I wake at 6 a.m. in my van in the bright desert somewhere west of phoenix. I pull the magnetic covers from the windows, letting in the light. I drove here from Tucson last night in a fog, so tired I could hardly keep my eyes open. I’d spent the previous night awake, waiting on a call from the vet. My very small dogs had eaten 5 oz of 72% dark chocolate between them (one bar had nibs!) which, according to an online dog chocolate toxicity calculator, put them in “extreme danger” of cardiac arrest. Muffy and I had found them speedy and thirsty, with hearts like hummingbirds, and rushed them to the emergency vet where they’d been made to vomit, given activated charcoal and other anti-toxicity drugs, hooked up to IVs and had their heart rates monitored all night. The call from the vet finally came at 7:30 a.m.- their heart rates were down. They were going to be ok. Muffy and I picked them up and I squeezed them each in turn, old Kinnikinnick and small, round Quito, and kissed their exhausted faces. The bill totaled $2,800, a terrifying amount of money to lose in a single night. The dogs slept that day away while I packed. I was headed to Death Valley, to hike the Lowest to Highest Route a second time. I would’ve cancelled the trip if the dogs had needed to be at the vet longer, but they were going to be ok. So I was still going.
I open the doors of my van and step out into the desert. The world smells of creosote and warm earth. I forgot that the desert is an animal. That walking on concrete under the hot sun is not the same as being inside the soft animal of the desert. I parked here last night under the nearly full moon. It’ll be all the way full tomorrow evening, when we start our walk from Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the western hemisphere, to the summit of Tumanguya, aka Mt Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48. A full moon in Aries. We didn’t plan it that way, but it seems auspicious.
I light my campstove and heat water for instant coffee. Just 6 hours of sleep. Better than the night before, but still not enough. I long to go somewhere cold, where I can burrow into the bed in my van and sleep and sleep. Maybe Lone Pine, today’s destination, will be that place.
I shit in a wash, piling my toilet paper on a rock and setting it aflame. I use a rock to poke down any windborne bits until it’s all burnt, just a scattering of ashes where once there was something tangible and unkempt. I like to burn my toilet paper in the desert, on dirt or rocks where there’s nothing to set on fire. Don’t tell anyone.
On the road I listen to You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie’s memoir. The book is heavy with a lot of complexity and vulnerable truth. Sometimes we can’t be good, no matter how hard we try. Other people are the same. It sucks.
I think about how subjective reality is, how even looking directly at a thing, saying it out loud, will alter it. I also think about how upsetting it is to know that reality is subjective. We all out here tryin to make fixed points out of soup, to place ourselves relationally. We can’t tho. The “discourse” as the wave-particle duality of light, where Einstein said:
“It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.”
My grandmother passed away a week ago. We had a complicated relationship. She adopted me when I was fourteen. She wasn’t a kind person, and I moved out at seventeen, to live on my own. We were never close. But still, she was the only semblance of a real parent I ever had, and all my life I’ve longed for her love and acceptance, even though I knew that I would never get it. That maybe she wasn’t capable of giving it. My grandma grew up in a one room cabin during the depression. Her family fled Ireland in the 1800s. It was probably her cold heart, cultivated at a young age, that had allowed her to survive. To make a life for herself. To marry and raise six children. Still, I have always wanted to know my Grandma’s true feelings. To understand her. And now she’s dead, and I never will. As I drive across the desert I touch the place in my own heart where my feelings about her lie. I can’t quite reach it. I can feel something far away on the horizon, but I can’t make out its outline yet. I wish my Grandmother loved me, but I can’t be sure that she did. And now she’s gone.
I stop at a gas station and buy lunch- a giant fountain cup of iced tea, a bag of nacho cheese doritos, and a chocolate bar. The insane calorie needs I’ve experienced while long distance hiking, combined with the relief that came from being able to eat whatever I wanted after healing from chronic illness a few years ago has given me a shameless, non ironic love of junk food that will likely last for the rest of my life. The fridge in my van is full of healthy food but instead I sit on the bed and eat my doritos. I’m just here to like, enjoy the sensual pleasures of embodiment, man.
Laurie and Plants are waiting for me at the transit center in San Bernadino. I met Laurie earlier this summer when I was hiking for a bit on the PCT with Muffy, and Plants is from the internet. We’re meeting another stranger, Pilar, in Lone Pine tomorrow. We’re all going to do this hike together, thanks to instagram.
It’s hard to stay awake on the lonely dark highway to Lone Pine but we make it to Carls Jr and then trundle out into the Alabama hills, those beautiful piles of smooth, sand colored boulders at the base of the Sierras where there is free dispersed camping. The road is sandy, and the huge rocks are pale in the moonlight. Rising in the west are the high sierras, the peaks all jagged and aglow. There’s Tumanguya, aka Mt Whitney, where we’re supposed to end this hike. Permits are hard to come by these days, though- they’re all booked online, way in advance- and in spite of our constant reloading of the permit page, hoping a trip of four cancels, freeing up some permits, we haven’t managed to get them yet.
