For the Hell of it
"You can't see anything from a car... You've got to crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you'll see something maybe."
”How far to the main road?”
Careless words. A multitude of implications. A lot to contemplate out here in the middle of Death Valley. I spit, wipe the sting- ing sweat from my eyes and run on, upward toward the summit, into a naked blue sky that cares little for answers.
Under a blanket of stars nine hours earlier, my pal David Ayala took the first steps of a 93-mile run that would carry him across the midsection of Death Valley. He charted a course that consisted almost entirely of bone-jarring dirt roads. Death Valley is in the middle of nowhere, and David chose the middle of this middle of nowhere to run through.
A close friend of my wife’s and mine, David announced his intentions to run through this section of desert about six months ago. He invited dozens of folks, close friends and family, to be his support crew. My initial response to the query was, yes, I would be there. My wife, Sarah, daughter, June, and I agreed to join the party.
Despite being tagged with National Park status, Death Valley—lacking red rock arches, towering mesas and buttes and the soaring sandstone of its neighboring desert wonders— is easy to take for granted. On more than one occasion I’ve driven partway through. Sticking to the beaten paths, I’ve noted the curious elevation markers announcing that, despite being surrounded by vast desert and folding mountain ranges on all sides, the elevation is indeed some 200 feet below sea level. Damn low, goddamn hot. I usually grab an ice-cream cone and drive on. There is a tendency in us to live this way. To travel someplace, take some pictures and quickly move on to the next place. This method of travel, promoted byfastcars,smoothpavementandroadhouse fast food, often robs us of genuine experience.
As David plowed through mile 50, he explained that one of the reasons he decided to embark on this ambitious run was to feel the desert, to see it all from ground level, at his own pace, one footstep at a time. His words reminded me of Edward Abbey’s introduction to Desert Solitaire.
“In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.”
Our base camp was just outside Lone Pine, California. A small outpost in the Owens Valley, Lone Pine sits near the base of Mount Whitney, which at 14,495 feet is the highest point in the lower 48 states. The close proximity of the granite faces of the Sierra Nevada to Death Valley, the lowest point in North America, is a symphony of extremes.
Indeed, as Sarah, June and I steer into the Owens Valley, my jaw drops hard when, lying there in front of me, climbing into the sky, was the Sierra Nevada, jagged teeth already dusted with snow, smiling down on the 95- degree autumn we’d just passed through.
We roll into camp expecting a herd of people to greet us. But David, his girlfriend, Ana, and a friend Zach, are in town buying supplies. We pitch our tent in the shadow of Whitney, a small creek bubbling a few feet away.
David arrives in the final moments of dusk. His Subaru Outback is piled high with boxes of food and a huge mound of bananas that seemed destined for the gorilla exhibit at the zoo.
David is no stranger to wild places. He grew up in Springdale, Utah, at the gate of Zion National Park. When winter came to Zion, David’s folks would retreat to Brian Head, Utah, an hour or so north, where they manned the health clinic for a ski resort. So, young David was that desert-mountain rat—a transient passing between two beloved homes, living that rare childhood filled with red-rock desert hikes in summer and endless skiing through winter.
Along the way sprouted a brilliant mind. People toss this term, brilliant, around. But David, as anyone knows him will vouch, truly is. After taking undergraduate and masters degrees in math from the University of Utah, David went on to Stanford, where he earned a doctorate. Now he does post-doctorate research for Harvard. I under- stand his job to be this: He talks to people about math. David teaches no classes, grades no papers. He’s the thinker who hashes out ideas with other brilliant people. This part of David is understated. I’ve never heard him boast, do insane division in his head or put some amateur counter to shame. It’s not easy getting him to speak of himself. He wants to hear about others. He listens well, silently absorbing what they have to say, all while drawing more and more from them. It’s tough to even count the number of times I’ve ranted to David about the depressed state of newspapering, a former profession of mine. “Tell me about that again,” he’ll say.
So why has David spent the last several months banging the bottom of his Subaru against every rock on every so-called road in Death Valley, just to find a suitable place to run? The first part of the question has been answered. The second part is more personal. The run, David explains, will afford him a chance to test his limits. His longest run up until now was a 44-mile jaunt on trails from the campus of Stanford University, over the Santa Cruz Mountains and down to the sea. Only he wasn’t supposed to go to the sea, just to the crest of the mountains, which is where a classic dilemma surfaced. As he looked down on the coastline below, David couldn’t come up with a good enough reason not to keep running. “Well, why not,” he said he told himself. “I’ll just hitchhike back.”