As a result, sometimes the suffering up to that climactic point of landscape, waterfall, canyon, etc. goes underestimated until you’re twelve miles into a climb up a washboard desert road in freezing winds and wondering what, in the name of all things holy, are you even doing out here?
“I’ve always wanted to share the desert with my kids,” my dad says as he suggests that I load every type of bike I own onto my car and head south on a whim. Everything about it seemed like a great idea.
I’d never been to Death Valley. I had only heard of lost wagon trains and hopeless prospectors out there and that crazy Badwater ultra marathon. But incredible canyon rides and ceaseless, winding roads? A thousand miles later, we were there.
The desert and its harshness are unimaginable until you stand there before the mountains. They jut upward from below sea level to over 11,000 feet in dramatic red and purple hues of crumbling canyons.
Time in the desert is measured in millennia. Nothing happens faster than that, and anything that does (swarms of tourists, my clambering up slot canyon walls) goes unnoticed by the mountains, the winds, or the creeping sands. They press on in their unperturbed progress, unwavering.
The experience of riding there is best described as surreal. The panoramic view distorts perception of distance and one might spend hours riding toward the same destination without it coming closer. Downhills and uphills are somehow all the same until you’ve been pedaling for two and a half hours up one in a straight line. (This was my dad. I politely refused that tour, claiming sanity, and drove.)
In an unusual twist of climate fate, it rained on me. Death Valley gets about 3 1/2 inches of rain a year. I’m pretty sure half of that gushed from the heavens as I pedaled from Stovepipe Wells to Furnace Creek, expecting a flash flood to sweep me away at any moment.
People actually live there. It is 125 degrees in the summer. Those people are crazy.
What has my dad most excited is a ride through the famed Titus Canyon. It is a 27-mile, one-way dirt road that begins in Nevada, crosses a plain into Death Valley National Park, rises toward white-capped ridges, then drops into a canyon barely wide enough for a car.
The walls of the canyon stretch hundreds of feet high in all directions. I pray that it does not rain, that my bike and I are not swept away like bright little balls in a pinball machine, ricocheting off the water-smoothed stone. It twists and winds between the ridges then suddenly spits you out onto a river of stone on the desert floor.
After a couple of weeks in the martian landscape where nothing is affected by your presence, you also become less affected by anything happening outside. Cell phone signals are miles away. There is no entertainment, traffic lights, calendars, mailboxes. You too begin to move on desert time, acknowledging sunrise, sunset, and perhaps a gust of wind or two. Your only choice is but to be present.
And it is amazing what a wondrous world opens up to the present mind. Even a desert becomes beautiful.
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