The Mojave sun was blazing and the air was filled with the heaviness of a running oven in a Summer heat wave. Each second draining more sweat from their boiling bodies trying to acclimate to the intense heat. Their black shirts turned white with the salt of the instantaneously evaporated sweat. The car had broken down a good amount of miles after having passed the Death Valley official entry on the 190 heading towards Stovepipe Wells. They had not shut off the air conditioning in time which had probably caused the engine to overheat. Even though they had stocked the trunk with several gallons of water, there was no way they could carry such heavy bottles along with them. They had absolutely no signal on their phones, nada, so they had no choice but to start walking towards the hotel. Although the GPS had announced only three miles, three miles in such conditions seemed quite arduous. Neither of them talked as they were too busy fighting with their own bodies to gather enough strength to keep going. The tar covering the road pulled the soles of their shoes back towards it each time they lifted their feet off the ground to take another step. The tar itself was melting in the scorching midday sun. As they looked out into the distance they could only make out haze and sun dancing together forming a densely blurred horizon.
It had now been an hour since they had been walking and not a soul had passed them by. It felt like they were walking up the opposite way on a moving walkway. Not even the sweat could cool them down as it dried out the moment it escaped their pores. They stopped to drink every five minutes, tiny sip by tiny sip to keep enough water.
The three miles seemed awfully endless but the GPS had been playing tricks on them the entire way. It was early afternoon and the sun was high and strong. The heat covered the ground like a huge soft blanket. Mary’s hair was dry and salty just like a day at the beach. Her skin was burning and the black tank top, now white, did not protect her arms nor her chest and she could feel her lips starting to chap, with that incessant twitch on her upper lip relentlessly banging. She innerly cussed at herself for having said she’d wanted to drive through the deadliest Valley of North America. She had been stressed the entire way since they had left the main highway following the GPS through lonely desert roads all the way to the 190. It felt like a good idea to flatter her adventurous side which turned out to be quite the contrary. She was the city-type adventurous not the middle of a hostile desert type one. Ben, on the other hand, seemed unchanged. He, who she had depicted as attached to his comfort zone, was coolly dealing with their predicament. She hid her anguish the best she could so he could not guess it and throw it back at her slickly in another situation.
“Almost there!” Ben’s voice broke through her string of heated thoughts.
She strained her eyes to see through the haze and managed to make out what looked like an old rusted red truck. The truck she had seen on the hotel’s website.
As they approached and the blur lifted, the truck became clearer and they made out the hotel lobby sign. As they walked in, the freezing air greeted them ruthlessly. By the look on receptionist’s face as they walked in they quickly deduced the strenuous desert walk had physically taken it’s toll on them.
“Our car broke down a few miles down.” Ben broke her silent jaw-opened stare.
“Oh, I see, that’s terrible. Please, sit down I’ll fetch you something to drink and to nibble on. Are you feeling alright? No dizziness?” she inquired as she got busy getting us what she had promised.
“No, just tired. It’s quite a tough walk with those temperatures.” Ben continued.
Mary did not find the energy to talk and her mouth felt like a sandbox. The lady came back with two blankets which turned out to be a relief as the cool air was not as welcoming as one would have imagined. She also handed them a cup of warm exceedingly sweetened lemon tea each.
“It’s better you drink something warm to rehydrate yourselves.” she explained as she also handed them the plastic wrapped industrial fruit Danishes.
They were the stale free continental breakfast kind you’d get in any Super 8 motel across the country. Mary’s was bright yellow and Ben’s bright red. Much too shiny to be homemade.
She let them restore themselves as she resumed her work behind the desk keeping a discreet eye on them from time to time.
The lobby door opened and a ranger came in greeting the lady familiarly and then turning towards them with a polite greeting.
“So, you must be the ones whose car broke down just about five miles down the road?”
“That would be us, yes.” Ben’s voice answered.
“We’re having it towed here.” the ranger pursued.
Ben nodded and thanked him.
“You folks feeling alright?” he continued. “You’re in good hands with Sara here.” he added as he looked towards the receptionist.
She blushed and continued tapping away on the computer.
