Today was a day I’ll never forget.
In lieu of going to Mount Whitney and at the suggestion of an Instagram-er I follow, I drove to “Movie Road” in the Alabama Hills area outside of Lone Pine. This is a range of hills and rock formations near the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada that is nothing short of incredible. So much so, in fact, that since the 1920s the Hills have been featured in some 150 movies and a dozen more television shows (mostly old Westerns and modern adventure films I’ve never seen). They’re epic.
The first time I hiked in the desert was with my friend Colleen in Arizona a couple of years ago. Then, I hoped we’d see (note: see not encounter) a rattlesnake. Today, hiking solo in the sand around scrub brushes and shadowy rock formations, I was on alert and hoping against hope not to see one. Funny how being alone changes my perspective (and fear factor)! I was convinced every wild sound was a rattler warning me against encroaching on his territory…and my ankles were terrified! Ultimately, I probably saw fewer rocks and hills than ground cover. Despite high temps, the breeze was pleasant, and I was nearly alone on the trails, which was a nice change from days previous.
Coming off of my first solo desert hike (a short jaunt, I’ll mention, because of said scared ankles), a newcomer asked me about the trail and the hike and the sights, and we got to talking. He was also traveling solo (a South African in the states for the first time), and we talked about the joys and challenges of such. I surprised myself when, in less than five minutes of conversation, I suggested he join me in my journey to Death Valley later that day. I’d been nervous about going alone because of the heat and risk of car trouble, coupled with lack of cell service. To my delight, he accepted my invitation…and I hoped we’d travel well together.
At the suggestion of a ranger I’d talked with earlier in the day, we hiked – climbing over rocks and surprisingly lush thickets of grass we hoped weren’t teeming with snakes – to a remote (unmarked and un-trafficked) waterfall where we swam (er, waded gently) with an “army” of frogs. (One was delighted by our company, swimming near us and fearlessly observing our every move.) It was like inhabiting a tiny jungle in the midst of the desert! We had ice cream that melted almost faster than we could eat it. We raced to the top of a lookout (Zabriskie Point) to catch the sunset and couldn’t have been more amazed by its vastness and beauty. We visited the lowest point in the lower 48 states (Badwater Basin), where we fixed a broken down car and applauded ourselves for saving two lives (I mean, what else were they gonna do after dark with a dead battery, no jumper cables, and no cell service!?). Then, most incredible of all to me, we laid atop a sand dune watching a very dark, very vast sky sparkling with stars and got to glimpse a lightening storm in the distance. It was a surreal experience, sitting in Death Valley with a stranger-turned-friend from halfway around the world, observing all that incredibleness of nature. I wanted to capture the moments in a jar and carry them along with me in my journey – even the hot sands blowing in my eyes since it was that very breeze that made the 111 degree temperature bearable.
The experience was unforgettable, as I got to explore spaces and take in vistas I’d never have braved alone. It was nothing short of a perfect aligning of strangers and stars and sand dunes and storms!