With an eye on the future, recreating favorite experiences of the past

It was not anything fancy: I was in the back of a rented, converted minivan with the back and sliding doors open.

Dry, cool wind rustled plastic grocery bags filled with assorted goods. Warm light from a lowering sun occasionally pierced through purple, desert clouds, but for the most part the late spring scene had the muted tones of a threatening storm.

I’d just returned from a run along the red dirt two-track rough road that rambled deep into the BLM lands we were camped on. I hadn’t actually run much, because I kept stopping to gawk at plant life, marvel at the sky, or simply enjoy the feeling of fleeting warm sun on my skin.

I was all smiles. My chest felt like it was lifting up; I had a feeling of expansiveness I get when I’m outside sometimes that I wish I could share immediately with everyone I know.

When my husband returned to the van from his run, he quickly changed, we set out chips and salsa in plastic camping bowls, played surprisingly mellow and enjoyable deep tracks of Don Henley per a friend’s recommendation, and started fixing dinner on a Coleman stove.

Dinner was fine; an assembly of grocery store odds and ends that had to do with tamales that weren’t quite heated properly in some kind of red sauce. We ate standing up as the sun went down, and cleaned in the dusk as the wind settled.

The clouds cleared and the stars came out. I stared into the sky and out at the scrubby landscape rolling over low hills that climbed into something taller; all of it silver, black, and piercing white in the rising moonlight. I felt profound gratitude to be there in the Mojave.


Backing up: I’m enthusiastic about plenty, but it helps to know context for why I was so particularly enamored with that experience, including the Don Henley-ness of it all. What was it about sitting in a rattly kitted-out rental minivan camper, scooping salsa out of a plastic bowl while looking at a desert scene through tinted windows, that was so striking? After all, by some measures the evening was a failure: we’d intended to camp out in Valley of Fire State Park, but all the campsites were full. We were parked just outside the park on public land, on a little isolated knoll.

The answer: it was May 2021 and we’d just emerged from our year plus of near-full isolation due to early, pre-vaccine COVID.

Our first trip out of state? It was this one. We flew down to my husband’s home state of Nevada, with the focal point of our trip being my stepdaughter’s high school graduation in Las Vegas. True to form, we rented a campervan for three weeks and promptly struck out into the desert.

That feeling I was experiencing our first night camped out was one of release, awe, and happy-tear-level thankfulness. I remember that night and throughout the trip, I would wake up naturally, and very early, just before sunrise so I didn’t miss a minute of the day.

When we got up that next morning, my husband remarked on my new early and enthusiastic rising, but indulged me in packing up and getting going early. As we wound our way again into Valley of Fire, we stopped alongside the road to watch bighorn sheep. It was 7 a.m. The temperatures slowly rose with the sun across red rocks, seemingly everywhere. We found our campsite 30 minutes later, as others began to depart.

I’ve been thinking about that night and experience lately. Coming into the new year, I’ve been pondering the year ahead, thinking about what kinds of experiences I want to focus on creating and how I want to feel. Since that time, it’s fair to say I’ve exploded back into my life and onto the “scene,” whatever and wherever that is — read: many places. I’m someone who thrives on change.

[Don’t worry about being judged for your outdoors capabilities. Instead, focus on the fun.]

I haven’t experienced much austerity lately, like I did during the buckle-down, isolated, sameness of during early COVID days. I would not re-do it if I had the choice. But I do think that the contrast between feeling so trapped, and then finally being freed and in a landscape so different — and in some ways similar— to Alaska, but also one of my favorites, made the experience that much richer.

I’ve wondered how to recreate that feeling and exquisite feeling of presence in the future, without putting myself through extreme deprivation.

Alli Harvey

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.