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Triple Aught Design’s Destination : Dune (Part 2)

by , June 27, 2017

Day 2 (continued).

… And we’re off.  To the mountain.

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About an hour’s worth of rocky trail passes under our suspension before we stop inside of Dedeckera Canyon.  Everyone gets out to survey.  As a group, we walk over each of the obstacles that are in front of us.

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Somehow we need to get these heavy vehicles up and over them.  Note that we had one brave attendee who brought his completely stock Jeep Grand Cherokee.  And we’re also hauling 3 trailers.  These are highly kitted out vehicles for off-roading and overlanding, but none of these vehicles are particularly rock crawlers.  Nevertheless, we’re unable to go around these obstacles, and we can’t go under them.

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The only way is up and over.  Todd goes over the first few obstacles in his Land Cruiser towing a gear-filled trailer behind.  The group watches carefully, memorizing his approach, his line, his speed.  He makes it look easy.

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A quiet excitement from the group.  We all know it’s nowhere as easy as he makes it appear.  One by one, Todd provides hand signals for each driver to assist their rig to get over these boulders, without tipping too much and smashing into the tight rock walls on either side.

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We only had one issue with one vehicle.  The length of its wheelbase dropped all four tires into four deep crevices.  An exact fit.  We joked that some Toyota guys must have come up with measuring tape, exact wheelbase measurements for this particular Jeep, and removed the rocks to create the perfect trap.  So we luckily got to use another Jeep’s winch to pull it up out of the obstacle.  No sweat.

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We continue on the technical Steel Pass.  Climbing higher in elevation.  Slow moving.  Obstacles that would snap an axle of an urban commuter vehicle.  Chatter from the CB radio.  Something about stopping for lunch near the “Marble Baths”.  Did I hear that correctly?  The last time I showered was my last night in San Francisco, before leaving on Day 0.  72 hours ago minimum.  The phrase “Marble Baths” sounded like a dream.  An oasis in my mind.  We bring the convoy to a halt.

“We continue on the technical Steel Pass.  Climbing higher in elevation.  Slow moving.  Obstacles that would snap an axle of an urban commuter vehicle.”

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I’m finally feeling hungry for the first time in 2 days.  Chris from FPA prepares lunch while we make “the short hike” down to these infamous Marble Baths.  Should I bring a towel?  Todd chuckles at our confusion.

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“It’s just right up over here, maybe 50 yards,” he explains.  I don’t see any sign of vegetation, a clear giveaway for water or a spring in the desert.  We hike up a dusty trail and just around the corner of a boulder, we’re told “Here it is!”

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Tricked.  However, I’m pleased.  And confused.  Who would drive the whole way out here with a porcelain clawfoot bathtub with countless blue marbles and leave it as an art installation?  Possibly the most remote portion of California.  On a difficult 4×4 trail.  Todd didn’t have an answer.  I did some digging online and found a few possible stories, as well as an old photo of four masked individuals and a Land Cruiser standing in front of the bath.  I prefer the mystery and it seems it will remain for most for many years to come.  We took some photos and had some laughs.  I finish off the last drops of water from my TAD Klean Kanteen insulated water bottle and make the short hike back up to the rigs.  A simple and delicious sandwich with chips and cookies.  Sustenance.  Beautiful sustenance.  The stabbing pain has left my stomach, but I’m still highly skeptical of actually trying to eat.  Hunger won.  It was worth it.  Maybe I’d make it through this alive after all.

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“Only a couple more hours until we’re at the hot springs!” is audible through the static on the radio.

Was this an evil joke?
Who do I trust?
What should I believe?

