DEATH VALLEY – look out! danger of side effects

Death Valley is still blowing that insistent wind at me. I keep thinking about something that happened to me while I was there and I can’t just shrug it off and go on my merry way.  I must pay attention.  It’s something that has happened a number of times before in my tent, and I guess this time turned out to be the last straw.

I felt safe and secure in the Mesquite Springs campground my whole time there, until the last night.  Safe and secure at least as far as other people went; the wind that I wrestled with is a different story.  But until that last night I didn’t have a single moment of my usual fear-of-the-dark that has plagued me all my life.  That last night the wind was calm, so I put up my tent and was happily sleeping in it when, in the wee hours, loud music suddenly blared into the silence.  I lay waiting for someone to go over and tell them to shut up.  I waited and waited.  After an hour I realized that I’d have to do it.  I pulled myself resentfully out of my warm sleeping bag, put on jeans and a jacket, and strode forth angrily from my tent.  The anger melted immediately when I looked up and saw the amazing moonless sky, ablaze with stars.

I walked quite a way over to where the sound was coming from.  There sat four young people around a fire with their cd player at a distance, sitting on a little table.  I stood at that table and said, in the voice that used to strike fear into the hearts of my little girls (how could I ever have spoken to them in that voice?):  “For godssake, it’s after midnight.  Turn this off!  Turn it off right away!”  One of the boys looked up at me and said  “You turn it off.”  My jaw may have dropped a little but I managed  “You come over here right now and turn this thing off.”   At that he shambled over and gave the off button a jab.  As I walked away the music started up again.  I turned back.  “Turn this off right now and leave it off.” For some reason he did.

Since I was up, I decided to walk for a while.  When I turned off my flashlight it was so dark I couldn’t see even my hand. The world was gone, there was only blackness below.  But the sky!  I walked and walked, cavorting amongst the stars.

Back in my sleeping bag I started to worry. The wind was still, the silence was deep.  I could hear the distant young people talking amongst themselves and they sounded angry.  I became convinced they were plotting to do something to get back at me.  I imagined a knife slicing the side of my tent, a rock scratching my new car, even a fist smashing my face.  Was I the only person awake and hearing them?  I lay in my sleeping bag, too scared to sleep.  I told myself, over and over, that maybe it wasn’t anger I was hearing in their voices, maybe they were just being cool and hard-edged.  I told myself, over and over, that maybe they were angry but not at me.  It didn’t work.  I saw myself from afar: inside a tent with nothing between me and trouble except a film of nylon.  I lay there for hours, feeling unprotected and very scared.

Nothing further happened, and I must have fallen asleep eventually.  I’ve suffered a number of nights like that over these years of traveling alone, nights spent lying in my tent rigid with terror.  I know that my terror is not completely rational, I know it comes from having gone through my entire childhood unprotected and scared.  Back then I learned early on (age three maybe) to never show fear or weakness or even unhappiness to any of the people around me.  I certainly never dared ask for help or comfort, it has taken me years to learn to do that.  So these days, when I’m scared in my tent at night, as I was that last night in Death Valley, I can become engulfed in primordial terror, I might as well be three years old again.  I try to talk myself out of it, but it runs so deep it’s almost inaccessible.  I had always thought it was the lack of love that informed my childhood, but my years of camping alone have shown me that perhaps even worse was the lack of protection and guidance.

That night in Death Valley was when I finally owned up to the inadequacy of my tent, maybe because seeing it vanquished by the wind had already disillusioned me.  Before this it had seemed so homey and solid.  Now the wind had made a mockery of it, plus I had once again had to suffer a night of fear in it.

But oh my! It’s not easy to turn away from my beloved tent.  Can I get back to trusting it again?  Right now I’m thinking not.  I don’t ever want to feel so unprotected again, from wind, from lashing rain, from bears, or from scary people.  There must be a way that I can continue my nomadic solo life without so much struggle, without so much fear.  What I need seems fairly simple: a safe place to sleep and a sheltered spot to cook my meals.  Is that too much to ask?

I’ve been scouring the web to check out the possibilities.  What’s caught my eye so far is a small trailer that pops up into an A-frame tent, but made of metal.  I think what draws me to it is it’s shape, a triangle.  Why is it that a triangle looks better out in nature than a rectangle?  I also like that it adds only 2 or 3 miles per gallon to the gas usage.  But of course the main question about such an item is this:  can I still call myself The Tent Soloist if my tent has solid sides and doesn’t flap in the wind?






