I awoke this morning in Death Valley. I had been dreaming that I was training a dogsled team along with a little girl with dark curly hair. My mushers were a mismatched bunch of terrier mutts from the local pound, and I was going to attach them to a tricycle. (It was the most stable carriage I could find.) Before I awoke I had run them once, attached to the back of the tricycle, and capsized.
I think this has something to say to me about my recent attempts to live up to the praise of my fellow VISTAs and “be a leader.” I think I should heed well. Aside from that I don’t know what the dream was about. The little girl was Elana Scherr, I know that much. I went looking for her at her parents’ house the other night at quarter to ten expecting to take her swing dancing. All of this could really have used a little more planning.
* * *
Shortly before Christmas I started panicking about being home in Pasadena. The holiday was proving a weak imitation of its former self– Dad only browbeat us into listening to his Little Drummer Boy Extended Remix tape once. The pink flamingo nativity scene was well cached in the basement. Nobody seemed to mind. The glittery piney tree and the Christmas morning waffles with their array of syrups were too weak to absorb the shock of seeing my once-mighty grandmothers bereft of their former spheres of influence for the first time. All of my family seemed in overdrive, stuck to their computers and other machines. When I found my father plugged into his browser on Christmas Day, I snapped.
Get out the map, get out the map and lay your finger anywhere down, the Indigo Girls sang in my head.
Califorrrrnia. I feel the fog which hides all but the tops of the hills at night in Morro Bay. I see the pewter color of Lake Cachuma in a storm. I shin up an oak on the dun hills of San Luis Obispo. I wanted all of this again, and I wanted out of the abandoned wreck of my childhood. I asked dad for the car.
My ambition was cramped by the date of my return flight and my New Year’s plans, but it’s all right. Sylvie and Ariel had been debating whether or not they were going to go on their usual trip to Death Valley with their friends, and we decided to make that our road trip instead. We found two nearby places on the map that looked interesting too, and swore we’d visit them as well: “Pikacho,” which in the end proved to be too far off the track to Death Valley, and a spot that was identified as “Dirty Sock” on one of our maps but didn’t show on the others. (I had high hopes we’d hear some shaggy old legend about the Dirty Sock silver mine, or cowboys who’d stop through some saloon between the Valley and the Sierras with unusually dingy footwear.)
Winter is a good time to visit Death Valley. It’s mortally cold at night, but during the day you can wear shorts. We spent half the first day at the Stovepipe Dunes. The tallest dunes are as high as any Massachusetts mountain, and pointier. The sand acts like heavy snow, so you get kids up there with sleds; we got there just in time to scare off a troop of boy scouts by taking off our shirts and swearing like sailors. The effect of being barefoot and higher than almost anything else in sight, yet completely safe from falling, was exhilarating. We yelped and thrashed and threw each other off the peaks. Our pockets filled with sand.
In the afternoon we hiked Redwall Canyon to do a little bouldering. The combination of gravelly footing and handholds crazed with jagged scallops presented a challenge. I was sure I was going to slip and turn my palms to hamburger. Still I made it up to the highest point I could see, alone. There were plants up there growing with no water and no dirt. In the canyonbed below, Sylvie and her friend Ari sketched while some of the boys sang harmony. When they stopped, the air carried no vibration at all.
The stars that night looked so crowded I was bewildered when they didn’t bump into each other. There are things you forget when you live in a city: the number of stars, your own physical strength, how still air can be. How nature is bigger than you, and, try as you might to cheat it, it still plays by its own rules until you lose.
Today there was a hike up Ubehebe Crater, a stop at Scotty’s Castle, a visit with some well-kept ponies near a gas station. We went about an hour out of our way trying to find Dirty Sock, making elaborate plans for cooking and photography when we got there. Finally a park ranger gave us directions and we made our way out onto Owens Lake, scanning the roadside for signs.
Dirty Sock is unmarked by any sign. It consists of two round craters filled with water, garbage, and scabrous algae, one of which is apparently a sulfur spring. We didn’t want to stick around to cook our hash browns, because the spring emits a nauseating smell (hence the name). We have satisfied our curiosity now. Hopefully we have also quashed yours: there is no reason whatsoever to visit Dirty Sock. One less place for us all to track down as we sate our wanderlust like ticks on the fatted calf of California.