Valley of Fire, Nevada

Half the Journey is Getting There

Just a hair shy of fifty miles due north east of Las Vegas is the oldest national park in the state of Nevada. After driving forty-five minutes through a dusty, grey desert with not much to take in visually, we pull up to a crossing with an oversized truck stop and liquor store filled with more alien-inspired tchotchkes and off-brand liquors than one can shake a stick at. This is a common occurrence in our brave state. What doesn’t look to be too promising of a start turns out to be a passing moment on the road to adventure but sets the tone for a rewarding respite.

Passing the truck stop, we ease onto the paved road that winds and twists further and further into the valley. After paying the fees at the guard gate, we’re on our own. As we come to the clearing my heart feels lifted and I am overflowing with joy at the sight of the bright red and orange mountains with hints of ochre in the crests and wells in front of us. This is the Valley of Fire, and it does not disappoint. Our Dodge Ram F150 and twenty-five-foot Airstream travel trailer take up significant space, so our best bet is to find a site that can handle thirty to forty feet of machinery. Our recently devised practice (if we don’t have a reservation) is to drive through the grounds and note sites that we like and select the most desirable location. On this particular outing we found a site nestled amongst an alcove of rocks with a covered eating area and barbeque. Given that the forecast was calling for a balmy thirty-eight degrees, these items would have to go ultimately unused.

My responsibilities include assisting with parking and leveling the trailer (visualize aircraft marshalling for parking large vehicles), registering any additional paperwork, and making sure the dog has had an opportunity to embrace the local fauna. My better half is in charge of the heavy lifting: operating the truck, setting up the site with available hookups for power, grey and black water, and, where applicable, the inevitable “stinky slinky”. This may sound largely disinteresting to the novice camper but having a plan for entry into the campsite is immensely important: it decreases miscommunication and speeds up work time so the fun part happens more quickly.

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A benefit of designated campgrounds is that you are able to learn better practices through observations of more seasoned campers in a way you might not from staying at a hotel. Since camping is far more personalized and less private than a hotel suite, how you set up, your cleanliness and etiquette are out in the open in a way that mirrors airing out your linens on the clothesline. Camping is an education in itself.

Morning Solitude

There’s something special about that moment just before twilight when the night is coming to an end, and the sun’s rays have not yet begun to refract and scatter across the sky. When I step outside, the air is just cold enough that it wakes me suddenly, kissing my nose with a few sharp pricks to remind me that winter is still here and I must obey her rules.

With my heavy winter boots donned and my cloak wrapped firmly around me, I find I am paying less attention to my dog’s activities, and more to what is above me: the peaks of the mountains, how they shine despite the lack of sunlight, drawing the eye’s attention upward to the point where the peaks meet the heavens. I am surrounded by varying layers of darkness as I continue to walk down the path with only the aid of the sky and a small flashlight. The other campers have not yet stirred, and my boyfriend, let’s call him “H”, is burrowed beneath the flannel sheets in our trailer.

This is my first personal introduction to the Valley of Fire, and I find that I am fully awakened by my senses: the brisk air with faint interruptions of the remains of retired campfires made from local brush reminding me of the night before; the silt still sliding underneath my feet despite the firm thirty-eight degree hold on the weather and the constellations still clear in the sky, unpolluted from city noise and soaring streetlights. Without an ounce of loneliness, I trudge on with leash and flashlight in hand after my mission-driven friend, I am only casually noting the rocks and hedges that catch my leggings with their thin reach. Were it not for the grievances of a small and chilly dog, coupled with impending doom of sunrise, I would want for this moment to last for hours. This is magic. This is my church.

When I spend a little quiet time with nature, I am filled from within with a magic that cannot be explained in words. It must be felt much the same way a song or a piece of art is learned with the heart where every note and stroke is memorized and locked away for safe-keeping. Here in this moment, I am separated from my chores the stresses of the home. My world is fresh and my feet are not yet on the ground, yet heavily planted in my boots. Where my night has not yet ended and my morning is close by, I pivot and retrace my steps with my companion catching up to my heels. We are heading back to our home away from home near the rocks and ledges not yet lit but where the whirring of the generator can be heard in the distance. We are preparing for yet another morning ritual. The one that begins with a fire and a silver pot heating water to simmer the rich, ground espresso beans we roasted the week before.

