Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Are you all tired of hearing about Death Valley yet? For your sake, I hope not.

The thing about a desert is this: there’s a whole lot of nothing. And sure, I knew that going in, but the true impact of it all really does tend to sneak up on you. For instance, if you stop, and get out of your car, and hike around in the desert, this may be where you end up:

Stovepipe Wells sand dunes

Way, way up there at the very tip of the right side of that dune, is Nate and Charlie.

And where at first you see absence, you eventually see space. Lots and lots of it. More than enough to get lost in (metaphorically speaking, of course).

Toby, traversing a dune.

On our last full day in Death Valley, we decided to drive 50 miles to the west to hike down into Ubehebe Crater. We packed a light lunch, loaded the cars, and took off. What we didn‘t count on (does anyone, ever?) was the 1 hour + road construction delay and subsequent road conditions necessitating a 30 mph speed limit. Put mildly, it was a long, boring, and dusty trip to the crater. To be perfectly honest, it was probably too long, boring, and dusty to justify viewing what amounts to a giant hole in the ground (even if said hole is pretty darn cool).

Ubehebe Crater

But view it we did. And run straight down it we (‘we’ meaning Nate and Calvin) did, and picnic lunch we did. And it was lovely, really, if not paid for dearly in car time.

Nate racing to the bottom.

But we had to return to our ranch home away from home sooner or later. And so we forged ahead (or back, as the case may be), crawling painstakingly behind pilot cars and pitifully slow RVs over roads steaming with fresh asphalt, all the while itching for the spring-fed pool that awaited us back at Furnace Creek. And somewhere along the way, Nate’s Nintendo ran out of juice, and then we ran out of snacks, and almost exactly ten seconds after that, they started to bicker in the back seat.

And maybe it was the fresh pavement fumes talking, or perhaps I had heat stroke, but I looked out the windshield at all that dry, empty, endless desert surrounding us in every direction, and then I took inventory of all we had to do to occupy ourselves besides stare out at this expanse while cruising at the lightning speed pace of 15 mph (which was precisely nothing), and slowly, an odd sense of satisfaction came over me. I felt the same way I do when I slowly rake a path of sand across a pristine desktop Zen garden (except that I only have the attention span to do that once before discarding it for something--anything--else).

I felt…calm.

The speed of the car, so agonizing mere minutes before, became bearable--deliberate, even--and I thought, ‘Why not? Why can’t we simply do nothing but stare out at the desert for a few hours? What will it matter? Who will it hurt? Why can’t we simply slow down?’

I was, after all, on vacation.

But even on vacation, I never vacation. (Ask my husband, who has been in desperate need of an actual vacation for over a decade.) I rush. I organize. I plan. I itinerate (yes, that’s a word). And so this inconvenience Nate, Calvin, and I had on our way home from Ubehebe, this travel mishap, was a gift. It was time, dropped squarely in our laps. And we weren’t at liberty to slice and dice it, or allocate it, or bank it, or schedule it. It was thrust upon us by an overly tanned twenty-something in a neon orange safety vest holding a Stop sign, and we needed to take it.

For what it was.

Stillness. Quiet (once I’d squelched the backseat argument). An extra hour under the blue desert sky with its slowly falling ball of a sun. With its steady whistle of breeze in the scrub brush ever-constant behind the rhythmic roll of tires on dirt.

Nothing I would have selected out of a travel brochure or guidebook. Nothing I’d have seen the value of just minutes before.

Simply time. On vacation.

Well spent.

This post has been included in Seven Clown Circus' Wordful Wednesday.
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