Far out past the mountains and the high desert and the mountains again, there is a strange little desert, a few square miles of dry, cracked earth.
Most of the year, it doesn't rain at all. In the spring, it sprinkles now and then.
There are bluffs to the east and a mountain to the west. The wind blows in gusts that seem like to bring down your tent, and simultaneously the sun shines so hot that you can't be inside the tent during the afternoon.
The cracked ground beneath your feet is like cement: gummy and thick when a moment of rain passes through, hard and unforgiving when dry.
The dust covers everything. It gets on your hands and into your sleeping bag and behind your ears and in your food, and pretty soon you stop seeing it and start thinking of dust-covered hands as clean. The desert is clean, right? It feels clean, seared by the sun.
During the day, there is hiking up into the mountain, or up on the bluffs. It rains on the mountain, and I take off my shirts to get rid of the bottom cotton layer, not caring that the group is milling about, caring only about getting warm again. Back at the edge of the desert, there is a hot spring, and we all crowd into it as the sun sets and the air cools.
My tent is a refuge from the constancy of people, all having too much fun. "It's like a little Burning Man," we say doubtfully, as we go to bed and the young crowd who cares more about partying lights fireworks off above the campfire.
The noise of their party abates right around the time that SHO calls quietly outside each of our tents. The sun is coming up, and it's worth rolling out of a warm sleeping bag to watch the golden light of morning begin its sweep across the desert.
The eastern rim seems like it's right there, so close, but after a quick rain shower, it's a muddy, sticky 7 miles away. Two cars get stuck. We push the little one out, two of us, nearly falling on our faces when the tires finally catch and it takes off without us. Far off in the mud, we watch them put snow chains on the SUV, which works, too.
We all pile into the only 4 wheel drive, and drive far to the south around the worst of the mud. The sunroof is open, and we stand up to stick our heads out, beaming into the wind. "This is my crazy thing for the weekend," one person grumbles, before admitting that it's great fun.
Up on the far bluff, we talk about rattlesnakes. I've only seen one before this trip, up on a butte outside of Universe City. "I saw a documentary once about a kid who got bitten by a rattlesnake," I say. "His mom knew exactly what to do, because his dad was a doctor who studied antivenom."
At that very moment, there is a rattle off to my right, between me and the edge of the cliff. It's our second rattler of the day, a big one, and some people (not me) get close, filming it.
"How was it?" my friend asks when I pick up my car on the way home.
"It was amazing," I say. "It was totally amazing."