“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.”
Photo by Kyle Ormsby
For a fella ready to test his limits, David doesn’t look all that bothered or nervous. As always, his smile is big and shiny. He is clean-shaven, his face browned by so many days on the trail. At 30, he still has a full head of black hair that I’ve never seen combed. When we hug, his squeeze is genuine like a bear’s. His laugh is full and loud. Dressed in a zigzag-patterned, itchy- looking knitted sweater and a pair of blue fleece Patagonia pants that look like they were stolen off a Smurf, David is jovial as ever as he patiently explains to everyone the ins and outs of the run- ning route that he had highlighted on several maps.
David has done his homework. He had driven the five or so hours up to Death Valley from Los Angeles several times to scout the course. He drove every rutted mile he planned to run. On one reconnaissance mission, the unforgiving road ripped the muffler from the underbelly of the car. On another trip while scouting an impossibly steep section of road near mile 67, a rock punctured the sidewall of a tire. On this section, David explains, only his car will go. “I don’t want to mess anyone else’s car up.”
David has it all worked out. His mother will accompany him for the first few miles. Zach will take the sec- ond leg. Ed, the third, Ben the fourth and on and on in rotation until David either keels over from exhaustion or reaches his distant finish line.
Tonight in camp, no one relaxes. Everyone eats hastily, standing up. Chores are underway, cars loaded with food and gear. David scrawls instructions for four members of the group who have not yet arrived from San Francisco. There is chatter about David and how wild his run will be. Questions arise about what his body, ravaged by fatigue and beaten by the trail, will go through.
“Someone told me that my GI track will stop functioning around mile 70,” David announces. Everyone just nods, trying not to imagine what that might look like. But during the evening’s preparations, no one questions whether David can do it. And, perhaps oddly, no one asks him why he decided to run so far. No one questions his will or reasons. David said he wanted to run through the desert. We were invited along. And so we came.
I wake at 12:50 a.m., about three hours after saying goodnight to David. He and Ana are up. David’s mother, Helen, and his stepdad, Mike, and their two black dogs, Butch and Sundance,
are all crammed into a top-heavy Mercedes van that they borrowed from a friend back in Springdale. The van shakes as Mike, Helen and the dogs move about, arranging and rearranging supplies, their headlamps shining through the windows, making it appear as if a mad swarm of fireflies is trapped inside.
As I emerge from my tent, the crew from San Francisco arrives. They plan to hit the sack and break camp at 8 a.m., meeting the early morning crew around mile 35. Right now, though, introductions are made and shots of whiskey swilled—for most everyone but David.
We roar out of camp just after 1:30 a.m. I ride in the van with Zach, the dogs, Mike and Helen. I’d hoped to snooze, but Helen passes me a jug of coffee. I try to refuse, but the brew smells too good. I suck down a thermos full as we follow the dim taillights of David’s car into the heart of Death Valley.
It is a three-hour drive to the “starting line.” The highway is perilously steep and windy. It dips and dives and climbs. The van’s engine whines and chugs up the punishing climbs.
Photo by Kyle Ormsby
We greet the start—the junction of two dirt roads, one nice and graded, the other rutted, rocky and occasion- ally drowning in thick gravel and sand. The latter is ours. After taking a leak, eating one of his mother’s home- made energy bars—Helen Bars—gulping some water and letting Ana take a quick video to capture the moment, David, his mom at this side, starts to run. To run. That thing we probably do in our dreams before we even know how to walk. And to run into a mystery the way David intends to run, for little other reason than to discover something about himself.
In order to finish alive, David figures he’ll have to rein in his legs and trot at a modest pace of 12 minutes per mile. Shut in by dark- ness, headlamps lighting the path before them, David and his mom cruise forward. I accompany them on a mountain bike, and in this early hour, when the taillights of the van disappear leaving the three of us together under an infinite black sky, I become useful as the mule.
David begins his run at just over 2500 feet, a hair after 5 a.m. For a half mile, until he and Helen’s engines warm, it is chilly. But after 10 minutes of running, David pauses to strip off his running pants and long-sleeve shirt. I stop, dismount and place the clothing in my backpack. By the time I swig some water and hop back on the saddle, David and Helen have disappeared.
The ride for me is not easy. These tires, sticky with fat nubs, kick up gravel and do not roll easily. The short path in front of me illuminated by the headlamp paints an inadequate picture of the bumpy land ahead. I pedal hard, going as fast as I dare, hoping to spot the runners. By the time I catch up, my T-shirt is soaked in sweat and my chest heaves. Helen is ready to shed some clothing. I repeat the process, letting them run off ahead while I load the pack. I chase down the runners again as dawn starts its own furious gray- blue march over the mountains. Sweeping fields of Joshua trees, their fleets of bushy trunks capped by a blossoming of thick limbs that jut skyward, dot the eastern slope. To the west the land sinks to dry lakebeds, then climbs abruptly to 7000-foot peaks.
The morning light also reveals why my legs are on fire only five miles into this show: the land behind us, back toward the start, lies a long way below now. In the darkness, we climbed nearly 2500 feet. When the van appears, David munches a banana, powers down a Helen Bar and drinks as much as he dares.
After the pit stop, Helen runs on with David, who has been joined by Zach. As I bear toward them, behind again, I first see Helen. She decides to take a breather and join Mike in the van.
When I finally catch David and Zach, my legs and lungs are screaming. Fifteen miles in, and David’s just fine, running with the dogs and thinking about math. He and Zach, also a mathematician, are cooking up a problem. David breaks it down for me the best he can. He used to try this in our college days. But despite his best efforts at simplicity, my slow mind slams shut. As I labor on, he and Zach Ahammer out the details.
