Lori Carey Photography

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Living the Life

Rainbow in Johnson Canyon, Death Valley National Park

When I read other blogs about outdoor adventure, I'm always impressed at how they make things that I take for granted seem so daring and adventurous. I remember one guy spent three blog posts describing the night he spent in a cabin in the Mojave, filled with fear of noises in the night and hantavirus. I had been to the cabin and I couldn't stop laughing at how he described defeating what he was sure was his certain death. The thing is, he sucked me in and I kept reading, even though I thought his worries were ridiculous.

My articles in DrivingLine don't leave any room for embellishment, as it is I struggle to stay within my word count limit just to give basic information about the trail. The real stories are always left out. I write some awesome stories and poems in my head as I huddle over a campfire trying to warm my bones, staring at the stars or waiting for the sun to bless me with it's amazing warmth. I suppose I should put those thoughts down on paper while I'm still out in the field and feeling the emotions, after all I have pens and notebooks stashed in my backpack, my camera bags, and my Jeep. But the idea of writing - working - at the end of the day ruins the idea of just "being" for me. I think it's important to just enjoy the moment once in a while, especially for me because what used to be my time to relax has evolved into my time to work, and my days in the field are long and tiring. Once in a while I need to put everything down, let it go, and remember why I first fell in love with being wet, bleeding, too cold or too hot, dirty, and exhausted in the middle of nowhere where every decision could mean life or death.

Sometimes I think about what I could to make it really come to life. I'd love to live-feed from the trail but I never have an internet or cell phone connection.

"Maybe I should do videos. Video is really big right now." I mused out loud one day. My husband asked how much a good video camera would cost, and I shook my head. Good video is an art all on its own, and there's no way I could juggle serious videography in addition to still photography at the pace we've been covering, especially since I'm usually climbing up rocks and sliding down slopes, braving the elements as he relaxes behind the wheel of my warm and cozy Jeep. I don't even have enough time to do all of the still photography I want to do, which breaks my heart some days. We have to stay on the move and cover a lot of ground if I hope to make the trip profitable, there's no time to wait around for the light to change.

On our last trip I started using my phone to shoot some short video clips, thinking maybe eventually I could accumulate enough clips to do something with them. I'm the kind of photographer who practically never thinks to use her phone to take a photo (and when I do, it's pure crap because I can't see the screen in the sun), so actually remembering to dig it out once in a while was a really big accomplishment for me. (Note to self: my dSLRs are perfectly capable of shooting video, they are already in my hand, and would produce much better quality than my phone!).

I was hoping to have a relaxing holiday out in the desert and not put so much pressure on myself during our recent extended Thanksgiving trip, but I ended up pushing hard and working non-stop, bell to bell every day. We had been running trails for several days with base camp set up in Panamint Valley on the edge of the dry lake. The overnight temperature hovered around 25° F every night and wild burros tormented us with loud braying all night long.

Wild burro in Panamint Valley

It had been an amazing trip so far, but I was cold and tired and in need of a shower when I woke up before dawn to another bitter morning. We had completed the trails we set out to do and reached the "Where now?" portion of our journey on Saturday morning. Bill started a small campfire to take the edge off of the brutal cold and I put water on to boil for coffee (our water was only partially frozen. That's why we switched from a metal jerry can to a plastic one for water - we learned the hard way several years ago). We debated heading home and relaxing for the rest of the holiday weekend, a small part of me dreaming about that hot shower, but Bill wanted to do a trail in Death Valley that we read about in one of my books. I showed him on the map that it wasn't as close as he thought, Death Valley is huge and the trail head was about 120 miles away by pavement. There was a chance of rain in the forecast and I thought maybe it would be better to save that trail for our next trip. He was determined and it didn't really take much effort to convince me.

I spent the early morning hours with my camera, cursing at the fact that I never think to grab gloves before I head out from camp. It's unbelievable how cold a hunk of metal gets after a 25° degree night. It stings like a b*tch and I could only hold it for a few minutes at a time. I wondered if I was going to get frostbite on my fingers. After a quick breakfast we packed up camp, loaded up the Jeep, and set out for the other side of the mountains. We took our time and did some sightseeing along the way since we rarely see the areas along the paved road. Death Valley proper, in the tourist areas, was a complete mob scene. We stopped at Furnace Creek so I could pick up a new map and book and I was overwhelmed by the noise and the chaos. I couldn't wait to return to the back country. It's hard to readjust to civilization after spending time in the solitude of nature.

