Death Valley Site 36
Day after wintery day, rainclouds roll over Portland, Oregon. Foliage turns to slime. Small brown mushrooms grow on the floor mats of my Ford Fiesta and the low spot under my basement staircase.
On those dark mornings, I lay in bed conjuring the long arid stretch out of Beatty, Nevada, past the Bullfrog gold mine, then down into Death Valley where, for every thousand-foot drop, the temperature rises 10 degrees. I listen to the dripping eaves and I picture myself in the desert. As the slow leak in the far corner of my room begins its plink, plink, plink, I anticipate the third week of March, my spring break in the Valley, where the air is so dry it takes an extra dab of lotion to keep my skin supple and my lips unchapped.
I have no illusions my vacation will be perfect. Legions of RV’s rumble into the campsites, and the retired spread green plastic carpeting over the sand at their doorsteps. Some afternoons, the wind comes up, rocking the trailers, scattering pots and pans and forcing a fine, pale dust through the blue ripstock of my dome tent.
Occasionally, it rains. Thunderheads billow down the rift, tearing their edges on the peaks of the Panamints and sluicing water onto the valley floor. Not the insidious Oregon mist, no, but torrents of steel hard, cold droplets that drill the sands and turn the clay glutinous. When the storm is spent, the earth steams. The puddles shrink, the sand dries, and the camp-robbing ravens spread their wings, buff their black feathers, and take up their posts atop the salt cedar and creosote. After a rain, Death Valley again becomes the place I’ve imagined all winter. Warm. Dry. Open. Orderly.
Orderly, unlike the unruly forests of the Pacific Northwest, where fat banana slugs tug away the shreds of coleslaw and the bits of noodle when a camper rinses her dishes. In Oregon, a camper can break dead twigs from a lodge pole pine and build raging bonfires on the soggy loam outside the fire pit. She can ignore the Forest Service latrine, find a bushy huckleberry, and pee with impunity behind it. But in the desert, in Death Valley, such transgressions are not allowed.
On March 21, 2014, after a two-day drive and a night in Reno, I pitched my tent at Furnace Creek Site 36. Sounds of campers preparing their dinner filled the campground: squeaking of coolers, frying of meat, a murmur of languages other than English as the Valley is a magnet for foreign tourists who are enamored by the Old West and attracted by the heat. On that first evening in Death Valley, I sat on my campstool, sleeveless and content.
In some respects, camping is a spectator sport, though I try hard to be respectful of other’s privacy. Without calling attention to myself, I watched a fleshy man in Site 37. At first, he seemed a seasoned camper. He carefully attached his camping permit to the stake as instructed. He strung up a tarp well away from the road, inside the boundaries of his campsite. But after his dinner, he ignored the slop sink, back of the outhouses, and rinsed his fork under a water spigot, leaving traces of pork and beans to sully the desert floor.
And then his buddies showed up. Two of them in a Las Vegas rental. Their car skidded up next to my Fiesta, spraying dust and gravel onto my picnic table. They threw open the car doors, blasting a weepy country western song into the campground, a song meant for dark bars and unhappy people. The men howled to one another like coyotes.
"You quiet up!" shouted the German camper in Site 38.
“Narkie,” the man who’d rinsed his fork under the faucet shouted back. “Gringo,” he added in an unmistakable Australian accent.
I could see the German, jaw clenched, deciding how to respond, He first carefully wiped dust from his eyeglasses and then from his expensive camera lens. Finally, he retreated into his tent.
I climbed into my tent, too—and reached for my Swiss Army Knife.
I have traveled abroad and understand the difficulties of a foreign culture. In British Columbia, I tried to pay the camping fee with American dollars. In Hawaii, I disturbed the nest of a nene, the state bird, and was asked to pack up and pay a large fine. I’ll admit that I was unversed and ignorant of local norms. But these Australians surely knew that, in America, troublemakers are quelled for much less than cursing and disturbing the peace in camp at bedtime.
The German had failed to confront the Australians directly. Small European though he was, his shadow would have appeared gigantic and menacing in the headlights of their vehicle. If he’d strode into their camp, the Australians would have mistook him for a righteously armed US citizen, stopped their howling and switched off the music.
Crouching just inside my tent, I pulled on a sweatshirt and rebuttoned my shorts. I pushed aside the netting and positioned my flip-flops just outside the door. If the Australians continued to flaunt camp rules, I’d step out, stride directly to their fire pit and announce in English—American English—that I was armed and they'd best shut the fuck up.