A Silent Orchestra

H, my dog Chuey, and I are a small collective of introverts that have somehow managed to function as a family. Most of what we do together we do in varying degrees of silence. This is perfect for me as I am more of an observer than an active participant in all things social. Remaining quiet has its benefits, however, in that it allows my other senses to heighten as I shuffle through the day’s motions and enjoy the tiny aspects that sometimes can be missed when barraging through the day. This ubiquitous silence is enhanced to a utopian degree when camping out in the desert. Out in this great bowl of rocks, there’s no noise pollution from cellphones ringing or trucks pulling the Jake brake to interfere with the subtle sounds that morning brings.

Inside the Airstream I find myself resorting to the same rituals that I practice at home. With the coffee pot on the stove and the only light inside the trailer is the white glow from the lamp above the range that spills down to create a pool around my feet. There is no need for H to ask, “is the coffee ready?” because he can smell the rich aroma wafting down the galley toward the bedroom, in the same way that I don’t have to question if he’s ready for me to bring it to him. I can hear the gentle stirring as he shifts in the sheets. He doesn’t need an alarm clock here; the smell of the coffee alone wakes him.

The Airstream is parked so that her front faces east and her end faces west intentionally. This is so we could enjoy the sunrise from the bedroom and the sunset over dinner. Padding into the room, I pop Chuey on the bed and lean over to place our mugs on the side board, so I can adjust the drapes to let the first glow of pink rays enter. The canyon is slowly ignited by the intense folds of pink, yellow, and orange as the sun hits the striations in the sandstone, giving the illusion of warmth even though I am well aware of the frigid temperatures just outside the winterized walls.

As the day begins I watch from the comfort of my bed, still wrapped in my shawl and now equally burrowed in the flannel sheets, now satiated by my mug of dark, thick, high-octane liquid. Outside, the neighbors are beginning to crawl out of their own personal dens of happiness to join us in embracing the new day. They are a bit rowdier than we are, and their chatter stirs a guttural growl that has brewed in the depths of Chuey’s stomach. He’s displeased that the neighbors interrupted the quiet as well. With the spell of night broken, I slide off of the bed and return to the kitchen to start on a breakfast of pancakes and links, a rare treat that we are spoiling ourselves with on our maiden voyage.

A Rusty Start

Our bellies full and our minds rested, H and I plan out the next few hours before we head back into town. We unhitched the truck from the Airstream, so we are able to take a drive through some of the more scenic sites and up the hills toward the trail heads. I prep a daypack and H takes care of securing all belongings that have been strewn about the interior due to late-night laziness.

“We can either take to the trails near the crest or check out the petroglyphs” he states, looking at a very much not-to-scale map of the park. “I’m fine with either option,” I reply, “it just depends on what Chuey can handle.” My tiny side-kick of eleven years has a height that barely reaches my calf and weighs about seven pounds wet, so his stamina for a long hike is short. “Whenever he runs out of gas I will just carry him,” I continue. This has become my usual approach these days when our hikes come into question.

I can hear the rocks crackle underneath the tires of the truck as we pull out of the campsite. Despite the movements of our neighbors tending to their morning chores of coffee and dog walking, there isn’t much in the way of rampant chatter. Somehow, word has gotten out that less is more. I can sense a subtle smile creeping across my face. They, too, must be in a trance from the beauty that surrounds us.

When we reach the bend in the road just past Seven Sisters rock formation, the path narrows a bit to the point that opposing traffic must pass with great care. My dog is sitting on my lap with his front paws on the arm rest, looking out the window for about twenty minutes till we reach a parking lot. The engine stops, and we are out of the truck inspecting our new terrain, searching for the trail head to lead us to proof of life from a time we previously only knew of in history books.

