Half the Journey is Getting There
Just a hair shy of fifty miles due northeast of Las Vegas is the oldest national park in the state of Nevada. After driving forty-five minutes through a dusty, grey desert with not much to take in visually, we pull up to a crossing with an oversized truck stop and liquor store filled with more alien-inspired tchotchkes and off-brand liquors than one can shake a stick at. This is a common occurrence in our brave state. What doesn’t look to be too promising of a start turns out to be a passing moment on the road to adventure but sets the tone for a rewarding respite.
Passing the truck stop, we ease onto the paved road that winds and twists further and further into the valley. After paying the fees at the guard gate, we’re on our own. As we come to the clearing my heart feels lifted and I am overflowing with joy at the sight of the bright red and orange mountains with hints of ochre in the crests and wells in front of us. This is the Valley of Fire, and it does not disappoint. Our Dodge Ram F150 and twenty-five-foot Airstream travel trailer take up significant space, so our best bet is to find a site that can handle thirty to forty feet of machinery. Our recently devised practice (if we don’t have a reservation) is to drive through the grounds and note sites that we like and select the most desirable location. On this particular outing, we found a site nestled amongst an alcove of rocks with a covered eating area and barbecue. Given that the forecast was calling for a balmy thirty-eight degrees, these items would have to go ultimately unused.
My responsibilities include assisting with parking and leveling the trailer (visualize aircraft marshaling for parking large vehicles), registering any additional paperwork, and making sure the dog has had an opportunity to embrace the local fauna. My better half is in charge of the heavy lifting: operating the truck, setting up the site with available hookups for power, grey and black water, and, where applicable, the inevitable “stinky slinky”. This may sound largely disinteresting to the novice camper but having a plan for entry into the campsite is immensely important: it decreases miscommunication and speeds up work time so the fun part happens more quickly.
There’s something special about that moment just before twilight when the night is coming to an end, and the sun’s rays have not yet begun to refract and scatter across the sky. When I step outside, the air is just cold enough that it wakes me suddenly, kissing my nose with a few sharp pricks to remind me that winter is still here and I must obey her rules.
With my heavy winter boots donned and my cloak wrapped firmly around me, I find I am paying less attention to my dog’s activities, and more to what is above me: the peaks of the mountains, how they shine despite the lack of sunlight, drawing the eye’s attention upward to the point where the peaks meet the heavens. I am surrounded by varying layers of darkness as I continue to walk down the path with only the aid of the sky and a small flashlight. The other campers have not yet stirred, and my partner, Jamie, is burrowed beneath the flannel sheets in our trailer.
This is my first introduction to the Valley of Fire, and I find that I am fully awakened by my senses: the brisk air with faint interruptions of the remains of retired campfires made from local brush reminding me of the night before; the silt still sliding underneath my feet despite the firm thirty-eight-degree hold on the weather and the constellations still clear in the sky, unpolluted from city noise and soaring streetlights. Without an ounce of loneliness, I trudge on with leash and flashlight in hand after my mission-driven friend. I am only casually noting the rocks and hedges that catch my leggings with their thin reach. Were it not for the grievances of a small and chilly dog, coupled with the impending doom of sunrise, I would want for this moment to last for hours. This is magic. This is my church.
When I spend a little quiet time with nature, I am filled from within with a magic that cannot be explained in words. It must be felt much the same way a song or a piece of art is learned with the heart where every note and stroke is memorized and locked away for safe-keeping. Here in this moment, I am separated from my chores and the stresses of the home. My world is fresh and my feet are not yet on the ground, yet heavily planted in my boots. Where my night has not yet ended and my morning is close by, I pivot and retrace my steps with my companion catching up to my heels. We are heading back to our home away from home near the rocks and ledges not yet lit but where the whirring of the generator can be heard in the distance. We are preparing for yet another morning ritual. The one that begins with a fire and a silver pot heating water to simmer the rich, ground espresso beans we roasted the week before.
A Silent Orchestra
Jamie, my dog Chuey, and I are a small collective of introverts that have somehow managed to function as a family. Most of what we do together we do in varying degrees of silence. This is perfect for me as I am more of an observer than an active participant in all things social. Remaining quiet has its benefits, however, in that it allows my other senses to heighten as I shuffle through the day’s motions and enjoy the tiny aspects that sometimes can be missed when barraging through the day. This ubiquitous silence is enhanced to a utopian degree when camping out in the desert. Out in this great bowl of rocks, there’s no noise pollution from cellphones ringing or trucks pulling the Jake brake to interfere with the subtle sounds that morning brings.
Inside the Airstream I find myself resorting to the same rituals that I practice at home. With the coffee pot on the stove and the only light inside the trailer is the white glow from the lamp above the range that spills down to create a pool around my feet. There is no need for to Jamie ask, “Is the coffee ready?” because he can smell the rich aroma wafting down the galley toward the bedroom, in the same way, that I don’t have to question if he’s ready for me to bring it to him. I can hear the gentle stirring as he shifts in the sheets. He doesn’t need an alarm clock here; the smell of the coffee alone wakes him.