“Were you headed somewhere else or planning to stop here at Stovepipe?”
“We were planning to stop here for the night and visit the park tomorrow. We have a room booked.” Ben answered as he ransacked his pockets to find his phone.
He scrolled through his emails trying to find the booking confirmation email to hand it over to Sara.
She was nice enough to upgrade them from the standard room they had booked to the deluxe room. Ben did all the talking and gave his ID and credit card for the security deposit. Mary was still out of it when she could make out some loud talking approaching the lobby door.
“Oh boy, the French tourists are back.” the ranger said exchanging a comprehensive glance with Sara.
She sank into the chair getting ready for what seemed to be an incoming ordeal.
“Good luck.” the ranger added as he left and greeted Ben and Mary goodbye on the way out.
Ben reached out his hand towards Mary to lead her out and take her to their room. As they went out into the furnace once again they passed the huge bus full of loud french tourists. Mary secretly wished their room was far from theirs as she wanted to feel the serenity of the desert.
Ben inserted the key card into the door that opened into a dark freezing simple looking room. Mary tightened the blanket over her shoulders and sat on the bed facing the window. The view was somewhat unique overlooking the surreal Mesquite Dunes. From that bed in the dark cold room and the noise of the old air conditioning emerged a sort of a peacefulness running through her tired body and soul. She sat there motionless staring out the window while Ben returned to the car that had been towed to the gas station across the hotel to get their things. All that emptiness and all that hostility was actually beautiful and fulfilling. It was exactly what she had been searching for. It was exactly why she had wanted to come here, the feeling she had been drawn to. Exactly what she had imagined. Something ethereal and hardly describable. Something that can only be experienced and not explained. Why she had needed to feel this she did not know. But there it was and she was most intent to take it all in slowly and fully right there inside the dark freezing room with the loud humming of the air conditioner. The loneliness of the entire place gave it power and reverence. Nature in it’s roughest form. Reflecting who we all are deep inside. Rough diamonds being polished through life but deep down still rough and lonely.
The loud squeaking of the door opening pulled Mary out of her metaphysical wanderings.
Ben painstakingly shoved in the suitcases through the door and was again shocked by the cool air taking him a moment to adjust.
“There, that’s done. I’m gonna swoop back to the little shop to grab something to eat and drink, I’m starving. What do you want?” his voice trying to cover the loud background humming.
“Whatever you get will be fine. Thanks.” she said.
“Honey, you should take a shower and relax in the meantime.” he added as he walked back towards the door.
She was feeling awful, her skin was tugging and her hair felt like a helmet.
She opened her suitcase to grab a t-shirt and some sweat pants and underwear. She walked into the brownish-beige bathroom decorated with native american motifs and saw her face in the mirror. She looked older, her hair was shapeless and it looked like she had salt and wax holding them fixed into an abstract sculpture. Her black shirt was completely white. She was unrecognizable. And it had only taken over an hour to look like that and to shrivel away like an old lady.
The shower was old but clean. Her dry skin swallowed the water and regained it’s youth as the salt washed away. She applied a good amount of conditioner to her hair and felt regenerated as she grabbed the soft white towel and hugged herself in it. She felt exhausted but good. When she opened the bathroom door the cold air greeted her still humid skin and wet hair. Ben was sitting at the round wooden table covered with food in front of the window. He looked peaceful and it didn’t seem like the heat and salt had attacked him as much it had her.
“Sorry, I didn’t wait, I’m starving.” he managed to say his mouth full of an industrial pastrami and cheddar sandwich mixed with potato chips. He sipped his Diet Coke to help swallow the high carbs filling up every corner of his mouth. He smiled at her as he managed to gulp down the entire capacity of his mouth and laughed. Mary laughed at his goofiness and walked to the table to eat as well. She had not noticed how hungry she had been until she took the first bite. She ate until she couldn’t anymore. Sitting there staring outside past the dunes. The air conditioner covered the noise of the shower and her munching. She decided to see how the heat was now, so she opened the door and stepped out. It was unbearable. She rushed back inside the cool dark room and slowly sipped the lukewarm coffee Ben had gotten for her.