I could do this. Americans know how to protect their rights and the rights of others. The German; the fussy baby in Site 39 or maybe 40; the class of Colorado geology students who had come to study rock formations and alluvial fans. How prepared would those students be to tell limestone from quartzite if their sleep were disturbed by coyote howling and loud music.
Suddenly, I heard footsteps and smelled beans and beery breath. Inches away, a man grunted and fumbled with his zipper. A six-pack of piss cascaded down the blue ripstock of my tent, splashing onto my flip-flops
"Shake your matey, Mate!" someone shouted from Site 37. Before I could react, the pisser gave out a howl and hurried back to his camp.
I was stunned. How could he have taken such a chance? Perhaps he thought I was another timid German unsure of protocol in American. Maybe he didn't realize I was a citizen with a weapon, ready to avenge insult and enforce the rules. I fingered my pocketknife.
I'd purchased the Swiss Army Knife for the tweezers and the toothpick, but it came loaded with a corkscrew, tightly twisted, unimaginably sharp. I eased the corkscrew erect and allowed it to protrude between my index and middle finger. I held it upright and tight.
Back in Site 37, the man opened then slammed the car trunk. Light from the headlamps bounced up and down the damp side of my tent. "We've got only one case left," the man called out. “How far is it to Disneyland?"
Justice can be served swiftly, oh yes, but it’s often a result of thoughtful planning. I’d wait until their car battery drained, their headlights faded and the men passed out. When all was dark, I’d slit open the back of my tent and creep barefooted into Site 37. Firmly I’d grasp the men’s stout torsos and roll them from their benches. Their bodies would thud to the desert floor and their apple cheeks would grind divots into the sand. Kneeling over them, I’d grip my weapon and jerk up their tee shirts and, working methodically, I’d set corkscrew to flesh, carving their pimply white backs to angry red ribbons.
And then, when the sun came up, the ravens would find their breakfast served. They’d circle, squawk and clutch a buttock during landing. They’d hop from man to man, scaly talons clamping slack biceps, pecking and pulling at the dark punctures and pink wounds. In northern forests, bodies could remain hidden among the salal and sword fern, but on a bright desert morning, well, justice would be as apparent as bean scraps under a water spigot.
Being patient is easy for me. I waited in my tent as I had for Spring Break back home; for a storm to cease when it rained in the Valley; for the stars to retreat making way for the moon and for the moon to set at sunrise. Near midnight, I heard an outhouse door creak and a geology student shuffle back to his tent. I stretched out on my sleeping bag, my backpack for a pillow, weapon in my hand. The music trailed off.
"I've always wanted to go to Disneyland," I heard one of the men confide, before I allowed my eyes to close for an instant. "We don't have places like Disneyland at home.”
"The Sydney Opera house?" another suggested.
"Nah, that’s not the same,” the man said.
When the sun rose, I lifted the flap on my tent. The rental car was gone .A single raven hopped among the empty beer cans and picked at a bag of half-eaten chips. I folded the corkscrew back into my Swiss Army Knife and crawled out onto the sand, carefully avoiding the dark and foamy spot next to my flip-flops.
The Australians were headed for greater Los Angeles, were they not? They’d blunder into a dangerous neighborhood as surely as they had tripped over the mesquite root on the way to the outhouse. They’d annoy Disney security guards. I’d been to Disneyland and knew what could happen to those who break the rules. It takes less than a moment for the staff to sweep spilled popcorn from the pavement in Fantasyland. Mickey would ask the Australians to leave. If they gave the Mouse any lip, he'd call in Donald Duck.
With a single match, I ignited my camp stove. I brewed my coffee and sat on my campstool. I could hear tents unzipping and generators starting up in the RV sites. The German in 38 thrust his head out of his tent and smiled when he saw the empty campsite.
“Guten tag,” I called to him.
Together, we watched the geologists heading out in their twelve-passenger van. They obeyed the speed limit; they raised no dust.
About the Author
Laura Wyckoff is a North American writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has published short fiction in Calyx, Prairie Star, Lowestoft Chronicle, Literal Latte, Cimarron Review, and The Gateway Review. Fictionalized and fantasized, “Death Valley Site 36” is based on her annual sun-seeking spring camping trips to the California desert. Wyckoff is currently developing two projects: a collection of short stories about work and one with the stories set in a community garden ruled by three Alpha Males. She is also seeking agent representation for a recently completed novel.