Almost instantly we notice a change in our footing. The ground here is finer than sand; more silt-like then solid earth, and the color of rust. The wind is whipping through in short gusts between the crevices. After about five minutes, H, now walking ahead of me, stops, turns around and starts laughing. “I think you had better take a look at your dog.”

I hadn’t really paid Chuey much attention because he was keeping up with the pace.  My once snowy-white friend is now a light yellow-orange that washed into a full reddish brown, similar to the way red hair dye rinses out to give way to a carrot orange on once blonde hair. With his muzzle crusted in desert paint it was clear he was having fun, but not without a struggle. Evidence of a good time, and that our grand plans of a morning hike had come to an abrupt end.

When the End is Really the Beginning

I learned a few things about myself and my partner this trip. We had made a very large investment with having only done some light traveling abroad together over the last few years. Choosing to purchase an RV was a major decision. We had made a commitment to each other to enjoy one another’s company for hours on end. In many cases this includes copious alert hours of minimal communication.

My mother often said, “You know you are with the right person when you can be alone together in perfect silence and know that it was time well spent.” How right she was. As it turns out, she was also right about using silence as a means to recharge. Remaining quiet had never been a planned activity during this journey…it just sort of happened. One forgets how much communicating can be done through casual glances and body language; our need for speaking had hit an unintentional ‘only when necessary’ point, and it was lovely.

Leaving the Valley of Fire was not much different from our entry in that there was a series of chores to be done. My role consisted primarily of re-purposing leftovers into a quick meal, cleaning used dishes, securing all moving objects within the Airstream and removing all belongings we would be taking with us in the truck after we parked and stowed away the travel trailer. H’s chores were mostly outside: dismantling hook-ups and preparing the hoses for the dump site and removing the chocks from under the rear tires so we could drive home. All of this hustle took less than the course of an hour.

IMG_0214While preparing for our departure back to the city, I find myself volleying between reflections on my experience and necessary departure tasks at hand. Through a mix of hand signals and a yell of “OKAY!” at H from where I am standing behind the trailer establishing that our turn signals and brake lights are in proper working order, I run to the front with my dog in arm and hop into the passenger seat. Ready to head out, we are leaving behind us only tire tracks and the memory of our first trip with the Airstream.

On future trips, this will be a different experience. In order to continue our lives while traveling, the purchase of a booster and satellite will become an important part of our budget. Being able to work from the road is key, but this also means that our peace and quiet will include the buzzing of technology, and our solitude will not be what it was.

As we turn left onto the highway just past the truck stop with the south-western, alien infested doodads, I realize that I am forever changed. Valley of Fire’s rosy hills left a lasting impression on me, and I am more content with my little family than ever before. I know now that I am craving the open road and the night air, breathing in the sound of silence.

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Getting in the Habit

A couple of weeks ago I signed up with a local women’s organization to do a ‘Build Day’ @ the Habitat for Humanity multi-home site in Lynwood, California.  What a great experience and fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon!

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From beginning to end, I learned so much. After a quick informational and safety session we were divided into teams. My team was taught how to measure, cut, and properly place siding – complete with proper caulking procedures to prevent water damage and how to cut siding to work windows, door frames and awkward edges.  In total we got about 5 rows done (a small effort, but we felt accomplished!) and were completely covered in dust and sweat by about 3:00 PM.

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Better still than all the building was learning about all the other things Habitat does for the community. Did you know that the houses are not given away? Each new owner has to go through a lengthy process and also contribute to the home they are building, whether it is for themselves or another, completing 200-500 hours of #sweatequity to complete the efforts, and each family has a mortgage that is manageable with their income to eventually own their home. Children in the family can help burn those hours: good grades count towards those #sweatequity hours too!

I was really impressed with Habitat’s program and all they had to offer. Also glad to hear that the Re-Store project raises money to build 2-3 more homes and does not go solely to operation costs.

If you’re looking for a way to get a group together and volunteer time & energy over dollars & cents, go for it!

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(All photos from this entry taken by A. Boltinghouse)

Identifying My Voice

I love to listen to NPR in my car when I am toodling around town. My zippy little car and I get a lot done that way, and it feels nice to feel like you’re having an in-depth intellectual discussion while you’re driving…except the radio is doing the talking and I’m doing a diluted form of active-listening which includes exclamations of “Oh wow!” or actually laughing out loud.

