Stranded in Death Valley / by Brittney Hogan

 

When you decide to camp in the hottest place on earth, 50 miles in any direction from modernity, it should be a calculated adventure. You should have reliable transportation, a map, and a plan. We decided we didn't need any of those things when we resolved to see the #Superbloom this past March.  My husband, Kavon, and I felt desperate to see the once in a decade phenomenon taking place in Death Valley, but realized half way there that what we really wanted was an escape from the monotony of a 5 day work week of tedious tasks and never ending unfruitful deadlines. We used the excuse that we were young, fit, and being in our twenties, obviously immortal, to blow off work and find inspiration in a place notorious for its lack of cell reception. But Death Valley is not a babysitter. It is not a place you can outrun your financial woes, family issues, social strifes or unfinished business. It's a place where you adapt, improvise and overcome, or you die.

We left San Diego like a whirlwind after about five minutes of research which basically only included Googling campsites and how to drive there. We ignored the ferocious mountain range on our Maps App that we would have to dive through and let our hubris take the wheel. We picked up supplies like bread crumbs at different gas stations as if on a day trip to Disneyland. Five hours outside of San Diego on the deserts edge Death Valley gave us our first warning to turn back. A condemning rattle in the engine of our car that began as we were half way up the mountain road forced us to pull over at the first dusty camp site in view. We opened the engine bay slowly fearing that a valve had snapped off and turned our entire engine into a pinball machine of parts, but nothing appeared out of place. We decided not to risk pushing the car through the most treacherous stretch of terrain this side of the Mississippi, which meant we were stranded on the Western basin of the valley.

We had left San Diego Friday morning like two invincible trailblazers and by Sunday we looked like the last survivors from the Oregon Trail. Three days of crushing scorpions, mild dehydration and malnutrition had left us delirious. We were dust covered and our "camping tans" had started to burn.  The valley was a literal dead zone and our cell phones could only be useful as cannon fodder for chucking at dangerous spiders. There was no Superbloom in Stovepipe Wells, but at that point in my life, I would have rather been left to fry to death on the flowerless range, than continue the soul crushing work of product management or selling words no-one wants to by as a freelance writer. This trip was meant as a way to escape the things that I didn't want to think about; bills, careers and unrequited dreams. Standing in the desert with no idea on how were going to get back to all the things we had run away from, I felt hopeless. Kavon and I always thought that we would make it and build are Barbie dream-house lives with love alone, but I just felt passionless and destined for failure. Even the predatory buzzards waiting for us to pass out in the noon sun seemed to caw "give up. dreams are for children. grow up. the adventure is over." It was here, in the lowest point of elevation in North America, that I had found my lowest point.

I sulked for three days and on the third day we finally escaped in a tow truck. Thanks to the merciful employees at the 10 room Stovepipe Wells ghostown Hotel (which was more ghost than town, or hotel) we were able to finally call AAA. After a two hour drive back to civilization our tow truck driver, moonlighting as a mechanic, even took pity on us by looking under the hood and confirming two things:

1) That my husband's work as a DIY mechanic had been meticulous over the past years four years;

AND

2) Although we were right to have been scared of the sound it was only a loose spark plug.

That meant that instead of having to pay a mechanic in Pahrump (yes that is right, Pah-rump) Nevada to rebuild our engine and give us a money enema, all we needed now was a socket wrench. We screamed like we had just won the lottery and fell into each others arms, frightening the gamblers walking into the rundown Gold Digger's Casino parking lot. We had the wrench in an hour and left Pahrump with an ice cold gallon of water in each hand.

The road back to California was a forced confrontation of the desert, and as the Leaving Pahrump sign came into view, the drive felt like a second chance to stick our middle fingers out the window at the Valley that tried to break us. High on survival, the landscape transformed from dangerous to hypnotic. The surrealism of the geological curves of sky-scraping rainbow granite, and the bleach white sand-stone caves, melted into each other, and burst into snow capped mountains on the horizon. We crested the top of a steep hill and a field of wildflowers bloomed into view. Suddenly we weren't trapped in a desolate wasteland, we'd found Wonderland. For three days I had loathed that valley and now I couldn't wait to pull over and embrace it.

We parked at the first pull out near the field, and didn't bother taking out the keys or closing the car doors. Kavon walked into the field and let the ambitious thigh high desert daisies flutter past his palms. I wandered aimlessly away from the field's edge, and walked till I couldn't see the tar road in any direction, and exhaled. Birds I didn't even know could survive in this terrain shot out from the low-lands like they were carried by my breath. The drought had not broken this earth.

"All is ours" I though to myself. All the world's natural wonders are ours to see indiscriminately. Death Valley does not care who came first, the CFO or the corporate bust. The drought did not care whether global warming was lore or lord. The desert did not care if El Nino rained for 40 days and 40 nights, and neither should we. All is ours. Mistakes and triumphs, love and loss, burn or bloom, all is ours.

The dessert had humbled me, so of course defiant, dehydrated, and probably hallucinating, I did the only thing my withered brain could think to do, I stretched into my favorite Yoga Pose. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got back to San Diego, but in the moment the only thing that mattered was this yoga pose. I skipped the Vinyasa flow and exhaled into the strongest Warrior II of my life. I'd come here to see desolation and fight through indifference, but wobbling in an emaciated yoga pose on the side of CA-127 was not suppose to be part of the plan. But this mistake was too beautiful to regret.

I realized that I could never apply for jobs I'd been too scared to grab, or fellowships I was too scared to seize, but suddenly here, with the desert barring down on me in a sea of wildflowers, my dreams no longer seemed like mirages. These flowers were thriving in one of the most desolate places on earth and so was I. My aspirations were suddenly as real as the miracle I was standing in.

I breathed deeply, refocused on the landscape, and let gravity of what Kavon and I had experienced together come over me. Yes, this adventure had begun as an ill-planned folly, but it had become a journey that had reinvigorated my appreciation for the wild. It had solidified my confidence, not only in our ability to survive whatever else life may throw at us, but in our ability to make our dreams reality. All is ours.

Two weeks later I found my calling at Virago.