A friend recommended I head north from Joshua Tree to the Kelso Sand Dunes in the greater Mohave Desert. Their peaks are known for being a great vantage point from which to view the sunset, and they’ve even been featured in National Geographic as such. Truly, the dunes would be a sight to see at any time of day, but the colors of the setting sun light them up in a truly magical way.
I was supposed to hit the trailhead two hours before sunset to hike the mile and a half up to the peak of the highest dune in plenty of time. But I underestimated my drive time and only gave myself 90 minutes, and that, unfortunately, cost me getting the best view. That and, well…fear.
It surprised me to arrive at a trailhead void of other cars. I guess the 96 degree temps were enough to deter other folks from the hike. Generally, I love the tranquility of a solo trek and being alone in nature, but I had some trepidation about this particular venture, so there would have been some comfort in having other folks out there. Initially, it wasn’t the distance of the trail that intimidated me but the rest of the circumstances – the heat, the desert animals (mostly, in this case, the Mohave Sidewinder rattlesnake that slides camouflaged over sand), the time of day and prospect of spending time in the desert without sunlight… Also, I’d been told and read that hiking the sandy trail is difficult, especially on the steep climb to the peak – and it for damn sure was.
It was beautiful, there’s no doubt about that. With mountains around me and sandy peaks ahead, fringe-toed lizards flitting here and there across the trails, and just…the wide open quiet and peace of the desert, I was glad to have been sent this way. It was one of the most difficult hikes I’ve ventured, though, in terms of strenuousness.
The first mile of the hike was easy but for the sand filling my shoes. (I must have stopped a half dozen times or more to empty them out.) That last half mile, though… Oh. My. Goodness. It was grueling. Bigger hill after hill after little hill, two steps forward, one step slipping backward in the sand…and the last 500 yards broke me. I climbed on all fours, digging into the sand ahead of and above me with my fingers, trying not to slip backwards and lose what little ground I could muster with my tired legs. The wind picked up and blew sand in my face – in my eyes, up my nose, into my mouth, in my ears – so I scrunched my face and closed my eyes and hoped not to grab onto a critter. The whole of me was covered in sweat and sticky sand, and I felt like quitting with every laborious yard I moved up the dune, truly at a snail’s pace.
I wasn’t 100 yards from the top when I finally resigned myself to turning back. The sun had nearly set. I’d seen it light up the smaller peaks to my left and right with an incredible golden glow and kicked myself for choosing the highest peak instead of one of the smaller, less formidable ones (the view would have been the same and at least I would have captured it). I got nervous – about the waning daylight, my exhaustion, the more active night creatures of the desert… And I was devastated.
I sat in the sand crying, wholly disappointed in myself and also not surprised at my quitting. I’ve done it so many times in my life. This was no different. Time and again, I’ve convinced myself I can’t do whatever because it’s hard and I’m scared, and I’ve given up. And I did it again. The only difference between this and all the other times was the sheer beauty of the place. And the vastness of space I had for thinking about it, reflecting on it, judging myself for it.
If this journey is about figuring out my next steps in life, then I guess the place to start is with taking a step back (or a sandy slide, in this case) and looking in from the outside, thinking about what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong. And that’s what I did on that slippery slope. I realized (or admitted to myself and faced) that when I get scared, I quit.
The question is now what? I’m only a little scared to figure that out…