Surviving the Night in Death Valley

If I were as overly dramatic as my teenage daughters I’d be saying “Worst night ever!” or “That was a literal shit storm!” or “I’d rather be dead!”

But instead I’ll say that our night of camping in Death Valley was astounding. And I’ll laugh and marvel at it always, just as I found myself doing when I finally stepped out of the tent at the first glimpse of daylight.

Not during the night. At no time during that long, long, painfully long night did I feel astounded. Well, actually I probably did, but that feeling would have been buried far beneath my frustration and exhaustion. And I surely wasn’t laughing. No, no laughing that night. Not til morning could I laugh.

We entered Death Valley National Park from the west, coming from a little California town called Lone Pine, in the early evening hours. That morning, we had been clear on the other side of the Sierra Nevadas in search of a giant sequoia.

As we entered the park, the evening light was incredibly beautiful, as was the landscape. I had no idea there were so many mountain ranges in and around Death Valley. And what really amazed me was the variety of colors, especially the chili powder rock that was so different from anything I’d ever seen in any other red rock country.

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We climbed and descended several times as we drove east and it was dark by the time we reached sea level. And we still had another 50 or so miles to our destination–Furnace Creek Campground, which is near the Visitor’s Center.

It was well past dark when we turned into the campground. I had made reservations online months before not knowing anything about the campground and having long forgotten what I may have read about it at the time. So we didn’t know what to expect. There was no one in the booth, of course, but there was a list of about 20 late arrival names and to which site they had been assigned. Our name was not on the list.

“I’m so tired,” I told the girls, as we drove around the campground. It was hard to tell how big the place was and how many people were there, but there was a lot of activity going on–campfires, people walking around, kids still outside playing–and I didn’t see any empty spots. “Maybe we should just sleep in the car.”

“Wait, mom,” said Amy, “you probably got a confirmation email when you made the reservation. Maybe it has our site number.”

“I doubt it. Plus, I don’t know if I would have saved it.” I didn’t keep too many emails in my inbox, but I did have a lot of email folders and Vacation was one of them. Sure enough, there was the email. Furnace Creek, Site No. 143.

We drove around the place a couple more times and didn’t see any numbers close to 143. So back to the booth we went, hoping to find a map. Ah ha, site 143 was in an area that looked like a tent village. We found the area and found our parking spot (clearly marked with a 143 sign), but we couldn’t determine where our actual camp spot was. Right in front of where we parked were two parties, a group of four older guys enjoying a campfire in a fire ring labeled as 144 and a group of girl scouts in spot number 142. The girl scout leaders had a map and together we figured that our site was just beyond these two sites, behind a clump of trees (Russian olives? hard to tell in the dark).

With headlamps, we tromped around, trying not to bother too many people with our voices or our bright lights as we searched for our spot. There sure seemed to be a lot of people tightly packed into this area. Once we found our spot, we had to turn around and find our vehicle again so we could start to unload. We were thinking necessities only–tent, bags, pillows, water, phones, book for me–because it was so late, it was a trek between car and tent spot, the wind was really starting to blow, and we were so tired that we were just planning on crashing right away anyway.

Despite the wind, we had our tent up in no time. We were a week into our Spring Break road trip by this point and we knew how to work as a team with the tent. Plus, we decided against the rain fly. It was 85 degrees at 9:00 at night and we wanted to feel the breeze blow through our tent.

Feel the breeze, we did. After a long day of hiking and driving and plenty of beautiful country, we finally laid our weary heads down, but within minutes we understood that sleep would be hard to come by. The wind continued to strengthen and with each push of wind came a wall of fine dirt.

The dirt blew through the mesh of the tent and became trapped within it. We could feel, as well as hear, it settle on the sleeping bags, pillows, tent floor, and our skin, particularly with the strongest gusts. I slipped into my sleeping bag for protection, but I couldn’t stay there long; it was just too warm.

I’ve had a few nights in the tent where real sleep was out of the question, due to cold temperatures, rain seeping in, noise in the area, not feeling safe, or antsy dogs. Those nights always seemed to last forever and most of the time was spent “praying” that it could just be morning already.

This was one of those nights but worse. Worse because I couldn’t open my eyes. At first because the blowing dirt hurt them too much. After a few hours because my eyelids were stuck shut, like when my eyes get goopy with conjunctivitis. I couldn’t play around on my phone and couldn’t read. The only comfortable position was laying on my left side, but that was where the wind was coming from and I couldn’t take the beating for long. So I’d flip back to my right side, which was the nonzipper side of the sleeping bag, which meant that it was too hot. Back and forth, back and forth, all night long. In between I would listen to and marvel at the wind and this blowing dirt phenomenon.

Focusing on the wind was interesting. There were times when it would seem to be dying down. It would get eerily quiet for a minute or two. But then I would hear it. Not feel it; hear it. Each gust started far away on my right side. I could hear it enter that area or start over there. Then it circled around in the direction of my feet, still far off. From there, it grew louder and louder as it circled back toward me on my left. As the noise climaxed, the dirt blew, pelting the tent, our bedding, any exposed skin.

This happened dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times.

I imagined a semi-circle of a mountain range, to the right, foot-side, and left of me, whatever those directions were, and the wind racing along them, like a skateboarder on the curve of a bowl.

The sound of the wind as it finally reached me and the dirt it carried reminded me of the instant burst that comes from the burner of a hot air balloon. Just as that flame turns off suddenly, so would the wind. And the newest arrival of dirt would settle with little sprinkling sounds.

I brushed my hand across my pillow and it was coated in dirt. I touched my face, but did not make contact with my skin. Just dirt.

