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Grand Ambitions


I had left my home in the San Francisco-Bay Area a week earlier. It was the off-season - my time to escape from the phones, the neighbors, the traffic, and the ambitions of the metropolis. Early winter rains chased me across California's Great Central Valley and south to circumvent the snow-burdened Sierra Nevada Mountains. I wanted to journey across prairie and forest, beyond peaks shading crusty salt flats, and deep into the desert to where painted horizons were broken by a fissure that humbled the imagination. It occurred to me, as I drove along my state's super highways and skirted the mind-boggling network of aqueducts, canals, and levies, that one is rarely alone in one's ambitions.

Two ranges east, in the desiccated landscape of Death Valley, I was reminded of this and my urge to escape. Not fifty yards from my campsite sat a parcel of sand, sage, and pavement that was host to 3,500 motor homes. How ambitious, indeed. They had breezed into the valley on ribbons of asphalt. Some towed full-size automobiles behind vehicles the size of tour buses. Air conditioning kept the desert heat at bay and satellite dishes helped pass the long evenings. Weather reports and tow trucks were a cellular phone call away. This time it was an annual shindig for a group of retirees named after California's original pioneers. An elderly woman told me there would be music, coyote calling, and plenty of fixin's. It seemed an odd group to be allying themselves with the likes of the Donner Party - a group of settlers who, in 1846, resorted to cannibalism when an early winter stranded them in the Sierra Nevada.

As I readied my camp for the night, far off I could hear howling, yelping and applause. The group's festivities had begun. I consider the strange quiet of the abandoned campground. The low drone of the airport machinery waxed and waned in the distance. The control tower's beacon threw an occasional glance. The amber lights of vehicles driving there, glided along a roadway I could not see in the darkness.

My calm was disturbed by rising winds. Thirty mile per hour gusts, born of the valley's shape and size, swept the ground and snapped at the tent. Across a thicket, a stream of spark and embers were sent dancing and twirling horizontally through the air from an unattended campfire. It would take little to ignite the parched desert growth - not to mention the lonely sea of recreational vehicles parked cheek to jowl. I retrieved a gallon of water. I knew it to be from Nevada's Amargosa aquifer. Death Valley's ground water was far too brackish to be potable. Annual precipitation in the valley was negligible at one and a half inches and, often, that evaporated before touching the earth. Generally, human habitation required an annual rainfall of seven inches.

Outside the washroom I met a man, towel and soap in hand.

"Weather's takin' a bit of a change," he remarked about the winds.

"Kind of nice," I said, thinking of the winter storms that I had fled.

"I don't know. Last year it got like this and the chairs would blow over whenever you set them out."

Desert life wasn't pretty.

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