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Close Encounter

Death Valley National Park, California (2016)

A certain kind of coma sets in after a whirlwind month of leading workshops is suddenly over. Sustaining an intense schedule for that long makes the mind grow accustomed to constant sensory stimulation, quick decision-making, in-depth conversations, formulating accessible explanations for complicated ideas, etc. The feeling of it all coming to an end is not unlike the sensation of movement that persists after stepping off of a merry-go-round, followed by the feeling that it would be fun to jump back on!

That is essentially what I did at the end of March: after more than a month on the road, I jumped right back on the merry-go-round. I was alone at that point, so the conversations were now all in my head—ideas for articles to write, ideas for my photography. I needed to wait out a few days before a very promising storm was due to arrive in the Eastern Sierra, so I decided to go commune with the Joshua trees and jackrabbits in one of my favorite wilderness areas. I did not see another person during those days, and it gave me a lot of time to take notes for my articles and to poke around the desert with my camera. On the morning before the storm was due to arrive, I bid the jackrabbits farewell and relocated camp to be close to the dunes. The storm arrived with a bang, bringing 56-mph winds and lifting so much sand into the air that it was not possible to see the dunes from any of the roads around them. I waited for visibility to improve before hiking out and was not surprised to be the only person out there, as far as I could tell. It was glorious. The sun dropped down into an opening at just the right time, and the winds tapered off enough to be manageable. I plodded my way across the windy dunes for close to an hour, shooting several compositions and marveling at my great fortune.

Then things took a sudden turn for the bizarre. Suddenly, and I do mean suddenly, everything went white…just completely white. Where there had been a view in front of me just moments earlier, there was now a solid wall of blank nothingness. My first thought was that some giant tsunami of sand had just snuffed out the sun and was barreling towards me. Looking for a place to take cover, I spun around and surveyed my surroundings in every direction. To my astonishment, it was white everywhere, and it was quickly becoming more opaque. Visibility reduced to where I could not see more than a couple of hundred feet in any direction. At that point I realized that the storm clouds above the blowing sand had dropped to the level of the dunes, and I was literally in the clouds. It was just like the rollercoaster feeling after concluding a month of workshops: extreme intensity followed swiftly by a muted, contemplative state. And it leaves you wanting more.

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