Death Valley Spirit Quest in California

Hiking the volcanic crater, Death Valley Mojave desert on the California/Nevada border. Karolee Bulak photos. | GoNOMAD Travel
Hiking the volcanic crater, Death Valley Mojave desert on the California/Nevada border. Karolee Bulak photos.

Expecting a Spirit Quest, the Author Camps in Death Valley with a Talkative Family

By Karolee Bulak

Taking a break during a long hike in Death Valley. | GoNOMAD Travel
Taking a break during a long hike in Death Valley.

There are times in life when trips into nature are about fun and adventure, and then there are times when excursions into nature become a sacred experience.

As I prepared for my trip to Death Valley, in California’s Mojave desert, my entire life had been uprooted and was pushing me into the unknown territory. I was traveling into the great unknown both literally and symbolically.


I thought that a trip into Death Valley would be a perfect place for reflection and contemplation but I couldn’t have been more wrong as the group trip turned out to be anything but spiritual, but more of a humorous adventure with an almost deadly outcome.

I later fully gained a true respect and understanding of “Death Valley.”

A lot of people expressed their fears to me about going that deep into the desert, but my fears were about my entire life’s foundation changing and crumbling as I was being forced to start over and begin anew in a different location.

Sunset in Death Valley, Mojave Desert, Southern California. Karolee Bulak photos | GoNOMAD Travel
Sunset in Death Valley, Mojave Desert, Southern California. The tents became ovens. Karolee Bulak photos.

Fears of snakes and scorpions did not scare me at all. I saw the desert as a place of warmth and openness that could not be found anywhere else.

I couldn’t wait to get into the extreme world, so vastly different from the one I currently lived in, a world of green pine trees, harsh winters, and gray skies.

Perfect Timing

At first, when I found out that my house sold quickly and unexpectedly, I wanted to cancel my trip to Death Valley, but then I realized that this was the perfect time to go.

The desert was known to be a spiritual place for thousands of years where the call to spirit is heard quietly within the soul, and answers lie buried deep within the sand.

Walking on the salty trails at Badwater, Death Valley | GoNOMAD Travel
Walking on the salty trails at Badwater, Death Valley.

I made the decision to go and hoped that in the desert, I would find clarity of direction, peace of mind, and spiritual direction as I faced the upcoming challenges through the greatest journey that I have ever taken alone.

I had booked the trip through a travel and hiking company that I had traveled with in the past. I had always looked forward to meeting new people and sharing a group travel experience. This time I had no idea as to who the other travelers would be, other than my close friend who had also decided to join me on the trip.

Meeting our Guide

The next morning, we met our guide and other group members, which turned out to be a divorced mother and her two children. It took me several minutes to process that I was going on a four-day camping trip with a mother and kids as I was expecting other adult hikers, as I had experienced on other group excursions.

Although the family was nice, I was disappointed as I was looking forward to the adult conversation, sharing similar interests and joint experiences.

After a short two-and-a-half-hour trip, we arrived in beautiful Death Valley. It was everything that I hoped it to be, spacious, open and beautiful. I could feel my tensions and stress draining away in the desert air. I couldn’t wait to get out of the van and start hiking.

We were told by the guide that we would be taking a “short” hike in a beautiful place called, Golden Canyon. I was ready and prepared to hike as the others slowly took their time putting on their hiking gear, sunscreen and getting snacks and water. I waited for about 30 minutes before everyone was ready to go.

The “short hike” began in good spirits as the group walked together, with myself in the lead as I enjoy hiking at a decent pace, but I also wanted to be quiet and tune into the environment. I was in my element at first, but that was short-lived as the climb began to grow more difficult as the elevation continued to rise and the blazing sunshine quickly felt like a stifling oven.

Hiking the boardwalks in Furnace Creek where pupfish are found swimming in the flowing river.
Hiking the boardwalks in Furnace Creek where pupfish are found swimming in the flowing river.

An Insufferable Place

Golden Canyon quickly became insufferable. Being a lover of heat and sunshine, I always bragged about being able to take the heat, but the higher we climbed in the scorching sunshine, the sicker I started to feel. What was supposed to be a short two-mile hike turned out to be a five-hour hike in the sweltering sunshine in rising elevation at the hottest time of the day?

Reaching the summit at Golden Canyon. | GoNOMAD Travel
Reaching the summit at Golden Canyon.

We later discovered that the temperature was 100 degrees. I continued walking in the lead, not only because I walked faster than others but because I wanted to hear the sounds of the desert, not the constant chatter of family problems or school issues

All of a sudden I started to feel ill. I had never felt this way before and couldn’t express what I felt, other than “not well.” I knew that I needed to seek shade and get out of the blistering sun or feared that I would pass out. I expressed how I was feeling to the group guide and asked for electrolytes, but she said she didn’t have any.

I knew that I had to continue to walk or would collapse near the summit of Golden Valley. I was also desperate to find a bit of shade somewhere, but there appeared none until I came across a tiny sheltered shaded spot between who rocks. I nestled myself in as far as I could, barely keeping myself out of the sunshine. I later became known as the “Shade Seeker”.

Passed out on a Rock

As we continued our decline down the mountain, I was scolded for going too far ahead of the group, but I needed to keep moving in order not to pass out from heatstroke. Eventually, we made it into some narrow slot canyons where we had shade. As I started to feel better, one of the other hikers sat down, reporting feeling light-headed and then passed out on a rock.

I immediately thought that paramedics should be called in as we were far away from civilization. The guide was a trained first aid responder and appeared calm and took her vitals stating that she didn’t have a pulse. I was thinking that we needed to contact emergency services, which she later did but only after she gained consciousness.

