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Taking Death Valley

Around me lay an ocean of sand dunes, broken now and then by scrub brush and solitary petrified branches, which I was using as trail markers. I stared behind me trying to locate the previous lone dead tree trunk I had passed, but it was lost in an expanse of quartz crystals. As I stood on the slope of my hill, the warmth seared through the bottom of my hiking boots until I felt I was walking on top of a lighted grill. I took a look at my right sole and found the rubber warped by the high temperature of the sand. I was in the lowest and driest part of North America. For three days and two nights I had also been inundated with some of the hottest temperatures in the world. But I wasn’t going to let Death Valley get the better of me.  Death Valley hillsI had weathered closed mountain passes, a flat tire, and an overworked transmission to get to this remote southeastern corner of California. Briefly a destination for early nineteenth century miners, Death Valley is the largest national park in the lower forty-eight states. America’s national parks are ideal places for me to recharge myself and I was at Death Valley to experience its unique landscape of eerie salt pans, spooky dry lakes, and otherworldly sand dunes. I had never camped in the desert before and, although friends had urged against the visit, I was keen to find solitude among the cacti and prevail against Death Valley’s harsh conditions.

I huffed and puffed my way to the top of one of the sand dune peaks for a desolate sight.

“A single speck of black wheeled slowly high above my head.”

That bird and I appeared to be the only late May visitors to this unfrequented portion east of the Sierra Nevada range. As we surveyed our empty domain together, a dark scowl of clouds appeared in the distance. A tiny vortex of sand began to form at my feet and the sand became airborne forming itself into curtains around me. The wind suddenly whipped towards me and it felt as if a million needles were stabbing my face, bare arms, and exposed legs. I furiously wiped my eyes and mouth as I slipped and slid my way off the hillock. Sand continued to fly into my mouth and nose, stinging my insides. Staggering forward in the sinking quagmire, I managed to place my head scarf over my lower face to keep the sand out. I was running towards what I hoped was my parked car, but the sand was now a heavy and painful fog encircling me so I could only hope for the best.

I muttered oaths from behind my cloth muffler as I struggled forward. The sand storm had me bent over in half with my hands covering my neck, throat, and the flapping kerchief ends. All I saw anywhere was bits of sand, like beige colored snow, whirling around me.

“Suddenly a dark form appeared on my right crouched against a large sagebrush.”

I stopped in my tracks, unsure whether to avoid it or ask it for help. My continued staring must have caught its attention, because the shape moved towards me in a stooped and awkward maneuver. As it came closer I realized it was a fellow adventurer.

I was grabbed by the arm and pulled towards the bush as a disembodied voice demanded, “What are you doing?” I found myself being pushed down into the sand behind the sagebrush.

“I’m trying to make my way out of this place,” I shouted at my new-found companion.

“Are you crazy,” she shouted back, “you can’t fight a sand storm! You have to lie low and let it run its course!”

Death Valley ruinsWhile the two of us hunkered down next to the protection of desert scrub, I examined my rescuer. In distinct contrast to my shorts, tee, and head scarf, she was clad head to toe in khaki with ski goggles over her eyes. Camouflage colored balaclava, gloves, and sturdy pair of boots kept her well protected. She pulled out a water bottle from a small pack on her back and offered it to me. I shook my head politely and pointed to my own giant rucksack. She mimed that I should huddle down and cover my head, which advice I promptly followed because even the bristly branches weren’t enough shelter from the vicious fury of the sand.

As I silently cowered under the rage of the storm I wondered what would have happened had I not been rescued. I pictured myself wandering in an endless whirlwind of sand as it relentlessly chiseled away at my body.

“I’m always combative against what life dishes out to me.”

On every journey I feel the constant need to battle against circumstances, but a stranger’s advice showed me that fighting isn’t always the answer. In a sandstorm the best course of survival is to squat low and let it pass over you. I realized I could use the same strategy in my travel life as well. I hoped the rest of my Death Valley trip would be without mishaps, but whatever happened I would try to roll with the punches.

