Calm isn’t the right word to describe that evening.
Sure, it was quiet and dark; there wasn’t any wind; but the desert was anything but calm
that night. It was buzzing with energy.
I’ve spent many hours—days even—wandering this desert playa. The earth below
cracks in a predictable hexagonal pattern after months of rainless atmosphere have
pulled up all the water from the soil below.
These distinctive patterns can be peeled up and held in your hand, but they are fragile,
crumbling under just the slightest pressure. Drop one on the playa floor and they will
shatter back into the individual sand grains and clay particles from which they are made.
But tonight was different. The consistent and familiar playa pattern was submerged.
I am often asked why I visit Death Valley so often. People wonder why we are drawn
back there over and over again. In a time when my 20-something friends are
overwhelmed with a sense of wanderlust, itching to see the world, explore, I find myself
back in Death Valley… again.
There’s something about visiting a place over and over that brings opportunity for deep
experiences: unique experiences that do not arise on the first visit and are impossible to
I’m not looking for many shallow experiences in far and away places. My goal is not to
knock off every National Park as quickly as possible.
I’m looking for deep, meaningful, irreplaceable experiences with people and places I
have come to love.
When it comes to nature, I choose depth over breadth.
While I like to explore new places, most do, if I had to choose between visiting 10 new
places for one day each and visiting Death Valley 10 times within a year, I would choose
the latter. No question. Every single time. Why?
Because depth creates meaning.
Immersive experiences in the desert build upon each other. Memories collide and
intertwine. I find myself more fulfilled each time I return to what has become my home
away from home.
Life is too short for shallow experiences.
As long-distance runners, we know this. We know that there’s a connection to nature
that comes after many hours and days spent training on familiar trails. There’s a sense of
gratitude that arises after many hours kicking up dust on the trail that cannot be
recreated on a short, 3-mile run.
Running reveals a sense of wonder in nature that exists only in the moment. A feeling
that can be shared, but cannot be recreated.
Runners, be bold. Experience deeply.
Running Titus Canyon —Death Valley National Park, January 2018
You cannot really come to understand a place, a landscape, a piece of nature, with only
one visit, only one mile. You can come to appreciate that place, but you won’t
truly know it.
To know a place, you must go deep. Seek every new and varied experience in the same
landscape that you can. Spend many, long hours truly experiencing the landscape.
Take the time to submerge yourself.
I’ve been to this desert playa hundreds of times and the hexagonal pattern in the soil is
always the same. But after a week of heavy rains late in the spring of 2016, this same
bone-dry playa filled with water. Just enough to wade in ankle deep. The playa became a
huge shallow lake.
The time Panamint Valley was a lake—Death Valley National Park, May 2016.
A lake in the Mojave desert.
Strange. Unexpected. Beautiful.
Perplexed by the unfamiliarity of water on the playa bottom, we spent the afternoon
wandering around, attempting to swim in the ankle deep waters, simply enjoying the
uniqueness of the adventure. Shallow as the lake was, we had no expectations of going
Later that evening, we were sitting at the bar at Panamint Springs making light
conversation with some locals we’ve come to befriend. When we mentioned the lake, one of them caught our attention with a story of cyclops shrimp.
Scientists as we are, we questioned.
“Right… cyclops shrimp. Like, a shrimp with only one eye? In the desert? That’s not a thing… is
He told us to go back to the playa later that evening with a flashlight or headlamp.
“If you shine the light on the water, they’ll be attracted to it and swim up to the surface”, he said
Curious and not having much else better to do, we grabbed our flashlights and headed
down the 3 mile stretch of road to the playa.
We walked out into the ankle-deep water with low expectations and high spirits, a
feeling now paralleled on many of my long runs. I had a headlamp strapped to my
forehead on full blast slowly scanning the surface of the water. I was methodical about
illuminating every patch of water, just in case these shrimp did, indeed, exist. As a result,
I fell behind, my partner and brother strides ahead of me.
Just minutes into our quest, my brother stops, dead in his tracks and quietly says, “oh my
I yell back in my usual upbeat tone, “What?! Did you find one?”
Despite my systematic searching, he would be the one to find the shrimp first. I wasn’t
But then, he calls back, “no, turn off your lights…. Look”.
In that moment we were somewhere else completely. With no lights to distract us from
the real beauty that lie in front of us, we were transported.
On this warm, windless night, the lake acted as a mirror across the entire playa. The
Milky Way outstretched above us in a perfect arc, reflected into the lake without a single
ripple to distort the view. Millions and billions of stars stretched out in front of us, above
and below, completely enveloping our senses.
I took a step forward, feeling as if I was walking through outer space, still not believing
my eyes. Blinking wildly to try to focus, I found myself disoriented and fraught with
vertigo. I had to turn my headlamp back on. How could something so unreal feel
altogether too real?
As soon as I turned my light on, the galaxy disappeared. As soon as it was gone, I
wanted nothing more than to be back in outer space.
Anyone who has seen a total solar eclipse can relate to this feeling. The deep longing that
creeps up from the depths of your soul so immediately after it’s gone.
Headlamp, off. Space walk, on.
We continued to walk in silence. It may have seemed like aimless wandering to an
onlooker but we were far from aimless. We were exploring the universe.
Walking through the playa that night is one of the few times in my life I was fully
present. Experiencing deeply.
In the years since our trek through outer space, I’ve taken up trail running. Sometimes
just a few miles, sometimes for hours. Almost immediately, I found myself craving this
long-distance space. Without realizing it, running has brought be back to these deep
experiences in nature that, until a few years ago, I didn’t know I needed.
I often find myself day dreaming about those galactic desert reflections. I’ve realized that
we would never have experienced Death Valley in this way on our first, second, third, or
even tenth trip.
The park is seemingly endless with more sites to see that is possible in even a handful of
excursions. On your first trip, you visit Badwater and Titus Canyon; Dante’s View and
Artist Drive; Mesquite Dunes and Mesquite Flats.
But it takes true familiarity and comfort in a landscape to spend the day just wandering
without a location in mind. Just like any trail run, enjoying the desert is a process, a
journey, not an end goal or destination. By the time we were out on the playa, we had
Deep experiences in nature cannot be rushed.
Deep experiences in nature cannot be organized, planned, or expected.
Deep experiences in nature come only when you allow yourself to truly see. Without
expectations, without an agenda. Letting yourself discover.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but
in having new eyes”—Marcel Proust
Now, when someone asks me why I visit Death Valley so often, I think of my walk
through the universe, smile and tell them,
“If you only go once, you’ll never see the cyclops shrimp…”