this past weekend i had the distinct pleasure of adding to my “top 10 experiences of my life”. funny how up there with my wedding and birth of thunderclap are days spent in wild places or running. whitney, boston, pct50, leaning tower, etc and now, death valley.
i have a wonderful love affair with death valley. it was one of the first places that my parents took us a kids to go camping. i remember distinctly setting up camp in furnace creek, looking out over the world from zabriske point and hiking through golden canyon. years later, as an adult, i would venture back into the park to re-explore some of those places and try my hand at creating new memories. through several successful visits, i developed a pretty solid experience base in the wild deserts of california. this past weekend, then, would be my opportunity to plant the same seed my parents had planted so many years ago and share my experiences with a new generation.
tuesday night before the weekend, thunderclap and i sat down to the task of figuring out what gear we would need for the weekend, which clothes to pack and what the menu would be. i sat there, leading him with questions, but letting him come up with the names of all the gear we would need. he was so excited to be part of the process and kept throwing out items before i’d get to their functional requirement.
“hey, thunderclap, how are we going to cook our food?”
“WITH FIRE! we’ll need FIREWOOD!”
“how will we start the fire?”
“where will we get the fire?”
we walked through the menu, too, and came up with a pretty decent plan of fun camping food and nutritious options. hotdogs, mac ‘n cheese, pancakes, oatmeal, sandwiches, s’mores, veggies and fruit. with our list complete, we headed out thursday night to pick up all the missing items on the list. thunderclap’s enthusiasm for getting gear was a bit hard to contain as he picked up everything that looked interesting and added it to the basket. if i hadn’t been watching, we might have walked out of big 5 with four or five knives, a bag of rubber worm lures and a pickaxe.
friday morning was the big day, though, and after getting the car packed, we were off on our way to the wide open desert. i gave thunderclap the lowdown on our route so he’d have some idea of what was to come.
“first we have to make a long drive through the cities, then up the cahon pass to the high desert. we’ll drive for two hours through the high desert until we come to the desert mountains and immigrant pass. once we’re over immigrant pass, we will descend into death valley.” i made sure to keep him posted on our progress, but he would still ask on occasion, “daddy? are we at the desert mountains yet?” followed by “daddy, we are a long way from home”. yes, buddy, we sure are.
the grand adventure was just beginning and i had the opportunity to expose him to the first “joy” of driving the 395. the “rollercoaster” just before and following kramer junction. these are a series of, well, dips, that are frequent and steep enough to make your belly drop and make the car fell like it is getting air. i told thunderclap to hold on because we were going for a rollercoaster ride. he looked excited, but confused as we neared the dips. we hit the first one and the ferocity of the rise and drop caught me by surprise and i laughed out-loud. i looked back at thunderclap and he was cracking up. and then he hit me with the best line of the weekend, “daddy! that made my pee-pee giggle!”
before long we had passed through the high desert and were entering the wild rose entrance of death valley. thunderclap marveled at the high canyon walls, the high plains vistas, the snow on telescope peak. reconnecting with the 190 and dropping down the massive grade into stovepipe wells, i finally told him, “this is death valley”, as the main valley opened out below us. i pointed way off into the distance where you could see some buildings, “hey buddy, that’s where we’re going to camp!”
we cruised into stovepipe wells picked up a death valley jr ranger handbook and quickly grabbed a campsite on the perimeter of the campground. as i set up the tent, thunderclap began wandering around through the creosote bushes and sand hills, marveling at every rock he found. “daddy! look at this rock! look at This rock! look at THIS rock!” tent pitched and staked down, we then hopped into the car and headed over to furnace creek to have a quick visit with the in-laws who were trailer camping for the week. at the trailer/rv parking lot thunderclap was again smitten with the volume of rocks he was free to pick up, examine and toss. what more could a boy ask for?
that evening back at the campsite, thunderclap proceeded to set the tone for the weekend. while getting the fire going he asked, “daddy, do you know what to do if you catch on fire?”
“sure, stop, drop and roll”
“yes, i learned that in school”
at which point he promptly stopped what he was doing, dropped to the ground and proceeded to roll around in the dirt. a perfect example and fire should be deathly afraid of his ferocious thrashing. completed, he jumped to his feet with a little hop, hit the ground and a poof of pigpen-esque dust exploded around him.
