Story and Photos by Matt Ord
My buddies and I headed to Death Valley National Park on the last weekend of the Super Bloom along with what seemed like the whole West Coast. Last winter, I went to Death Valley and saw about twenty-five people, but this year, with the wildflowers blooming, the place was a zoo. Hundreds of people parked on the side of the road, trampling off into the desert to take selfies with wildflowers and occasionally throwing up the peace sign/duck face combo. To escape the madness, I had planned ahead: we would drive to these remote sand dunes only accessible via 4x4 but what I didn’t plan on was the weather.
While filling up our truck at the Furnace Creek gas station, we were able to leech off their WIFI and check the weather. It called for 50–70 mph winds with a forty-five percent chance of rain in the evening. Storms in Death Valley can be very severe especially when there is rain involved but storms can also be beautiful for photos. We said screw it and hit the trail, starting our drive over brain-rattling washboard roads. We ran into a huge dust storm after an hour on the road. Throwing the car into park, we got out and ran into the dust cloud hooting and hollering like kids again. After a few minutes of getting pelted by gravel, we got back in the truck and headed through the mountains to our final destination. Slowly we made our way through the pass, driving on a narrow gravel road with a sheer cliff to our left. Our back end slid out on some of the turns, which made things tense at times. 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 carried the sand from the dunes across the whole valley, creating whiteout conditions with almost no visibility. The mountains of sand dwarfed us and the wind licked the top of them, throwing sand like the off-shore winds throw water on a wave, they were dancing. When you go out into the wild, there are certain times or moments where the elements all come together creating magical conditions; this was one of them.
We covered ourselves head-to-toe in preparation of the sandblasting we were about to endure. Once ready, 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 into the dunes, I turned around to see if our tracks had been erased and sure enough they were gone-- like we had never been there. Reaching the apex of each dune was tough; with each step up the dune we slid back half a step. Walking up 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 highly recommend not 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 that surrounded us. I was able to snap a photo I had pre-visualized and was pretty stoked on the result.
Just before the sun set, the wind died and the rain clouds moved in. We had been hunkered down 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 sprinkled a layer of dust on everything. My buddies, tired from driving, fell asleep and I headed back outside. I kicked off my shoes and walked back into the dune field, which lay oddly silent after the seemingly endless 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 the 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 see the last bit of light fade along the horizon—hues of pink and red lit up the clouds, 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 just had. We took a risk heading off-road knowing a bad storm was coming but with most risks come reward.