And Back…

Well, that turned out to be a very productive Walkabout. I set up an office there, taking some of the essentials of the things I was working on and disappearing for most of the week. No computers, just pens, pencils, and paper. My office? A chair and a shelter made of thin fabric, string, two poles, and some large stones to weigh down the pegs against the wind. The shelter was against the sun, since I was in Death Valley, camping. As I sometimes do.

My routine was simple: I’d wake up at about sunrise or shortly thereafter and after a visit to the restrooms across the way to freshen up a bit, I’d get my old whisperlite stove going to make some water boiling for tea. Once that’s done, I’d make a pot of oatmeal for breakfast and sitting eating it while flicking at the gnats that seem to begin to swarm during the morning’s first heat, I’d watch the morning move along for a while, with campers across the way getting ready for their day’s hikes or drives in the area. (My hiking boots and other gear were with me just in case I wanted to hike, but that was not my focus, and I didn’t in the end.) Next I’d make a large pot of coffee (sweetened with dark brown sugar), have a cup of it then and there, and pour the rest into a thermos flash for consumption during the day. Then I’d wash up everything, put them away, and take my work materials to my office, situated just behind my tent. By then, most people have left for good or for the day in the neighboring campsites, and it is quiet, except for the large ravens that tour the campgrounds investigating everything, calling out to each other with an interesting repertoire of sounds. (They stare boldly and defiantly at you, and simply stride out of your path if you approach them, only reluctantly flying away if you get too close.)

I’d be there until just after the sun had broken the symmetric arrangement of the shadows of the shade, telling me that it had crested, and it was probably lunchtime. (In addition to no email, phone, tv, and so forth, I’ve been enjoying also the freedom of not knowing or caring what the exact time was, nor even what day it was at times…) Lunch would see me getting the loaf ofbread and slicing off two slices, and putting cheese and cured meat from the coolers onto them, along with a handful of herb salad. Perfect sandwich. I’d eat looking out from under the shade at the warm day, and listen to the I’d drink some more water (been drinking all along since it is the middle of the day in Death Valley) and think for a while, assessing where I’d got to, work wise.

After some coffee, it is a bit more work. Next, it would be time for my circuit walk which starts with the restrooms, the wash stands to clean off any lunch things, and then cycles over to the small supply store at the edge of the campground that has a stock of ice. I would get a bag of it for the cooler to preserve the few things that I have in it on an on going basis. (Milk, cheese, salami, salad leaves.) The old ice is now mostly cold water, so I would throw that out, clear any ziplock bags that have got flooded (for some reason, mumbling “epic fail, ziplock” if I find one that leaks – probably not their fault) and refill with ice. (On three of the days I put in a bottle of Leffe blonde for an evening treat later on…)

After more work in the shade, and battles with gnats (eucalyptus extract bug repellent helps a bit) I would begin to wind down when the sun is hovering low over the mountains to the West. Time to begin starting preparations for dinner making. Perhaps not immediately hungry, I might walk for 15 minutes away from my tent into the emptiness to think, and then return. People are returning to their campsites now, and some people are showing up (late) to try to claim sites, and putting up tents before nightfall. So it is a good time to get noisy stuff done anyway, since everyone else is. I cut wood for the fireplace I’ll have later with my little axe, and the begin to boil water with the camp stove. At about that time I’d stare at my supplies to help decide what to make for dinner, and then get to it, selecting from the onions, garlic, beets, potatoes, beans, asparagus, pasta, couscous, and tomatoes that I have brought (among other things – way too many things). (On the other hand, never let it be said that camping food need be dull and purely functional.)

I’d planned to work in the night as well, – arguably the best time since there are no gnats and it is cooler – but there’s not as good light, and my mood is different then. A small source of light for me is not as good for drawing and writing as it is for reading, so I usually sat by the (now lit) wood fire read a bit of the excellent novel Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, which I cannot recommend highly enough. (I do have a camping lantern that one can run that lights up a large area, but then it seems a bit obnoxious to me to have it on that bright and long enough for a lot of work. It cuts into the night for everyone around. So I don’t do it for long. I would have it on for cooking, and then I turned it down later.)

At some point, I would wander over across the way to wash up the dinner things and visit the restrooms, and eventually make it to bed at some point, and rapidly fall asleep after reading in the tent for a bit, sipping a small helping from the bottle of the Macallan 10 year old I happened to leave in there. By the way, did you see the fascinating highly display of Venus and Jupiter together in the sky? It was a spectacular extra treat each night I was there.

