“Of. Freaking. Course!” The demons inside my head are screaming at me as I skid down sun-drenched gravel and onto the highway shoulder, narrowly avoiding a rock kicked up by an old Ford Ranger. I am rage-walking in the unrelenting sun of Death Valley National Park, whipping my head around my shoulder to double-check that Ben is still behind me, and praying that at any moment, my heels will sprout wings. It’s nearly 2 p.m., we’re out of water, and our car is definitely not where we left it. In the distance, thunderheads shroud neighboring peaks, filling me with envy for the comforts of water and shade. My skin is seething as my stomach churns trail mix into knots. I steady my breathing, look both ways down the dusty, two-lane motorway, and shove my thumb into the air, indignant.
I have never been a desert person. The blood running through my Scandinavian veins boils at the touch of sun and anything over 80 degrees. I am an absolute cloud porn addict, and I crave forests the way children lust for sugar. But, when presented with a three-day weekend and a circumference of downpour on every neighboring mountain peak outside of Los Angeles, high tailing it to the desert seemed like the sanest plan I’d had in a long while. I immediately called Ben, an unsinkably energetic Jewish kid I’d known since college and my only friend crazy enough to scramble up off-trail desert peaks in the mud. Together, we began planning our swan dive into the most magnificent desolation I have ever seen.
We set out late Friday night, narrowly escaping the monsoon that had engulfed Los Angeles, turning streets into rushing streams and flooding the L.A. River. After hours of driving further and further into expansive blackness, Ben and I were jolted awake by a crashing noise as my car burst through a deep wash that had flooded the road. Hot damn. This drive was about to get a lot less boring. We slogged through several more of these pop-up rivers that had taken over the park in relatively little rain, dodging rock falls and praising the agility of my small hatchback.
THUMP. The car stopped. It was 1:42 a.m., and a medium-sized boulder had lodged itself underneath the center of my vehicle. I stared daggers at Ben, utterly shocked, in the driver’s seat. With nothing but maddening darkness ahead and behind us, we sleepily jacked up the right side of the car.
Holding a laughably dainty, red and white striped umbrella, complete with ruffle trim, I watched as Ben crawled under the vehicle to shove the intruder out from underneath. In my late night delirium, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to laugh or kick him in the shin for driving my car straight into a rock field. “I’m sorry I’m quiet…I’m just super mad at you right now,” I said with a faint smirk, weighing my freezing discomfort against my relief that my partner in crime knew his way around a car jack. So, I stood there, silent and looking not unlike a bedraggled kitten, shielding his curly mat of hair from the chilling desert rainfall.
Not five minutes after we had breathed a sigh of relief and set out on our way we came across a river of sand and sludge barreling across the road. Gobsmacked and utterly defeated, I slowly turned us around, retreating to snag one of the few campsites we had seen about 28 miles back. We set up our tent in the rain and slept, wondering if the flash flood would subside or if this was a truly misguided adventure.
The next morning, moving at the pace of a hungover sloth, I packed up camp and shoved my drenched belongings back into the car. Drinking $2 cups of coffee from a sparse general store scattered with antiquated mining machinery, Ben and I set off once again into the blue morning light that hung low from the clouds. I was pleasantly surprised that the road wasn’t even flooded as we made our way past the few remnants of mud on the highway, evidence of the previous night’s destruction. We parked at Hell’s Gate and threw our packs onto our shoulders, beginning a 5-mile jaunt up a mud-infused wash.
Driving through Death Valley, I was instantly struck by the vast, barren expanse of the place. I had never seen so many mountains in which nothing appeared to live, apart from the rogue, stubborn shrub or cactus dotting the hills. Hiking through it was no different. The landscape itself is an arid wonderland, as though the god of rocks got bored one day and frivolously slammed together seemingly contradictory geology, neglecting the ingredients for organic life.
Ben and I scrambled up the mud and scree-covered slope of Daylight Butte, near the Nevada border of the park, watching as the rust-colored tips of nearby mountains peeked through the clouds before getting blanketed again in heavy white.
“Post-holing in mud is good preparation for hiking through snow, right?” I looked for any excuse to bring up trees and snow and crampons to Ben whenever it struck me. “These weren’t real mountains,” I thought, “Real mountains have bears and rivers and pine trees…” I began to daydream in training montages, my mind wanting desperately to believe that this was somehow useful to getting back out in the Sierra, my feet swimming in 2 inches of clay-thick muck.
“I HATE YOU, SCREE,” I yelped as I slid backward with every step up the gloomy, desert ridge. Ben laughed at my ridiculous outburst and appeared not the slightest out of breath, mountain-goating his way up the traverse with the ease of a pro. Ever the competitive maniac, I furrowed my brow, determined, and stomped up the remaining few feet to the summit, the full weight of my pack bearing down on my hips as I moved.
It was quiet. I closed my eyes and exhaled for a moment, feeling the cool wind against my cheeks. As the rain began to let up, Ben’s supernatural optimism became contagious. The soft light fading underneath a canopy of clouds made everything in sight look like an oil painting. After a customary high five and a panoramic photo, the two of us meandered down the rest of the ridge, hungry and sore.
