Monday, January 15, 2001


As one gets older, certain things get left behind. Hair, for example. Also muscle tone, memory, flexibility, stamina, fearlessness, growth hormone... The list is painfully long. In exchange however, one also gains certain things. Like a bulging gut. But there are also some positive gains. Unfortunately I can't remember most of them. I did manage to write one down on the back of a credit card receipt -- actually that reminds me of another one: Credit. But the one I wrote down was: "Wisdom."

The receipt was for a motel room at the Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley, where Brian and I went for New Year's weekend this year. As some of you may remember, we made our original pilgrimage to DV two years ago on New Year's Eve. The memory of being turned away from the Furnace Creek Ranch after having driven all night and hiked all day, prompted me to make reservations months in advance, just in case we decided to make the trip again. Wisdom.

Having made the reservations, the decision to make the trip was almost a no-brainer. We thought it would be cool to invite some friends to come with us. Female friends. Brian asked a couple of women from his office and I sent an invitation via email to a woman I know. Brian's friends never seemed fully committed to the idea, they seemed to want to leave it up in the air. As for my friend, I have yet to hear back from her. Anyway we decided not to wait for the females to make a decision -- who needs them anyway? They would only slow us down. We decided to head out on our own. Just the guys. No strings, no encumbrances. Wisdom.

The drive out was great: the open road, the blue sky, the miles and miles of snail's-pace Las Vegas New Year's weekend traffic. Fortunately, we'd been this route before and turned off the interstate onto state highway 395, which runs through the middle of nowhere, past the Federal Prison Ranch and the Artillery Testing Range, to the west boundary of Death Valley National Park. At about sunset, somewhere outside the town of Trona, I remembered that I had forgotten to pack my L.L. Bean hiking boots. Oh, well -- no turning back now. What's done is done, no sense worrying about it -- I'll just have to make do. I laughed it off. Wisdom.

We checked in at Furnace Creek Ranch, ate a wholesome dinner at the '49er Cafe, went for a relaxing swim in the geothermically-heated spring-fed swimming pool and finished off with a few beers at the Corkscrew Saloon. Then back to our comfortable room to rest up for a day of hiking and adventure. This was the life -- sure beats freezing your ass off in the front seat of a Nissan Sentra at four a.m. in the middle of a casino parking lot. Wisdom.

Our first destination the next morning was the famous Death Valley Sand Dunes, an easy two-mile hike from the side of the highway to a series of graceful, undulating dunes, some reaching 80 feet in height. We hiked out to the highest dune, took some pictures and chatted with the other hikers for a bit. Some kids were running, jumping, rolling and tumbling down the steep side of the dune, which sloped around to form a giant bowl that might have been the world's biggest sand box. It sure looked like they were having fun. I remembered doing the same thing with my sisters on some dunes out on Cape Cod a very, very, very long time ago.

Brian decide to give it a try. He took a running start and dove head first down the slope, hurtling ass-over-teakettle down the sandy incline. He ground to a halt about halfway down and sat up -- slowly. He looked a little dazed. I called down and asked if he was all right. He waved back. His confused look and jerky movements convinced me that he was fine. I decided to walk down. Wisdom.

After a picnic lunch, Brian suggested we try to find Little Bridge Canyon, which was purportedly located on the other side of the highway from the dunes. We headed up a broad and rocky "alluvial fan" towards what we thought was the mouth of the canyon. The alluvial fan, when viewed from the highway, looks like a wide, flat, fan-shaped ramp that leads directly into the mouth of the canyon. In the desert, however, perspective and distance make molehills out of mountains.

We proceeded to trudge up the fan for two or three miles. Turns out it is actually not so flat and is covered with razor-sharp rocks and riven with steep, treacherous gulches. Plus, we couldn't seem to find the damn canyon. We had now turned east and were attempting to cross the breadth of the fan, but kept running into more freakin' ravines. Eventually we hit one that was nearly a hundred feet deep. There was no getting across, and to go around in either direction would have taken almost as much time as we'd already spent. The highway was a faint grey thread below us and the car was a microscopic speck. And the sun was going down. Brian didn't want to give up. We'd come this far. We must be getting close. It was time to make a decision...

