Hiking through the Devils Playground

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The road curved languidly around mountain ridges that rose out of a flat desert floor - a vast waste land of tumbleweed and Joshua trees. After days of relatively infertile landscape, around one curve I noticed a mountain ridge that looked even more barren than all the others; this one was completely light beige with no shrubs or vegetation growing on it at all. I turned down a side road to drive closer and soon realized that it was entirely made of sand, an enormous dune ridge rising up around 200 meters above the surrounding floor.

I love discovering new aspects about people, places or things. For most people, the word “California” evokes bikinis, Venice Beach buffs, Hollywood scandals, the incredible Highway 1 coastline, acting politicians and political actors, the wild side of San Fran and debt, debt, debt. South-eastern California presents a lesser known side: the Mojave desert. Naturally, there is a rich animal and plant life which has adapted itself to the harsh terrain, largely by taking siestas over the entire day to avoid the sun, like the Cholla cactus which blooms only at night. Clever.

I was driving my old Volvo down the back roads and looking for a location on my map labelled “The Devil’s Playground.” Why? I was curious: what kind of place inspired such a name? Perhaps I was also looking for a sign of some kind. God is notoriously willing to let Doubting Thomases and Faithful Abrahams wander around for a long time in mounting suspense; maybe the devil might be more willing to play ball in his own playground.

I had to take a closer look.

I parked the car off the road, took a big bottle of water, a short walking stick and a white bed sheet, in case the sun got too wicked. It was still mid-morning in mid-July and would easily reach the mid 40’s Celsius in a few hours. I started off over a series of five to ten rolling dunes towards the highest point on the ridge.

It turned out to be more like 30-40 dunes, each higher one hiding three-four smaller ones behind it. After an hour, I finally made it to the rising slope that lead to the crest itself. I decided to hike up to a lower point on the crest, then make my way up the crest to the peak.

Reaching the crest, I could see that it stretched out on both sides to form the rim of an enormous deep basin. I felt like an ant in an abandoned sand box. I started up the crest to the summit with the basin on my right, my car just visible in the distance on my far left.

From my left, too, the wind picked up and blew a hazy curtain of sand over the crest out into the basin. After about ten meters, I heard a deep growling sound. It increased in volume below the whoosh of the wind. I stopped and looked around. The sound slowly subsided until all I heard was the wind again. I shrugged my shoulders and went on.

Sure enough, after about ten meters, the deep groan started again, got louder with every step. If I stopped, the sound would fade away as though it approved of my stopping, only to resume when I started again. I kept waiting for a giant worm to surface, as in the movie Dune, but nothing came, except for the sound.

After another hour I reached the summit to find stuck in the sand a makeshift cross, crafted crudely out of twigs. A few cigarette butts were strewn around. The scene reminded me of hallway ashtrays filled with sand. Indeed, this playground: the largest ashtray in the world. And the devil smokes Winston. Who knew?

I trudged a little further along the ridge and listened to the deep growling sound that filled the air, along with the spray of sand. I decided to stop awhile, made a tent with the bed sheet and walking stick to better endure the midday sun. I kept asking myself the question, “What kind of games are played in the Devil’s Playground?”

In the heat of the afternoon, everything above the surface of the ground began to shimmer with a surreal waviness. At some point I recalled an advertisement that I had seen recently in Las Vegas that read something like:

GO TO HELL! Join the GIRLS, GIRLS, GIRLS of Devil's Playground Burlesque as they re-create and perform acts inspired by the "Seven Deadly Sins" to celebrate the exclusive launch party for DANTE’S INFERNO, EA's new MATURE-rated videogame! The event will take place at the Icarus Nightclub on Wednesday, July 10th, presented by Devil’s Playground Burlesque – the same troupe that brought you STAR WARS BURLESQUE.

Hours later, as the sun was descending, I still had no answer to “What games?” — so I decided to head back to my car before it got dark. In the distance, I could barely see the glint of its windshield reflecting the sun. I could either walk back along the crest down to where the slope was more gradual, or I could leap forward and slide down the steep sandy descent about 150 meters to where the rolling dunes began below. I jumped.

The bass groan boomed louder than ever before as I slid, skipped and skied down the incline. I thought it would take only a few minutes to reach the first dunes, but the descent took much longer, even as my speed picked up to the point where I had to make an effort to slow myself down. I felt my legs tiring and becoming more clumsy, but I could not stop my momentum. “Run ‘Til You Drop” could be the name for this game, and so very fitting for this playground! This thought made me laugh out loud.

I could simply fall and roll down the soft sandy slope. Yet, what if there were some larger rocks further down? I didn’t like the idea of letting myself lose control in a place that I did not know that well. So I galloped on down the steep incline, the bed sheet waving behind me like a white flag. Eventually, I felt the slope begin to flatten out, my momentum slowed down as I passed the first tufts of tumbleweed and several larger boulders into which I was glad I had not smashed. I sat down on one to catch my breath and then laughed again at the subtlety of such playground mind games. Brilliant, actually. I remembered the deep groaning of the sand worms.

I wanted to reach my car before dark, so I headed off in the direction of the road. I felt that I was bearing more west of my car, so I would need to turn left upon reaching the road. I had a few mouthfuls of water still in the bottle and looked forward to eating supper.

An hour later and I still had not reached the road. Even from the taller dunes I could see nothing of a road up ahead, let alone my car. Normally I have a very good sense of direction, both in cities and in the wilderness. Yet I had somehow plotted my course too far west, in which case I might very well miss the road entirely. In a couple hours it would be dark, the waning crescent moon would not be out for hours and would be of little help anyway.

I felt weary and angry with myself that I had foolishly set off earlier without taking better precautions. I should have prepared a backpack with provisions, a compass, flashlight, a knife and more water. The situation was becoming critical, for the sun stood only a short ways above the opposite mountain range. There were coyotes in these hills and all kinds of poisonous snakes, lizards and bugs that feed primarily at night. I had never actually gotten lost before, never fully experienced that panic of anxiety that comes when you realize that you have no idea where the fuck you are, and there is no help coming your way. Now I felt that panic wash through me with its full force of fear, doubt and desperation.

I turned around to look back up at the tall mountain of sand on whose summit I had spent the afternoon, now bathed in a sunset glow of orange. I remembered laughing while galloping at breakneck speed down the slope. I realized that this self-doubt, leading to panic, fear and desperation, was in itself another game.

I looked closely at the face of the slope and my current angle to it. I had indeed been hiking off course further west. If I corrected it now, it should bring me back to the road. I set off with renewed determination.

I saw the herd of cows first. Then, the road. Several hundred long horned cattle were plodding along tiredly down that road. I looked for a cowboy or at least a cowherd, from whom I could seek direction, or even some gossip about the Devil’s Playground. But the cows seemed to be on their own, an enormous wall of beef taking up the whole road. It was now dusk with visibility down to about 200 meters, roughly to about the last cows in the herd. Then I saw my car as these last cows passed it, parked just as I had left it that morning.

Years later, I found out that I had been hiking along the Kelso Dunes, famous for their “Singing Sand” – also called “Booming Dunes” – a low-frequency rumble that can be felt and heard, caused by sand shifting when someone walks along the higher areas near the crests.

After a most satisfying meal of water, beans, bread and cheese, I watched the waning crescent moon rise up in the east. I decided to spend the night there – and head off to Death Valley in the morning.

Edited in "mountain stories 2010/11"

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