Devastating winds seem to follow our family vacations. In 2012 we decided to cut short a visit to New Orleans when military rescue personnel began to appear at our hotel in large numbers. There had been rumblings that a great storm was approaching and rescue workers were casually grilling and drinking beer by the pool awaiting its arrival. At 8:00pm we packed up the car and drove without incident to a lovely hotel in Mississippi. The next morning the city of New Orleans was evacuated for Hurricane Isaac.
This week we were tucked into a nice little tent camping site next to the Mesquite Sand Dunes in Death Valley when the worst wind storm of the year decided to rush through the valley. When I travel the desert, the contemplation that is always foremost on my mind is the odyssey of the poor pioneers who crossed the West on foot and by wagon. I often ponder what desperation or delusion must have fueled the force of will and grit it would take to persevere on a journey so rife with insurmountable landscape and deprivation of resources. In this modern day of graded, if not paved, roads and fuel powered vehicles, it is almost impossible to imagine toiling over mountain passes and desert sand dunes with ox wagons. On this trip our family had a rare opportunity to sample something of the challenge the lost Death Valley 49’ers and others must have faced.
Just like the Death Valley 49’ers, our camp was at the base of the Panamint Range at the edge of the Mesquite Sand Dunes, at the very site where those unfortunate 49’ers burned their wagons and butchered their oxen in attempt to pass the Panamint Mountains to find civilization on foot. As we slept, the night the breeze carried the smell of sulphur from the valley floor. My husband, Michael, and the boys slept in the tent, but as it was a clear night I slept under the stars. It is my preference to be wrapped in the desert sky while I sleep rather than be shielded from it with netting and nylon. When I wake in the night to water the bushes I enjoy lying wide-eyed for awhile to watch the impromptu presentation the mid-night sky performs while most sleep.
After a still clear night we embarked on the adventure trail. Further north up the valley of death, a light breeze accompanied us on a fascinating hike where
we discovered a series of petroglyphs and rock monoliths that acted as road signs pointing migrant natives out of the mountains and toward water. The petroglyphs were carved into volcanic rock blasted from the belly of Ubehebe volcano a few dozen miles away. (More on that in a future post.) We had planned to picnic for lunch following our hike then investigate the source of the volcanic rock field, Ubehebe, but the wind was getting a bit strong so, believing that the wind was a function of being on the valley floor, we opted to drive up to Ubehebe volcanic crater and see if we could find a nice picnic spot up there, above the weather. Wrong.
The wind picked up enthusiasm and by the time we summited the crater the wind was blowing steadily at no less than 40 mph. We could barely open the car doors against the wind. We instantly bagged all plans to hike Big and Little Hebe craters, hurriedly huddled together for a family photo then stuffed the kids back in the car to nosh on salami and cheese while we made fun of hikers attempting to work their way around the crater back to their cars.
Ever the optimists who lives in a fantasy world of denial I was imagining that we might wait out the wind and go pecking around for some ancient evidence of Native American volcano worship, but Michael, the pragmatist, suggested that we should probably drive back across the valley and see if we still had a tent. Tent shment, I don’t sleep in there anyway…but we went. And boy was he right!
Along the valley floor there were twisters everywhere. Sand was blowing over the road at some places with zero visibility.
Its my understanding that in more densely populated areas of the mojave desert there was such poor visibility on the roads that there was a 15 car pileup resulting in 28 injuries and 3 hospitalized.
As we passed the Mesquite Sand Dunes and approached our campground at Stovepipe Wells we visually scanned the dunes to see if any dum dums were still out there hiking around. There were a few.
We pulled up to the campsite as it started to rain.
Luck was on our side. Before leaving camp we opted to place ALL of our camping gear inside the tent to deter theft and it worked. The weight of the gear kept the wind from stealing our tent, but we found it nearly flattened over the ballast in gusts of wind that were now up to 60 mph.
