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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Herb Benham

You can't ask to borrow another man's tent. I learned that from our camping trip to Death Valley last week. When I called Oilfield Russ, my request to borrow his tent met with silence before he changed the subject.

You might as well borrow a man's sleeping bag or his boxers as borrow his family tent.

Last Sunday, Herbie, Thomas and I went on a camping trip to Death Valley. Sounds awful, doesn't it? It wasn't. People are familiar with the glory of the mountain but there is also the splendor of the desert, and no place fits that better than Death Valley.

Go in the winter, when the days are 70, the nights are 40 and there are more empty campgrounds than campers.

I've never seen a cleaner park. Not a beer can, not an empty bag of Doritos stuck against a creosote bush and not one abandoned tennis shoe on its side.

The park bathrooms are cleaner than those at Chevron, the Four Seasons, or your grandmother's. Visitors either have a reverence for the park or, at night, the Death Valley elves troop down from the rocky canyons and sweep out the place.

Unless it rains, tents aren't critical. It takes a night or two to get used to sleeping in the open air (where you think you might go eye to eye with a critter), but when you wake up at 1 a.m. and the first quarter moon has dipped behind the Panamint Mountains and the night sky is swimming with stars, you are glad you are outside.

Glad again in the morning when the sun rises over the Amargosa Range and bathes the opposite mountains in pink morning light.

Glad again when you can hear how quiet Death Valley is. Even without Salt Creek, Hell's Gate, Devil's Golf Course, Artist's Palette, the Natural Bridge, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes and Dante's View, Death Valley would be a national treasure because of its quiet.

Have we ever yearned for quiet more than we do now? I listen to myself talk and, generally, it's pretty forgettable. Same with the emails and texts.

Phones barely work in Death Valley. Quiet is the default mode. Talk all you want, but when you run out of things to say, enjoy the quiet of eternity, which in this case does not seem so final.

We camped in Stovepipe Wells the first night and Hole in the Wall the second, where, besides the wind, it was so quiet we could hear the sound of crows' wings beating as they patrolled our camp. It was startling, beautful and more real than anything I've said or heard in years.

Quiet makes visiting possible. Camping is good for visiting and teamwork, too. Cooking is a group effort. So is cleaning the plates, pans and coffee cups. It's easy to get out of camping shape, and we were. I was camping clumsy. Stumbling to hook up the propane to the lantern, fumbling to get the stove to work, rolling up the cotton sleeping bag so askew that it wouldn't fit into the nylon sack.

You make a million trips to the truck, you do most tasks bending over with your backside in the air because you forgot to bring a second table. Keys get lost, misplaced or stuffed into the front pocket of a soft suitcase that ends up buried underneath an Army green ground cover.

Car camping suckers you in. You bring everything because you can -- extra tarps, lanterns, umbrellas, four beach towels, a three burner Coleman stove, a box of oranges, three rib-eye steaks from Wood-Dale Market, thin-sliced pepper jack, provolone, smoked ham and turkey, Quaker Oats Oatmeal, a loaf of cracked sourdough bread, two bottles of red wine, a bottle of small-batch bourbon, Sue's homemade muffins and chewy Rocky Mountain Chocolate Chip cookies.

If the 49ers had had what we'd packed, they could have opened a restaurant, a spa and a gift shop.

One thing you cannot overdo are sleeping pads. The ground is hard. Even with two egg crates and two blue pads, I felt like the princess sleeping on top of 19 mattresses. I could still feel the pea at the bottom.

The second night I inflated a Therm-a-Rest and added it to the pile. It was great but only 5 feet long. The Therm-a-Rest would have been perfect if I didn't have a head or feet.

On the way to the Hole in the Wall, we saw a white Hummer owned by a 40ish man named Boots. I asked him what he did for a living.

"I've been putting together my speech for a motivational speaking career for the last six years," he said.

Six years to put together his speech? Herbie suggested later on that perhaps Boots could use some motivation in order to finish his program.

The desert is like Mexico. You meet people and they have stories and as Norman Maclean said, "Some of those stories are true."

At our Hole in the Wall campsite, I boiled water, dipped a washcloth in it and treated myself to a camp shave. A man always feels better with a camp shave.

Herbie and Thomas took a walk every night and talked. It does a father's heart good to watch children love one another, long past when their parents insist on it.

We set the date for next year. The plan is to add a day and Sam, the son who couldn't break away. We have a lot to talk about and if we don't, quiet works too.