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Traveling Death Valley By Trailer: Why Not?

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

I grew up picturing the desert as I saw it on Saturday morning TV westerns. That impression – of uninhabitable expanses that required 100 gallons of water to drive across – stayed with me until I experienced the desert for myself.

As RVers, we seek variety in our camping spots. My wife, Monique, can’t wait to return to the ocean shores. I love being in rugged mountains. We look forward to our stops in the woods or by a lake alongside a meadow. We visit cities, too, but we prefer nature. And the desert presents a nature all its own.

After winding up a week in Death Valley, we decided to stay a few days longer to linger in the beautiful emptiness and serenity that surrounded us. We had grown to love the ever-changing vistas that start with the early morning sun illuminating peaks of surrounding hills and mountains. The creviced hills have their own character, much like the faces of old cowboys and miners who dwelt under the scorching sun for seemingly endless years.

With a nature all its own, the desert adds another dimension to trailer travel.

With a nature all its own, the desert adds another dimension to trailer travel.

As the sun rises in the sky, the mountains lose most of their color and harsh outlines.  Then, a few hours later, pastel purples, dark greens, pale blues and dim gray hues begin to tint the stark landscape, set apart by those deep shadows akin to a stained glass window. And at night the sky is amazing, like a black and white version of Times Square or the Las Vegas Strip. How long can you be entertained looking at the twinkling planets and ever-present stars, deep set throughout the ebony background? Long enough to see a meteorite flash across your line of vision. Long enough to find a manmade satellite cruising from one horizon through deep space to the other end of the universe. That’s when you fault the moon for shining too much light on your nighttime sky.

The darkened desert offers a special experience. You can easily see our sun’s neighboring stars in the Milky Way, with all of this being accompanied by the songs of distant baying coyotes. You can hear sounds from miles away when the wind behaves, like the cry of a disturbed crow, a branch tumbling across the desert floor or the screech of an owl. Every now and then, breaking the silence is a far-away truck plying the nighttime highways or a plane rushing to find landing lights hundreds of miles over the horizon.

The rocky crevices of Death Valley’s mountainous surroundings present endless photo ops.

The rocky crevices of Death Valley’s mountainous surroundings present endless photo ops.

The desert is, among other things, a visual experience. As many people forget even when they are in the middle of it, this is a place that can best be appreciated by focusing outward, instead of on the HDTV on the trailer wall. It’s a place to take comfort in how small we are in this vast world.

Monique and I find that we gain our greatest appreciation for our desert surroundings when we take the opportunity to do more than contemplate the beauty but actually become part of it. How do we do this? We forget about the maps and points of interest. As we drive through the varied terrains, we stop when we find a place that offers some interesting rock formation, greenery or barrenness. Except on a few curvy mountain roads, there are often pullouts or shoulders that can accommodate our 50 feet of truck and trailer, and miraculously, they are where we would want to pause in our journey for a while.

Somehow, vegetation survives in Death Valley.

Somehow, vegetation survives in Death Valley.

Whether we’re along a paved road or walking a dirt trail, we find the spot and settle in. It takes me a few minutes to get over looking at every sight as a photo op, eventually focusing on the array of shapes, colors and flow of the land. I finally make the transition. Instead of looking at the scenery, it’s time to immerse myself in the surroundings. As one ranger put it, “just be there” without letting your mind think about each element across the expanse. By that time, your brain already knows what a desert looks like – your mind can soon appreciate this as an opportunity to embrace the feeling of these fascinating surroundings.

In deserts with cactus and vegetation, we wonder how it all survives and even thrives. We see a spindly tree holding on for dear life on a bald boulder and wonder if that’s actually possible. A yellow flower smiles down from a crevice between two rocks, reminding us that the harshness of the environment is an intrinsic part of desert life. One never tires of seeing a saguaro cactus’ arms stretched upward, silhouetted against a rosy sunset or the bright red flowers that line an ocotillo’s branches like Christmas lights along the eaves of a home.

As more and more of the Earth’s surface is electrified, the chance of finding the almost absolute darkness of night will continue to diminish. We also learned during a ranger talk that the stars of the Big Dipper are moving apart at a rate of millions of miles an hour. It will be about 10,000 years before the constellation is no longer discernable from our world.

These are just some of the thousands of RVs that fill Furnace Creek during 49er Encapment Days.

These are just some of the thousands of RVs that fill Furnace Creek during 49er Encapment Days.

The 1849 gold rush wagon trains are celebrated during Death Valley’s 49er Encampment Days.

The 1849 gold rush wagon trains are celebrated during Death Valley’s 49er Encampment Days.

 Well Worth It To Do Without

Camping in the desert takes planning and the willingness to overlook minor hardships, like running out of coffee or losing cell phone reception. Who camps in the desert? Travelers in all the standard RV types, although high winds can take their toll on pop-ups.

Among the thousands of rigs that drove hundreds of miles to attend 49er Encampment Days in Death Valley’s Furnace Creek (www.deathvalley49ers.org) were a few time-worn models, pock-marked from years of blowing sand and faded by the harsh sun. But there were almost as many glistening half-million dollar motor coaches, the conveyances of choice for those who haven’t let wealth blind them from the world as it was carved millions of years ago.

As I write this from my RV “office,” I glance out our rear windows at forbidding stones and gravel, probably here since lakes submerged this area for thousands of years. Some 500 yards beyond us are a series of café-au-lait colored mounds into which it appears as if a stream of half-and-half cream has been poured but hasn’t settled. Immediately behind the mounds are higher, sharper knolls, with a lavender hue at 10 a.m., turning to a tan, then to chocolate brown later in the day.

Our view of the rest of the world is hidden by a line of high hills, jagged and coarse, shaded a hundred different earth tones and lined with black highlights. Fortunately it doesn’t take climbing higher to see forever. It’s all encompassing.

“Away out here they’ve got a name for wind and rain and fire/The rain is Tess, the fire’s Joe and they call the wind Mariah.” The Kingston Trio nailed it when they singled out the wind for adoration. It blows the world around, particularly in spurts at night, scattering anything not held down. It’s part of the experience.

This kit fox keeps cool by heading to its underground burrow.

This kit fox keeps cool by heading to its underground burrow.

When you hear the word “desert,” you may think about Hopalong Cassidy drifting through sagebrush on a bed of rocky sand, spurs jingling or stopping by a remote oasis. That is the setting of the desert, but there is also the poetic aspect, the grand stillness and rejuvenating sense of the eternal.

There is no scene in nature any more incredible than a sand dune blown into place hundreds of years ago and constantly rising higher and dropping lower as the winds breathe life over billions of sand grains.

And across the top of those grains are footprints of a variety of critters that inhabit the area year-round, plus remnants left in the path of tumbleweeds.

When wildflowers appear miraculously from the barren terrain in the spring (which is never a certainty), the visitors viewing them do more than see the splendor; they feel it.  Rather than being afraid of the desert, cherish it. It’s an experience like no other.

From the Never-Bored RVers, we’ll see you on down the road.

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