DEATH VALLEY – the end

The wind!  The wind!  I was in bondage to the wind the whole time I was in Death Valley.  I became attuned to its every breath and gust.  It could set me trembling with anxiety and dread.  No matter what I was doing, if the wind came at me I immediately gave it my full attention and did whatever was needed to keep myself and my tent safe.  I felt bullied, I felt helpless, I felt powerless.  I felt angry at myself for being so stupid as to come to DV with a tall tent.  

All those terrible feelings were vaguely familiar.  And then the memory came flooding back.  A seven year marriage, back in the 1980s.  An extremely abusive marriage.  It is very hard to forgive myself, even now, for having allowed it to happen.  I came to understand what drove him to behave in such cold-blooded brutal ways, but it didn’t mitigate in the least the devastating effect of his behaviors.  I came to understand what drove me towards him in the first place, but it doesn’t mitigate in the least the shame I feel for having let him into my life.  The worst thing about it is that it was during those years my daughters were going out into the world on their own for the first time.  I was not in any shape to be a helpful guiding parent to them just when they needed me most.  I’m the only parent they have.  I’m able to go on living, and in fact to lead a full and satisfying life, because I keep my focus on the remarkable women they have become, and on the fact that I – I myself, all alone – finally had the strength to leave him, and to return to being my true self.  

Death Valley is a land designed for giants.  The scale is all wrong for humans.  But when human kindness occurs it can fill that space, warm it, soften it.   Acts of kindness in the campground were truly a counterforce to the wind and to my difficult memories.  

I’ve already told, in a former post, about the ranger who gave me gas, even though “we don’t usually give it to campers, we keep it for our own trucks.”  And I’ve told about the astronomers who shared their celestial wonders with us.  These generosities went a long way in soothing my wind-battered spirits.    

The whole time I was there I had neighbors, Pat and Dolly, who came to feel almost like surrogate parents to me.  Pat always came running over to help when he saw me struggling against the wind.  Dolly told me the couch in their RV was available to me any time.  They invited me over on the two worst evenings, gale-force winds and pounding rain, and entertained me with wine and stories from their lives. Whenever we happened to meet during the day they inevitably asked, “Is there anything we can do?  Do you need anything?”  I doubt I could have stayed as long as I did if they hadn’t been there watching over me.   I basked in their concern and care.  

The most memorable encounter that I had there in DV was on the opposite end of the scale from that abusive marriage.  He was there for only three days, and over those days we spent, at most, a total of two or three hours talking together.  He let it be known right away that he’s happily married and still deeply in love with his wife of twenty years. His wife was not with him on this trip.  I think his honesty is what made it possible for us to be so open with each other, so completely trusting:  the boundaries were absolutely clear from the start.   I turned off my sexual switch as soon as he told me he was married.  I’ve always been self-protective in that way.  And yes, even at my age that switch is still necessary, the responses are still immediate, the longings still there.  

Our conversations weren’t intense, they were fluid, easy, full of laughter, full of delight.  Yet we truly opened our depths to each other, in ways I rarely do even with my closest women friends.  He exuded a quiet confidence, he’s at ease with himself, and it’s not ego, it’s not bravado.   He has accomplished great things and hopes there’s still more to come.  He spoke clearly and with real self-understanding about his thoughts and feelings.  He listened closely to mine.  He never flinched at anything I said, and seemed just to want to know more.  

I was at my most grubby – wind lashed, sand under my finger nails and in every crease and crevice, hair never combed, old clothes rarely changed, yet I’ve never felt so feminine, so womanly, as I did with him.  When he left to go home we said goodbye as though we meant it.  I doubt our paths will cross again.  

Two days later I myself left Death Valley, all of a sudden.  Of course it happened that way, in DV everything is extreme.  I got up that morning and it was unusually and blessedly calm.  While I made my first cup of tea I got back to long-neglected thoughts about a piece I want to write, and started to get excited about working on it again.  I sat down in the rectangle of shade made by my car and opened my laptop, ready and eager to begin.  My laptop wouldn’t open.  I tried everything, the laptop was adamant.  I needed my Apple technician.  Without even finishing my cup of tea I got up and started the job of packing everything into the car.  It took about an hour and then, waved off by Pat and Dolly, I drove away.  My trip to Death Valley was over.


Somehow that night passed.  The wind seemed intensified by the darkness and I lay on my cot, eyes wide, watching the top of my valiant tent stand back up, again and again, after each furious blow.  The steady whoosh of the wind accompanied by the tricky rhythms of the tent flapping, slapping, clapping was the perfect movie score for my inner turmoil.  In flashes I saw myself from a distance, and in those moments I became fascinated by how rare the extremity of my situation was.  When have I ever been so completely cut off from all the things I take for granted?  Friends and family, phone, wi-fi, electricity, groceries, gas.  Gas!  To be without gas, here of all places.  How extraordinary.  