After ordering enough to feed a family of four and splitting a few beers along the way, we found our way to our campground for the evening, which was essentially a gravel parking lot full of nothing but RVs, trucks, and the exhaust that dumped liberally from their generators. “I would never camp here if it wasn’t the desert,” I sighed, adding, “but Death Valley makes me feel sort of trashy, so bring it on.” We curled into the tent after spying Orion and his arms outstretched to the Pleiades in the night sky, ready for the real fun of backpacking away from car tourists for the next two days.
The next morning, a 4-mile hike through a dry wash leading to the mouth of Indian Canyon quickly became 6, as Ben and I soon learned the reality of navigating in Death Valley. The constant, tantalizing mirage of mountains that appear 2 miles away but are actually 7 is completely maddening, even for the most seasoned backcountry navigator, and by the time we got to the gulch, my partner and I were ready for the shade of its steep, rocky walls. “This is it?” Ben mumbled as we made our way through the first mile of our ascent into the gorge. We looked around, a bit stunned, as we realized that one of Death Valley’s most famous canyons more closely resembled a dirt road carved between two lifeless, yellow mountains than a national monument.
“Am I a nature snob?” I asked Ben, half serious, realizing that all I had done since we got to the park was complain that it wasn’t a forest. “No, dude, this place sucks,” Ben assured me as we hoisted our bodies up an 8-foot dry fall carved into the gully by the water flow of centuries past. “Can we drive to Mount Whitney when we’re done with this hike? I just want to look at it.” I was dead serious. The isolation of the desert made even a glimpse out of a car window at something more green and familiar seem like a victory. “Definitely,” Ben agreed, “We’ll chow down on a massive pizza and stare at some legit mountains.”
As we hiked, the walls would momentarily narrow, giving us hope that a slot canyon or cliff’s edge view would be right around the corner, but such luck never came. Finding the fresh skeleton of a bighorn sheep just before selecting a campsite was a welcome break from the monotony of dry rocks and gravel-covered peaks and a reminder that yes, things do actually live here.
At sunrise, I rose early to climb my way up a sharp expanse of volcanic boulders bordering our campsite, hoping to get an expansive view of the route we had completed the day before. Instead, I was met with what felt like even more of a desert wasteland.
The land below me on all sides conjured up visions of miners and cowboys leaving each other for dead in the ruthless belly of the west. I suddenly understood how precious water must have been and at once felt entirely isolated in the desert hills, knowing that very little moisture lay around me and a few false moves could be deadly.
I sped through breaking down camp with Ben, throwing oatmeal into my mouth at a laughable speed and tantalizing my mind with visions of the Eastern Sierra at dusk. I don’t know if I have ever hiked faster than I did to get out of that canyon and the alien landscape of gray-blue slabs cutting into spotty, yellow composite rock. Making what was sure to be a diagonal beeline across the lonesome desert washes directly to our car, we hopped over rocks and berms, reciting a list of every album we were going to blast on the road out of Dodge.
It was here that I found myself biting the inside of my lip in self-disgust as I baked under the hot desert sun, scouring the scenery for any trace of a small, black Toyota. I wanted to sprint across the pavement until my heart burned and my veins pumped acid. I wanted to shout at the sky for getting me lost in what was now my least favorite national park. I needed to know that my escape hatch had not been stolen from me.
After a brief hitchhike to the ranger station, I snagged a ride and found that my trusty Prius had not been taken. She was exactly where we left her, grubby and alone on the side of the road. I’m sure whatever desert forces were at work in that godforsaken place were cackling on their thrones, amused at my cockiness in thinking that traversing the desert would be simple because it’s flat.
When I finally made it back to the dust-drenched sedan, I chugged water and inhaled a Clif bar, slamming the door shut with a deafening and triumphant thud that served as a venerable rejection to whatever minerals and flora cared to listen. Ben thoughtfully scanned his phone, turning the volume to eleven on a Zeppelin playlist he settled on. With the windows down, I floored the gas with an elated cry: “Let’s blow this puke hole!”
We sped through the barren landscape, captivated by empty, snow-capped peaks and the clouds that enveloped them, hungry for life, for the Sierra, and, lets be honest, for that pizza. “You know what?” Ben announced suddenly as we barreled through the western outskirts of the park, “That was a great weekend. I mean, the mountains were whatever, but the company was good.” I burst into the biggest smile I’d mustered in the last three days, realizing all at once that it was true.
No matter how arid, stained, or bleak the surroundings had been, the camaraderie of sharing it was what made the trip worthwhile. I caught his eye for a moment and found myself lost in thought as we made our way toward more rain and the nightfall that followed. Maybe that was all I’d ever craved each time I stepped out of my apartment into frigid expanses, razor’s-edge ridges, or rocky crags. Someone to feel at home with when staring down the vacant, harrowing dark of the wild.
Learn more and follow along on Emily's adventures by visiting Brazen Backpacker.