At mile 18, when we once again meet up with the van, I retire for the morning. David, Zach and Ed run on without me and I take a seat in the van. I hungrily munch a small fortune of Helen Bars, two bananas and chug a thermos of water. My shirt drips with sweat and I’m cold. I can do little but doze and feel weak as I watch from behind the windshield as David motors on, surely and consistently.
David could have cruised out into the middle of Death Valley alone, or with Ana, and pulled off his run just fine. But he wanted a bunch of people with him. I think he wanted to have a
party, the kind where everyone took a moment to share thoughts with the host. I have little doubt that over the next six miles David and Zach solved their math problem. On Helen’s early morning stretch with her son, she briefed David on family and town news. As I biked, I spoke about the first date my wife took me on in 2003—it was to Death Valley.
“Yeah, she searched me out at a rowdy Modest Mouse concert,” I said. “We went out for coffee afterwards, and she mentioned that the following weekend she’d be driving to Death Valley. So I said, who you going with? Alone? Well, I’ll go. And we haven’t really left each other since.”
David didn’t mind the mushy cliche. “I love that story,” he said. People, friends and family together, putting some miles on the legs and drinking in life. That’s the third reason David decided to run through Death Valley.
Morning gave way to afternoon, and as David and Ana trotted past Teakettle junction—a fork in the road where passersby have long strung up tea kettles from a wooden sign—the glaring sun stood high in the vacant blue sky. At this point, one road bends to the left, climbing 1500 feet before peaking and dropping back down to the Joshua-tree-speckled desert floor. The other road juts across the desert, angling downward and outward to a vast, dry lakebed known as the Racetrack.
Photo by Kyle Ormsby
The Racetrack, an ironic name for the place, is world renown for its “sailing stones” and the laborious paths they leave behind. The stones apparently make their way across the pancake flat surface through a combination of fierce wind- storms and occasional submersion during winter storms. As the stones move, the evidence of their journeys remain, like magical lonesome tire tracks. David’s route angles away from the Racetrack, up a rocky slope to the east. But he and Ana insist we detour to the Racetrack.
“Only a couple of miles,” David says. “Not that far. It’s worth seeing.”
It’s his face, snoozes through the chaos. At the top of the pass, a vehicle appears in the distance, a plume of dust billowing in its wake. One of ours? No. It has been a good long while since Mike and Helen sped away at the Racetrack. And who knows where David and Ana are. The vehicle stops as we near it. A solo driver in a white SUV with raised suspension. The man has short black hair and an earring sparkles from his left earlobe. Gas cans and a shovel are strapped to his roof. He talks fast. All of the information I need tumbles out in one long breath.
Actually, the Racetrack is more like six miles from the junction. Twelve god-forsaken slow miles, round-trip. Zach, Ed and I resolve to see it.
The road to the Racetrack is the worst so far. It makes for slow travel, two miles per hour on the nice parts. I curse every rock that thunks the bottom of David’s already badly battered car.
We pull into the dirt Racetrack parking lot and see no rocks or their trails. As we search, a white vehicle crests a hill in the distance. The closer it gets, the more it looks like the van. Who is looking out for David? Mike and Helen dwell at the Racetrack barely long enough to stretch their legs. Their minds, too, are on David. We take off. Mike quickly loses me. The Van has far superior clearance, and he wrangles the machine with little regard for preservation. Back at the junction at last, I take a hard right onto the running route, which I hope will accommodate brisker travel. Not so. This damned road is no road at all. It is little more than a river-size area of baseball- size rocks, punctuated in places by hulking boulders. The pitch is steep and maintaining speed is a must. I curse, spit.
“Did we take a wrong turn?” “How could I have taken a wrong turn?” “There was no other way to go, right?” The questions rattle out. I am nervous. Ed, who is lying down in the back seat, a bandana covering is face, snoozes through the chaos.
At the top of the pass, a vehicle appears in the distance, a plume of dust billowing in its wake. One of ours? No. It has been a good long while since Mike and Helen sped away at the Racetrack. And who knows where David and Ana are. The vehicle stops as we near it. A solo driver in a white SUV with raised suspension. The man has short black hair and an earring sparkles from his left earlobe. Gas cans and a shovel are strapped to his roof. He talks fast. All of the information I need tumbles out in one long breath.
“Everybody’s fine. Saw the white van people, they’re fine. Your runners are fine. Gave them some water. Saw the other group. Coming the way I’m going. They’re fine. Everybody’s fine. You’re lagging a little, though. Well, you’ll be fine. Sandy up ahead. Thick-ass sand. Speed’s the key. Keep up the speed. You’ll be fine.” “So, you from around here?” I ask. “No,” the man says. “Live up in Sacramento. Just came
down for a drive.”
Fifteen minutes later, we spot our caravan. The sun is high, the sky a cloudless bright-blue temptation, stretching out and over the land as if hungry for it. Everyone is here. I bring the Subaru to a squeaking halt. Sarah and June run to greet me.
We find out later that, after passing Teakettle Junction, David and Ana bounded up the treacherous road without water, both support vehicles gone AWOL. They ran a good long way—about 10 to 13 miles—before crossing paths with the week- end driver from Sacramento. Ana, worried David could become dehydrated, hit the man up for water. The man obliged and delivered news that he’d recently passed the support vehicles. And Sarah tells me that as the California crew mulled which direction to take at a critical junction, the Sacramento man cruised up, pointed them in the right direction, and went on his way.