I woke in the morning to calm and sunshine.  When I stepped out of my tent  the land around me had been transformed.  Or I had.  What had looked barren the night before was now breathtakingly beautiful – subtle complex colors, wondrous curves and shadows in all the contours of the land.  In Death Valley the sky is not felt as the usual curved dome overhead.  That morning outside my tent I stood on this planet looking out into the cosmos.  

My car was still out of gas, but I wasn’t worrying about it yet.  I read and drank tea, then breakfasted, sitting in the triangle of shade made by my tent.  The only other shade available is the rectangles next to the picnic table and by my car.  I took a long walk up the gully that runs by the campground.  I saw one rabbit, two lizards, four little brown rodents, a pair of ravens, and one ant.  How do creatures survive here?  Most of the little straggly plants look dead, probably from the drought.  The rocks are thriving, all sizes, all colors, many intricate designs, some even looking as though they were once part of ancient cave paintings.  By the time I returned to camp I was completely in the thrall of DV.  I decided to stay a month.  I laugh as I write that, having noticed how amused my daughters and friends always are by my bursts of enthusiasm.  

I had seen no activity in the campground all morning, so when a white truck drove by I flagged it down.  It just happened to be a park ranger, and she just happened to be empathetic with my gas-less plight, and she just happened to have a five-gallon jug of gas in her truck, and she just happened to want to pour it into my car, and she just happened to refuse any kind of payment.  I was stunned by this easy solution to what had seemed like a major trauma.  And not only was I now mobile again, I was filled again with the warmth of human kindness.  What a transformative morning it had been!

The late afternoon provided further wonders.  Four vehicles pulling various-sized RVs came in and set up near each other.  Turns out they’re all members of the Saguaro Astronomy Club in Phoenix, and they came bearing telescopes and high-tech computers.   As it grew dark, one of the astronomers went around to each of us, inviting us to join them when it was dark and “come see Jupiter!”  This is the week of the new moon, so when it is dark here it is really really dark.  I have never seen darkness like this before.  In fact, I learned from the astronomers that Death Valley has been declared by the International Dark Sky Association as the world’s largest international dark sky park.  It is one of the only truly dark skies left in the U.S.

When the few of us who answered the invitation arrived at the astronomy enclave we were asked to turn off our flashlights.  They had only red lights, and that gave the whole undertaking an other-worldly feel, which was perfect, considering what we were about to see.  I couldn’t see any faces, only dark forms where our bodies stood.  We stood on a large tarp that had been laid down and secured with rocks around the edges.  In the center stood a telescope about 6 feet high, and next to it had been placed a little step for those not tall enough to reach the eye piece, and next to the step stood one of the astronomers offering his shoulder for support.  They know how to do these night shows.  

For the next hour I looked at Jupiter, the Great Orion Nebula, star clusters, all up close and personal.  I kept going back to look, again and again.  It was hard to comprehend what I was seeing, to change my perspective so radically.  It was also just gobsmackingly gorgeous.  How can any mere adjective be huge enough to describe those sights?  As we all stood there in that vast space in that extreme dark, the astronomers’ pleasure in sharing their excitement bound our tiny band of humans happily together.  

Afterwards, walking back to my tent, my eyes were still looking up.  The night sky in Death Valley is surely one of the wonders of the earth.  I’ve never seen a night sky like this before, ever.  It was worth everything I had endured to be there at that moment, standing under that sky.  

I was within a few feet of my tent when the first gust of wind hit me.  It had been fairly calm all day, and I had actually forgotten about the wind.  In that one gust it all came back to me and I hurried to make sure everything was battened down.  By the time I had battened myself down into my sleeping bag, the wind was back with a vengeance.  I had to decide quickly whether I dared stay where I was, cozy and tired, hoping that the battering of the wind wouldn’t break a tent pole or rip a seam.  I groaned loudly and got up.  Half an hour later my tent was folded and resting under a large tarp on the ground, along with my bulky cot and bag of clothes.  I put heavy rocks all over the top of the tarp, and dared the wind to try to budge them.  My two mattresses were now spread out in the back of the Outback, my pillows plumped up, and my astonishing novel (The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante) was lying next to the nifty solar reading lamp a friend had given me.  I can sit up – straight! – and read, it’s that roomy back there.  I was completely protected in the strong arms of my green Outback, and I slept deeply all night long.