The Airstream is parked so that her front faces east and her end faces west intentionally. This is so we could enjoy the sunrise from the bedroom and the sunset over dinner. Padding into the room, I pop Chuey on the bed and lean over to place our mugs on the sideboard, so I can adjust the drapes to let the first glow of pink rays enter. The canyon is slowly ignited by the intense folds of pink, yellow, and orange as the sun hits the striations in the sandstone, giving the illusion of warmth even though I am well aware of the frigid temperatures just outside the winterized walls.
As the day begins I watch from the comfort of my bed, still wrapped in my shawl and now equally burrowed in the flannel sheets, now satiated by my mug of dark, thick, high-octane liquid. Outside, the neighbors are beginning to crawl out of their own personal dens of happiness to join us in embracing the new day. They are a bit rowdier than we are, and their chatter stirs a guttural growl that has brewed in the depths of Chuey’s stomach. He’s displeased that the neighbors interrupted the quiet as well. With the spell of night broken, I slide off of the bed and return to the kitchen to start on a breakfast of pancakes and links, a rare treat that we are spoiling ourselves with on our maiden voyage.
A Rusty Start
Our bellies full and our minds rested, Jamie and I plan out the next few hours before we head back into town. We unhitched the truck from the Airstream, so we are able to take a drive through some of the more scenic sites and up the hills toward the trailheads. I prep a daypack and Jamie takes care of securing all belongings that have been strewn about the interior due to late-night laziness.
“We can either take to the trails near the crest or check out the petroglyphs” he states, looking at a very much not-to-scale map of the park. “I’m fine with either option,” I reply, “it just depends on what Chuey can handle.” My tiny side-kick of eleven years has a height that barely reaches my calf and weighs about seven pounds wet, so his stamina for a long hike is short. “Whenever he runs out of gas I will just carry him,” I continue. This has become my usual approach these days when our hikes come into question.
I can hear the rocks crackle underneath the tires of the truck as we pull out of the campsite. Despite the movements of our neighbors tending to their morning chores of coffee and dog walking, there isn’t much in the way of rampant chatter. Somehow, word has gotten out that less is more. I can sense a subtle smile creeping across my face. They, too, must be in a trance from the beauty that surrounds us.
When we reach the bend in the road just past Seven Sisters rock formation, the path narrows a bit to the point that opposing traffic must pass with great care. My dog is sitting on my lap with his front paws on the armrest, looking out the window for about twenty minutes till we reach a parking lot. The engine stops, and we are out of the truck inspecting our new terrain, searching for the trailhead to lead us to proof of life from a time we previously only knew of in history books.
Almost instantly we notice a change in our footing. The ground here is finer than sand; more silt-like than solid earth, and the color of rust. The wind is whipping through in short gusts between the crevices. After about five minutes, Jamie, now walking ahead of me, stops, turns around, and starts laughing. “I think you had better take a look at your dog.”
I hadn’t really paid Chuey much attention because he was keeping up with the pace. My once snowy-white friend is now a light yellow-orange that washed into a full reddish brown, similar to the way red hair dye rinses out to give way to a carrot orange on once blonde hair. With his muzzle crusted in desert paint, it was clear he was having fun, but not without a struggle. Evidence of a good time, and that our grand plans of a morning hike had come to an abrupt end.
When the End is Really the Beginning
I learned a few things about Jamie and myself on this trip. We had made a very large investment having only done some light traveling abroad together over the last few years. Choosing to purchase an RV was a major decision. We had made a commitment to each other to enjoy one another’s company for hours on end. In many cases, this includes copious alert hours of minimal communication.
My mother often said, “You know you are with the right person when you can be alone together in perfect silence and know that it was time well spent.” How right she was. As it turns out, she was also right about using silence as a means to recharge. Remaining quiet had never been a planned activity during this journey…it just sort of happened. One forgets how much communicating can be done through casual glances and body language; our need for speaking had hit an unintentional ‘only when necessary’ point and it was lovely.
The Road Home
Leaving the Valley of Fire was not much different from our entry in that there was a series of chores to be done. My role consisted primarily of re-purposing leftovers into a quick meal, cleaning used dishes, securing all moving objects within the Airstream, and removing all belongings we would be taking with us in the truck after we parked and stowed away the travel trailer. Jamie's chores are mostly outside: dismantling hook-ups and preparing the hoses for the dump site and removing the chocks from under the rear tires so we could drive home. All of this hustle takes less than the course of an hour.
While preparing for our departure back to the city, I find myself volleying between reflections on my experience and the necessary departure tasks at hand. Through a mix of hand signals and a yell of “OKAY!” at Jamie from where I am standing behind the trailer establishing that our turn signals and brake lights are in proper working order, I run to the front with my dog in arm and hop into the passenger seat. Ready to head out, we are leaving behind us only tire tracks and the memory of our first trip with the Airstream.
On future trips, this will be a different experience. In order to continue our lives while traveling, the purchase of a booster and satellite will become an important part of our budget. Being able to work from the road is key, but this also means that our peace and quiet will include the buzzing of technology, and our solitude will not be what it was.
As we turn left onto the highway just past the truck stop with the south-western, alien infested doodads, I realize that I am forever changed. Valley of Fire’s rosy hills left a lasting impression on me, and I am more content with my little family than ever before. I know now that I am craving the open road and the night air, breathing in the sound of silence.