Retreat to Death Valley
Cottonwood Canyon/Marble Canyon Loop | January 21-23, 2018
"Are you sure my car is going to make it along this dirt road?" I asked with panic in my voice. "Yeah...yeah!" Cosmo responded with hesitating confidence. I continued with caution down the soft sand along Cottonwood Canyon Road road. I drove with my butt scooted to the edge of the car seat, and knuckles white against the steering wheel. I felt my skin start to turn warm and sweaty as I envisioned myself in the future rolling around in the sand like a chinchilla trying to dig my car tires out from being stuck in the sand (which had happened once before in the Mojave Desert...another story, another time). Despite my usual panic, we kept driving.
Two days earlier Cosmo and I had made a last minute plan to meet up for a short backpacking trip. It had been three months since we'd seen each other, and three months since we'd come off of the Pacific Crest Trail. A massive snow storm and temporary government shut down inhibited our plans to meet in Capitol Reef National Park, so Cosmo found a cheap plane ticket and we set our gaze on Death Valley.
I picked Cosmo up from the airport early Sunday morning and we were off. We drove from Los Angeles, taking Highway 14 to the scenic Highway 395, and quickly realized our road trip would send us both on an emotional journey through the past. Our "scenic" drive took us past the unmistakable jagged formations of Vasquez Rocks followed by signs for the town of Agua Dulce. Next, we saw the rotating blades of the desert windmills slowly spinning in the distance as we drove along passing exits for Tehachapi, Walker Pass, and Lake Isabella. As we made our way further north, the mountains got bigger, the granite became clearer, and our gaze followed a long, winding road carved into the mountainside, making its way down to the highway, and stopping at a sign saying, 'Exit for Kennedy Meadows'.
Needing a break, and a brew, we stopped at Indian Wells, a small microbrewery in the middle of nowhere. In front of the brewery is the intersection of highway 14 and 395, but behind the building is Owens Peak, the highest point in the southern Sierra Nevada. The Pacific Crest Trail hugs the canyon tucked behind Indian Wells and travels around Owens Peak. From the brewery, Cosmo and I stared up at the mountain that gave us our first real glimpse of the snow-capped Sierra that summer of 2017 (which ironically appeared to have less snow now in late January).
Here we were passing through a month of memories within a two hour drive. I know that the PCT wasn't easy, and I am aware that this part of trail was particularly challenging - but, unfortunately, with such pangs of nostalgia it’s impossible to remember the physical pain and intensity of that time. I can’t feel the blisters at Saw Mill Campground, or the start of the incessant stomach cramps leaving Hikertown, or the dehydration and delusion in the Mojave Desert, or the first time I felt uncertainty and dread as I hiked out of Horseshoe Meadows with a heavy pack, wondering if the PCT is what I really wanted to be doing. Despite all of that, as I sat in Indian Wells looking up at the Sierra, all I felt was a love and longing, for that time, the trail, and the people we hiked with.
After our break, we got back on the road, heading straight towards Lone Pine and Bishop. But, before becoming too carried away in the past, we took a sharp right turn into a new adventure.
We drove straight along Highway 190, marveling at dramatic scenery and rugged desert landscape. Death Valley is surprisingly diverse with narrow, barren basins walled by steep mountain ranges, hidden alpine forests, and flowing waterfalls. Our drive took us from below sea level up to 5,000 ft in elevation, and back down again. We drove by white salt beds, and watched the mid-afternoon sun sparkle across the marbled rock canyon walls.
We stayed on Highway 190 for about an hour and a half before approaching the previously mentioned - soft and sandy - Cottonwood Canyon Road. We drove halfway down the 12 mile stretch of road leading to the trailhead and decided to the park the car in a turnout. We grabbed our packs and we were finally on our way!
Ahhhhhhhhh! The quietness, the warm California (winter) sun, and the countless unexplored canyons that surrounded us - the next two days were the happiest I've been since returning from the Pacific Crest Trail.
The freedom of being self-supported, the comfort and familiarity of walking with Cosmo, everything seemed to align, and for that brief moment I thought 'I can do this. Everything is going to be okay.' There is a beauty that exists in the outdoors, and when we encounter it, we may begin to feel that beauty within ourselves. It is a reminder of the world in its natural state. And so we come here to learn how to be content with What Is, to be quiet, to be stinky, to find pure happiness in fulfilling only the most basic of our human needs and discarding the rest.
We began the Cottonwood Canyon/Marble Canyon Loop, a 26 mile trail that "passes through dramatic canyons and desertscapes, ascends steep ridgelines, and crosses through unlikely springs" (www.hikingproject.com). We hiked about seven miles the first night before finding a soft, flat, sandy spot to lay out our tarp and cowboy camp. The winter in Death Valley is perfect. Warm and sunny during the day, and mildly chilly (especially compared to the last few days of the PCT) in the evening. The sky was clear and flooded with stars, and all around us was a comforting, calm silence that you can only find in the remote outdoors.
The next day we woke with the sun, packed up our camp and spent the day walking through groves of cottonwood trees, over rolling terrain, and through narrow canyons and lush oases.
We made friends with wild burros.
Found water (yes, water in the desert!) to dunk our heads.
And, we played "Guess the Pass" as we set our gaze upon the steep climb in front of us.
We continued up, up, up until we reached the highest point of the hike. The view at the top was unexpectedly beautifully breathtaking. We arrived to a sunset panoramic view of the valleys and mountains that surrounded us.
We cracked open our cold ones and savored the last few minutes of the setting sun before traversing down the steep descent into Marble Canyon.
We hiked for about an hour in the dark and decided to stop because we could feel something special was around us, and we were right. In the morning we hiked through the highlight of our loop, the colorful Marble Canyon.
The last few miles were tucked away in the narrow canyon walls, and if you look close enough you might find evidence that folks have been coming to these canyons for a long, long time.
Before leaving the park Cosmo and I decided to celebrate our successful weekend at Panamint Springs Resort (my expectation and vision of "resorts" has drastically changed since hiking the PCT) a small, rustic, western-style "resort" located in the Panamint Valley. Highlights of Panamint Springs include french fries, beer, and views of Telescope Peak - the highest peak in Death Valley. We enjoyed all of the above. We savored our last afternoon on this short trip with a well deserved pound of french fries (and onion rings)-
Cosmo and I fully lived in every moment of that short trip. The weekend certainly didn't help my slow adjustment back to "real-life". Coming home alone to the city was hard. But, this trip did remind me that there is a different REAL life out there. Always waiting, always welcoming, always ready as soon as you decide that you are.