I wasn’t sure if the girls were awake. I didn’t speak to them, not wanting to wake them if by some miracle they had figured out how to sleep through this. At one point, Addy said, “Mom, I’m going to the car.”

I panicked, and responded with, “No, you’re not! I already thought of that but we all need to stay here and hold the tent down. If one of us leaves, the corners are going to start coming up.”

I wasn’t scared, but being mom, I had the need to keep us all together.

Of course, I had to pee. And I had no idea where the nearest bathroom was since we pulled in in the dark and the layout of the place was so disorienting. I really was concerned about exiting the tent, fearing that my half would lift up and fold over onto the girls.

Finally, I went outside and peed just five feet from the tent. Downwind. Mostly so that I could catch the tent if it decided to take off. I had no idea who was around us, how close, whether anyone could see or hear me. But that’s the way it had to be done.

I checked the time on my phone twice (12:23, 2:12), but then no more because of the amount of dirt that had built up on the screen, this with it being hidden in my sleeping bag. Perhaps I drifted off for an hour, maybe two.

I do know that I was awake when the first wisps of pastel light blew into the tent along with the dirt. Hallelujah! It was morning!

I fumbled with the zipper, my eyes nearly pasted shut, and stumbled out, alive, into Death Valley. I hooked my fingers into the collar of my t-shirt, turned it inside out, hoping to find some clean cloth, and wiped it gently across my eyes.

Better. I could see and I surveyed my surroundings.

There was the clump of trees. An orange tent had blown into them, and rested, tangled, about 15 feet off the ground. Between the trunks, I could see another tent completely flat on the ground, as if an elephant had sat on it and left just seconds ago.

There were two tents to the right. I turned in the other direction. Not far away at all, maybe 20 feet, was a man. There was a tent and a camper at his site.

Our eyes met. I wasn’t sure how I looked, but I knew how I felt. I felt filthy. My hair was heavy with dirt. My mouth was dry, teeth and tongue gritty. I imagined myself a movie character, a lost person stumbling back into civilization, unsure of where she is or how long she’s been gone, wondering if everyone is seeing things the way I am.

The  man smiled. I smiled, too. And then I laughed. I literally laughed out loud.

“Well, that was quite a night!” I wasn’t speaking to my neighbor, necessarily, more to the powers that be.

A shower. I couldn’t wait to take a shower. I ambled around until I found the nearest bathroom. Inside, there were toilets, but no showers. But, there was a sink. With running water. Water to rinse away the dirt.

It wasn’t easy scrubbing away the grime that had been forced into the pores of my skin all night long. But it was okay that it took so long because it felt good. And a change of clothes felt pretty darn good, too.

When I returned to the tent and started removing my bedding to shake it out, I found a quarter-inch of dirt in some places. The wind, still blowing, made the shaking out process a bit easier. As the girls emerged from the tent, they didn’t look around in wonder as I had. And they certainly didn’t laugh. Instead, what I heard was, “Worst night ever!” and “What a shit storm that was.”

Soon, we were on our way to see the rest of Death Valley, particularly Badwater Basin, which is 282 feet below sea level and reaches temperatures of 117 degrees in the summer months.

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Death Valley – a beautiful place. But rumor has it that you shouldn’t visit in the summer. And I certainly don’t recommend tent camping on a windy night.

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. vannillarock
    Apr 23, 2014 @ 23:35:44

    Great post! Especially love that sky in the first shot. Hope to get there sometime- we have been close several times but you are right, we also were advised to avoid the summer months

    Reply

    • randee
      Apr 24, 2014 @ 02:30:46

      Yes, the sky sure was cooperating while we drove through. I was expecting it to be much more remote and desolate. Thx for reading and hope you make it some day.

      Reply

  2. Billybuc
    Apr 24, 2014 @ 08:26:21

    You hung in there a lot longer than I would have. I’m not a desert kind of guy. 🙂

    Reply

  3. outlawmama
    Apr 24, 2014 @ 10:19:24

    This looks AMAZING. I want to go there!!! Love the pictures!

    Reply

    • randee
      Apr 24, 2014 @ 10:47:20

      I was really impressed with the interior of California, from all the agriculture around Bakersfield, to the giant Sequoias, the Mojave Desert, the serious Sierra Nevadas (and this from a girl who lives in the Rocky Mountains), and the beauty of Death Valley. Thanks for reading and leaving a note. Where do you live again?

      Reply

  4. betunada
    Apr 25, 2014 @ 16:08:40

    that 1st, cloud, pixure, is perdee neet. reminded me of just yesterday, behind the Grand Hogback, there was the spinal column, vertebrae, of a dragon in the sky. and, yes, nites in the tent from heck. between college and starting werk “b” ‘n me were in a tent somewhere west of wear yoo wuzz — mayhaps 50 mi from the CA coast. the wind blew so hard it lifted the tent up with both of us in it.
    and i’m MMM prest how prolific you “put up” the posts, and with alawta good werdz, to boot. heh …

    Reply

    • randee
      Apr 25, 2014 @ 16:49:11

      It’s kind of a problem — this desire to write. It’s really cutting into my reading and running time. Still trying to figure out how to balance everything.

      Oh, and I loved the sky that Death Valley presented to us. I took a ton of pictures. Hard to narrow it down to just a few for the blog.

      Reply

  5. gapark
    Apr 27, 2014 @ 21:05:36

    That first photo is breathtaking. Worth the experience?? You are very brave.

    Reply

    • randee
      Apr 27, 2014 @ 22:26:19

      Thank you on the photo. Absolutely worth it. Already a great memory. I don’t know about brave. That seems like a characteristic you discover and use in dire situations, like carrying a child several miles for help or pulling someone from a fire. I’m calm, but I don’t know about brave.

      Reply

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