One influential story was that of Rupal Patel and her project VOCALiD: I was so impressed! VOCALiD is an online crowd fund of a completely different kind of funding. Instead of donating money, you donate your time and voice to invest in a ‘bank’. The reason you are doing this is to help those who don’t have a voice due to birth defects or developed disabilities.

I assure you I drove carefully, but I really couldn’t wait to get home to test this out.

Do you remember the motorized voice Stephen Hawking has? While many of us have identified that voice with him, I am quite certain he would have loved to have heard his own voice again – or something close enough to it that didn’t sound like a StarWars character. I also know that doesn’t sound like a little girl who might also have a similar condition. Rupal mentions this in the TedTalks YouTube I attached above.

The beauty of VOCALiD is that it helps combine the limited sounds of the person requiring help to that of a fully functioning person of a similar size/shape/sex. The whole process takes about 4 hours, but you can set your own pace and break it up over the course of time. You won’t be saying everything the person needs you to say – just creating the sounds needed so that they can construct their own sentences.

How cool is that? Free to do from the privacy of your own home, costs you nothing, you don’t have to strong-arm all of your friends into dropping buckets of ice water on their head (PS naysayers, I really didn’t have the $100 and I did engage in one COLD bath for the sake of doing it. That video has been destroyed), or sell a product where $0.10 goes ‘to the cause’.

I’m about 30 sentences in, and I find it’s great to do when I have ten minutes at the end of my day to “add to my bank”. It feels good that by just taking 10 minutes of my time my VOICE is actually doing something for someone else. Just by talking.

Thickening the Plot

My wonderful-and-amazing-partner-in-crime (well, second wonderful-and-amazing-partner-in-crime, as the first one has four legs and lacking posable thumbs or a desire to read) has learned more and more about my amazing book collection.

I should preface this entry with a tiny introduction. Stemming from a inside joke amongst girlfriends, My wonderful-and-amazing-partner-in-crime #2 shall be hereby referred to as Mr. Awesome. Yes, I’m aware this smacks of a SITC episode but get over it. Hopefully I won’t have an awful block-buster moment where I write something he doesn’t like and this turns into a melodramatic romance novel where the crowd, miraculously, goes mild.

Shortly after we met, he came over to hang for a bit and I had to do an insane mad-dash cleanup of epic proportions. This included shoving my piles of books into my extra closet and moving more piles into my bedroom and shutting the door. He never made it off the couch. Mr Awesome is likely the cleanest person I know, and I was not about to kill a relationship that hadn’t even started yet!

Back to the point.

We have often exchanged books that we loved and I was searching for the latest and greatest share to send over to him.  He travels a lot for a living so books are an important way to stay entertained whilst on the road. In my genius I’ve now accomplished things a 12th Grade English Teacher could only dream of.

To give you a general idea, we went this route:

NT>MrA: Theo’s Odyssey – Clement #fail

MrA>NT: Crash – JG Ballard #win

MrA>NT: Geek Love – Katherine Dunn #win

At two to one, I needed to up my game.

“Have you ever read Catcher in the Rye?” – silence- “What about To Kill a Mockingbird?” – more silence- “Of Mice & Men? Grapes of Wrath? Cannery Row? ANIMAL FARM?!?!?!”

MrA: “I didn’t really take much interest in my English Classes in school”

(seeing my clean pass to a win here) NT: “What if I just send a few over and you can read the ones that peak your interest? I promise: no homework, no term paper. They are way better that way anyway.”

MrA: “Deal”

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Fast Forward

Well, he’s finished Catcher, Cannery Row, and has slid his way into TKAMB and it’s been solid wins. Lessening my book pile and stacking his. Who knew my favorite books were multitasking as weapons of war?

i.was.here.

