Really, I’m a little surprised it took me so long to hurt myself while alone in the wilderness. I am clumsy. I trip often and without reason. Sometimes my ankles roll out from under me, just for fun, as if they have better things to do than keep me upright. I am forever knocking into things, dinging myself lightly on furniture, cabinetry, sun shades and dog paws. I stab myself in the eye with a mascara wand at least once a week, never mind that I’ve been wearing mascara daily for more than 20 years.
I am not a graceful creature.
The day started out just fine. I woke early in my tent, having slept solidly and well for more than enough hours. Water for my coffee boiled quickly. I brushed my teeth while making eye contact with a raven. I didn’t curse a single time while putting my sleep pad back into its pouch. It was, I felt, going to be a good day.
By 8 a.m. I was at the trailhead, slathered in sunscreen. My pack was filled with snacks, water and supplies. The sun was still slipping its way across the mountains, shifting the colors of the desert as it went. I was happy, enamored with the plush comfort of multiple days of vacation ahead of me.
The trail was easy, gently tilting up for just under two miles before opening up to reveal the beauty of Death Valley.
At the end of the trail, I sat. I took in the view, felt again overwhelming gratitude that I was there. I drank a summit beer, ate some snacks, drank more water, reapplied sunscreen. After 30ish minutes, I headed back down the trail.
I wasn’t sure what was next, what trail or road I was bound for. I had a few options in mind, but I hadn’t made a plan. So, I plotted as I walked, weighing the day’s temperatures, my location in the park, thought about what kind of day I wanted. The options were endless.
Then, halfway back to the car, I fell.
I’m not sure what I fell over. I’m not sure if it was a rock or a grain of sand. I’m not sure it was anything. I just remember my feet tangling together, my body going down.
There was a moment – both incredibly brief and terribly long – when I knew my face was going to hit the desert floor and that there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. The ground was rushing toward me and there was nothing that could stop my face from making impact with it.
In that eternal instant, I closed my eyes and knew, without a doubt, that I was going to get hurt.
The hurt though, came later. What came first was the blood.
On the ground, I clutched at my nose, trying to right myself as I slipped my pack off. I knew my nose was bleeding. But, I had no idea how bad it was, had no idea if I’d broken the fucker or just smashed it a little. As I probed at it with bloody fingers, it felt, I thought, like it was still in its usual shape and location. I dug in my pack for something to staunch the bleeding, opened my water bottle and tried hard to wash the carnage from my face, chest and hands.
Please don’t be fucking broken, was what I mumbled to my nose as I pulled my phone out. I took one great big breath and used my camera to conduct a visual inspection of my fucked up face.
Seeing me, I stared for a few seconds. I watched as blood continued to soak through the small hand wipe I clutched against my snout. I’d managed, somehow, to scratch the entirety of my nose. But it wasn’t broken. The nose was hurt, for sure, but it wasn’t broken and the blood, I determined, was largely coming from inside my nose and not from the few small abrasions I’d gathered across the bridge.
Resigned and relieved at the not-too-terrible state of my face, I turned to my left hand. It had born the brunt of my fall. It was pulpy, but only a little bloody. I brushed the sand and rocks from it as I swiped blood from my face. The hand, I figured, while hurt, was not totally fucked, was probably fine. The injury felt very much liked one I’d suffered a few years earlier during a running tumble that sidelined my push-up game for upwards of two months.
I was, all things considered, fine.
Death Valley is gloriously devoid of cell signal in most parts of the park. Yet, somehow I had just enough signal to send out a message to the incredible creatures who keep tabs on me when I’m out gallivanting around in the desert alone. I sent a picture. I told them I was fine. A little banged up, I said, but fine.
Then, I shouldered my pack and walked back to the car, taking cautious, careful steps as I went.
By the time I got back to the car, the nose bleeding had mostly stopped. I dug out my first aid kit, sizzled myself with an antiseptic wipe and doused my wounds in antibacterial goop. I did a more thorough inspection of my wounds. The pain, by that point, was setting in, but mostly in my hand. The face looked pretty gnarly, but the pain there was minimal.
I took some pain killers, ate some jerky and contemplated my options.
I won’t lie. I was rattled. I wasn’t seriously injured, but I’d fallen face first into the desert floor while hiking alone. My hand was throbbing, my face tender with open wounds. I had whole days of vacation spread out ahead of me and once I’d triaged myself, I got scared.
I wondered, now what?
In planning the day, I thought maybe I’d hike to some remote dunes, an 8ish mile adventure that suddenly seemed like way more than I could handle post tumble. I was camping. I didn’t have an indoor space to seek solace in. The sun was rapidly creeping its way up, dragging the day’s temperatures along with it.
All the days ahead of me that seemed like a gift that morning felt, in those initial moments, like a daunting thing to get through. I panicked a little. I was spiraling, getting into that terrible spin cycle of negativity.
You’re still here, I told myself, you’re still in your favorite place, face smash be damned.
I took it easy for the rest of the day. Dipped below sea level at Badwater Basin. Listened to the crackle of salt formations at the Devil’s Golf Course. Wandered across the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Made camp early. It wasn’t the day I planned, but it was the day I got.
Those first 24 hours, I kept up a steady dose of ibuprofen. I watched as the colors of my face changed day by day. My eye blackened. The tip of my nose turned purple, the bridge yellow. I laughed about it, because of course I fall on my most simple desert trail. Of course.
In the months prior, I’d drafted a love letter to Death Valley. I talked about safety, about feeling secure in the desert’s dangerous embrace.
And then, I got punched in the face by the desert.
My precious pisces heart wanted to know what it meant. It wanted to assign some grand meaning to the face smash, something about my predilection for falling hard for those who don’t deserve the love I have to offer.
I felt betrayed. I’d been hurt by the one I loved the most.
By the end of the day though, I’d shaken off the emotional response.
I fell. That’s it. That’s all.
I’d picked myself back up, scooped the sand from my wounds, dumped the dirt from my bra and wiped the blood from my face. Then, I’d continued on, because what other choice was there, what other option was there beyond saddling up and continuing?
(Also, fuck you 2020, you and your stupid face-smashing bullshit)