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DISPATCH | Retracing my steps in the desert

Jessica Wang / The Daily Princetonian

Dispatches at The Prospect are brief reflections from our writers that focus on their experiences during the summer.

Just over two weeks ago, I stood in flip-fl​​ops on a sand dune in the hottest place on Earth and thought, “This is the finest sand I’ve ever felt.” Warmed by the sun, the sand grains were so tiny I barely felt them as they sifted through my sandals and settled between my toes. I’ve been to beaches up and down California’s coast and even a few in Hawaii, but these sand grains at Death Valley, California, crumbled from rocks and blown across time, were nature’s best. 


But as a traveler — and as a tourist — I wasn’t at the sand dunes to rest or relax, like I would at a beach. I was there to see a wonder of the world, bask in the desert’s soft caress, and get back into my family’s air-conditioned rental car to see the next attraction.

It was my second time visiting Death Valley. The first time I visited, I was one and a half: old enough to stand on my own but too young to remember the sights. There’s photographic evidence of it, too. There I am in a cute little hoodie, grinning like I have a mischievous secret in the middle of a golden canyon. What would I give to know what I was thinking back then? Something must have amused me. That, like many of my childhood memories, is lost to the desert.

For four short days, I retraced the steps of my toddler self, recreating family photos at famous landmarks. We drove for miles and miles on serpentine roads and gravel with nothing but sand and rock and the glimmer of a car in the distance for company. I saw salt flats, sand dunes, arches, and craters showing the impressive layers of time. That desert held magnificent sights that made me feel like nothing but a grain of sand: huge cliffs, rock formations, and canyons that could swallow me whole. Every day, there was the same endless blue sky, clear and unforgiving, with the occasional raven soaring past alone. At night, it transformed into an expansive darkness freckled with the most beautiful clear stars.

When I think back, I remember these still moments. Sinking my toes into sand. Pointing to the Big Dipper. Standing at a vista with wind whistling softly across the rocks. Listening to the pop and crackle of salt crystals under the desert sun.

Revisiting the desert made me think of transience. How old is a sand grain? How far has it traveled? Does it ever really have a home, or is it a nomad, constantly carried by the wind from place to place? Like a sand grain, I’ve broken away from my home rock, carried 2,537 miles across the country to live out my first year of college. I’ve learned to hold fast to my memories, make a temporary home, and adjust to an East Coast sun. And after four years, like those before me, I’ll leap onto the next path — riding on a gust of wind, the sole of a toddler’s shoe, or a flip-flop — to find my next destination.

Jessica Wang is a member of the Class of 2026 and a staff writer for The Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at


Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at

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