There’s nothing really quite like an unfortunate, tragic event to make you stand on your feet (or sit on your slowly expanding behind) and announce “I was here”.  Granted I’ve thought about writing my own column for quite some time, but to be plain, it’s selfish. Writing/publishing being of the same notion as any artist is the need to announce “I was here”. Let’s get to it.

Today, much like any other, was full of the ritual banter of designer panic attacks, displaced anger and a dollop of drama. We all have our version of a 9-5 and mine is a bit more colorful than your average Jane. Maybe not, talk amongst yourselves… What was different about today was the acknowledgement that not only can you not walk away from your past but that it has a way of finding you and indirectly affecting your psyche as it sashays through your mind while you are trying to get through your next droll meeting.

Today’s acknowledgement included suicide. Not a very happy topic. Why would it be? It’s an end-all, be done with it, way to go. Only those who have gone through levels of extreme depression and/or addiction (and I’m sure some psychologists out there will agree that one often precludes the other) coincide with the path to suicide. To start this story out, let’s start from the beginning.

A long time ago, I was the security person at a little Italian restaurant on La Brea in West Hollywood, Los Angeles in a lounge called “Room 5” above Amalfi. I only worked one day a week and the staff there was awesome.  I had a boss named Wood (RIP) who was wild and crazy and so full of love and fun and for whatever reason trusted me with pretty much everything. More on him later.  On no particularly special evening, this guy with a funky nose and his friend came up for a snack – they sat close to my post and engaged in casual conversation with me. As it turns out, the friend was his personal trainer and the guy, L*, he kept turning around and chatting. As we got into a further not-all-too-special conversation, we got to the “What do you do?” point.

As would only happen in my life I come to discover he owns a fashion company I was scheduled to model for in maybe three days time. Naturally I tell him as such, and we strike up a new level of conversation. Next thing I know, I have a phone number, business card, and when I do get done with said shoot, I have a scheduled date and higher pay for my work. Schweet!!!

Well, let’s just say the date was so-so. The work I did for the company was fine, but, not my best work. The dates went well by comparison. L* and I went to Bossa Nova for dinner. I don’t remember what we ate, but I remember he didn’t drink, which was a welcome change. We hung out, went back to his home and played with this kitten who had an obsession with my piercings at odd hours. Seriously. Sunshine + kittens + shiny things = not always a great combination.

Beautiful home. Rode back to my nasty, shoebox apartment on Whitley Avenue after breakfast in a funky cleaned up vintage sports car. Life has an odd way of showing you the other side.

Note – the other side. L* wasn’t the best gentleman. Had I been older and wiser, I might have asked a few people before I decided to venture down that road.  Nothing hateful or too cruel, just not the gentleman I would have hoped for. Scene: Show up for shoot, enter an office full of windows so that everyone can see your reaction when the guy you’ve been seeing announces to you he’s (in his words) “Taking it to the next level” with another woman. Ouch?

I’m not known for my aggressive filter.

I am known for being increasingly cold hearted and diplomatic until I’ve had time to boil properly.

Well, howdy. Watch out world, I have a mouth full of venom. Everything down to the big boat theory. Yep, I went there. I think it took about a month till I got the courage to swallow my pride and apologize for being that mad. Surprisingly, he handled it well. At least I was accurate in my depiction of unruly behavior and  I’m sure L* will turn up in other stories I have, but for now this will have to suffice.

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Years later (yesterday, actually), when I am far from any of that scene, I get an awkward phone call from a former co-worker. “Please tell me when I get off the phone with you, you have someone to call.” – I do – “L* commit suicide today. I got it through the grapevine, and so far, this is all I know.”

It took me until today to catch all the details and make sense of things.  Walking into my office and reading the news bulletins and the information behind it took me a while to swallow. I knew he wasn’t a terribly happy person, but didn’t think he’d take it that far.  Learning more about him over the years (more so in the last 24 hours), he may have felt that it had been that bad.

L*? You may not always have been loved, and some days you were hated, but not really. In the end, you did put me on the map and you introduced me to a friend I can never, ever forget. Today you made me stand up and say I was here. Not sure what follows life, but I’m sure you’re raising hell and pissing someone off.

Get to it. See you on the other side.