We’re in Death Valley.  The driest place in the United States and the hottest place on the entire planet.  Maybe there was a small well to drink from?  Fool me once…

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We descend down the mountain on Steel Pass; the road is becoming slightly easier on the vehicles and our bodies.  Don’t get me wrong, this road would still rip the wheels off a Civic without hesitation or remorse.  It was enough to flip over one of our trailers in the snap of a finger.  No harm done.  We had rounded the corner just as a few volunteers from our crew were flipping it back over, wheel side down.  As we creep down this switchback-filled road, I get a glimpse of something I hadn’t seen in what felt like forever.  The color green.  Far down in the valley below.  Surrounded by rock and sand as far as you can see, there appeared to be a patch of green grass.  Even some palm trees, perhaps.  They were just specks in the distance.  But the color was unmistakable.  It looked like a single lonely green pea in a football field made of ochre-colored rock and soil.  “That’s our destination, folks,” from the CB.

“We’re in Death Valley.  The driest place in the United States and the hottest place on the entire planet.”

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The first signs of life become apparent on this trail down to the valley floor.  Piles of horse or donkey excrement every 200-400 yards.  I hop on the radio to ask who is riding out here.  I’m told these are wild burros.  The mining industry relied heavily on donkeys for carrying heavy loads and then when the industry died, rather than haul out all the equipment and the donkeys…they simply left it all behind.  They went home, heads hanging low, hats in hands, dreams left behind in the dark barren mines.  As Jeff Goldblum notably said “life, uh…finds a way.”  The wild burros adapted and found their water source and means of survival out in this impossible landscape.  And we were on our way to meet them.

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It wasn’t much longer on the trail, dodging piles of poop, that we spotted a family of burros overlooking the oasis below.  Chatter is picking up on the radios.  We’re all feeling it now.  After 6-7 hours slow moving on the trail, we were ready for dinner, beers, and a soak.

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We’re here.  Signs of humanity.  Other overlanding style vehicles with rooftop tents.  A Unimog.  Trucks with tents set up next to them.  A community in the middle of Death Valley’s desert.  A literal oasis.  In fact, upon further inspection…there was a whole lot of humanity to be seen.  Within eyeshot of our base camp was the hot springs…and every individual enjoying the healing benefits of the baths was fully nude.

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We all wanted to raid the springs, but there was an obvious hesitation.  Who would be first to walk into the small pool that was already packed with 8 or so naked strangers?  I was.  I grabbed my PackTowl and walked over, solo.  Fully clothed in my warm TAD apparel, unlacing my boots on the benches next to the water, now I’m the strange one.  Screw it.  I get naked and join the party.

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I strike up conversation with the characters in the springs as my bones soak.  They ask, pointing north, if I’m part of the convoy that came down from Steel Pass.  I confirm their suspicions and their raised eyebrows reveal to me that they’re impressed with the route we’ve taken.  Later I learned that 90% or more of the people that come here take the longer and much easier southern road in.  A little bit of instant credibility was earned, though I had no intention or desire for that.  My only focus was the lithium rich hot water.

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The nearly full waxing gibbous rises above camp as dinner is being prepared.  My appetite is back in full force and I slam down plates.  Maybe it was that we’ve been around each other for a few days now.  Maybe it was the hot springs.  Maybe it was the delicious craft beers, California wine, and Kentucky bourbon whiskey that was flowing.  Or maybe a combination of all of them.  But the energy at base camp that night was electric.  For hours we sat around the fire, everyone outfitted in TAD apparel, snacking, drinking, sharing stories, and telling jokes.  My stomach muscles were sore from laughter.  I remember spotting a coyote running through our camp with the 720 lumen turbo mode on the Flieger, its eyes flashing back at me like gold.  I don’t necessarily remember crawling into a Tepui Tent that night, but I slept like a corpse.

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Until I was woken by a startling noise in the wee hours of the morning.  It sounded like Bigfoot at the foot of my tent.  I immediately felt some comfort that I was in a rooftop tent, six feet off of the desert floor.  Then there was another beast to my left.  Based on its footsteps, it was just as big.  Possibly bigger.  And now another one, at the head of my tent.  All three of them simultaneously loudly stomping around, within just a couple feet of me.  Deep snorts, heavy breaths.  Must be mammals of some sort.  Large ones.  My imagination races.  I only have my Sebenza 25 folding knife.  Then I hear it.

