I was just outside Vegas in October of last year when I suddenly remembered my birthday – the event was tomorrow.  So to celebrate, I considered extending my ride to the Kelso Sand dunes.  It was Monday and there was a strong chance I would have the landscape to myself… Even on the weekends, Kelso is a fairly desolate attraction – these huge ramps of lose sand piled in the area over the last 25,000. As stabilizing vegetation decreased, it allowed the sand to drift and create the dune fields. Once the sands collected, vegetation returned, locking the dunes in place. And now a day there really isn’t much to do other than climb the damn things and take a picture. But Hayduke was running well and I was looking for any excuse not to go home.  I had been traveling with a large herd of party animals for the last couple days and the chance of a “deserted” birthday excited me… so I took it.

I knew of a lovely oasis (meaning two trees) on the far side of the park; so Hayduke and I bounced our way through the desert till we found the large willows below the 650-foot sand dune. I was surprised to see an enormous recreational vehicle parked under the bigger of the two trees. This was a bold move considering the likeliness of getting such a vehicle stuck in the fine Mohave sand.  There was no towing service from here to Vegas that could pull this camper out here ­– plus, there was no cell service anywhere in the area.  As Hayduke and I approached I saw an individual scrambling to move indoors– I’m sure they could hear me coming from a mile away. I was annoyed. I felt as though they were ruining my birthday... This was the only shade for miles and one of the better-kept secrets of this landscape.

I circled the camp wide, then stopped at the smaller willow and got off my bike.  No one came out to greet me or investigate and I could tell that I was being watched carefully.  My neighbors concealed themselves well in the belly of their mobile beast and it made me nervous.  When riding alone, I always avoid situations that feel vulnerable, but in the desert, shade is worth the risk.

I walked around in plain view to make sure my neighbors could see that I was just a traveler with the intention of camping nearby (There is etiquette to these matters) –  Still no greeting… so I unpacked my bike where they could observe clearly my intentions.  After my bivy was set, I walked out to photograph the dunes.  But all afternoon I kept an eye towards camp to see if my neighbors would reveal themselves – they never did.  I returned from my outing in the last hour of light just in time to see a car pull into camp. 

The car approached me as walked towards my bike.  A good-looking young couple waved and pulled up with the windows down.  The man asked me if I knew of any more campsites and I said this was probably their best option between here and Joshua Tree.  They were from Germany and said they had been traveling for over a month – exploring the southwest without a plan. I could tell these two were good company so I told them they were welcome to share my camp… Even though it went against my original concept of solitude, their presence might help easy any tension between my illusive neighbors and me... Plus there is strength in numbers. 

They parked their rental next to my bike and began setting up camp.  They were well prepared and asked if I would like some pasta for dinner.  I accepted.  That way I could save my last cliff bar for breakfast. 

Dusk was nearly settled when we heard tires approaching.  I large sprinter van with LED panels drove past us towards the wash and disappeared.  The dunes were busy for a Monday.  I ate dinner with Z Germans and we discussed a possible route for them given the time they had remaining in the country.  I really enjoyed their company and was glad they had arrived.  His name was Thomas and her’s was Katharina and they spoke English very well.  We quickly began discussing many meaningful things – not long after, our unseen neighbors in the RV finally revealed themselves.  Our tone must have put them at easy… I imagine my appearance upon arrival might have alarmed them… but what can one do? I had been on the road four days and desperately needed a shower or a baby-wipe.  They were young as well (late 20’s I’m guessing) and had two small dogs with them.  They introduced themselves – Michelle and Kristian were their names and they easily joined our conversation with valuable contributions. They were computer programmers who after becoming fed up with housing prices back east, bought an RV, outfitted it with the most sophisticated internet options and started driving west… They now do their programming remotely from the road. I thought to myself of the isolated night I had imagined and was glad that it did not happen because I liked these strangers I had found. 

Just then a man approached our camp from the bushes to the west.  He was out of breath but introduced himself as Brett.  Brett said his van was stuck in the sand just down the wash. He had three other people there and asked if we could help them get back on the road.  Eight fully capable adults should in theory be able to move a vehicle so we agreed to the challenge.  We arrived at the van to find it buried to the rear axle.  They had already begun collecting wood and stones to place under the tires and had a small shovel with them.  Brett introduced us to his buddy ­– Christian, and to his sister and her husband – Nicole and Steve. We all huddle for a moment and decide to dig a track and reverse the van back onto solid ground.  We were going to need debris to pave the track and I remembered from my hike some old metal siding sticking out of the dunes not far away – Who knows how where the wind brought it from… but it would make a fine ramp so we grabbed our flashlights and walk the dunes in search of it.  We drug back enough scrap of metal and wood for the job… It took the help of everyone to dig that damn thing out but several hours later we reversed the sprinter from its sandy grave and celebrated like pagans howling at the desert moon.

Though all of these events were, so far, unexpected… The biggest surprise was yet to come… While sitting around the fire, Christian (from the Van-camp) leaned over and asked me if I wanted to share a birthday drink. I felt flattered he would ask and said hell yeah…  then it occurred to me that I had not told anyone it was my birthday.  When I asked if it was indeed his birthday he said yes and embellished “1980”.  That too was the year of my own birth.  I began to laugh out loud at the odds.  When he asked what was so funny I explained (out of breath) that we were born on the same day of the same year on this same weird planet and I had intended on coming out here –middle of nowhere ­– to celebrate my birthday alone.  The whole camp exploded into laughter.  I suppose you can only laugh at the odds if you take the chance.

Todd Blubaugh was born and raised in McPherson, Kansas. His earliest interests were in art and motorbikes and since the age of 12, Todd has been pursuing these two passions. He currently works in film, writes, shoots, and pursues collaborations with his roommates at The Chun, a motorcycle warehouse and art space in Los Angeles. The free-spirit artist shares his passion for open roads through aspirational imagery and poetic travel notes that resonate with Serengeti’s DNA.

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