DEATH VALLEY – The First Day

My first day in DV started with me wanting to leave immediately, and a small act of kindness on my part left me, by the end of the day, in serious trouble.  A fitting beginning to a stay in this land of extremes.

Before I got to DV, I worried for the entire ten hour drive that either the campground would be empty and I would be too scared to stay, or it would be completely full with no place for me.  I had researched the campgrounds in DV carefully and chosen Mesquite Springs because it’s remote and small, just 30 sites, and offers only water and a nice bathroom – no hook-ups for RVs, no electricity anywhere.  It is 50 miles due north of the most popular campground, Furnace Creek, which has 300 sites and all the hookups and electricity and dump stations and gift shoppes that hundreds of RVers could possibly want.  

I entered Death Valley and still had almost 40 miles to drive to get to Mesquite Springs, miles in which I saw no sign that humans inhabit this planet.  Muttering nervously to myself, my body tense with worry, all I saw in all those miles was emptiness and huge sky.  The wind tried relentlessly to blow over my heavy new Outback.  

As it turned out, there were five couples settled in and plenty of sites left for me to choose from.  My body loosened.  I began to set up, and I had to battle the wind for ownership of my tent.   A man saw me and came running over to help.  I began to smile for the first time in hours.  I heated up some delicious left-over veggie stew, took a walk around the campground to get my bearings and say hello to everyone, and fell into a deep sleep, snug in my tent-burrow.  I slept so deeply that I was barely aware of the fierce wind all night, and didn’t register the cacophony of flapping noise that I’d never heard from my tent before. 

Next morning, Day One, I decided to drive around and get a general over-view of Death Valley.  I started with nearby Scotty’s Castle, the most northerly tourist attraction, and set about to visit all the tourist spots and get them out of the way.  I’m not much for tourist attractions, and my travels this day didn’t change that attitude. 

As I drove from one place to the next, I began to comprehend, for the first time, the truly vast space that DV is.  The thirty, forty, even fifty miles between each place seemed even longer because of the terrain.  Everywhere I went I could look in all directions and see for miles and miles.  And these weren’t just any miles.  They still seemed to me, on that first day, to be filled with desolate barren land, all in shades of brown, no green anywhere.  The ground is sand, scattered with rocks, with only straggly little bushes growing, each alone in its large personal space, somehow carving a living out of that sand.  The variegated hills that define the horizon are low.  Nothing breaks what looked to me like a Dantean description of utter desolation and harshness.  

There is no way here to contact the outside world, except at Furnace Creek.  No phone signal, no wi-fi.  The closest town, Beatty Nevada, right at the entrance to the northern part of the park, is over 50 miles from my tent.  As I drove from place to place I became more and more aware of how completely disconnected I am from “civilization”.  I was actually, physically cut off from all my familiars, my family, my friends, and not only that, I was in a place that felt to me vast, harsh, unrelenting, and more and more frightening.  

I began to panic.  What was I doing here?  Why in the world did I come?  I felt unhinged, literally.  All my human ties had been cut. 

In the late afternoon I headed back to Mesquite Springs, having decided that I could not stay another day here. I would leave in the morning.  When I was still about a half-hour from my campground a man and a woman carrying large backpacks thumbed me down.  I was in no mood to pick them up, but I saw they were older people, maybe in their 60s.  I didn’t want to stop but what could I do?  I hadn’t seen another car on the road for a very long time.  I pulled over and stopped.

“Howdy Miss.  We been walkin’ all day, and there’s still miles to go to Stovepipe where we’re meetin’ up with some pals.  We’re so wore out. Could you give us a lift to there?”

To get to Stovepipe Wells would mean a detour of over an hour.  At that moment I was still thinking only of the time involved.  

“Sure, okay.  Get in the back, this front seat is too full of stuff.”

I was in no mood to chat, and they weren’t talkative.  We rode in silence. 

After dropping them off and about 1/2 an hour from home I thought to look at the gas gauge.  Almost empty!  Oh my god!  I had carefully figured out how much was left and knew I had just exactly enough to get to Beatty the next day to fill up.  My detour with the old folks had changed all that.  I knew that I’d be lucky to get back to camp.  

I drove back at half-speed to conserve fuel.  By the time I reached “home” I was in such a state of despondency I could barely put together a few bits and pieces of food for a supper, and then zip myself up into my tent and into my sleeping bag.  What to do? what to do?  Whenever the wind stopped to catch its breath, I heard coyotes nearby, their howls echoing through further and further canyons. 



