Blow Me Away

Living in Kentucky, we’re used to hiking in all kinds of weather, from the humid 90s in summer to the snowy 20s in winter.  But hiking is most fun when it’s not too hot and not too cold.  For us, the preferred hiking weather is sunny skies with a few puffy clouds (for the best photographs) and temperatures in the 60s or 70s (so we don’t have to carry too many clothes or too much water).

Timm & Theresa on our 20th anniversary trying not to get blown over the edge in Death Valley

When we planned our trip, one of the key factors we considered to determine our route was the weather.  We didn’t want to trudge through waist-high snow in Alaska in January, nor bake in 120-degree weather in Death Valley in summer.  So the most obvious course was to start south in the winter, head north for the summer, then back south in autumn.

When we checked our planned route with average weather forecasts, we quickly realized that we’d be experiencing perpetual spring/fall weather throughout our trip.  The desert southwest in winter, mountain states in spring, Canada and Alaska in summer…  We expected to see daily high temperatures in the 50s-70s and nighttime lows in the 30s-50s.  This means light jackets while hiking, and winter coats while taking the dogs for a walk at night. 

And so far in general that’s been the case.  Though we did enjoy warm “shorts weather” in Anza-Borrego and Death Valley in southern California, and a surprising bitter cold winter storm in Mojave, also in southern California.  It has been a topsy-turvy weather year in the United States, with the west coast freezing, and the Midwest having avoided a real winter altogether.  Honestly it was a little frustrating to be wearing our winter coats in the desert southwest, while our friends and family in Wisconsin were wearing shorts.

 

Warm but windy in Death Valley

But we cannot control the weather.  As I like to say, nature is neither for you nor against you, she just is.  And though we cannot control nature, we can control our course.  So after noticing a very cold weather forecast for our planned stops in California in April, we decided to change our route and head east into Utah, which has been enjoying a warmer, mostly snowless year (much to the chagrin of the skiers).

A bigger surprise, however, has been the wind.

Living in Florida for a decade, I had the “pleasure” of being hit by two Category I hurricanes, so I am familiar with high winds.  We also get some strong winds occasionally in Kentucky.  But usually these winds are 20 mph with a few higher gusts in storms, and they last maybe a half a day at most.

In the desert southwest, however, we’ve learned that wind is a way of life.  With broad expanses of flat land, few structures to impede the flow, and surrounding mountains to channel the breeze, the desert is like one giant wind tunnel.  We’ve noticed a distinct pattern: There will be two or three pleasant calm days, one windy warm day, one blasting windy day turning sharply colder, then one extremely windy very cold day, and repeat. 

So for three days in a row each week we experience winds so strong that they take our breath away.  We’re talking 30 mph sustained winds with gusts to 50+ mph.  The kind of wind that rips the car door open out of our hands, blasts sand in our eyes, and rocks us to sleep at night in our RV.  When it’s this windy, hiking becomes a challenge, regardless of the temperature.  The sharp sand particles sting when they strike our skin and get in all our clothes, backpacks, car and RV.  There always seems to be a fine grit on our RV countertops that Theresa has an endless job trying to keep clean.

 

Sandstorm over Death Valley

But apparently this is normal.  When we first arrived in Death Valley, it was very hot at 117 degrees in the sun.  But the next day the winds picked up, and the temperature dropped into the pleasant 80s.  When the wind persisted into the second and third day, a giant sandstorm developed over the middle of Death Valley. 

 

Dust devil in Death Valley

Dozens of dust devils raged across the valley floor like aliens crawling over our planet.

 

Theresa enjoys watching the dust storm from a distance

We watched the dust storm while we hiked miles away…

 

Driving through a sand storm

…but we knew that we’d have to drive through the storm to return to our campground.  Visibility dropped to near zero, and our eyes watered even with the car windows closed.  (By the way, that dark spot near the middle of the photos is a speck of dust that was blasted into the camera lens.  By the end of the day, the internal lens was covered with many little sand specks that fortunately I was able to suck out with a vacuum cleaner.)

 

Storm with near-hurricane-force winds sweeps through our RV park

We asked a ranger about it, and he said, “This is just a light breeze compared to what we normally see around here in the spring.”  Sure enough, the next day the wind jumped to near-hurricane-force.  We could literally lean forward into the wind and remain upright.  The wind grew so strong that we were genuinely afraid the RV would tip over.  The wind howled through the closed windows, rocked our RV from side-to-side, and seemed quite intent on ripping the TV antenna off our roof.  Since the campground wasn’t crowded, we parked across two campsites so we could turn our RV into the wind, which helped tremendously.  When the storm had subsided in the morning, we noticed that most small RVs followed our lead and also turned into the wind.

Life in the desert is tough enough with the intense heat and dearth of water.  Add to that a frequent wind that threatens to blow me away.

“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”  –James Dean

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