In conditions this severe we could not open our eyes at all except when we put our backs to the wind AND shielded our eyes. We wore protective sunglasses, but they were immediately covered with dust inside and out and totally blinded us. To save the tent from further damage we disconnected the poles and tucked the fabric under the gear so the poles wouldn’t continue to bend and the fabric wouldn’t flap and tear in the wind. Finding our way back to the car was extremely difficult.
I couldn’t see where I was or where to go. My youngest son and Michael were suffering the same. They both got lost in the flurry. My son was shouting “Dad!”, and by following his voice, my husband was able to make his way over to him and pick him up, in route he felt the familiar rise and fall of the terrain an was able to navigate by feel back to the car. I had to stand in the wind for 2 or 3 minutes with my eyes closed trying to work enough sand out of my contact lenses to peer through my fingers at where the car might be. I, too, felt my way around a sand birm in the direction of the car and found my way to its shelter. This effort completely exhausted us.
Unlike the Death Valley 49’ers, we were fortunate to have a Saloon across the street and we hopped over there faster than you can say “slaughter the oxen”. We braved the pelting sand one more time to get from the car to the saloon where we set up camp with playing cards and enough change to keep the kids busy at the pool table and determined to wait out the storm with many many cocktails.
In a few hours and hundreds of dollars later the wind abated some, I was goggle-eyed drunk and chatting up some adventurous Romanians about treks they’ve made in Utah, and Michael had secured a hotel room at Stovepipe Wells. Again, he’d saved the day by paying for the last room in the house just before several other people came in to do the same and were turned away.
We went back to camp to gather our gear and assess the damage. The wind was still strong and somebody else’s badly damaged tent had blowed into a bush near our tent. We all had some fun hitching a ride to Oz with the wayward tent before getting down to business and packing up our gear.
Every item of gear, sleeping bags, tent zippers, everything, was infused with sand. There was a couple of pounds of sand pooled on the floor of the tent. It was a total mess. We shook it out as best we could, shoved it all in the back of the jeep, and then dumped it all in a pile on the hotel floor. The sand had even permeated the hotel room. A thin layer of grit lay on every surface. I now have a much better understanding of what it meant to be in the American Dust Bowl. The air smelled and tasted of dust, everything in the environment was covered and infused with dust, dust was constantly being transferred from fingers to eyes, ears, nose and mouth. Life is married to dust.
Even after showering, I still had sand in my ears. I was pretty drunk by this point so I don’t remember eating my hamburger, but I must have done because it did disappear and I wasn’t hungry anymore. I was sober enough not to buy this hat at the gift shop.
What I did buy (or rather Michael bought for me) was a beautiful turquoise ring that I was very excited about. It was fun shopping for this ring because I haggled with the salesperson over the price until she graciously extended me a 15% discount (a word to the wise: never pay full price for jewelry). I had that ring on my finger for literally 15 minutes before I lost it. LOST IT in the sandstorm! I was crushed and Michael gave me a withering look that said, “I can’t believe I just bought my stinking drunk wife a piece of jewelry and then set her free to lose it in a sand storm. Why?” I spent the night mourning the loss of my new ring and the next morning I traveled the village leaving my phone number with campers, the camp host, and the store clerk. To be honest, I told the most tragic version of my tale of loss to the store clerk who I was hoping would take pity on me and offer me a sweet deal on a brand new ring, but instead she just commented on how I was suffering from a luxury problem and at least all I lost in the storm of the century was a stupid ring. She verbally pat me on my head and sent me on my way. Pfffffth.
The next day Michael got to be a hero for a second time regarding that ring. He found it in our bin of gear. My hand had been so cold and sandy that the ring had slipped off my finger when I stuffed a sleeping bag into our gear bin. The upshot was that Michael got to be a hero twice, once when he bought the ring and once when he found it. He wasn’t even irritated at me for losing it because he was so proud of himself for finding it. And truly, it turns out I had lost it while dutifully fighting the good fight on behalf of our family’s gear so it wasn’t the result of sloppy drunkenness after all and I was absolved.
Following the path of the Death Valley 49’ers we crossed the Panamint Range over Emigrant Pass and Wildrose Canyon and continued our adventures in the next valley of toil for our poor 49’ers, Panamint Valley.