There’s an RV in seemingly every dark, sandy pullout in the Alabama hills, and we drive further and further into the rocks, the road becoming sandier as we go. Then, we dip down into a wash and my van can’t get up the other side. The sand is too deep! We roll back and forth, wheels spinning.
“Maybe we should try turning around?” Says Plants. This is tricky, because it means leaving the road for the even deeper sand of the wash. Maybe we can do it, though?
We can’t. We are now stuck in the wash, the back tires of my van wedged deeply in the sand. It’s a nice level spot, though. I guess we’re camping here.
The night, when I step out of the van, is icy and sharp. I shiver as I brush my teeth and spit into the dirt. Laurie and Plants are poking around in the brush, looking for places to camp. I flick on the lights on my van, creating a cozy insulated house. Of course we’ll all sleep in here. It only makes sense.
Laurie and I fit on the bed and Plants curls into a fetal position on the small square of floor.
“I’m the husky,” he says. Plants has the driest sense of humor of anyone I’ve ever met in my life. It’s 9:30 pm, hiker midnight, and we’re all exhausted. I turn off the lights and the night comes in, cold and vast. I pull the sleeping bag over my head and I’m gone.
I wake at 6 am. I can’t believe I slept 8 hours. I feel so good, like I could punch through a wall. Plants and Laurie are still asleep, motionless in their sleeping bags. I step over Plants and out of the van to pee in the palest shade of dawn. It’s too cold to be awake! I shiver back into my bag and drift off again, to anxiety dreams about my dogs. I wake again at 8, feeling groggy and strange. The bright strong sun is up now and the others are sitting up and blinking. I set up the folding table and chairs outside and heat water for coffee.
“Looks like you’re stuck in the wash,” says a man, from above us on the ridge. He’s got a dog with him.
“We sure are,” I say. “You know how to get vans unstuck?” The man lights up at this call of duty. He circles the van, inspecting the tires.
“You got a shovel?” He says.
“Nah. Got a piece of cardboard maybe.”
“Here’s what you do.” He says. “You take air out of the tires for more traction.” He depresses a tire valve, and it begins to hiss. “You dig out the sand in front of the tires with your hands, to make a flat spot for the tire to roll. You put the cardboard under the tire that’s most stuck. You straighten the wheels. You rock back and forth. You make your friends push.”
I kneel down and dig the sand from in front of the tires. The man is positively aglow with this chance to be help. And I am grateful for his assistance.
“You want me to drive it out while you all push?” He asks.
“Yeah,” I say, relieved. The three of us lean on the rear end, the tires spin, and suddenly the van is free. The man revs it, wheels spinning, to the top of the hill.
“That was so great,” I say, after we thank him and he drives away. I feel like I just had a dad for a minute. Like we all had a dad.
We meet Pilar at the Alabama hills café. She drove down from Northern California, where she’s been at a cabin in the woods. We take a table in the crowded café and order giant plates of food. There’s a parade today, and dudes are dressed as cowboys. The fantasy of colonization is strong in the rural west. As white people of North American, it’s all we have. Our only remembered connection to the earth. How fucked up and sad is that? I pour hazelnut creamer into my second cup of coffee and touch my face, which feels hot. I’m sunburned already, somehow. Plants, who is vegan, tears into a plate of sautéed zucchini. Restaurants have hilarious ideas of what vegan food is. He’s not complaining, though.
At the store we buy ten gallons of water, some canned goods for our resupply box at Panamint springs, and several bags of candy corn. We add our warm layers to the Panamint resupply box, alongside the canned goods. It’ll be warm on this hike, but not as warm as the other time I hiked it, as I’m starting two weeks later. We’ll be able to get by without warm things for the first fifty miles, but then we’ll likely want them.
“It’s already freezing up here at night,” said the caretaker of the Cerro Gordo ghost town, when I called to ask if we could pay him to hold water for us. “I’ve been having to light the woodstove.”
I park my van in the lot behind the grocery store, leave a sign in the window with my return date and phone number and asking that it please not be towed, and we pile into Pilar’s car for the long drive to our start point. Our plan is to drop our caches along the way and leave Pilar’s car in Furnace Creek. After the hike, we’ll drive my van to Furnace Creek to retrieve hers.
Death Valley is a dry place, even drier than the Sonoran desert where I live, and as we drop down into it on the winding road my nostrils sting and my throat goes hoarse. The mountains are raw and bare, the valleys scoured flat by the wind. The air is thick. My mouth feels wrong. I drink water, but it doesn’t help.
We hide two water caches in the desert, piling rocks on top of our gallons, and drop our box at the general store in Panamint Springs. At Furnace creek Laurie buys a cheap headlamp, as they forgot theirs. We’ll be walking in the dark a lot, on this trip. We park Pilar’s car in the Furnace Creek visitor’s center parking lot, to retrieve after we finish the route, fill our water bottles with four liters each, and are faced with a final conundrum- how to get the rest of the way to Badwater basin, the start of our hike. The sun will set in an hour. We can try to hitch, but will we make it before dark?