The trail didn't meet the expectations that our guide book built up, and we were getting restless. The sun was getting low in the sky and we knew it was time to start thinking about where to settle in for the night. I chose Johnson Canyon because it was nearby and the trip to Hungry Bill's Ranch would make a good article, so we started heading toward the mountains. And then BAM! a storm blew in. The sky darkened, the wind started raging and we could see a sandstorm creating total whiteout in the valley not far from us. We raced toward the mountains hoping to find shelter but the trail was rough going and it seemed like it was taking forever to travel a few miles up the alluvial fan.

A storm blows in at sunset in Death Valley National Park

We crested a rise and discovered another couple packing up their vehicle. We stopped to make sure they were okay, and they told us they had decided to head to town because conditions were too bad. They offered us their spot, but we thought it was too exposed and decided to keep going. When we reached the point where the trail drops into the mouth of the canyon, we eyed the angry storm clouds and realized that it wouldn't be a smart idea to camp down in the narrow canyon. I didn't want to be awakened in the middle of the night by my Jeep being washed away in a flash flood, especially if I was inside of it. We found a flat spot on high rocky ground to park for the night. We weren't happy about how open and exposed it was, but it would have to do.

The wind was blowing at 50+mph and there was no way we would be able to set up a tent. It was about to get dark, and we had no choice but to sleep in the Jeep. It's not the first time and I'm sure it won't be the last time, but the front seats of the Jeep aren't very comfortable and it's not much fun. I wasn't looking forward to settling in for such a long night. It gets dark way too early this time of year. That's not a problem when I can fill my time with night photography or enjoying a camp fire, but twelve hours squished in the front seat of a Jeep is a long, long night. It's even longer when the Jeep is rocking back and forth, buffeted by gale force winds.

It's a lot harder for a woman to pee in 50 mile an hour winds than it is for a man, especially when there are no rocks or trees around and the wind is swirling in all directions.

I needed hot coffee before I could bring myself to settle in. While Bill kindly unpacked half the Jeep to dig out the camp stove, some sandwiches and our sleeping bags, I decided to use my phone to shoot a quick video explaining what was going on for all of the people who always tell me that I'm "living the life" haha! I could hardly stay on my feet, and you can barely hear my breathless voice trying to shout over the wind. I was trying to explain that we were setting up for the night near the mouth of Johnson Canyon because a storm was blowing in, and that I wasn't looking forward to spending the night in the Jeep, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do. Subconsciously I may have been thinking to leave some evidence behind in case we perished and people wondered what the hell we were thinking being out there in those conditions! Even though the video wasn't the best quality, I posted it on my personal Facebook page when I got home. I was honestly surprised at the reaction to it. Despite the poor quality of the video, people who have never spent time in the Mojave and experienced the winds were amazed, and I'm sure the Death Valley scenery, or what you could see of it through the blowing sand, helped too. So despite the fact that it doesn't meet my "professional standards", I'm sharing it here.

I used one of my big tires as a wind block so I could boil water for my coffee. We settled in with our sandwiches and a movie on my Kindle while the last light died from the sky, and we pretended that we were at the drive-in theater. A hour or so later the sand storm engulfed us. We turned on all of the Jeep lights and watched in amazement. I tried filming it from inside the Jeep but by then it was pitch dark and even eight lights from Jeep couldn't penetrate the darkness and sand enough for my phone. Soon we we were napping on and off out of boredom, and when the wind suddenly died around 10pm it woke us both. Bill used the opportunity for a bio break, while I decided it wasn't worth trying to untangle myself from my sleeping bag. The reprieve didn't last long; a few minutes later the wind started up again and didn't stop until the morning. Our only saving grace was that temperature was reasonable and it didn't rain. We both managed to get a few hours of restless sleep.

The next morning the sky still looked threatening but the wind had died down to a manageable level. After a quick breakfast of leftover cornbread and coffee, we followed the trail into the canyon and made it all the way to the end at Wilson Spring before it started raining. Rather than make the mile and half hike to Hungry Bill's Ranch we decided it was time to get out of the canyon. I can't say it often enough, you do not want to be in a canyon when there is a chance of a flash flood. As we were making our way back down the rocky trail, we spotted the rainbow behind us.

