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  • Kayla Sulak

The Annual Pilgrimage to Death Valley

A self portrait in the dunes of Death Valley

My mind is still riddled with daydreams of the desert, and the last few days back at work have gone by in a blur. Last week, I was roaming southern California and camping out of my truck without any schedule or agenda for eight days. It was my way of breaking my chains, if only for a little while: normally, I only get to travel when I've accrued paid time off at work. This time, instead, I was choosing travel over a paycheck for a week. It was like practicing for, or getting of taste of what it's like to be one of those people who just quits their day job for a while and travels the world--which is increasingly the dream life for a lot of people, including me.

Saturday night marked the end of the work week, and the start of the road trip. In the days prior, every little bit of preparation was taken care of--from laundry and car maintenance, to meal planning, and even completing my taxes--so that I could clock out from my shift on Saturday and drive into the sunset without a care. Seven hundred miles of concrete sprawled out beneath my tires that night, with only a few pit stops for gasoline and a short nap.

Day 1

When a place like Death Valley National Park is on the horizon, my ability to endure the long drive becomes endless. Last year I fell in love with the area and decided I'd like to return once a year, for what I've coined an "annual pilgrimage," a daring spiritual journey, a wild camping/off-roading adventure.

Before arriving, the first stop on the list was the Alabama Hills in Lone Pine, California; an afternoon of recuperating was in order. I spent all day climbing the boulders, and lying down in the back of my truck with the back hatch lifted up so I could gaze at the mountains. It was warm and sunny with a cool breeze, and when the sun went down, I enjoyed a toasty bonfire while admiring the snow-kissed, moonlit crags of Mount Whitney.

Camping in the Alabama Hills, beneath the moonlit Sierra Nevadas

After a day of lazing around the Alabama Hills, I had my first whim about where to go: The Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. This was my second visit to the region, so the plan was to re-visit a few favorites in Death Valley, then expand to some other new places in the area. The Racetrack Playa (a dried up lake bed with rocks that have moved across the ground, leaving strange trails behind them) had really resonated with me last year... perhaps only because of how I remember feeling there, and because of how quiet and remote it is, more than the moving rocks or any other reason.

Day 2

The 27 mile stretch of bumpy gravel on the way to the Racetrack can feel like the longest, most painstaking drive ever, because it's often impossible to drive faster than 10 miles per hour over the washboard bumps. When I completed the adventure and got back onto pavement the next day, one of my truck's wheels was loudly rattling, clanking, grinding, enough that it couldn't be ignored. I decided to "limp it" over one hundred miles back to Bishop that afternoon, in the opposite direction that I wanted to head, so they could diagnose and replace the busted bearings in my wheel hub for the price of 371 un-budgeted dollars. "That's not that very much money in the world of car repairs," I tried to console myself, and vowed to take it in stride; the road trip had to continue onward, even though the reliability of my ride was slightly in question.

Once back on the road again, I had my next whim about where to go: the Mojave National Preserve, on my way south. The Mojave desert only appealed to me because it seemed like a good place to see wildlife, like foxes or snakes. For landscape photographers, it doesn't have much draw because there aren't many "iconic," photogenic vistas... but, it does have the Kelso dunes, which rise seven hundred feet above the desert floor. There are also some primitive campsites at the base of the dunes, so I parked there for a night, then scoped out the dunes in the morning before moving on yet again. "Restless" could be a word to describe me.

Day 3

Next on the list was Joshua Tree National Park. The actual town of Joshua Tree has a really unique vibe and style... stucco houses with clay tile roofs, earthy colors, and lots of cacti, yucca and palm trees growing in everyone's neatly landscaped yards. It definitely feels like you're smack between tropical Palm Springs and the heart of the spicy Southwest. At the entry booth for the park, I bought my first Annual Parks Pass, and upon driving away, I proceeded to sob uncontrollably (tears of joy) that I was there. It was an overwhelming moment of absolute presence and joy. Such a feeling can be fleeting, or hard to come by at all, in our bustling society full of distractions and stress.

Cholla cactus patch in Joshua Tree National Park

Above: cholla cacti in Joshua Tree National Park

My favorite part of Joshua Tree was probably the alien-like cholla cactus patch, although the many outcroppings of big boulders throughout the park were begging to be climbed and explored, too. When nightfall came, it was difficult to find anywhere good to park the truck for some sleep (I hadn't reserved a spot in the campgrounds). While a lot of National Parks are actually quite remote and have roadside pullouts, etc., where it's usually okay to park overnight, everywhere in Joshua Tree had signs saying "Day Use Only -- Sunrise to Sunset." In my experience, you're bound to get woken up and asked to leave if you disobey the signs that prohibit overnight parking, and it's rarely worth testing it. Eventually, I found somewhere good to park for a night of uninterrupted sleep near the park.

Day 4

Joshua Tree National Park

As cool as Joshua Tree was, it wasn't really speaking to me in terms of photographic inspiration. I kept thinking I wanted to go back and hike the Kelso dunes in Mojave--and it was much more friendly to my style of car camping there--so, that was next in the saga. On the way there, I stopped at a restaurant called The Mad Greek because the sign outside boasted "The Best Gyros in the USA," and I wanted to know what the best gyros might be like (they were delicious, but I haven't eaten many gyros before, so I don't have much to compare to... d'oh!).

The hike up to the top of the Kelso dunes started shortly before sunset, when the wind really began to pick up. The gusts were strong enough to knock me over a few times, and a constant wave of sand was whipping over the tops of the dunes, then raining down on the other side. There's something especially gratifying about standing at the highest point of a dune. Standing at the the tippy top is often like standing on top of a pyramid; there is not a lot of room to stand, and the sand perpetually slips away beneath your feet.

