Steven and Sean on the Polar Bear Cam
Steven and Sean on the Polar Bear Cam

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Desert Place

Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while.
- Mark 6:31

Death Valley has long been a favorite place of mine.

Before Doug and I were married, I lobbied hard for us to make a trip out to our largest national park, and he thought I was completely nuts.

He told me it would be baking hot and windy like a blast furnace, with no reward other than a barren landscape.

I've always loved the desert and I was certain before I ever went that I'd love it. And I did, although it was hot and occasionally very windy, it was also a breathtakingly beautiful place.

Death Valley occupies 3.3 million acres in the middle of California. It is home to Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level, as well as the 11,049-foot summit of Telescope Peak.

Doug's only experience going to Death Valley before he met me was a drive-through the park with his family in the middle of August with no air conditioning, and without me begging to go I don't believe he would ever have returned.

On our first trip there, his prediction about wind came true the first night, we'd pitched our 2-man dome tent under a cottonwood tree and the wind was so strong we had to tie the top of our tent into the tree to keep it from being blown down.

But wind in Death Valley comes and goes and it can go from 60 mile-per-hour winds to dead calm over a period of about 30 seconds.

The rest of that first trip was calm, daytime temps in the 90's and 70's at night, our car had air conditioning, we explored miles and miles of the Death Valley backcountry driving on dirt roads in our car, and Doug's dire predictions of the miserable time we were likely to have never came to pass.

It became an annual Memorial Day weekend event for us. Temps in late May were variable, high 80's and up to 110 degrees. Sometimes windy, sometimes dead calm.

Doug and I were both working full time in those days and our usual thing was to pack up the truck after we got home from work, sometimes not leaving until 10:00 pm. We'd drive into the desert in the wee hours, one time we were en route to the park, making our way across the Panamint Valley on a barely paved road that was being reclaimed by the desert. It was a full moon, so bright the mountains on either side cast clearly defined shadows on the desert floor. Our road that could hardly be called a road was deserted, so we turned off our headlights and drove for miles and miles, enjoying the beauty of the moonlight on the desert floor.

We ventured further and further in the backcountry on our trips, inching our way over rocky mountain passes and dry waterfalls in Doug's 1988 four-wheel-drive Bronco II, it was in Death Valley that Doug taught me how to pick my way over boulders and through washes and what four-wheel low gear was used for. I learned how to drive on washboard and how to find the speed that produced the least jarring. I learned not to panic when the car would slide sideways during a turn on washboard or loose gravel and how to turn the car using a four-wheel drift.

Morning sickness prevented me from wanting to attempt the trip the year I was pregnant with Steven, but the next year when Steven was 9 months old my sister watched him while Doug and I returned to our old haunts. I was still nursing and I took a battery-powered breast pump with me so I could survive 3 days away from Steven.

For nine years we didn't return. The kids were small and Doug and I didn't want to expose them to the risks we knew we were taking by venturing so far into the backcountry. Doug and I always knew that if we had to, we could walk 20 miles back to the main road, traveling at night if necessary, but not with young children.

We returned to the Death Valley with the kids for the first time in 2003, three months before we found Steven's brain tumor. We rented a car and took the Goler Wash four-wheel drive route into the park. It was the hottest it's ever been for us, 123 degrees when we hit the valley floor.

We'd come prepared to camp, but when we finally hit pavement in Furnace Creek, Doug drove to the hotel without ever saying anything and we paid for a hotel room. Nighttime temps that trip were 105, the air conditioning was more than just a luxury.

Had we stayed in the campground, we would have had our choice of spots, it was deserted. We cooked our meals on our camp stove on the patio of our hotel room. We curtailed some of our backcountry trips, not wanting to venture too far from the paved roads in that heat.

Steven finished his treatments in Memphis in early May 2004 and we began our drive home on May 5. We were back in San Diego for Memorial Day weekend and the thought of Death Valley again crossed our minds, but even though Steven's oncologist gave his OK for a Death Valley trip, even encouraged us to go, Doug and I couldn't quite work up the courage to take bald, thin, pale, battle-scarred Steven into such a remote and harsh environment, so we went to Palm Springs instead, a much cushier sort of desert trip.

We ventured back to Death Valley for Memorial Day 2005 and except for the first sleepless night of blasting sand we had a wonderful time.

This year we broke tradition and went for spring break instead of Memorial Day. It was much cooler, wonderfully pleasant. We got to stay longer since the kids had the whole week off.

Our lives are very tumulutous right now, although to be truthful I think I'd have to admit that much of the turmoil is going on in my own head.

We needed this all-too-short respite.

I'll write more about this trip and about some of the good things going on with Steven soon.

- Kathleen



Anonymous Jalena said...

Sounds like a wonderful trip for the boys, you two but then the boys are what counts, she says smiling!! We all know that. Enjoyed spending time with Zach, Deedy and family on Saturday. Cant wait to hear what is going on with Steven. Dont leave us hanging like this!!

April 19, 2007 8:04 AM  

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