We tried to race the rain home but it caught up to us while we were on Harry Wade heading toward Baker and it was brutal. We stopped at Denny's for a hearty breakfast and some much needed coffee. Other travelers hiding out from the storm told us that the Cajon Pass was treacherous ice and snow. If they closed the pass we would have a tough time finding a route home, but I was not looking forward to driving over the pass in those conditions either. I don't think we got over 10mph for the first 100 miles of the ride home, and the Cajon Pass had melted by the time we reached it well after dark.

Jeep outside Johnson Canyon during windstorm, Death Valley National Park

AFTER THOUGHTS: I know this is a long blog post, but a Twitter conversation I had with a friend right while I was working on this post seemed relevant. I had thought to make this part a follow-up post, but you know me - it would be months before I found the time to hit the "Publish" button and by then the point would be lost. My apologies to the tl:dr crowd, I know that attention spans are shrinking and sadly few people are interested in taking the time to read any more. I'm a voracious reader, so I can't relate. Consider this a bonus - a two-for-one post.

My friend and I were discussing an article by a female social media "rock star" involved in the outdoor industry. The article was a long whiny rant about how fake it all is, she pretends to be having a great time but the truth is that most of the time she is cold, scared, tired, hungry or something else. She said she spends 99% of the time crying because she's so miserable. Crying! The comment section cheered her on. I cannot believe how many people agreed that they were only pretending to have a good time but were actually miserable and crying. I wanted to smack her, and then smack her again because I felt it portrayed outdoor women in a bad light.

I could tell that my friend didn't understand why the article upset me so much, especially the gender connection (my friend is a man). Maybe he even thought I was exactly what she meant about women not supporting each other. But here's the thing - Mother Nature is a merciless bitch, she seduces you with her beauty and then when you least expect it she smacks you upside the head to remind you of her power. If you spend a lot of time in outdoor pursuits, especially in remote locations, there are times when things are going to happen, when you are going to be too cold, too hot, hungry and thirsty, so tired you don't know how to go on, you might get injured, and sometimes you might be afraid you that could actually die (once so far, a valuable lesson learned about dehydration a long time ago). It comes with the territory, get used to it. Most of us who spend a lot of time in the wilderness thrive on the challenge of overcoming the difficulties. That's what gives us stories to tell. If you are completely miserable every time you're out there and find that you are always crying, maybe being an outdoor adventure social media rock star isn't a good fit for you. The truth is, this woman is not an outdoor adventurer, she's a Digital Media Manager at a ski magazine who found social media popularity by posting photos of herself doing outdoor activities that apparently make her miserable. She became popular because she's attractive. Look, I get it that outdoor adventure women are very trendy in marketing right now, but if you don't really embrace the outdoor lifestyle you are just a model, not a role model. And in all honesty, companies disappoint me when they use this type of content marketing to try to appeal to "real" outdoor adventure women because we see right through it. There's a big difference between being a marketing prop and being an outdoor adventure woman. We want authenticity, not glamour.

Autumn cottonwood trees at Wilson Spring in Johnson Canyon, Death Valley National Park

She then went on to claim that we're ALL lying about how much fun we're having. There are a lot of real women doing real outdoor adventure who love every minute of it, that is why they do it. I know this because many are my friends. It angers me that one woman claims we are all just pretending to have fun and people cheer for her honesty. It's not glamorous. It's hard work, especially if you're trying to make a living from it. It's dirty. We don't always look cute on Instagram. One of the hardest things for me to learn in the beginning was that my friends would still accept me when I'm not wearing make-up and no matter how bad my hair looks after four days without a shower. But a lot of us really are having a great time even in rough conditions and we don't have to pretend. We'd rather be toughing it out in the worst that Mother Nature can throw our way than be stuck inside a cubicle staring out the window.

And since I'm often contacted by men who want my advice on how to get their wives outdoors and make it fun and comfortable for them, articles written by women that proclaim we are all lying about having fun and that we often cry because we're so miserable don't make it any easier.