Eventually the wind stopped howling like a lost coyote in the wild. I raised my head cautiously and found that the sand was settling back into untrammeled swathes before me. The storm was passing and I could finally see ahead of me. I arose slowly from behind the sage brush and turned to thank my lucky stranger but she seemed to have vanished with the storm. I searched around the area but could see no sign of her and eventually made my way back to my car. There were still salt pits and lake beds for me to explore, but I turned back towards the Mesquite Flat dunes and belted out “thank you.” I hope that my timely rescuer, wherever she had disappeared to, heard me and understood that she had not only saved my life but taught me an invaluable lesson.


TRAVEL NOTE:

Death Valley National Park has a diverse desert geography. Aside from the Mesquite Flat sand dunes, salt flats and badlands can also be found here. Despite harsh conditions the desert environment is home to two species of native fish and twenty-three types of plants found nowhere else!


Were you ever caught unaware in a storm? Have you been to Death Valley National Park?

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135 replies »

  1. Having been there 4 or so times, years ago and having lived in the desert SW for 25 years, I learned to love how honest it is. Nature unadulterated. We might begin to understand how precious that is and how precious life is too. Excellent post! reminding us

  2. That was some adventure! It was pretty brave of you to embark on this journey and I’m glad you came out alive and with renewed thinking!

  3. My grandparents lived in Lone Pine, not far from Death Valley. I grew up on Ridgecrest. I’ve been to Death Valley a few times. Once, to camp in my grandparents’ travel trailer. Another time, my brother and I went out hiking sand dunes with my grandpa. On that trip, he taught us the importance of not using the dunes as land makers, by taking us out far enough that we couldn’t see the car, then asking us if we could find the way back. (We couldn’t!) I think there is much beauty to be found there, I have fond memories of it!

    • The Death Valley sand dunes are a great place to sand surf as well. Sounds like your grandpa was teaching you and your brother some valuable lessons at Death Valley! Thank you for sharing your story here.

  4. I live near Death Valley, on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Funny how the things that people think are scary or need to be overcome in the desert, are things I just grew up with.

  5. Your post took me back to some of my own desert experiences. The writing is fantastic. I’ve “weathered many a storm” in my life, and I’m glad you were receptive to your mystery guide. On top of knowing when to hunker down, I also love the importance you place on trust. It’s not always easy believing that the dark shadowy figure in the corner may very well be preparing to guide us through the next storm. Thanks for posting!

    • Thank you. As a traveler, continually among strangers, trust is an issue that I struggle with on my journeys. You put it so well: it is never easy to believe that the helping hand may be able to guide us, so each of these circumstances is itself a leap of faith.

  6. I went there in 2001 with my wife and drove through it on the way to Vegas from Mammoth mountain. It’s one of my life affirming moments. It’s so desolate and unforgiving yet amazing and beautiful at the same time.

  7. I used to live in the mojave desert in California. Death valley was like 5 minutes away haha! I lived on the military base near by; china lake naval air force weapons facility base.

  8. Wow. Sometimes nature gives us unforgettable and unexpected adventures! For me it was the height of the Machu Picchu or the amount of water of the Iguacu Falls. These unexpected things made me love even more Nature.

  9. Wow amazing pictures. And to think that some crazy people run in those crazy conditions. Makes me want to go there someday 🙂

  10. Headed to Death Valley this June. Cannot wait. You’ve captured some hauntingly beautiful pictures, look forward to sharing my own experiences.

  11. Death Valley has always been one of my favorites, I fondly remember racing friends up and down the sand dunes for hours on end.
    I’m jealous of your photography, I can never capture depth or shadows well and generally don’t take many photos. The best pictures are all in my head anyways 🙂

  12. What a wonderful place. I went here in summer 2012, tasting the 129°F on my skin! Too hot but full of fantastic landscape. A “must view”

    • I’ve been to Death Valley more than a couple of times. Its one of my favorite places to visit. But, yes caution is a word that must be adhered to. On my way to Death Valley once I got stuck in Little Dunes between Shoshone and Baker, California. Of course trying to flag someone down on that lone highway was like wishing for snow at Badwater. Finally the BLM came and with a chuckle pulled me out. I need to get back out there before it get real hot. I have a few shots in my gallery.

  13. I walked in an event for cancer awareness ahile ago… Two days, 32 miles. It was intense. Your great pictures reminded me of all the beauty I missed while I was focused on finishing. Did you make it to Scotty’s Castle?