She felt like she’d run a marathon. Her legs and muscles were sore but she felt relaxed and slightly fuzzy. Part of her was dying to go out and discover the sights and walk through the dunes and the other was too tired to move a single inch. She did not think, she just sat there and let the random thoughts come in and out of her mind, not catching them nor responding to them.
Ben got out of the bathroom, his towel wrapped around his lower waist, his thick dark and wet hair trickling down his torso covering him with goosebumps. She watched him move swiftly across the room to his suitcase. He seemed as relaxed as she did.
“So, are you happy, hon’?” he said as he searched through his suitcase for his underwear.
She answered silently just by blinking her eyes and a shy half-formed smile at the corner of her mouth as she continued to sip some coffee.
“I give it to you, I’d prefer we hadn’t had to walk all that way in the damn heat, it would have been better.” he said smiling.
Mary was not talkative and Ben knew it, but he read her well. Mary appreciated not having to talk her way through everything. It was always painful. There was always so much going on in her mind that it had trouble making it’s way out in a clear way. Silence did not bother her either.
She did not want to leave this place. And she was not looking forward to the bachelorette party she had to go to in Vegas for a colleague of hers. Why couldn’t she have said no? Ben said he’d go along with her and soak up the sun at the pool and work from the hotel. All he needed was a laptop and an internet connection. She agreed as it was the only way she could escape having to share a room with a girl she hardly knew who would be talking away and giving her a 24h/24h headache.
Ben was like that, he turned every situation into something easy and trouble free. She envied him for that. And he casually let in that Death Valley was on the way and they could leave earlier and stop there for a night or two as she had always talked about wanting to go there. Mary jumped on the occasion, she had never found anyone who had wanted to go there. The place is filled with foreign tourists, they’d say, specially rude and French. Mary did not care and then she remembered Sara’s face when the ranger announced the bus full of French tourists. Then she wondered why the French? What was it that made them cross the Atlantic ocean and an entire continent to come to the middle of nowhere. Probably the same reason she had always fantasized about coming. But then again why was it that she had fantasized about coming to this place? Was it to escape the city, the crowd, the crazy rushing through life versus this empty, barren No man’s land? It seemed like a hidden treasure where the truth could be found. Where one can introspect and discover their inner selves. No matter how much she had read about the heat she could not have imagined it. Now she knew and that added a piece to her plethora of sensations. She could now feel it and imagine it as she had first hand experienced it. It was seldom you could add to that bank once you entered the grown up world as if nothing surprised you anymore. Numbed by routine and non-stop information. All those thoughts floated in and out of her mind as she fell asleep to the loud incessant humming that had turned into a lullaby.
A squeaky noise pierced the unremitting roaring and pulled Mary out of a deep sleep. As her eyes adjusted she made out Ben’s silhouette at the door. He was leaning on the doorframe bare-chested looking outside. The room was so cold that the hot air did not even reach her.
“Did it cool down?” her frail voice travelled through the room passed the air conditioning to Ben’s attentive ears.
“A little.” he said. “Want to go out for a walk before the sun sets?” he added.
“Sure.” she answered trying to snap out of the drowsiness.
The dunes were right across the road. They looked so close but as they passed the parking lot and crossed the road they felt as though they were getting further and further. The more they walked towards them the more they seemed unreachable.
The heat had gone down a notch but was still pervasive, still nothing compared to what it had been earlier on. There was even a slight breeze, very hot, but still a breeze. The dryness was impressive. The stillness the heat brought onto the premises was palpable. As they reached the dunes they felt the dusky skies crawling overhead. The moment was of a rare beauty. A pictorial impression, a surreal emotion. Seeing and feeling the landscape and ground beneath their feet. So much character that they felt like they were just a pebble of sand amongst the billion pebbles forming the now golden dunes. They stood there listening to the sound of the wind howling as it swept and embraced the dunes endlessly moving and changing their shape shifting them into a new layout each day. Just like each experience in life shapes and shifts us into a newer self. Caught in that moment they contemplated and watched the bright orange and red sun set behind the Grapevine mountains.
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