The Unexpected in the Familiar

by Birgitta Jansen

Approximately 3 p.m. August 9, 2016: even a casual visitor can not fail to notice the intensity of the burning sun baking this expanse of lonely desert. Only lizards, ants, rattlesnakes, and jackrabbits call this place home. The mountain ranges bordering the valley loom in the shimmering distance. Just a few picturesque cumulus clouds can be seen in the bright blue sky, and, as usual, there is a stiff breeze. The temperature is in the mid to high 90s F.

I am driving south along Big Pine Road in Death Valley National Park where I live and work as a volunteer. I contentedly maintain an unhurried pace while reflecting on the past few days. Working solo in the Park’s backcountry is a genuine pleasure. I cherish these times of silence and solitude. Being solo gives me the opportunity to be fully present with and in this landscape. It also affords me the luxury to be fully present with myself.

Not surprising, I have mixed feelings about returning home. I love being out in the backcountry. Life on the edge of civilization has a different quality. It inspires me. When one of these trips ends, there always seems to be a transition period that goes beyond the arrival at my front door. But I also appreciate the conveniences of home. In approximately two and a half hours, I’ll be in my kitchen cooking dinner.

The call of my kitchen recedes when my eye catches a small flat spot up ahead, possibly the remains of a borrow-pit, used by workers repairing road damage long ago. It has a one notable asset. It is somewhat lower than its surroundings, and when it rains, it accumulates more run-off from the road as well as the berm on the other side. This means that it also holds moisture longer.

During this spring’s stunning superbloom, now approximately six months ago, this normally unremarkable spot was transformed into a luscious miniature desert garden with a jumble of many different species of flowers such as brown eyed evening primrose, violet and purple phacelias, white gravel ghost, and vivid yellow desert gold. It was a celebration of the tenaciousness of life – vibrant and colorful. Now it has reverted to a bleak and parched spot with only a few dried stalks faintly hinting at the splendor that once was.

I stop the truck, pull the keys out of the ignition, and put them in my pocket. That’s become a habit since I’ve heard stories about people getting accidentally locked out of their vehicle by pushing a button or an electronic malfunction. I turn around to grab the camera from the backseat and hop out.

I spend a bit of time in my mind’s eye trying to recall the earlier scene to assess how I can show the contrast between then and now in photographs. Not easy, because now it looks just like any other place in the desert. I decide to let it go and return to the vehicle.

I reach for the door handle. It’s locked. I reach in my pocket to retrieve the keys. Not there. Disbelief floods through me. I look into the vehicle. My keys are in the middle of the driver’s seat. How did this happen?  Had I not put them in my pocket?  Had they fallen out somehow?  Water, park radio, satellite phone, extra clothing, flashlights, food – all now irretrievable. I am standing in the middle of a vast stretch of land, full of desert scrub and lizards and with nothing but a camera in my hands.

Still struggling to fully comprehend my predicament, I try all the doors. Clearly none of them will open, but I just had to try. I briefly consider breaking a window but decide to let that be a last resort. I still feel fine and the temperature will soon start to drop. I remind myself that I’m on a road. A road offers the possibility of other travelers.

Meanwhile I want to get a better understanding of where exactly I am on Big Pine Road. A relatively short distance to the south the road goes over a hill. Perhaps standing on the hill could be helpful to get an idea how far I might be from the main road. I start walking.

The only sound is the crunching of my footsteps on the sand and gravel of the road. I take my time because I don’t want to get too hot. Maybe, if the main road is close enough, I could just walk out.

No. Not an option. It is drilled in to us: when something happens, You Stay with your vehicle.

c. PIc - walkiing

My footsteps have slowed. I’m about halfway between the truck and the hill. Then it hits me: “This is how Chuck died.” I stop. What takes me completely by surprise is the strong urge to walk. Maybe that’s what Chuck felt too.

Chuck was a heavy equipment operator and long-term park employee. He had been working with a grader on West Side Road. As he was nearing the Park’s south-end, he ran into a mechanical problem. From where he was, he could see his pick-up truck parked approximately five miles away. He decided to walk.

He didn’t make it.

I look back toward my truck. It seems so small. Had I already walked so far?