“buddy” i said, “you’re filthy. but that’s the point of going camping.”
“yeah, daddy, i’m the dirtiest boy!”, he exclaimed, while flexing mightily.
first night and things were coming together perfectly. i wanted to get him as involved in the whole camping process as possible so he’d be enthusiastic for it and know what to expect. but, at the same time, i wanted to be sensitive to whether he was enjoying it or not. i ached for him to love it as much as i do, but didn’t want to smother him or push him into something that just wasn’t part of his make-up. watching the dust settle around my dirt encrusted son, my mug of awesome overflowed. from there, things just continued on that amazing arc of awesome.
hot dogs over an open fire. legit, messy s’mores. midnight barefoot dashes into the bushes to pee. camp flapjacks with cold butter. if you’ve done any camping, you know the sensations, flavours and smells of these things. each of which was exactly as it should be.
after a pretty sound, if not chilly, night sleep, we woke early. now, thunderclap is a 7am riser, but this day, nothing was going to keep him down. as i walked back to the tent at 5:30 after a visit to the dune, thunderclap’s voice rang out loud and clear across the campground.
“dun dun dun dun dah dah dun dah dah dun!”
he was singing the darth vader theme. at 5:30 in the morning. trying to keep from laughing loud enough to wake other campers [as if they weren't already awake now], i hurried to the tent to let my little star wars fan know that camping is communal and there are no walls to block sound. so, rather than sing, he threw on his fireman boots over his “planet awesome” fleece pajamas and headed back into the sand lumps and creosote bushes to play spiderman while i cooked breakfast.
breakfast done, we headed back to furnace creek to find out if the grandparents wanted to join us on some adventure for the day. we ended up tagging along on a hike from zabriske point down through golden canyon, the same places i fell in love with as a kid. thunderclap, though, was not content to “tag along”. no. he stepped right up to the group of 12 adults, of which i was probably the youngest, and said, “okay! let’s go! the trail is this way!” and off he went down the trail. he was a master guide, reading all of the trail signs and instructing everyone which way to go, ordering breaks when necessary and reminding people to drink their water. when we finally dropped down into golden canyon, thunderclap was beside himself with excitement. the rocks. oh, the rocks. “daddy? can we stay here?” you bet, buddy. you bet.
after a lunch of sammiches, we headed up to scotty’s castle. now, scotty has some awesome history and i recommend reading up on it because it just sorta rocks as an old west story. we took a tour of the castle and our fantastic tour guide, ranger scott combs, focused on the people and relationships of the castle rather than the furnishings, technology or construction. this was perfect for thunderclap as he got to hear a real life con-man/cowboy story and walk through a real life castle. he was transfixed by the tour and participated like a champ by answering questions and really taking everything in. following the tour, we visited the visitor center in which they had a cool kids fishing vest, mesh, with lots of pockets, and embroidered on the breast, “junior ranger”. i was so pleased with how well he’d done on the tour and generally just excited about how well the trip was going that i ended up getting him the vest.
on the ride back to our campsite, we got into a discussion and i can’t remember what prompted it, but i think it had something to do with him doubting whether he could be a junior ranger or not. i told him, “hey, you’ve learned a lot on this trip so far! i bet that if someone asked you questions that they’d normally ask a ranger, you’d be able to answer them.”
“hey ranger thunderclap? i want to go on a hike. what should i take with me?”
he responded in a deep and authoritative voice, “you should take water with you.”
“hey ranger thunderclap? are there lots of animals in death valley?”
“why don’t i see many?”
“oh, the animals you are looking for are nocturnal.”
and so on and so on until he realized, that yes indeed, he was ready to be a junior ranger and worthy of the vest he now wore.
saturday night saw him completely exhausted and crashing into his sleeping bag around 8pm. the wind had started to pick up a bit and i was a little concerned that the amplified sound in the tent would keep him awake. i was mistaken. he slept hard and missed out on most of the fun. i woke around 3am and looked outside the tent. the car was parked about 50′ away and i could no longer see it through the sandstorm. the wind was howling and buffeting the tent like mad. he did wake at one point, though, and i asked him if he heard that sound.
“what do you think that is?”
“cool, isn’t it?”
and then back to sleep. by morning the wind was mostly gone but everything was now coated with fine sand. thunderclap stayed in his bag a while after i got up and i could hear him talking to himself and singing again. i pulled out everything for breakfast and started boiling water for oatmeal and peeling oranges. thunderclap kept singing.
