The Mojave: Appreciation of Bleakness

“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” - John Muir.
Author in Death Vally - March 2020
There I stood, with reverence in my eyes, apprehension in my stomach, and sweat dripping down my face, in this breathtaking, yet inhospitable land. Desolation, in its most raw form, serene enough to yield the most animated soul into an uneasy state of awe, engulfed my vision in all directions, presenting itself in the 10,000 foot martian red mountains and cliffs, surrounding miles of long dried-up lakebeds. The only evidence of water ever existing, was the large and mystic-looking salt crystals, 6 ft in diameter. There was no green in the whole expanse the eye could see, no evidence of any living creature, and the only suggestion of human civilization was a lonely 2 lane highway, which could be mistaken for piercing the forsaken lands of Sodom and Gomorrah. I was in the hottest, lowest, dryest, most inhospitable, and barren place in all of the Americas. I was in Death Valley, a 140-mile-long valley in California’s Mojave desert, best known for experiencing the hottest temperature ever measured at 134°F. As I stood on a small barren hill, overlooking the far-fetched beauty of the valley, the sun starting to burn my skin, I thought of the preceding week, an adventure through some of the most extreme landscapes in the world, and knew I would miss this striking environment, and the freedom of exploration coupled with new-found connections, it brought, especially when the days ahead promised only uncertainty and house confinement, in the days of this current COVID-19 epidemic. However, instead of recounting the ending, let me start this story from the beginning.

The floor of Death Valley
We left amidst a two-front storm. A literal storm, the first major one in over a month, causing sizable damage in this normally fair-weather, seaside town of Santa Cruz and seemingly warned about the chaotic and uncertain times ahead. The second storm, a metaphorical hurricane, arguably darker and more severe than the first, was the ever more frightening COVID-19 pandemic, elevating our nervousness and intensifying the feeling that we should escape civilization. Four of us set forth, my good friend Ethan, his mother Cecily, my mother Vickie, and myself. This was your classic American mother-son road trip if you exclude the fact that Ethan and myself are college-age children, and the trip had a cloud of uncertainty over it.

The drive through California’s Central Valley was monotonous. The rolling hills, farmland, occasional town, and more rolling hills, felt like a tamed and unchanging barrier in our quest to escape to uncivilized lands. The Caltrans signs reading “STAY HEALTHY, WASH YOUR HANDS, AVOID COVID-19,” repeating too frequently, felt like a reminder we could never escape the inundation of this pandemic.

When we crossed Tehachapi Pass, the dividing line between the civilized fertility of the Central Valley and the wild desolation of the Mojave desert, the landscape changed instantly to expansive views of low desert shrubs and big red sandhills. America’s “Horse with no Name” was passively playing in the background from our car stereo, but its song lyric, “In the desert, it felt good to be out of the rain,” rang true. As the dryness of the desert air sucked the moisture out of our lips, it finally felt like we escaped the rainstorm from this morning, and the deluge of the pandemic, into our desert oasis, a haven of wild beauty and peace.

After another short while, we entered the Mojave National Preserve, turned off onto the heavily potholed, red dirt Kelso-dunes road, blasted Aerosmith’s “Dream On” from the car speakers, drove 4 jolting miles, arrived at the Kelso Sand Dunes, which looked like they were taken out of “Lawrence of Arabia,” and finally felt like we escaped civilization into our desert paradise.

We quickly set up camp as the afternoon sun was transitioning to evening, putting a red glow on the normally shining white dunes. The camp wasn't much, two small tents in the middle of the Mojave backcountry, far from any person, and with a view of the dunes towering over our camp. We decided to do a push for the summit of the Kelso dunes, more than 600 ft above the desert floor. While not a climb of Mt. Everest, the burning pain in my thighs as I took one hard-fought step, in this hellishly beautiful sand, and slid two steps down, caused me to consider the summit as more difficult than Everest at the time. The top was worth all of the exhausting effort. We arrived just as the sun was setting, casting a magnificent array of reds, oranges, and golds over the cactus-laden desert hills to the west. A desert wind blew softly across our faces, as we sat in the grandeur of the imposing Granite mountains to the northeast, appreciative to be out in nature. Now, the fun part. The 600 ft of sand, which fought every vertical inch gained, proved blissful to run down, in a heart-thumping, fast-paced, adrenaline-releasing way, which was not unlike the feeling of skiing.

Kelso Dunes Red from the Setting Sun
The part of this day that had the deepest impact upon my soul, and which I will remember most fondly, was not the desert beauty, nor the sand skiing; it was the time spent at camp rekindling weakened relationships with friends and family. The year that passed at college was a transformative experience, with several wonderful people coming into my life, but being away from my old friends and family dwindled these relationships. That night, we played only Joni Mitchel, an artist whom we all loved, as we connected under the stars that shined brighter than usual. Smiles were present on all faces, as Ethan told of his crazy adventures in Colorado, the state where he goes to school, and my mom gave updates on home, which made me miss living there. We made a family-size portion of pasta on the old Coleman stove, dirtied over by dozens of past outings, as we played Mau, a chaotic game where it's impossible not to have a good time. That night, me and Ethan stayed up till the moon was starting to set, discussing whether Lapsley, a talented electronic composer, was the best new artist of 2020, implementing Navier-Stokes Equations equations into code, and a wide range of other favorite subjects. We were like children, fully immersed in our shared discussions and imaginations.

The next few days were a blur. We packed busy days in both Death Valley and Mojave National Preserve. We went spelunking in lava tubes, filled with sharp obsidian, got lost in the world's largest Joshua tree forest, climbed cliffs to viewpoints that could have been on Mars, hiked through narrow slot canyons, so deep we needed flashlights to see, explored hot springs deep in a desert gorge, and did many more crazy, gleeful, and epic activities. Throughout all these adventure-inducing activities, and even with my recognition of being free from the Coronavirus in our desert haven, the greatest appreciation from these past days was being able to spend loving time with my mother and my friend.

Ring Ladder in a Slot Canyon
On the last night of the trip, camping on the floor of Death Valley, it rained. Although the precipitation was no more than a sprinkle, the rain felt ominous in the driest place on earth. At last, we could not escape the rain, just like we could not escape this pandemic. Tomorrow we would be heading home and staying there for an indefinite amount of slow, constricted, and apprehensive time.

However, still free, on the last night in the wilderness, feeling the small drops of moisture so foreignly land on my face, I thought of the John Muir quote, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” In this trip, I sought out to see the beauty of the southwest but received far more valuable connections with my friend and my mother. While I will miss the desert, I leave content with these strengthened relationships, knowing when the pandemic is over, one day I will return.