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A 5-10 second long piercing howl-like scream.  Directly at my feet.  I can feel the sound in my toes.  Goosebumps.  I’ve only ever heard something similar from a moose or maybe a large male elk.  Eerie.  Loud.  High pitch with a low bass.  I unzip the tent enough to reveal the silhouettes in the clear bright moonlight.  Wild burros.  Stomping through our camp like angry toddlers having a tantrum, looking for our dinner leftovers.  My heartbeat slows and I drift back into a deep sleep.

“A 5-10 second long piercing howl-like scream.  Directly at my feet.  I can feel the sound in my toes.  Goosebumps.”

Day 3.

The first night I slept without waking up due to illness.  Besides the donkey situation.  So I slept in.  Phil’s voice wakes me up.  From my tent, I can hear he’s talking about gear, of course.

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He’s expertly going through a PILE of new Triple Aught Design prototypes, with the rest of the crew circled around like wolves ready to pounce on their prey.  Everyone is dead silent, in awe.  Though it may sound a bit exaggerated, you’ve got to keep in mind everyone here is a massive gear nerd.  And they’re drooling.  Clever features are shown.  New materials are highlighted.  The [REDACTED] is one the [REDACTED] with [REDACTED] alongside both [REDACTED].  Apologies, dear readers, I promised the TAD team that I would keep these new products a secret until their official launch date.  Coming very soon.

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Phil barely finishes his descriptions of the use cases for their products and then the horde eagerly and nervously reaches in for some hands-on experience.  You ever see 2001: A Space Odyssey when the apes discover the obelisk?  What’s really cool is that we’re leaving on another adventure today.  And a few lucky Destination : Dune attendees will get to experience the new products while we’re out there exploring.

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I reluctantly refrain from grabbing a [REDACTED], in order to capture photos of others testing them out.  Plus, I already had an intimate rundown of the products back at Dogpatch.  It was a difficult decision, I admit.

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We head south.  Leaving behind our FPA cook, a few vehicles, and all of the trailers.  We’ll be coming back tonight.

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The smaller and lighter convoy will make the trip much easier.  Or as I found out later, it would make the next leg of the trip possible.  After we made it an hour or two through the valley towards the next mountain, we experienced a serious flat.  Possibly a ruined wheel.  This is before it even got difficult.

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Todd gives us yet another demonstration using the Hi-Lift jack.  This gives us a few minutes to discuss the trail ahead.  If Todd was serious before, he was flat out grave this time around.

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Lippincott Mine Road has a reputation which I was unaware of.

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High pucker factor.

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Calling it a “road” should be a crime.  No tow service.  No cell service.  No water.  No signs.

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It requires high skill and full razor sharp focus.  Extremely technical.  Filled with sharp rocks.  Steep.

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Just wide enough for one vehicle.  A certain death drop down hundreds of feet.  And this is just 12″ to the right of the passenger tire.

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This is a mountain goat trail.  For only the bravest of mountain goats.

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As we climbed this mountain trail, I felt a sinking in my stomach several times.  Taking photos was making me sick.

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One mistake and we’re dead.

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We make it to the first peak with a pull-off to enjoy lunch and celebrate.  I was very happy to be eating a sandwich and drinking a beer.  Versus being at the bottom of the mountain, mixed up in a salsa of flesh, rocks, and steel.

“Just wide enough for one vehicle.  A certain death drop down hundreds of feet.  And this is just 12″ to the right of the passenger tire.”

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Relief from the whole crew, though no one fully admits their fear.  Or maybe they’re all just tougher than I am.  Nah.

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The trail gets easier now as we drop down into The Racetrack Playa.  This place seems incredibly familiar to me…but I’ve never been here before in my life.

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I’m told the playa floor is supposedly similar to the hydrocarbon lake Ontario Lacus on Saturn’s moon Titan.  I figure that’s not where I recognize this place, despite reading plenty of science fiction.

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We park at the edge of the incredibly flat playa and begin walking out into the nothingness.  I see tiny dark objects in the distance, dancing in the heatwaves coming off of the unnaturally flat white playa floor.  Then it comes to me.

