It’s not about death, right? I would like to share some stories from my daughter’s and my spring break trip to “Serious Illness Valley National Park” at end of March.
Much like the Lost 49ers who arrived in the valley 163 years ago, we arrived without understanding the enormity of the valley, on a whim. The beauty was arresting; the roadrunners are not as big as the cartoons from our youth; the long ribbons of highway seemed endless. The geologic formations had straight lines that I associate with skyscrapers.
The sand dunes seem out of place. All below sea level. We set out to do in a day, what had taken miners in the 1800’s many months, when they had to drink snow and kill their pack animals for food. In this valley, Chinese workers had worked in the heat to extract borax from valley floor for $1.30 day (with deductions for housing and food). In this dyad of human and valley, the valley clearly dominated us.
With no hotel rooms in the park, and no proven ability to car camp, we packed up after a moonlight ranger talk at Badwater. On a lonely and somewhat scary night trip over two passes to Shoshone, a kit fox startled us. Where we would spend the night? On the other side of those passes was an historic motel, a closing bar with an accommodating cook staff. The following morning I searched the luggage and the car for my IPhone. Could not find it anywhere. I took this a sign—I was too connected for a vacation, perhaps even for work.
Later that day, when we had cell phone service, my resourceful daughter texted my phone : Hello out there, did anyone find this phone?
And then the reply: The cell phone is the ranger station at Furnace Creek.
The odd humanity of the exchange with cell phones gave me pause. The National Park Service is my favorite arm of the federal government, but I was not expecting this. In the car, we laughed about whether the rangers would look back to previous mother-daughter text conversations.
We texted back: We are out of the park; Can we send an addressed postage paid envelope?
The ranger: No problem; we will send it to you free of charge. Just text us the address.
Which address-do I have them send to our next destination? My daughter’s apartment in the Bay area? Or my home? In a fit of liberation from connectedness, I had the good ranger send to my home-5 days without connectness.
It sort of worked. I found ways to get on my daughter’s computer who was had her computer for “job applications”. I answered emails for an hour in the morning and 15 minutes at night. It was hospital budget time after all!
So did that amazing valley deserve its name? The salt flats got a name that stuck in 1849 based on the death of a single member of an impatient team that tried a short cut that proved much harder in the days before Rand McNally. The story goes that when the Lost 49ers finally emerged from the valley, one person turned back and said “So long Death Valley”.
A Palliative Medicine physician in Death Valley National Park had to spark a blog. I was not expecting a meaningful human contact that was entirely electronic, but it affirms my sense of the humanity of the people who visit and work at national parks; they delivered me from connectedness and still made sure my vacation photos got back to me.