That was my routine for the days I was there. There was an interesting wrinkle on the last night, however. On Friday, the day was cooler, with lots of clouds that built up toward the end of the day. A new neighbour came and talked for a while, and one of the things he wanted to show me was his fancy wrist barometer, which showed the pressure low, and falling. This fit with the rumor of rain that was there through the day, and more notably to me, it was a promise of wind. I’d earlier reinforced the shade a bit and wondered if I should take it down before bed. It was my plan to perhaps leave right after breakfast in the morning to head back to LA anyway. There’d likely be no sun to need shelter from in any case.

For some reason I decided to go to bed anyway, and later on woke up to the sound of growing wind, which pounded on the tent furiously, and harassed the shade structure a lot. I listened for a while, and then heard it getting worse, and could hear things being thrown around at other places in the camp where people had not secured things (chairs and so forth). I got up and stuffed everything (clothes, novel, whiskey, candle lamp…) into the stuff bag to prepare to abandon ship if the tent was in danger, and got outside to have a look. There was quite the windstorm going, with a huge amount of sand being blown everywhere, and the embers from the rest of my fire in the pit threatening to be blown around. (Frankly, I should not have left them unextinguished in any case – it was a stupid thing to do – but the calm nights so far had made me forget this. Flying embers in the wind can burn holes in tents. While there’s not much in the way of vegetation to worry about and hence brush fires, that’s concern enough to put out the embers as a matter of course.) I poured water on the fire pit, and then went to get one of the many things I’d teased myself about for having brought along as useless ballast. I’d thrown into the mix a large set of safety goggles I’d been using at home for various tasks, mumbling “sandstorm” to myself. They were just perfect here. While various people wandered around half blindly in the flying sand trying to secure their tents, I was able to see clearly and help out. I waited for a lull in the wind and then took down the shade structure and secured it in the car. Then I secured the corners of my tent with some of the stones, and gave some of the others to a family on one side who had just arrived that evening. Then I gave the stones from my tent to the guy on the other side, who had a little old high-sided tent he’d secured with almost useless thin spindly shiny tent pegs in the sandy soil. He needed them more than I did.

I then made a decision. If the wind kept up, while I was sure my tent would be fine, I was not sure I’d get back to sleep any time soon. So I’d lie there and wait until light and then pack up and go as planned. I’d be all tired from lack for sleep for the 5 hour drive back. Why not just leave now? I could not decide. I reached into my pocket and grabbed a coin and said “heads I leave”. I looked at it. Lincoln memorial. “Best of three”, I said, and reached again. Eagle. “Damn.” It was such a good plan and a great adventure, and the coins/fates wanted no part of it.

I ignored them, and took down the tent the next lull in the wind and hit the road after a stop at the restroom one last time. Finally seeing the time on the car’s clock, I noted that I’d either gone to sleep really early, or had not slept that much, since it was only about midnight when I must have got up to fight the wind, and only about 12:45am when leaving the campground. I headed out of Death Valley in the wind, the roads sometimes covered in flowing, blowing sand. Like the wind, with almost nobody else on the roads but me for most of the way, and under cover of darkness, I flew in my journey to LA, arriving home only four hours later, at 4:45am. (I’d even stopped for gas and coffee at one point, so am quite pleased with my time. It’s not really about the speed for me (no, really!), but I will admit that I was curious at a few points at some long straight stretches (once the wind had abated) to see if the old girl still liked to get deep into the three figure section of the speedometer…)

And so I have returned. The trip was almost as perfectly to plan as I could have hoped, with a good chunk of work done, and a little unexpected drama and adventure at the end.

So a good Spring break altogether, but now I am late on my Spring garden preparations. I should have had the vegetable beds prepared and the planting done by now… That’s my focus for next week, I suppose…


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5 Responses to And Back…

  1. Carol Johnson says:

    Welcome back – the wind chased you back! Good luck with garden! cmj+

  2. Philip says:

    FANTASTIC. I love the image of you emerging out of the billowing sands, wearing goggles, offering help to the needy. Sand Man!

  3. Clifford says:

    Ha! I’d not thought of that… I’ll consent to be the Sandman as long as I’m drawn by the awesome Michael Zulli



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