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This is where the “sailing stones” that I’ve been fascinated with for many years are located.  Massive rocks that move on their own.  This is the spot.

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For what it’s worth, researchers have only just recently uncovered the mystery of the rocks’ movement that has been puzzling scientists for decades.  Without having this turn into a science lecture, let’s just say it’s a mixture of water, ice, and wind.

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Next, we head over to The Grandstand.  A natural rock monolith sticking out of the flat playa, about 2 miles away from the sailing stones.  These rocks stick out like a sore thumb among the flat barren landscape.  The contrast of the light-colored playa makes the rocks look jet black.  It was no surprise from this crew that as soon as the Toyota and Jeep doors close, we rush to the rocks and climb them to the highest peak to soak in the view.  The TAD prototypes come along.  And I still won’t tell you about them.

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Phil sets up the camera for a complete group photo (minus our FPA chef who’s preparing something special for our last dinner).  It’s getting later in the afternoon and Lippincott Mine Road won’t be getting any easier to drive down, back to base camp.  Fortunately, on the way down the trail doesn’t get to claim any lives, tires, or axles as its own.  We make it back unscathed.  Those who were testing the prototypes hand them back over to Phil.  We’re all impressed.

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The final night at base camp is bittersweet.  We have leftover reserves of beer, wine, and whiskey that could kill an army.  We’re all up for the challenge.  We play corn hole, talk around the fire, spot wild animals, and enjoy a comedy-filled soak.  I have a close run-in with a sidewinder rattlesnake in full coil as I set my boots down at the hot springs.

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From the tub, we all exclaim our single favorite cereal brand, resulting in the type of laughs that leave you a single breath away from passing out.  Perhaps it was the lithium in the water.

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Dinner tasted James Beard worthy; homemade pesto-smothered grilled pork chops, buttered pasta covered in parmesan, with buttered peas.  All the meals were delicious, but this one sang.

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We all stay up just a little later than we normally have been, despite the even earlier departure time the next morning.  None of us wanted it to be over.

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From our seats at the fire, a few of us were fortunate enough to see what I believe to be the most spectacular meteor I have ever seen in my life.  Descending down from the cosmos over the mountain ridge, the size of a Volkswagen bus.

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Burning brightly in vivid white, yellow, orange, and green.  Sparkling as it fell.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  It also happened to be a full moon that evening, adding to the poetry of the scene.

“From our seats at the fire, a few of us were fortunate enough to see what I believe to be the most spectacular meteor I have ever seen in my life.”

Day 4.

The sun rises much too quickly.

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I reluctantly roll up my ThermaRest sleeping pad and shove my gear-filled SealLine Blocker Dry Sacks into my Triple Aught Design Axiom X25 Pack (currently the first and only one “out in the wild”, as they were released the day we left on the trip).  I also do some test fitting with Triple Aught Design’s new [REDACTED] and it holds [REDACTED] extremely well.  I’ll definitely be picking one, two, or all three of [REDACTED] for myself.

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This TAD and FPA crew have been unbelievable through the whole trip.  And while I have no evidence that they have military connections this deep, I wonder if they had something to do with the two McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II fighter jets screaming low and fast over our base camp to say goodbye as we were hopping in our convoy to leave.  To be fair, US fighter jets had been flying over us at extremely low altitudes and high speeds for the past several days as Death Valley is an official US military low-level training route for these fighter jets, where pilots hone their skills through these rocky valleys.  They’re so low that you can see the pilots’ helmets inside the cockpit with the naked eye.  It was a sight to behold.  Several times each day, we would hear the roar, stop what we were doing, and look to the sky, anticipating the velocity of the 30 million dollar beast.  This particular time I happened to guess correctly, pointed my camera to the sky, and pressed the shutter release.  Got ’em.

Version 2

We take the “easier” way out of Death Valley’s Saline Valley, our home for the past two days.  A single track trail through the mountains and hills exiting Death Valley.  Nothing to sneeze at, but after the mountain passes we’ve crossed, it seems like nothing in comparison.

