Words and Images by: Hello Highline
Most of us run trails not because we prefer rugged, ankle-twisting dirt to smooth blacktop. We head down the trail because we want to be with nature and to escape, however briefly, from the daily grind of modern life. While trails are designed by people, our experiences along them are simply moments of random, often beautiful, serendipity. We know where the trail starts and ends but the experience along the way and the things we see and feel, is unique to that specific moment in time.
Our favorite part about this, both as a trail runners and guides, is that the experience will unfold in ways that are beyond our control. We can plan everything up to the trailhead but once we embark, it’s nature’s show.
For us, we plan our trips intentionally to find places where the trails are bountiful, the cell service is unavailable, and the theatre of nature is the most dramatic. There is perhaps no place in the lower 48 as capable of providing this unique combination than the remote landscape of the Northern Mojave Desert.
On a recent trip to Death Valley with a small group of runners who had entrusted us to be their desert guides, we set off for 6 days of trail running, hiking, and hot spring soaking in and around Death Valley National Park.
Our time in the desert was transformative. We saw the greatest hits and checked off a few of those bucket list items that everyone must see. But the beauty of the trip lied in the moments in between the lines of the itinerary. The things that we can’t script or plan.
A 4-mile run along the lush Amargosa River was interrupted as the sunlight poked narrow beams through the clouds and illuminated the hillsides into vibrant colors of purple, red, yellow, and green. The clouds returned and the show was over, the only spectators being a small group of trail runners who happened to be there at that moment in time to witness it.
At the bottom of the Red Cathedral on the Badlands loop, we looked up at a steep several hundred foot climb out of the canyon that would take us directly under the mid-day sun. Our run was nearly over and the climb ahead felt nothing short of daunting. Panting and out of breath by the top, we turned around to see one of the most spectacular views in Death Valley: badlands, canyons, mountains and the saltwater flats of Badwater Basin presented in a way that nearly felt staged.
Weather forced a detour from our itinerary lead us to Eastern Sierra, where we ran through the towering boulder fields of the Alabama Hills as a rainstorm rolled in. Afterward we smiled up to the sky as we drank beer and wine, enjoying the rarity of rain in the desert and time spent with new friends bonded together by a shared experience.
And on the final night, we sat around a fire outside our roadside motel in the nearly-forgotten town of Shoshone, California (population 31). We passed a bottle of whiskey and recalled our favorite moments from the trip. Out of the night a skinny college kid appeared and invited us to a bunkhouse shanty across the street where a team of geology students and professors were enjoying their last night in the desert before returning home. They had beer leftover and make-shift karaoke. We drank and sang with strangers until 1AM in the middle of nowhere and in a moment of random spontaneity that will be remembered forever.
These experiences can’t be manufactured. They can’t be planned and they can’t be found on a screen regardless of how many pixels it can hold.
We spend a lot our time in life trying to figure out the best way to move forward and tackle what comes next. Sometimes this is important: calendars, phone reminders, or a race training plan can hold us accountable and give us structure to perform our best. But as we figure out how to sweep away nearly every inconvenience with the click of an app, it’s important to cherish all that is still special in the unknown and remember that the best adventures start when you find the trailhead and just go.
Based out of Philadelphia, Ryan Callahan and JT Kane operate Highline, a running adventure company with upcoming trips to Moab Utah, the Dolomites of Northern Italy, and the Death Valley Trail Marathon. You can learn more at hellohighline.com