One minute I was pulling slowly out of my driveway.  The next minute the front of my Prius was plowing into a black truck.   No time to feel fear, dread death, or even scream.  I wasn’t hurt, nor was the other driver. The truck had a scrape across the passenger door, the Prius’s front end was smashed in but the motor still ran. I was left shaken and disoriented for the rest of the day.

Two days later the insurance company called to tell me they considered the car totaled because the repairs would cost more than the resale value of the car.  Out of the blue I was suddenly faced with having to find a new car.   I know nothing about them.  All I ever notice is size and color, and often not even that.  This is the first time I’ve had to choose a car all by myself, without a man by my side.

I have two main driving needs and they differ in important ways.  At home I mostly drive down to Tucson and back and for that task my silver Prius was perfect.  For my travels I wanted a car with higher clearance so I don’t have to miss out on all the places I could never go in my low-slung Prius, and I wanted something longer that I could stretch out and sleep in whenever I can’t find a tent site, and I wanted a darker color that would blend in better with nature.  I decided to go with my traveling wants, even though I knew I’d have to learn to stay calm at the gas pump.

I spent two solid days reading car reviews, talking to car salesmen (they really were all men), studying the enormous graph I made comparing all the sizes (even things like wheel base), prices, miles per gallon, and reliability, then test driving the contenders.  Alone in my house I muttered constantly, sometimes even shouting out invectives at the phone and the computer screen.  I could feel the thin line that separated my driven behavior from full-blown craziness, and I’ve got to admit that though fraught with many frustrations,  it was almost pleasurable to throw myself into something so completely.

When I took a break to walk in Catalina State Park I hardly noticed anything, my mind was whirring with cars.  I got to my favorite place on the trail and stopped to look up and around at the saguaro cacti that grow in that particular spot, all close together, like Saguaro City.  All of a sudden I was overcome with loneliness, sadness, helplessness.  For a moment I considered curling up under one of the cacti and never moving again.

Those are the hard moments for me of living alone. For the most part I do it well because I learned early on to just keep marching ahead, my head held high, my focus on the positive things.  But now and then something happens that derails me, and I’m faced with what feels at that moment like utter aloneness in this world.  Having to buy a car all by myself turned out to be enough to set that off.  I stood there with the saguaros a long time.  I wanted my mommy!  Which made me feel even more alone, since my mother was never ever a mommy to me, and anyway she died years ago. As I stood there, all my 77 years’ worth of lonely moments came crashing down on me.  I had a good cry while the saguaros looked down impassively.  They were strangely comforting.

A memory came to me of a time in Woodstock, where I used to live, when I had a similar bout of loneliness.  I walked out into the woods that surrounded my house and found myself putting my arms around a small maple tree, actually hugging it, leaning my cheek into the bark, and sobbing and sobbing.  When I had sobbed myself out I turned and started home with a spring in my step, fully comforted.  It was then I noticed the orange-clad hunter with his gun who must have been watching me the whole time from behind another tree.  What a picture, him and me there by our trees.  I chuckled all the way home.

As soon as I got home from the saguaros I sent an email to almost everyone for whom I have an email address, telling of my accident and asking for car advice.  Already in the act of pushing SEND I realized how not alone I am, and felt much better.  When the responses started pouring in I was overwhelmed.  So many people sent helpful, detailed information, and everyone expressed relief that I wasn’t hurt.  I tell you, I felt absolutely rocked in the bosom of Abraham, or better yet in the tight circle of my friends.

Once I had chosen the green Subaru Outback, then I had to find the best price.  That’s when the phone really started ringing off the hook (remember those phones?) with calls from car salesmen.  I pictured them all wearing those big rubber fishermen outfits, casting their lines into the river where I swam alluringly about, this way and that, a come-on smile on my face.

My daughters surrounded me closely throughout, all three of them full of love and humor.  Perhaps they didn’t realize that some of their inheritance money was about to disappear.  I always suspect that behind my back they find me endlessly eye-roll worthy.  But come to think of it, eye-rolls help keep the generational lines clear.  They insisted on naming my new car and we had a lot of laughs.  Kate’s Brendan, a poet, came up with the winner:  Pina Carlada, with the runner-up Piney for short.

The magnificent new car sits waiting, and so do I.  I won’t be able to leave till next weekend.  How can I wait that long?  I’ll keep studying my maps and checking out the different campgrounds in Death Valley.  Meanwhile, I notice that the kale soup I made tonight is exactly the same color as my new car.