After years of traveling, I've learned when you can roll with the punches that want to take down your vacation with a KO, and when you just...can't. While delays and cancellations can be a pain, those decisions are made without my input - what's been hardest for me is making the decision myself in regards to when it's time to throw in the towel. But weather is never something to mess with.
I've had my fair share of campouts ruined by weather. I've slept in a car while our family tent thrashed around in a rainstorm, I've moved my tent under the overhang of a barn to avoid a downpour, and I've even packed up my soaking wet gear, throwing it into the trunk of my brand new car as my campsite was inundated by a flash flood. But these things happen, you adapt and the trip carries on. Except when it doesn't.
I had taken off work to spend a three-day weekend in Death Valley, excited to explore the Mars-like landscapes at both below sea level and above four thousand feet. I was looking forward to seeing the stars come out a night like I haven't seen in months - maybe years. I had planned all the meals to be cooked over the campfire that weekend, and I was stoked to try out my new sleeping bag. It was the perfect time of the year to visit the desert park - with a true desert climate, it can often be below freezing at night in the winters, and visiting in the summer would be borderline miserable in the daytime heat. In early April, the weather would be mild and manageable, and everything would be perfect. Right?
Wind - nobody ever thinks about wind. But when 50 to 60 mile-per-hour winds whip through the valley, you reconsider sleeping in a tent. The Death Valley wind pushed my car from side to side on the road like a matchbox car. It picked up handfuls of sand and threw it in my eyes. It tried to pull my shirt off my back. Death Valley wind did not want me to be there.
As I saw the trip falling apart with each gust of wind, I thought, "maybe we can sleep in the car for one night if the wind will calm down tomorrow." So we headed to the visitor center to ask a park ranger about the weather. On the way there, we passed two campgrounds - a few RVs were occupying the otherwise empty campgrounds - no tents to be found. Our chat with the park ranger only reaffirmed all the previous signs: the wind was not going to die down, and it would likely be dangerous to camp in a tent. Starting - and keeping - a fire would be nearly impossible, and without fire, most of our food was inedible. We were going to have to drive back to LA.
Once the decision was made, we decided to make the most of the day that we had in Death Valley and hit some of the popular viewpoints - Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Zabriskie Point and Artist's Palette. We explored some of the canyons and side trails, and as we got in the car to head back, we cracked open the beef jerky and Ritz crackers. I tried to run my fingers through my wind-ratted hair to no avail. I dug sand out of my ear canals with my forefingers.
On the way home, driving the desert roads so near to the Nevada border in the dark, we were stopped by a train. We rolled down the windows to let in the cool night air and listened to the sound of nothing but the wind and the train's metal clanking as it slowly moved forward a few inches, then back again. Forward, and back. It would be nearly midnight when we got home, and we had a car full of gear and food, but we'd unload in the morning. It had been a long day, and I was ready to sleep, admittedly a little thankful that I'd be in my own bed.