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A few hours (and admittedly a nap) on the long dusty trail and I awake to some radio communications and the convoy coming to a stop.  We’ve stumbled across an abandoned mining operation.

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A few wooden structures still remain.  A house.  A bar, possibly?  Sadly no whiskey.  And the mineshaft.  Of course we get out to explore.

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And strangely two antique shells of road warriors that the previous owners simply weren’t interested in anymore.  I’m certain there are some stories within the doors of these two cabins.  Maybe stories best untold.

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We press on.  By our estimates, we’re going to make it back to Dogpatch HQ tonight around midnight.  9 hours to go.

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That’s without stops.  And in typical San Francisco fashion, we’re expecting some rain on the way and upon our return.  Getting back home was the focus of today, even if we all didn’t want to face the reality of our lives that awaited back in civilization.  Keep in mind, at this point, we still don’t have cell reception and haven’t had it since Day 1.

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The views of the Sierra Nevadas from the Land Cruiser are magnificent.  Hauling the trailer behind, we’re maxing out around 65mph.  But I’m still able to get some photos at this speed.

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Seeing snow-covered mountains after waking up in the desert valley of Death Valley sure feels strange.  From the lowest elevation in the United States (Death Valley) to the highest elevation in the United States (Mount Whitney) in half a day.

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Someone calls on the CB for a restroom break.  It happens to be as we pass through Mammoth Lakes…our original destination for Day 1 of Destination : Dune.  The snow, now obvious, made it impossible.

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Now we’re getting cellular service again and someone points out that this area received more snow over this single weekend than Colorado receives in an entire snow season.  Thus, our change of plan for Day 1.

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Just before taking this photo, I sunk hip deep into a pile of snow.  Snow drifts of 10+ feet tower over us.  We throw some snowballs.  But we’ve got to soldier onward.  The sun is setting.

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Around this point, several vehicles from our convoy split off.  One is driving back to Colorado.  One is heading south.  One is taking a different route north.  The goodbyes were unceremonious, but pleasant.  We didn’t want it to be over.  It felt more like “see you soon” versus “goodbye”.  Fittingly, our very last pit stop on the way home is for one final meal…In-N-Out Burger.  Because In-N-Out.  Phil orders a 3 x 3.

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Now we’re back to civilization.  Reluctantly.  We’re filthy, dusty, sore, exhausted.  And filled with life.

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The rain comes down hard in San Francisco as we pull up to the Triple Aught Design headquarters.  Fortunately my TAD Raptor Hoodie and TAD Axiom X25 Pack (winner of the Carryology Carry Award for “Best Work Backpack”) are both weatherproof and completely unfazed.  We say our final goodbyes to the remaining members who catch lifts to their respective homes and hotels.  Phil offers me a last-minute place to crash due to our late arrival and I crawl into bed with my prototype Shag Master Blanket.  My flight is tomorrow.  This is the end.

Day 5 : Wrap Up.

The final day I wake up early.  Very early.  I slug down some coffee and then temporarily set up in the back of HQ with my laptop and begin to wrap my head around the experience that I just had.  My fingers barely hit the keys.  Where to start?  I didn’t get very far.

Later I say goodbye to the TAD crew (who I legitimately consider my friends) and catch my flight home back to Austin, Texas.  My mind racing.

Without having to regurgitate everything I just typed above, I think Triple Aught Design’s CORE tagline nails it;
“To live a more adventurous lifestyle through legendary products and experiences.”

I feel as if the Destination : Dune experience fully captured this idea.

I had the time of my life.

View the official Triple Aught Design Destination : Dune After Action Report for more photos and videos of this legendary event.

Lastly, be sure to follow TAD’s Instagram, TAD’s Facebook, and TAD’s CORE webpage for updates on when the next event will occur.

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Photo Credits: 95% of photos taken by me (Taylor Welden) on my Canon G9 X travel camera.  Thank you for the additional (amazing) photos from Phil Adams and Scott McGuire of Triple Aught Design.

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