I later thought about how close I was to having heat stroke up on the summit and if I had passed out, there was nowhere to go to get out of the sunshine and my brain would surely have fried on the mountaintop. Death Valley became a reality for me. I later saw a sign that said, “Heat Kills”, and knew this to be true.

Meat-Free Meal

After we dragged ourselves back to the van from our “short five-hour hike”, we made our way to our campsite as the guide began to cook out meal. As we sat down to eat, the mothers and children verbalized their anger about the food, complaining that there wasn’t enough meat, not wanting to eat the healthy salads that were prepared.

The guide explained that it was difficult to keep meats cold in the desert in heat excess of 100 degrees. The mother was still upset, saying that the daughter had picky eating habits. The 11-year-old boy later commented that he would, “Eat anything.”

Experiencing moments of silence in the beautiful and brutal Mojave desert | GoNOMAD Travel
Experiencing moments of silence in the beautiful and brutal Mojave desert.

River of Pupfish

The next day, we all expressed our desire to have an easier hike so the guide drove us to another beautiful spot in the desert where there was a river full of pupfish and a long boardwalk to walk on but again we arrived during late morning when the sun quickly became stifling.

Because the family struggled to wake up early and then took so long to get their hiking gear on, we always ended up hiking when the sun was directly overhead. So again, we found ourselves out in the scalding desert, without shade, hiking and trying to keep our body temperatures regulated.

Later that afternoon, we traveled to the Badwater Basin. The salt flats were amazingly beautiful and the salt felt healing to body, mind, and spirit. Salt is known to be a healer and cleanser for many ailments. I was in pure ecstasy in the salt flats and was disappointed that we were only there for about 30 minutes before we had to leave.

I was greatly disappointed as I wanted to walk for miles on the salt in the setting sun, but the visit was brief. I hoped to return, which we did, but only as a pit stop on our way out of Death Valley.

Artist Mural

From Badwater Basin, we traveled to Artist Mural, a beautiful, spectacular mountain range where the rocks are filled with different colored minerals, painting the mountainside, tan, brown, red, green and black. We excitedly jumped out of the van and hiked up a short mountain where we could further see the beauty of this magnificent place. ‘

I experienced a moment of silence standing on the mountaintop before the mother’s constant chatter about skunks filled the air, leaving me struggling to tune her out.

The stench of more skunk stories permeated the air as we climbed back into the van and traveled back to our campsite as the mountain grew dark in the setting sun.

Later that night during dinner, the conversation again focused on family’s issues and ongoing school problems. Not wanting to participate in the conversation, I excused myself and went for a short walk around the campsite and did yoga in the setting sun.

I felt as if I was an uninvited guest on someone’s family trip. I was polite and generally liked the family, I also had come to the desert for spiritual insight as well as for connections with others, but in life, sometimes you don’t always get what you want or expect, but have to deal with what is.

A Bumpy Road

The third day became a nightmare for me. Since we had all struggled climbing higher elevation in the direct sunlight the first day, the guide decided to drive us hours into remote mountains to see charcoal huts that had been built long ago. We traveled on rocky off roads trails that I questioned were actually roads at all.

The trip was so bumpy that I started to feel ill by the time we arrived and decided to lie down on the ground under a tree while the guide prepared lunch. I later discovered that I had laid down on pine sap and my clothes were covered in it. We then drove for hours back to our campsite where we had more complaints of food and family issues, but this was soon forgotten as we went to the mystical Mesquite sand dunes that magically appeared in the desert.

Both my friend and I had a wonderful time running down the sand dunes like children, laughing and soaking up the grounding energy.

The last day, we hiked to a beautiful waterfall. Again the family struggled to get up and going in the morning, so we ended up hiking during the hottest part of the day. This time though the hike was partly shaded and very enjoyable, involving some rock scrambling and leaps over small rivers and creeks.

Occasionally someone would slip into the water, resulting in a wet hiking book or two. The journey was diverse and interesting as we traveled into a beautiful green oasis hidden far away from the dry barren landscape of the desert.

Desert yoga with the sunrise. | GoNOMAD Travel
Desert yoga with the sunrise.

A Welcome Breeze

As the weather grew hotter and the winds grew stronger on our last night in Death Valley, we found the breeze to be a relief from the scorching heat.

I was reluctant to open up all of my tent flaps at first due to having seen a coyote roaming the campsite, but because the tent felt like a small furnace, I woke up several times in the night, opening my tent flaps, which continued to blow shut by the wind.

I felt like I was being cooked alive in an oven. The next day after a very restless night, I dragged myself out of my tent and plopped myself down on a yoga matt and practiced the sun salutation with the rising sun.

The desert sky was beautiful as the sun rose over the mountain bringing light and warmth to the ground I stood on.

We packed up our belongings and hiked our last hike in slot canyons on our way back to Las Vegas. The slot canyons were a fun maze type hike that each and every turn took us into unknown territory. It provided relief from the blazing sun and offered an interesting adventure into the dark crevices deep within the canyon walls.

Our time was limited due to having a late start in the morning and having to travel back to Las Vegas, but although somewhat brief, the hike offered a fun excursion into the towering mysterious canyons.

Goodbye Stillness

We began our drive back to city life, leaving behind the silence of the desert where I had brief moments of stillness, that I have never experienced before. I loved being far away from city chaos and noisy streets and felt at peace within the seclusion and remoteness of this magnificent desert.

Karolee BurakLeft behind in Death Valley was a great respect for the landscape, the intense heat, its magical canyons, mysterious sand dunes, healing salt flats, and the annoying chatter about skunks that echoed throughout the mountaintop.

Karolee Bulak is a Consultant, Licensed Professional Counselor, Author, and Artist with extensive experience in the fields of Travel, Psychology, and Creative Expression.

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