In the desert, we don’t know our names

It’s been eventful. We went to Death Valley and I was suitably overwhelmed by the salt, wildflowers, snow, sand and ‘lowness’ of the place. Death Valley is below sea-level and the sense of constantly traveling on land that once wasn’t land hung over me as we traveled across the miles of it. Lots has been said about the magnificence of the place — it’s all true. It’s surreal. It’s majestic. It made me sad.

In this below-sea-level basin, steady drought and record summer heat make Death Valley a land of extremes. Yet, each extreme has a striking contrast. Towering peaks are frosted with winter snow. Rare rainstorms bring vast fields of wildflowers. Lush oases harbor tiny fish and refuge for wildlife and humans. Despite its morbid name, a great diversity of life survives in Death Valley.

Yes, I reminded myself of the diversity of life, and the yellow wildflowers were coming up in many places. Apparently, there will be an explosion of them this year.

Then we got stuck in the desert. We were driving to the ghost town of Ballarat and on a washed-out stretch of gravelly dirt road, our car made horrible noises and died. It was just past noon, the sun in the sky. Things I thought of: bread, cheese, bananas (food in the car); water (six small bottles); knitting, books (entertainment for me); crayons (entertainment for my daughter). We settled in to hail passing cars. There was one every half hour or so.

We stopped three or four, asked them to contact a ranger. They assured us they would. We took it on faith. Nobody looked keen to give us a lift. We didn’t ask. We decided if help hadn’t come by 4 pm, we would. We took turns guesstimating how long help would arrive in. I aimed at knitting 12 inches before help arrived, then 18 inches.  Our almost-four-year-old tried to sleep in the backseat. I had washed her face and neck with water and taken off her jeans. She was ok.

Help arrived at around 4 pm, about an hour before sunset. The cop (turned out this was actually outside park limits and not in the ranger’s area) said there had been three or four calls about us. He bumped the car to the side of the road, called a tow truck, gave us a lift to the nearest desert motel. Cell phone signal–aha! We drank beer and ate a lot of fries. We let our daughter make a meal of fries and ice cream.

It was after dark when the tow truck arrived and we drove back to the same spot to pick up the car. The desert was silent, we passed no cars for miles. I don’t remember passing any but maybe I missed the one or two that I did. Or maybe there really were no cars. Sam, the driver of the tow truck, turned up the music and jigged about. He sounded annoyed when my daughter was chatty. I shushed her. We sat in silence, except for the music, for two hours, bumping along, the towed car hulking behind us. When we reached Ridgecrest, a town with lights and shops and grocery stores, I laughed nervously. Even Sam seemed to thaw. “We even have a Hilton,” he said.

Here is a far scarier story about Death Valley.

And from this article:

“It’s important for people to know that only a tiny portion of Death Valley has cell phone reception,” search and rescue coordinator Micah Alley wrote in an e-mail. “GPS units are not only fallible but send people across the desert where no road exists.”

Over the past 15 years, at least a dozen people have died in Death Valley from heat-related illnesses, and many others have come close. Another hiker vanished last June in Joshua Tree National Park. His body has not yet been found.

These are not just stories of unimaginable suffering. They are reminders that even with a growing suite of digital devices at our side, technology cannot guarantee survival in the wild. Worse, it is giving many a false sense of security and luring some into danger and death.

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