I shared my favorite saying on my Facebook post and a friend told me it should be my be my motto. Maybe she meant my business motto, because it's certainly my personal motto.

The only difference between an adventure and an ordeal is your attitude!

I also mentioned on Facebook how lucky I was that my husband has the same "roll with it" attitude that I do, because if either of us were the type to get whiny (or God forbid, start crying) when things don't go our way, our adventures would be miserable. Dealing with whiners makes everyone miserable, and it could be dangerous because the whiner is focused on themselves instead of dealing with the situation at hand. I don't spend much time around whiners.

I didn't realize how ingrained this attitude had become in me until The Waterfall Incident. In a soon-to-be-published article about hiking Surprise Canyon I mention slipping on the rocks while climbing back down the seven waterfalls. There was this huge, slick, round slab of granite, maybe eight or so feet tall. I had successfully climbed up the boulder, but while attempting a graceful slide back down I slipped and landed hard on my butt in the stream. As if that wasn't bad enough, when I tried to get my feet under me I again slipped on the wet rocks and landed on my back, soaked from head to toe. I burst out laughing and laid there while first making sure my camera was okay (it was on my Spyder Pro Holster and if the camera or lens took a hit, there was no sign of it), then mentally checking to see how badly I was hurt (just my pride, thank you). As my husband came running over to see if I was okay, I heard him explain to our friend that when I laugh hysterically it means that I'm seriously injured! I realized that it's true, I do laugh when I'm badly hurt. Guess he hasn't yet caught on that when I'm really injured, I also curse like a sailor in between the bouts of hysterical laughter. If I'm only laughing and not cursing, I'm okay.

Sand storm in Death Valley

So maybe I am a hard, mean person without a nurturing bone in my body and I show little support for women (or men) who whine and cry, but if you ever get stuck in a tough situation out in the wild you're going to want me on your team, because even though my hair will be a mess, I won't be wearing makeup, and I might have a rip in my pants because I fell down a waterfall, I'm the one who is going to make it fun and we're going to have awesome stories to tell.

Unless you whine, and then I might smack you.


  1. Omg, another great story by you Lori,
    I so love your last paragraph, and most of all your last sentence.lmao, thanks ☺☺

    1. Humphrey thanks so much for reading all the way through to the end haha! I'm glad that you get my sense of humor ;)


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  3. What a great story Lori. I'm glad you added the bonus material too. I have been cold wet and as I say, miserable outdoors before but those are the most memorable it seems. If it was easy then it would not be rewarding is the way I see it. Mother Nature does lure us out with her beauty and solitude and with the right attitude you will always be rewarded providing you don't die.

    1. Thanks so much Chris, we are kindred spirits! I do believe there are more of us who feel this way then there are people who are only pretending. Maybe we're just not as visible because we're out enjoying the adventure. ;)

  4. So much this, Lori. I relate to this on so many levels. I confirmed on my DV adventure in November that I, too, have that roll-with-it attitude when things don't go as planned... and was pleasantly surprised at how well I handled my situation, not letting it get the better of me... and how natural that actually felt. If that would have been me 5 years ago, I would have lost my shit completely! I truly love reading about the things you are doing - you give me inspiration to keep following the path I'm on as well. Give me the great wide nowhere any day!

    1. Jayme, another one of my fearless adventure woman friends! No one would have blamed you if cried on that trip, I sure wouldn't. But it's a great feeling to know that you can handle things without falling apart, isn't it? Especially since you were on your own and so far from home. I think that's the part that the men don't always understand. And now you have a great story to tell! :)

      I'm really sorry we didn't get a chance to meet up while you were out here, hope we have the chance one of these days because I know we'd have a lot of fun together. Thanks for reading and for your kind words!

  5. Excellent story, and well on point with being 'adventurous' - in particular, your quote of "The only difference between an adventure and an ordeal is your attitude!" which fits exceptionally well with a few of my adventures in 2016 -- one being a canyoning trip which left the group cold, wet, bruised and bloodied - most complained, but it was all a part of an amazing experience - IF you had the right attitude!

    1. Thanks for stopping by and reading VagabondExpedition. I bet you have many great stories to tell from that trip! :)
      All the best wishes for many more amazing experiences (hopeful not too bloody haha) in 2017!