  14. Thank you for a breath of fresh air in a form of words and feelings! This post took me to the other world and I though I was there next to you in the desert.

  15. Wow, definitely an invaluable lesson. I love the pictures, it looks so dreamlike and surreal to me. When ever I go to southern California, I will be sure to visit this place. Maybe next time I head to Vegas, I’ll take this route! Thanks for sharing your experience!

  16. Ahhhh. Those photos are a minimalist’s dream. I can smell the sagebrush.

    The advice of being still and reassessing one’s surroundings in an emergency reminds me of “Deep Survival,” by Laurence Gonzales. A fascinating, engrossing read, it examines how people respond to changing circumstances and how common sense and conventional wisdom doesn’t always play out well in every environment. In a deadly sandstorm, shrub trumps car.

    Laurence’s main takeaway: always deal with where you ARE and what’s happening NOW, not where you think you should be or what you would like to be happening. Children often out-survive adults in the wild for this very reason, they are very much in the now. Packing some zen is always a good idea on an adventure.

    But, yeah, having good boots helps, too.

  17. Great writing and quite the guts. Sometimes that little human gesture, that one selfless act, humbles us in an overwhelming reverent way. You reminded all of your readers a few valuable lessons. Thank you.

    • Thank you. The Badwater race from Furnace Creek to Mt. Whitney is probably the hardest foot race in the world. Accomplishing even a part of it would be an amazing feat! If you end up doing it this year, best of luck!

  18. Your dispatches from the American West have me yearning to return for a follow-up road trip, Bespoke Traveler. What a dramatic, other-worldly landscape. I fear my poor camera would be working overtime there. 🙂

    • We felt the same way on our exploration of Death Valley and the American Southwest. Such geologic formations, such grand vivid blue skies…our cameras couldn’t handle the beauty! Sounds like it is time for you to head over to this area of America to relive the landscape….

  19. Wow, you were so lucky! In all my years of living in California, I never made it to Death Valley even though I’ve always been intrigued by it. I didn’t know anyone interested in going with me, and, unlike you, I didn’t feel confident going all alone. Your photos are stunning.

    • Thank you Julie, I certainly was lucky that I was able to see the beauty of Death Valley. It is one of the lesser known and visited U.S. National Parks, partly because it is a difficult place to tackle. I hope that you will get the chance to experience it someday. There are several outfitters that allow you to join group camping trips to Death Valley which you might be interested in.

  20. I have been caught in snow, not sand, storms and rarely unexpectedly. Growing up where weather was wild and cold teaches one to keep a few things handy but then I am not a camper either as you are. I have been to Death Valley. We went in March nearly 9 years ago after a winter of unprecedented rain. There was a shallow lake that hadn’t filled for years and years and the display of desert flowers took the words out of my mouth.

    • Oh wow! Your time in Death Valley sounds so beautiful. Most people think that because it is a desert there is no life there, but there is a lot of tiny and unusual wildlife in the area. I would have loved to see more desert flowers when I was there. What few things do you keep handy for cold and wild weather?

  21. Stunning images that captured both the beauty and danger of the place. Irresistible, challenging, even scary. A perfect example of what life feel sometimes, harsh and difficult yet in all we persevere, survive, even triumph. Thanks for sharing your exciting adventure. I’m glad you are safe and found the solitude you seek.

  22. What a fascinating post this is! I love how you describe your adventure in this dangerous yet captivating place and also the mystery swirling around your companion just as the sand swirled around you. Oh I know that feeling about combating against what life throws back but your friend was right, sometimes we just need to lay low and let the troubles die down. The secret, I suppose, is knowing the difference. You were very brave to take on Death Valley, a part of the world that has always held a deep, awe-inspired fascination for me. Love the interesting facts about it too, I had no idea 🙂

    • You are so right: the secret, and most difficult part, is in knowing the difference between what can be changed and what can’t. I don’t know if that is a lesson I will ever learn well! Death Valley is a stunning, lonely, and often dangerous place which is so full of inspiration for me. I hope you get to visit it at some point, just make sure it is not in the summer months! Thank you for the kind words. 🙂

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