within view of snowcapped mountains, but this time I was surrounded by boy scouts and their parents rather than lusty lovers.
Tidbits of conversations floated through the night: “My gynecologist says,” “There are so many stars,” “That would be like Clinton…”
There was an older couple next to me already in their tent talking to one another in flirty terms as if they were new lovers, which they may well have been. Life forges on in one way or another, and love happens, regardless of age or distance or misfortunes. There’s just no avoiding it.
As love happens, so, too, do connections. Shortly after dawn the following day, I met an ex-Marine at the trailhead of Mosaic Canyon who had grown his curly hair long and a full beard since being discharged. We chatted for a bit in the shade of his car while he waited for friends, and I spent the remainder of the day thinking of our conversation, pondering trauma and how we as humans survive it.
I thought of the ugliness he must have seen in the Middle East, and of the horrors experienced by the infamous if not ill-fated Donner Party. How when found months after the snow-locked passes to the High Sierras (left) began to melt, the starving survivors were emotionally lingering on the brink of reality. Doesn’t matter much what traumatizes us as individuals – trauma is trauma, and cannibalism would certainly do it for even the most seasoned survivalists.
What I find so interesting is how we – most of us – manage to survive the unthinkable. It takes extreme courage to embark into the unknown, whether with ambivalent dreams of wealth and fortune or with the conviction that one’s weapons and power bring freedom to the oppressed. It takes courage to love again after a knee-bending loss. Courage, and perhaps a hefty dose of faith as well, because we never know at the onset whether the outcome will be what we had anticipated.
Given the name, not much good is generally expected from a visit to Death Valley. Can’t tell you how many people questioned why I’d want to spend any length of time in the place. Come to find out what they don’t know is a lot.
Sitting at the top of the farthest, highest dune later that day, having trudged past people of all shades speaking a plethora of foreign languages, I knew exactly what they were missing.
Eventually out hiking the throngs of tourists, I sipped a liter of water with my back to the crowds now far behind me, relaxed in the cool breeze coming off the frosted peaks, and gazed out at the length of the valley speckled in wildflowers just beginning to climb up the mountain slopes. Squinting my eyes, I searched for familiar landmarks where I’d already hiked. The wind blew my sweat-dampened hair off my neck and I leaned back, pushing my elbows into the sand, reveling in the silence and solitude of the forty-mile-long, five-mile-wide valley.
Distracted by laughter, I turned to see a gaggle of guys on a far-off dune who had dragged an air mattress out with them and were filming themselves sliding down the sand hills. It took several goes before they determined that they’d be better off with the felt side up.
And that’s when it hit me: the key to how we do it. We survive because above all the sordidness we experience over the years, we are compelled to want to feel the lightness of being alive and the joy of laughter. We’ll devise the most extreme silliness if only to put the nonsense into perspective.
As I came down the steep face of the dune, I leaped wide-legged from one leg to another like the Michelin Man, whooping the entire decent. Granted, I am a very simple person who's easily pleased, but the instinct must have been a natural one because the two couples that had moments before joined me shortly followed suit.
Just goes to prove that as independent and isolated as we may think we are, we’re never truly alone, and that there truly is a purpose for everything under the sun.