“yes jesus loves me. THE. BIBLE. TELLS. ME. SO!” perfect for sunday morning. if church should be held anywhere, this was the place.
after breakfast i set to cleaning up and packing up all of our things. thunderclap returned to the bushes and sand to continue his superhero adventures. once packed, i let thunderclap know it was about time to head out, but before we left i wanted to show him the sand dunes. but he didn’t want to leave.
“daddy, i want to play here! i’m not ready to leave!”
“did i tell you you’d like scotty’s castle?”
“did i tell you you’d like hiking in golden canyon?”
“well, trust me, not only will you like the sand dunes, but you’ll like them better than both of those.”
so off we went to the sand dunes. his first step into the powdery sand was magical.
“DADDY! it’s so SOFT!”
and from there we were off to the races. trudge up a dune, roll down it’s face. scramble up another dune, roll down it’s face. up another and jump off it’s lip. over and over and over. at one point, we ended up in a wadi surrounded by dunes. the flaky clay bottom was fascinating to thunderclap. he sat and began peeling flakes away, marveling at their “dust explosions” when tossed. for the next hour the clay and sand was his movie set. while i walked the rims of the dunes, he crawled, rolled and threw his way through a fantastical story full of explosions, superheroes and the undead. finally, he finished his “movie” and we continued our exploration of the dunes.
that’s when we met ranger snow.
ranger jay snow is what i picture when i think of a park ranger. older; leathery, tanned skin; professional and personable. we started chatting with ranger snow and despite thunderclap’s early shyness with him, asked him all manner of questions with fantastic responses. part of the jr ranger program gives the kids the option to either participate in a ranger led program [which we had done at scotty's castle] or to interview a ranger. two questions are provided: “why did you become a ranger” and “what do you like best about death valley”; the jr ranger is required to provide his own, third, question. which is what thunderclap did.
“why do you wear a uniform?”
“well, i’m glad you asked. i wear this uniform to set myself apart. by wearing a uniform, people know that they can come to me with questions or if they need help. i also wear a tie as part of my uniform [yes, his uniform was complete with the dressy, green ranger tie] to set myself apart from other rangers, too. see, my daddy told me that gentlemen wear ties and every man should know how to tie a tie. and now, i never leave the house without a tie.”
heck yeah. what a great role model and fantastic representative of the national park system. the guy is either that good of a ranger, or he was firing on all cylinders that morning. every answer he gave provided instruction or fun and enthusiastic insight into nature. not only had the weekend been a success from a camping perspective and an adventure perspective, but now the trip was complete with a great example of leadership and authority in one of the national parks’ finest rangers.
by this point, we’d been in the dunes for over three hours and it was time for us to head on home. but we had one last stop before hitting the road. on our way out of the park, we stopped at the stovepipe wells ranger station one last time. thunderclap had his jr ranger vest on and jr ranger handbook in hand. we walked in and he promptly handed the book to the ranger on duty. the ranger thumbed through the book, made a comment about our interview with ranger snow with a knowing smile, and signed off on the handbook.
“are you ready to take your oath? raise your right hand and repeat after me.”
and with every ounce of sincerity and officiality in his body, thunderclap repeated the oath.
“i will help protect all national parks. i will leave rocks, plants and historic objects for others to enjoy. i will share what i learn with others.”
“congratulations, you are now a junior ranger for death valley national park.”
thunderclap received his badge, shook the ranger’s hand and beamed with pride. i pinned the badge on his vest and another park-goer in the station asked if she could take our picture. thunderclap was stoic and serious. this was official business. he walked outside for the photo with a new swagger in his walk. sure, ma’am, you can take a photo, but don’t keep me from my duties for too long.
success. it really has never tasted as sweet as this weekend. from his enthusiasm for everything we did, to his perfect behavior for the entirety of the weekend, to the perfection with the logistics of camping, to the volume of information and stories he learned during the trip. just success. and pride. i was proud of my little guy and just how receptive he was to everything, how adaptive he was and how enthusiastic he was. a dad couldn’t be any more proud. watching that same seed take root and knowing it’s potential surrounded me with a warm bubble of rad.
so, there’s a new ranger in town. got questions? thunderclap is your man.