Sand blowing off the top of the Kelso dunes at sunset

Above: sand blowing off the top of the Kelso dunes during a golden sunset

Day 5

The following morning, there was no wind. I awoke with sand in my mouth and all over my pillow . Only then did it occur to me that sand had poured out of my pockets and fallen out of my hair while I was sleeping, hence the gritty teeth. Rinsing off became an immediate priority (as if it wasn't already, after four days of being on the road with nothing but "baby wipe showers"). I found information on several natural hot springs that were an hour north, and off I went.

If you ever see palm trees and a couch in the middle of the desert, always stop to check it out. There, I found a cemented hole in the ground, which was fed by a trickle of warm water from the source of the spring. Amazingly, nobody else was there when I arrived. It was a delightful place to stop and soak after camping in the dry, dusty desert. I'm convinced that the minerals in natural hot springs have all sorts of healing properties.

Hot springs, California

The Ibex dunes, another place in the southern tip of Death Valley which resonated with me last year, was just up the road from the hot springs, so it seemed like a no-brainer to head there for the rest of the night.

You know what's awesome? Being in the right place at the right time. I was sitting on top of my car, watching the light change across the dunes and writing in my journal, when a group of about eight photographers

Dunes in Death Valley National Park

showed up, along with one independent photographer who was named Greg. Greg, a genetic scientist and bird photographer, walked with me to the dunes and informed me that the big group of people was Marc Adamus with his workshop students. Before they left, I had a chance to meet Marc, who I greatly admire for being a hardcore adventurer with an eye for jaw dropping landscape photos. I found myself feeling grateful that my whims had brought me there so I could meet a favorite photographer, and also make a few new friends.

Day 6

Other than a short list of destinations jotted down on the corner of a wrinkled piece of paper, there was no preconceived plan or agenda about where to travel to each day. Many decisions were made with the flip of a coin while standing at a crossroads--or by listening to whatever little gut feeling cropped up here and there. Before parting ways with my new friend Greg and the Ibex dunes, he showed me some photos of his recent visit to the Valley of Fire, and explained that it was only a few hours east, outside of Las Vegas. In an instant, I went from having no idea where I might travel to next, to being absolutely certain that the Valley of Fire was where to go. It looked gorgeous in the photos, and it was even more stunning in real life.

Golden hour at Valley of Fire State Park

Above: the "golden hour" at Valley of Fire State Park

With colorful landscapes of red rock, soft sand, and desert vegetation like cacti and sage, it was a geologist's

Interesting formations in the red rock at Valley of Fire

and nature lover's paradise. You could go back and discover new things every time, to no end. Instead of just crossing it off the bucket list, it got added to the "must return to" list. The only downside was, people aren't allowed to roam the park after sundown or park overnight at all, so I didn't spend the night there.

On the way back through Vegas, I resupplied, checked out the Strip for my first time, put a dollar in the slot machines but didn't win anything, and ordered some chow fun with pork from a local Chinese restaurant called China a Go Go.

Days 7 and 8

Day seven was spent back in Death Valley National Park, attempting to reconcile with the fact that I'd have to start driving home the next day. It used to be a little depressing or difficult to accept it, each time I'd have to go back to the real world after an epic vacation, but it has become a familiar feeling... I've learned to let the good feelings of the adventure be a deep well of fuel and inspiration in all areas of life, instead of feeling bummed that the adventure couldn't last forever. My last hoorah in Death Valley was an early morning drive through Titus Canyon, which is a one-way gravel road that leads you through twenty six miles of mountains, canyons, and beautiful scenery.

Before leaving the park, I had the chance to meet with Erin Babnik, another favorite photographer of mine who was there to lead a few of her workshops. Aside from her mastery with landscape photography, she is especially admirable for her talks--namely, her ability to discuss a broad range of artistic concepts like, what makes a composition compelling, whether it matters to be "unique," or why egos tend to be a big factor in the photography community. Any photography enthusiast will agree that she's a great mentor and role model in the industry. It was awesome to meet her; thanks again for a bit of your time, Erin!

That night, I drove up to the north end of the park, then headed about twenty miles away from the highway to camp in a remote patch of joshua trees... without any cell reception, sipping some whiskey in the desert, reflecting and journaling about the week. Looking back on the trip, it felt like a whole month had gone by instead of a week. The first few days on the road already felt distant and dream-like, because the trip had been so bustling and jam-packed with awesome sights. It was a success.

While passing through Reno, Nevada, there was one last stop on the "Tour de Tastebuds": an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant. For about $24 plus tax and gratuity, you can have endless sushi made to order at Sushi Pier. Eating sushi always makes me feel great, so I felt very energized and in good shape for the long haul back to Bend afterward. That will be a regular stop in my future visits to Reno.


Eight days outside. This is what it looks like if you cut me free for eight days: you probably won't find me indoors at all. It feels so good to disconnect, to pay attention to nature and simple things like the sky, and to

Coffee break in the Eastern Sierras!

run with the wind. You may not know you're missing out until you try it. Everyone has their own favorite pastime, but for me, these kinds of getaways are what make me certain that I won't look back in my final moments and feel any regrets about what I did with my life. It's the kind of thing that makes me smile randomly about "nothing in particular" in the middle of a so-so workday, and which makes me feel stupendously joyful and peaceful, despite any challenges or stress which may crop up in life.

The hardest part about traveling or taking "soul vacations" can be clearing your schedule and/or finding the money for it, but it feels so freeing to rebel against whatever's holding you back in life, and just MAKE IT HAPPEN!

Happy Adventures!

With love,



© All images are property of Kayla Sulak; please visit the contact page to request prints or permission to use.

#travel #Photography #roadtrip #lifestyle

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