Weather or not
There's nothing like an AR to put a damper on winter desert camping

David Feela - 01/26/2023

We planned to meet some good friends from California at Death Valley’s Mesquite Springs Campground in early December to reminisce about the good old days. Death Valley was an equidistant point between our homes and in a climate that might be habitable so late in the year.  

My brother, who is a Catholic priest, mentioned that any vacation destination starting with the word “Death” might not be such a good idea. I should have listened. His occupation gives him special insight into these matters.

Lucky for me, disasters come in three sizes: small, medium and Holy Shit! In retrospect, ours turned out to be inconvenient, though at the time it loomed as large as a real valley of dread.       

In anticipation of the trip, I kept an eye on Death Valley weather and concluded the worst-case-scenario might be cooler-than-usual night temperatures. On the up side, I’d be towing our little 13-foot camping trailer, and our friends would be meeting us with its twin. We’d all be warm enough inside our fiberglass igloos, even without power or water hookups. We’d be, as they say, equipped to survive.

Normally one wouldn’t pack a raincoat when heading to Death Valley, which is infamous as a dry place. Except, this December, a major southern California storm full of mudslides and torrential downpours decided to track its mucky footprints across our itinerary. We might as well have packed swimming suits.  

For most of the trip there, we experienced dry roads. The rain started many miles outside of Las Vegas. The drive to the great plunge in the road, which I’ll refer to as the “Death Dip,” stayed shrouded in rain, buckets of rain as Bob Dylan phrased it. In fact, we sang that song for close to 25 miles. By then, with strained voices from out-shouting the sound of water ricocheting off the truck, I remember thinking, “This deluge has to let up soon.” I imagined scorching heat, rocks that crawled, borax trails and mirages of palm trees, but what I got were dark clouds piled up like a California surf pounding the horizon.   

The real disaster I hadn’t expected followed close behind in the form of our very own camping trailer. We’d ordered a customized window installation in August but had to wait for the semi-professional fitting till the end of November. More airflow in our igloo was our plan. When finally completed, we were pleased with the excellent view and breeze where there used to be a vent the diameter of a stove pipe.   

In Beatty, Nev., the rain still tap-danced its chorus line on our vacation plans. I’ve never been impervious to stupidity, but in this case, I suggested it might be a bit brainless to keep driving into Death Valley at dusk, in the rain, dragging a trailer, to hunt for the spot where our friends would be camping. Since we were outfitted to go camping, we checked in at a little RV place on the outskirts of town. We could boil some water and make a pot of tea. Maybe read about our misfortunes in the leaves at the bottom of our cups. 

But we never got to the tea. After opening the trailer door, I could see how much water had flowed past the casement of the new window. It pooled onto a counter where it amassing enough courage to become a small creek, moving along the counter in both directions, turning into a miniature waterfall, which poured over each end of the counter to fill the soft hills of our beds. Memory foam is excellent for comfort, but at that moment I learned how ambitiously it also absorbs and retains moisture.   

The local news reported the road into Death Valley from our side had been temporarily closed, washed out by the rain. We could not contact our friends, who’d presumably landed in Mesquite Springs, or maybe not. Our enthusiasm to reach them cooled. I mopped up water as best I could with a bunch of towels and used an entire tube of silicone to unsuccessfully seal the window frame. At least my fingers were completely waterproof.

We abandoned any plans to camp and drove to a nearby casino hotel for the night. We left messages for our friends and slept. A hard rain lasted all night and through the morning as we headed home, dragging our soggy igloo. I’d like to say our spirits were uplifted, but as we approached the elevated landscape of Flagstaff, Dan Fogelberg’s song “Old Lang Syne” started playing on the radio. Naturally, the weather altered the closing lyrics and the rain turned into snow.

– David Feela 

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