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.