The vehicle gives the only shade within perhaps a fifteen mile radius. The sun is still strong; the temperature probably in the low 90s. I have no water. There is no way of knowing how many more miles to Grapevine where a Park Ranger is stationed. There is no question. I need to go back.

Against all reason, the forceful compulsion to walk remains with me.

Walking back, I feel defeated. Since it is already late afternoon, someone still traveling this road is unlikely. I have not seen anyone in the last few days which does not bode well. But then again, one never knows…

When I reach the vehicle, I lie down in the narrow strip of shade to stay out of sun and breeze. I relax, listen to the wind, and wait.

Every half hour I get up to move around. I watch the movement of the changing light across this inhospitable and rugged landscape. It is stunningly beautiful.

A collared lizard comes to visit, perches on a rock for a while, does some push-ups, and turns his head this way and that way as if studying me. Then he’s gone.

The day is turning into a lovely evening. Perhaps once the sun is down I’ll see about finding a more comfortable spot to settle in for the long haul.

Back in the park, my supervisor, Josh Hoines, is monitoring the park radio to catch my check-in with the Park’s dispatch. That will notify him that I am home. By now, it should be apparent that I might be late returning. However, as time passes and there is still no message, he will become concerned.

I know the procedures. If I don’t turn up when I am supposed to, and if I don’t check-in on the radio, Park Rangers will come looking. However, they might not come out till daybreak. This is a big landscape. Searching for someone in the dark would be like searching a square mile for a singular microbe.

It’s close to 7:30 p.m. when I hear the sound of an engine. A car is coming toward me traveling south. I get up and wave.

It turns out to be a small sedan. Husband and wife are in the front seats and two young children are tucked in the back. Any space not occupied by humans is bulging with camping gear and assorted belongings. They kindly offer me a ride, and yes I know I’m skinny, but I can’t see how I’ll fit in the overstuffed interior. As I chat with the husband who is the driver, I notice the young woman turning to look back. The doubt on her face tells me that she’s come to the same conclusion.

And thus it is that I direct them to the Park Ranger at the Grapevine Ranger Station. They hand me a pink Nalgene bottle of water and leave me with the promise they’ll find Joe. With a smile and a big wave goodbye, the woman calls out, “Keep the bottle as a souvenir!”

I watch as the dust cloud in their wake vanishes in the distance.

The wind has lessened. I sit down. Now it’s back to waiting again. I can only hope that Joe is at Grapevine, that my instructions were clear enough. What if he is out on another call? What if he is off duty or has gone for a walk? What if they decide not to bother? Maybe I should have squeezed into their vehicle. Did I give them enough information as to how to find Joe? I sip my water.

When daylight gently gives way to darkness, I see a slight glare illuminating the crest of the hill. Then there are headlights. Joe.

We are relieved to see each other. He comments, “You are much further out than I expected. I actually started to think that maybe this was a hoax. The visitors couldn’t remember your name and could only tell me that there was a government worker stuck along Big Pine Road who needed a ride. To tell you the truth, I didn’t quite know what to make of it.” But Joe decided to check it out. He came close to turning around more than once but each time decided to push on a little further. I am grateful.

It takes Joe less than five minutes to open the vehicle while we chat amiably. With the door now open, the experience feels like no big deal. I put the key in the ignition, start it up, and go. Yet at the same time, it feels amazing to be driving. A little over two hours later I am pleased to be home. Josh Hoines is relieved to hear the message.

During the days following, I find myself frequently thinking back to the experience that day. What stands out for me is the inexplicable compulsion to walk. I know how people who lack an understanding of this environment can suffer the consequences. But I know the dangers.

I have come to understand that when a place is familiar it feels safe. This can be a dangerous illusion. The familiar can be treacherous with no mercy. Even when we’ve come to love a place, we must never forget that ours is a human love. The land does not love us. This is what I ponder.

There is a Nalgene bottle sitting on a shelf in my kitchen. It is pink.

Birgitta Jansen has been an active volunteer in Death Valley National Park. Currently residing in British Columbia, she is a managing editor of the Desert Report, has written previously on a number of environmental topics, and has completed a book about the October 2015 flash floods in Death Valley NP.