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backcountry baby

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Before she was even born, Ceci was a pro at camping. She camped within the confines of my uterus under a starry desert sky, in the freezing temperatures of Utah’s highest mountain range, in an epic thunderstorm in the Great Plains, and over a rainy weekend in Great Basin too. Even though she hadn’t been born, we made memories together. From the first trip, where we stargazed at 3am on our first Mother’s Day, to the last, when she hiccuped and kicked as we sat around the campfire,

Now, at four months old, and spring finally upon us, we were ready to go on her first camping trip outside the womb. Jim and I decided that Joshua Tree would be the perfect place, as it’s where we were camping (during another weekend of epic thunderstorms) just two weeks before the Chickpea, as we’d come to call her, would begin to sprout.

After a 10-hour drive, we arrived in Joshua Tree at 5pm on a Thursday, hopeful that we’d be able to snag the same campsite we stayed in 14 months before. But no, it was taken. And not only was that campsite taken, but all the other sites in that campground too. But it was a small campground, only 12 sites, so we’d keep going and find another, no problem. But the next one was full too. It was also a small campgrnound though, so even though we didn’t want to stay in the jumbo Jumbo Rocks campground, surely we’d be able to snag a site there, since they have over 100 spots. But no. Every single campsite in every single campground was full.

We knew it was the busy season in Joshua Tree, but we did not realize that the entire month of March is spring break.

As we made our way through the park, we made a new rule: When a full day’s drive is to be driven, there MUST be a place to sleep booked in advance. Campsite or hotel, it matters not, but it must be BOOKED. Half day drives are fine, because if there’s nowhere to stay, there’s still time to figure something out. But after 10 hours in a car with a baby, you do NOT want to prolong the driving any longer. Ceci was at the end of her rope when we first pulled into Joshua Tree at 5pm. It wasn’t until 6pm that we were able to pull her out of the car when we arrived at a hotel. So much for her first night of camping!

Luckily for us, just minutes before we arrived at the hotel, their water broke, leaving them with no hot water. They’d give us the room at nearly half price. Considering we were planning on camping with no hot water anyway, this was a major win at the end of such a long, stressful day. And after such a long, stressful day, settling in for the night with Ceci was all that mattered. She was happy as a clam, and that made us happy as clams too.

JoshuaTreeRyanMountain1124After she went to sleep, Jim and I stayed up coming up with contingency plans. Do we try to find a site in Joshua Tree the next day, when surely a few people will be packing up? Or do we head to the Mojave National Preserve instead, where we planned to do some hikes anyway? It should be much less busy there, but there aren’t as many campsites, so do we run the risk of not being able to stay there either? Should we drive five hours back north to Death Valley instead, one of our favorite places on Earth? Or do we head back toward Vegas and try to find some camping at Red Rocks or Valley of Fire? Worst case there, hotels are cheap, and we’d be that much closer to home. We weren’t sure what we’d do, but we did know that we drove all the way to Joshua Tree, and dammit, we were going to make it worth it somehow!

Making it worth it was hiking Ryan Mountain, Ceci’s first outside the womb. It was the same mountain that Jim and I hiked the year before, on the “first day” of my pregnancy, back when we didn’t know that our lives were about to change forever. I carried her up the mountain, and Jim carried her down. She slept most of the way. On top, I held her up to survey the area and she unleashed a load at that very moment. We died of laughter and changed her diaper on top of the mountain. This is parenting at its best.

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By the end of the hike, Jim and I had reviewed all our contingency plans and decided that we would leave Joshua Tree (but not until after we hit up some of our favorite establishments in town) and head to Death Valley. It was a shame to drive so far south, but Ceci summited her first mountain, and we learned a valuable lesson (that we’d already learned last year, but had managed to forget) about busy seasons in national parks.

Death Valley was five hours north. We worried campgrounds there might be busy too, but were assured by their voice automated phone line (you CANNOT get through to a human being there) that we’d be able to find a campsite. We arrive in the early evening, and find that we cannot, in fact, find a campsite (unless we want to camp in a parking lot with 100 RVs). There are many campgrounds in the park, but as it is such a huge park, we did not want to risk driving 50 miles across the park to find other campgrounds full as well. So we were left with a decision: abandon all hopes of camping and drive back to Vegas to get a hotel, or try our luck up one of Death Valley’s backcountry roads, which we did during our first visit to the park in 2011. We love Death Valley’s backcountry roads, but journeying up them wasn’t something I wanted to do with a young infant. I didn’t want to give her shaken baby syndrome, or risk popping a tire and leaving us stranded. My thoughts flashed back to our drive up Hanaupah Canyon Road in 2011. Definitely not something I wanted to do with Ceci at this time.

I pulled up the backcountry map on my phone (when I had about 30 seconds of phone service) and found the easiest, gentlest road I could find. It was on the way out toward Vegas, so we could still get out if need be. The day was fading, but the drive was quick. We hit the turn off from the pavement to the gravel, and set the odometer. You only need to drive at least two miles off pavement to camp. We didn’t know how many other people might be up this road though, and with limited pullouts, who knew how far we’d have to go to find a spot to camp. But turns out, we were the only people around. At 2.3 miles, a perfect pullout presented itself and we had found camp. We had the entire Greenwater Valley, at least as far as we could see, to ourselves.

DeathValleyGreenwaterCamping1695We finally were able to take a big, deep breath and relax. Ceci would indeed have her first camping trip, and despite the stress it took to get us to this moment, it was worth it all. If Joshua Tree hadn’t been such a shitshow, we’d have been camping there, still with far too many other people around. If the campgrounds of Death Valley hadn’t been full, we wouldn’t have found ourselves with an entire valley to ourselves. THIS is how camping is supposed to be. Free and in the backcountry, not in a $12 parking lot with the hum of generators filling any empty space that might exist.

We spent two nights in Greenwater Valley. The second night, a van set up camp probably half a mile away, but once it got dark, their existence faded from our sight. During the day, we visited the Mesquite Sand Dunes, the ghost town of Rhyolite, and Badwater Basin (all places we visited on our first trip here in 2011). At night, Ceci slept against me in a wrap while Jim and I stared at the sky and identified constellations off a glow-in-the-dark star chart that had been in our glovebox for years but until then had remained unused. I don’t think the night could have been any more perfect.

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We have plans to return to Death Valley again this fall, and I’m practically counting down the days until I get back in that wide open desert, under that wide open sky. It really may be my most favorite place on Earth. Despite its name, Death Valley really does have a way of making you feel alive.