Sometimes on the way to your goal you find something you weren't expecting that is even better than what you were looking for. But sometimes you don't. Sometimes you don't reach your goal at all. Sometimes you just have to give up looking. And that is true wisdom.

We headed back to the car and drove up to the general store at Stovepipe Wells where I got a can of tuna and a shot glass. Before the sun went down we took one more hike to a place called Mosaic Canyon. We hiked part way in, but it got dark pretty fast and we had to turn back.

When we got to the motel, we went straight for the pool and man did it feel great. We even met a couple of women there and asked them what their plans were for New Year's. They said they were going over to Furnace Creek Inn (the ritzier cousin to the F.C. Ranch). I said, "Oh, is there a party there?" The dark-haired one said, "Maybe." Then they left. I paid them no heed. Who needs 'em anyway?

We went back to our room to change, but before heading over to the Corkscrew Saloon to ring in the New Year, I broke out the tequila and we duly inaugurated my brand new souvenir Death Valley shot glass. I'd even had the foresight to bring a couple of limes. Wisdom.

On the way out of the park the next day, we stopped at the Ranger Station and grilled several of the Rangers as to the exact whereabouts of the so-called "Little Bridge Canyon." They admitted that it was a tricky place to find, and even after pulling out several topo maps and detailed trail guides, offered us little in the way of satisfaction. One of the Rangers, a cute young woman named Kathy, did suggest another hike that was on our way and not too time consuming. It was called Darwin Falls.

Despite the fact that Kathy was very sweet and had a beautiful smile, I checked the maps and guidebooks myself to verify the fact that Darwin Falls was not another one of their imaginary destinations designed to lure unwary hikers into dangerous and life-threatening situations whose sole purpose was to validate the budget and payroll for the Park Service's Emergency Rescue Squad. It seemed to check out, so we decided to have one more mini-adventure before heading home. In this way we would make up for the disappointment suffered the day before and end our journey on an up note. Wisdom.

Darwin Falls was right where they said it would be, and after a short but interesting hike through a winding canyon, we reached a beautiful oasis in the middle of the wasteland. A thirty foot waterfall spilled down steep rock walls into a crystal pool in the middle of a peaceful sylvan glade.

About twenty feet above us, along the canyon wall, we saw two women coming down a trail. Still in the mood for adventure, we decide to see where the trail went. On our way up we met the two women and they turned out to be the same women we met at the pool the night before. We said hello and wished them happy new year. The dark-haired one told us that the trail led up the side of the canyon to a much bigger waterfall. Since there seemed to be several possible avenues of ascent available, I asked her if the one we were headed for was the one she had determined to be the best choice. She said, "Kind of." Then they left.

Armed with dubious advice, we started our ascent. The trail was steep, often slippery and at times required some rock-climbing ability. At one point, Brian turned to me and asked, "Is this worth dying for?" I shrugged.

We were up a couple hundred feet above the canyon floor, clinging to the jagged rock face in the failing light, trying to decide if we should continue. Since I was now in front, I edged out along an outcropping of rock and peered around to see if I could see what lay ahead. All I saw was a flat promontory, jutting out into the canyon. It didn't look like much, but it seemed like as good a place as any to turn around. Besides, we might get some kind of view from there.

We reached the promontory and turned around to see an incredible sight: a stream of water pouring forth from a notch in the rock about a hundred feet above us and falling unimpeded for another two hundred feet nearly straight down and out of sight to the floor of the canyon far below. The canyon walls loomed around us, steep and sheer, chiseled by nature from the dark, hard rock. There was no other place on earth from which to view this sight. The canyon walls were too high and offered no other access, except to the birds. It was exhilarating and awe-inspiring. The perfect end to our adventure.

We stayed for a few minutes as the light grew dimmer, just long enough to take some pictures and build a cairn to mark out achievement. Then we headed back, hoping we would remember the way.

Sometimes on the way to reaching a goal you have to stop and consider if the goal is really worth the effort. But until you reach the goal you may never know its worth. It may turn out to be worth more than you had ever imagined. So, sometimes you just have to take your best guess and proceed on faith. And all the wisdom in the world won't help you if you don't have faith.

Happy New Year.

Love HWD

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