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Valley of Death

Stay Wild

By Matt Ord

mattheword.com // @mattheword

Last winter, I went to Death Valley and saw about 25 people, but this year, with the wildflowers blooming, the place was a zoo. Hundreds of people parked on the side of the road, trampling into the desert to take selfies, occasionally throwing up the peace sign/duck face combo. To escape the madness, I had planned ahead: We would drive 4x4 trucks to some remote sand dunes. But I hadn’t planned on the weather.  

While filling up at the Furnace Creek gas station, we leached their WiFi to check the weather. It called for 50 to 70 MPH winds with a 45 percent chance of rain in the evening. Storms in Death Valley can be very severe, especially when rain is involved, but they’re also beautiful for photos. We said screw it and hit the trail, starting our drive over brain-rattling washboard roads. After an hour, we hit a huge dust storm. We got out and ran into the dust cloud hooting and hollering like kids. After a few minutes of getting pelted by gravel, we got back in the truck to drive through the mountains. Slowly we made our way through the pass on a narrow road skirted by a sheer cliff. The truck’s back end slid out on some of the turns, which made things tense. Once out of the mountains, it was a straight shot to the dunes. 

Seeing the dunes in the distance was insane. The wind whipped through the basin so fast it created whiteout conditions. The mountains of sand dwarfed us and the wind licked the top of them, throwing sand like off-shore winds throw water on a wave—they were dancing. When you go out into the wild, there are certain moments when the elements all come together to create magical conditions; this was one of them. We covered ourselves head-to-toe in preparation for the sandblasting we were about to endure. We set out into the dunes dressed like a band of Tusken Raiders. The dune field was upwind, which meant we had to walk straight into the 60 MPH wind. After a few hundred feet up the dunes, I turned around to see if our tracks had been erased, and sure enough, it was like we had never been there. Reaching the apex of each dune was tough, with every step up the dune we slid back half a step. What should have taken seconds took minutes. 

While hiking, I had been snapping photos on a dinky little 35mm point-and-shoot. I finished a roll of film right before it died on me. (I don’t recommend changing film rolls in gale-force winds.) That’s when the storm clouds came in. Luckily, my other camera is weather-sealed. We stayed on the dunes for a few hours and tried to capture the rare beauty around us. I was able to snap a photo I had pre-visualized and was pretty stoked about the results. 

Just before the sun set, the wind died and the rain clouds moved in. We had been hunkered in the truck for an hour or two to wait out the wind. Sand was everywhere. It got through the vents and cracks in the car and there was a layer of dust on everything. My buddies, tired from driving, fell asleep and I went back outside. I kicked off my shoes and walked back into the dune field, which was oddly silent after the windstorm. 

I laid in the middle of the dunes, feeling the cool sand on my back as I sunk into it. I stared at the twilit storm clouds circling above me, hypnotizing me into a limbo state between sleep and consciousness. I would’ve fallen asleep but a raindrop hit my cheek, snapping me back to reality. I sat up to see the last bit of light fade along the horizon. Hues of pink and red lit up the clouds, and I stayed there, watching, as the colors faded to the blues and blacks of night. Walking back to camp, I reflected on the epic day we’d just had. We took a risk heading off-road knowing a bad storm was coming, but with most risks come rewards.