Feeling Alive


Sunrise in Joshua Tree at 60 degrees after an uninterrupted 8 hours of sleep is close to perfection. And I only say close because we have more to see and do. We make coffee and eat tortillas with apple butter and watch as the landscape brightens and takes form.


The park is named for the other-worldly Joshua tree (actually a member of the yucca family) that is everywhere here, but that may do this place a disservice. The geology is spectacular, with strange rock formations and deep canyons and broad, flat valleys. All sorts of heaving and rifting and tectonic plating and magma seeping or some such things did this. What I think is that to get a world such as ours a lot of weird shit has to happen. If you get up and wander around, you can see the evidence for yourself.


After putting things away, we drove 20 miles into the heart of the weird and wonderful Joshua Tree. A four wheel drive road called Geology Tour/Berdoo Canyon got us nose to nose with the wacky trees and every different type of geologic formation. With not one single other person around, we could stop and walk and photograph and marvel and move along and say “this is just wild” over and over.

We left Joshua Tree awed and fulfilled. A bargain at any price. Ahead was a crossing of the Mojave National Preserve and then Death Valley. We didn’t know weird, as it turns out. Both places are not as my imagination had formulated them. They are rich and varied ecosystems that defy simple descriptions. On the floor of Death Valley at the lowest point in the United States you are 282 feet below sea level. In our case, it was 114 degrees. You feel heavy and slow. Then you ride down the road and see narrow canyons of brightly colored rock formations and realize the whole Mars rover thing could be a fake. They could be sneaking in here shooting the pictures. Then you see the sand dunes and drive up to pinion forested jagged peaks at 8200 feet. It is 65 degrees. As I said, it is a varied ecosystem.

I’m not sure one could ever feel more alive than when caught in the midst of a lightening storm in Death Valley. Ironies abound, but here in this hot, dry place, we are riding out a massive flash flood and we are freezing. It’s 55 degrees, we are camped at 8200 feet near Telescope Peak and, when in the rooftop tent, we are very nearly the highest point in the campground. And the two pinion pines on either side of the car are deeply scarred with the reminders that lightening will find the ground. Up until this moment, the day and evening have been capital. At this moment, I’m struggling to wake from a deep four hour slumber and focus on making good decisions quickly.


I want off the roof. Period. I don’t remember the science and I can’t do the math to figure the odds, but I know that I want off the roof. Once again, gear to the rescue. We are out, down, and have the tent buttoned up and dry in 2 minutes. In the dark. Thank you Autohome. The plan is to sleep in the chairs under the awning. Cold, but manageable. Quickly that plan is replaced with another, the impetus being the presence of a 3 inch an hour flash flood that has the awning sagging under the weight of who knows how much pooled water and rivers running under our feet.

Into the vehicle. Safe, dry, awake. I slip out and burp the awning every 10 minutes or so to keep it from collapsing and we break out the diversions (an offline blog post for me, Teddy Roosevelt’s autobiography for my son). The wind kicks up to add to the stew of the evening and we, well, we live.

Truth is, we haven’t cheated death here in the valley. We likely would have been just fine in our tent on the roof in the lightening storm and flash flood. We could have slept right through it. But something about rallying to the call of imminent catastrophe, saving the gear, and ending up in a safe, dry place seems more like living. You can sleep through anything. You can really feel alive in Death Valley.


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