We planned it well. Rather Mike did. He’s a detail man. My sole responsibility was to accept his invitation to spend the weekend in the Oman desert.
I had a two-week gig in Muscat, where Mike had worked ten years for the petroleum company owned by the Sultanate. On a previous visit, I enjoyed a memorable evening with his family—wife Bette and four kids—dinner, conversation, and perusing the book Mike wrote covering the year-long, around-the-world trip he and Bette took before they had children. They drove an old Datsun and repaired forty-two flat tires.
On Wednesday, the end of the Omani workweek at the time, Mike picked me up from the office where I taught a class and drove me to his house for dinner. The kids were interesting and pleasant as before, two in high school, two in junior high, all active in sports and school activities. During dinner they joked that I was doing them a favor going with their dad because they were tired of the desert overnights. I didn’t know what to make of it. I thought they were trying to make me feel good.
After we cleaned the dishes, Mike lugged equipment from a storage room out to his car. Well, not a car, but a Toyota Sequoia, with large tires and plenty of interior space, which we filled with cots, sleeping bags, a charcoal grill, a telescope, and water jugs. We packed two ice chests with food.
We said goodbye and took off at 7:15 pm. Within thirty minutes we were outside the city on a two lane road with minimal traffic. An hour later we stopped for fuel. It would have to last the entire trip. He let some air out of his tires to give better traction in the desert sand.
We drove another two hours, seeing only a dozen vehicles pass in the opposite direction. There were no street lights. Seldom did we see lights from villages off in the distance. Suddenly, Mike slowed and leaned forward to squint out the side window.
“This is it,” he said, and veered off the highway onto a gravel road.
The moonlight bathed the sand and gravel. In the headlights the road was nothing but two tracks in the desert. Few bushes, no trees. We bounced along with little change in elevation for forty-five minutes until Mike slowed again.
“Here we are.” He angled off the road and drove another fifty meters.
We perched on a ledge with a steep drop-off— an escarpment according to Mike—fifty feet down to another flat area. He turned off the lights. We got out to inspect the scene. Our eyes quickly adjusted to the moonlight and a sky full of stars. More stars than I’d ever seen. He explained we were easily 100 kilometers from the nearest village. It was 11:15 pm.
In case you’re wondering how I kept track of these times, I didn’t. But Mike, a master of minutiae, presented me with a detailed itinerary: a spreadsheet with columns headed Location, Distance (in km), Travel, Arrival, Visit, and Departure, these last four columns indicating time, to the minute. Here’s his schedule for the next morning.
We assembled two cots with mummy-type sleeping bags on top. The temperature had dropped significantly from the eighty degrees when we left the house. Mike said it would get down in the low forties by morning. He set up his telescope and located the evening star, Mars, then Jupiter and one of its moons.
Silence. No highway traffic, no trains, no birds, no animals (that I was aware of), and no wind. We sipped beers and nibbled on pretzels. I declined a cigar, surprised that he indulged.
Mike unfolded a celestial map on the hood of his vehicle and explained what stars and constellations to look for during the night if I woke. I woke once. My face, partially exposed, was cold. The sky sparkled. Tilting my head from side to side, I saw the constellations in the map.
We rose with the sun shortly after six. We layered shirts and sweaters and wore watch caps in the chill morning air. Mike cooked sausage and eggs for breakfast. I made coffee and sliced French bread. Back toward the highway, the gravelly plain lay in soft light. Below the ledge was nothing but sand, rolling hills and dunes, no vegetation in sight.
After we cleared camp, he angled the SUV over the ledge and down the steep incline in hairpin fashion, bucking and swerving. Sand flew around us. I grasped the dashboard, sure I’d fly through the windshield otherwise. Once down, we found a trail, two ruts wide enough to accommodate wheels of various widths. The sun warmed the air. We removed our hats and the outermost layer.
We passed Bedouins, small families of turbaned adults and children walking alongside camels laden with bulky cloth packages. Half an hour later we approached our first stop of the day, the Star Dune, a famous milestone, the intersection of ancient market trails through the desert.
Two other vehicles stood near the base of the dune. Expat children in long-sleeved shirts and long pants slogged up and down and rolled in the flanks of the dune while their parents took photos. Everyone wore a hat, even in mid-morning to protect against the sun.
We walked part way up, enough to get a feel for it and to decide the full trek wasn’t worth the effort. This dune is visible for ten kilometers. I learned it was one of hundreds of star-shaped dunes in many deserts, the unusual shapes created by ever-changing wind directions.An hour later we pulled up at the Rudist Reef, named for extinct bivalves (clams, oysters) whose shells were created 100 million years ago.
Mike handed me a six-page technical paper with photos and diagrams to peruse. Except for the tubular shape, their assembly reminded me of scree slopes I saw rock climbing in West Virginia. Here, in addition to fossil-collecting interest, some subterranean Rudist deposits served as oil reservoirs.
Next, we visited two petrified-wood sites. Though I’d seen pieces of this lovely “rock”—indeed one of my neighbor’s houses in Houston incorporated it in place of brick veneer—I was unprepared for this array of large trees sprawled on the sand where they fell two hundred fifty million years ago.
We lunched on ham and cheese sandwiches, apples, and potato chips at Norris Canyon in the shade of an acacia tree.
“How many trips like this have you made, Mike?”
He smiled. “This makes one hundred seven. I used to take the family, then just the boys. But the last fifty trips have mostly been solo.”
I was astounded. “But you don’t even have a phone.”
“The only thing that would work here is a satellite phone. We have two at the office for emergencies. Bette has my itinerary and I’ll log in at our company well site this afternoon and again tomorrow morning. If I don’t show up at the prescribed time, the office will send a chopper to follow my trip plan.”
I popped a question that had been floating around my brain. “Have you ever had a flat tire or car trouble?”
“Had two flats. Fortunately the boys were with me. I keep the tires in good shape and avoid places where there might be anything that could cause a flat.”
We visited another petrified wood site, named for Mike’s son Daniel, who discovered it. Then we stopped at Pinnacle Mountain, where we took photos.
Afterwards, we stopped for photos at another mountain, Jebel Aswod, and the aforementioned well location, where Mike punched in some numbers on a remote sensing device. Then we drove to the aptly-named Motherlode of Petrified Wood, where we made camp.
Mike grilled steaks and heated baked potatoes. We shared a bottle of zinfandel and smoked cigars. He set up the telescope while I read his description of the stars.
We talked about our careers, children, religion, mutual friends, places we’d been and wanted to visit, and life in general. He is a deeply religious man and the best engineer I have ever known.
That night, I woke again to marvel at the celestial show. We rose shivering at dawn. A tender breeze whistled while we savored the aromas of boiled coffee and fried bacon and eggs.
After breakfast we discovered the flat tire. It was all we could manage, the two of us, to wrestle the huge wheel off and mount the spare. I didn’t ask what we’d do in case of a second flat.
All morning we retraced the path that brought us to our campsite, pausing briefly at the Saiwan well, veering off to take in crinoid fossils, stopping to pay our respects to the Star Dune, then zigzagging up the escarpment and over to the highway.
We stopped for gas and restroom break at the Nizwa Circle and arrived home, on schedule, at 4:30 Friday afternoon, nearing the end of the Omani weekend.
Our trip racked up 690 kilometers, 290 off-road. I brought home a small bag of fossils. I learned about stars, geology, and silence. And I had the pleasure of getting better acquainted with one of my favorite people.