July 05, 2011

A Beginner's Report on (Decidedly Sweltering) Desert Camping: Darkness Falls

"I got bored."

I'd returned to the chuck wagon where we'd gorged ourselves on an as-promised gourmet dinner, smugly holding a camper's tin cup full of surprisingly chilled white wine, though it could just as easily been chili, or baked beans, or coffee. But it was too hot for any of those campfire staples. I was on my first-ever camping trip, which I'd perhaps foolishly scheduled on the hottest day (and night) of the year in brutally punishing Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

To get back to the chuck wagon, I'd walked without a flashlight through the dark, using the lit torches as a beacon and trying to retrace my steps from memory to avoid the various sinkholes and buried treasures that we'd found in the sand while it was still light out. Behind me, I left a dazzlingly starry sky, and a seated circle of stargazers who enthusiastically quizzed our guest astronomer about nebulae, space stations and the Milky Way with heads tilted upwards, eyes squinting, absorbing the various celestial factoids of impress.

The air was turbulent, so our astronomer said, making the stars twinkle violently - curiously, something astronomers do not want to see. But it was Fourth of July weekend, and I wanted some fireworks.

Otherwise, I wanted to go to bed.

So I returned to the place I felt most comfortable, in the light - if ever so dim as the torch flames waned - and with the men who cooked our salmon and tri-tip, splayed out various cheeses, flatbreads, spreads and grapes for us to nibble upon, and ushered us into the protective folds of the desert night.

"Pull up a chair," Joe said, creating our own little circle of three, our eyes dazzled by the wine, which polluted our view of the stars as much as the light from the torches did.

Joe had just returned from an hour-long trip back to the California Overland office, to deposit an overheated camper whose reddened face worried everyone enough to send her into air conditioning, pronto. He sank into his folding chair, drink in its rest, and finally relaxed.

It seemed we'd only had a moment of gabbing when I turned to Alan, our chef and tour associate, and asked, "Did you figure out where the coffee is?"

An hour or two before, Joe had been promising breakfast and coffee to my fellow campers (not that I care for coffee, especially not on a hot desert morning), and I'd overheard Alan mutter to himself, "Hmmm I wonder where the coffee is..."

I half-thought he was at least half-joking, so I started giggling, attracting Joe's attention. "What's that?" he asked, and I immediately jumped in with my dingbat falsetto - "Nothiiiing!" - continuing to giggle.

"So did you figure out where the coffee is?"

"Uh..." Alan sank further into his chair. "No..."

Joe was understandably...appalled. "What? Now I have to go back!"

"Again!" I pointed out.

Joe must've repeated "I have to go back" about a half dozen times by the time he realized they'd also forgotten the turkey bacon and the English muffins. Resignation set in. He had to go back.

"Do you want someone to go back with you?" I offered. An hour before, I'd been dozing under the stars, afraid to retreat to my tent for fear of missing out on a scorpion hunt or marshmallow roast, and now I was ready for the adventure I'd been waiting for.

I climbed into the passenger side of the military-grade Jeep and fumbled to buckle myself in with a lap restraint of heavy tether and metal clips, until I realized the desert terrain and the open-air Jeep required the addition of extra straps and buckles with which Joe secured me, the excited rollercoaster passenger that I am.

With a roar of a turning engine, and the flash of blinding headlights, we set off into the darkness, no street lights to guide us, no street to follow, only bouncing jackrabbits and the dips and tilts of the off-road path carved into the desert, across Clark Dry Lake and back into Borrego Springs, jostling from side to side, shouting over the diesel dust we left in our wake.

I spotted a flare in the distance. "Look, heat lightning," I said. Otherwise, the night in Borrego Springs was just as black as out in the desert, save for a silent flashing ambulance that rounded the corner by the California Overland office, as I waited strapped to the Jeep while Joe collected our breakfast.

It was midnight by the time we returned to camp, the astronomy lesson completed, all campers tucked away in their tents with no sign of melted chocolate or graham cracker dust. Still trying to regain my land legs after our four-wheel-drive excursion, I stumbled towards the one light at our camp, flickering from inside my own tent, which I was about to share with our trip's other two female solo travelers. Desperate for rest, I barely said goodnight to Joe, though I managed to sleepily through my arms around his neck to give him an impromptu hug, as a gesture of desert-dwelling camaraderie, or romance, or appreciation, or what, I wasn't sure.

As I slipped inside the zipped opening of our tent, illuminated gently by Chris' flashlight, I whispered, "Hi girls! Are you ready for our sleepover?"

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