Two people in dirty hiking clothes and fanny packs approach us from the other end of the lot.
“Are you starting the L2H?” They ask us. “We’re on the Hayduke.”
“You must have gotten really lost,” says Plants, deadpan.
Their names are QB and Endless, and they got off the Hayduke, hitched to Vegas and rented a car in order to attend a wedding. They’re on a short trip through Death Valley, en route. After the wedding, they’ll hitch back to the Hayduke. They offer to drive us to Badwater basin. I cannot believe our luck! Not only do we not have to hitch, but we’re getting a ride from Hayduke hikers? This is amazing. We pile inside their massive pickup truck, crank the air conditioning, and we’re off.
At Badwater basin the sun is setting, the sky lavender and orange above the white salt flats. A crowd of people swirls on the salt, taking selfies from every angle. It’s not very hot right now- the air is a warm bath. Our hottest day on this trip will be tomorrow, crossing the playa before Panamint springs- and the high will only be 90! Not like the two other times I’ve crossed that playa and it was 110 and 115 degrees, respectively. We really lucked out on weather this time around.
I take a deep breath, looking out across the salt flats. We’re 282 feet below sea level. Across the expanse of white is Telescope ridge, 10 thousand feet above sea level. Tonight, we cross the flat. Tomorrow, we climb ten thousand feet up to that ridge and then descend seven thousand feet down the other side. The next day we cross a long, exposed, hot valley before finally reaching our first stop- Panamint springs resort, with its showers and burgers.
I only had a month to train for this hike. I did so on a treadmill at the community center near my house, where a membership costs $24 for three months. I set the incline on the treadmill at maximum and walked uphill at 3mph while watching netflix, and alternated a mile of this with a mile of running on zero incline as fast as I could. I repeated this for 6 to 7 miles, and did this workout 4-5 times a week. I’ve never trained on a treadmill before and I have no idea if it was enough. The last time I did this hike I’d just finished thru hiking the PCT in four months and was in the best shape of my life. Am I in good shape right now? Or will this hike break me, crumbling me into a thousand small pieces that will blow away on the wind. There’s only one way to find out.
I buckle my hipbelt. I feel good right now. I slept a full eight hours last night. My pack is light, with minimal layers, my one person tarp, four liters of water, no stove and only three days of food. I think that I can do this.
We take some group photos at the wooden Badwater Basin sign and then set out, walking into the desert to die.
The salt flats of Badwater basin are amorphous. The salt flats of Badwater basin contain multitudes. They are free from the constructs of inherent form. The salt flats of Badwater basin are chonky, irregular, sharp. They are alternatingly smooth and spikey, brittle and soft. Our minds and feet work to make sense of these textures as we wander across the expanse of white. The lavender and orange of the sky intensifies, until it feels as though we are suspended within it. I stop and bend over, plucking a piece of salt. I put it in my mouth. It tastes like metal and the earth.
Tonight is the full moon in Aries. I know very little about astrology, but that sounds nice. Full moon in Aries. This bloated moon spills over the crest of the pink mountains behind us, casting long moonshadows just as the last of the daylight fades in the west. We don’t need headlamps. The night is dark and also bright. Cronch, cronch, cronch go our footsteps as they break through the crusts of salt. The cronching echoes in the thick air, which swallows all other sound.
The first water source on this route is Hanapauh canyon, fifteen miles from the start. We’d considered walking there tonight. But after six miles we leave the salt flats and start climbing on a dirt road, eating pieces of the elevation gain that will eventually bring us to the cold pinyon forest of Telescope ridge. It’s night, the adrenaline has left us. We’re beat. Who walks this late?!
“This reminds me of when I worked overnight as a baker,” says Pilar. I sweep my arms.
“All of this is bread.”
After ten miles we throw our bedrolls in the dirt. It’s as good a place to sleep as any.
I eat my cold soaked instant refried beans with Red Hot Blues tortilla chips. The texture and flavor of the cold beans is pretty bad. Pilar passes around a bag of candy corn. The corn smells like, and has the texture of, vanilla scented taper candles. I eat a whole handful, biting each piece into three, according to the color demarcations. Dinner finished, I tend to my butt chafe with baby wipes and vagisil. I inflate my sleeping pad under the moon.
I have not cowboy camped in a long time. When you cowboy camp you do not set up a tent. Your roof is the stars, and you are cradled by the wind. Insects crawl over you in the night. They pause on the bridge of your nose. They check their watches. They are running late. They hurry down your cheeks, muttering to themselves. They don’t think of you, of your heavy human worries. They have their own lives.
The moon shines on our faces like a flashlight. The air dries the sweat from my clothes. Is it too bright to sleep? Eventually, the answer is no.
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