Dispatches Tagline

The Real Virus

Friday, March 27th, 2020: Musings, Society.

Addiction and Misdirection

Throughout the day, every day, news media urgently demand our attention to the latest crisis, and like sheep, like puppets, many of us drop what we’re doing to breathlessly follow the unfolding narrative.

Statistics: thousands of cases, hundreds of deaths. Predictions in the millions. Authorities split into two sides: “We must take this seriously to avoid a catastrophe!” vs. “We must get people back to work to avoid economic collapse!”

Statistics are by their very nature stripped of their real-world context. What do they mean? People don’t stop dying from war, domestic violence, old age, car accidents, “normal” diseases – but we only get statistics on the crisis. Where did these statistics come from? What extenuating circumstances already existed? What else was going on at the same time? What assumptions were made by those collecting and processing the data?

But those questions would require us to think, and in the consumer model of the news media, just like in the world of the drug pusher, we’re not supposed to think about what we’re consuming. We’re supposed to react, because it’s the reaction that keeps us addicted. The news doesn’t inform us, it alienates us. In a crisis, statistics are used to manipulate us, to immobilize us in front of our screens. The important thing is to remain enslaved to your favorite device, consuming energy, in a state of helplessness.

The people – citizens of the state, consumers of the media, literally addicted to their screens and the hysterical media narrative – echo what their favorite authorities have said, face to face and through social media. “Millions will die! We must take this seriously!” But what can we do as individuals, as statistics? Very little. Like children dependent on their parents, we look to our remote, unaccountable leaders in the hierarchical organization of the state, and again, as with climate change, this new crisis becomes yet another opportunity to attack the other side, the side which is not doing the right thing. The other side’s leaders are causing this crisis! They’re not taking this seriously enough! Or, it’s a hoax, a plot, they’re taking it too seriously! Yet again, we are divided and outraged.

Meanwhile, away from the media’s misdirection – out of sight and mind of our media addiction – our economy, our lifestyle, our society, our culture continue to destroy nature and humanity. Our global infrastructure of mines, factories, and shipping consumes natural ecosystems and habitats wholesale. Our global exploitation of cheap labor, enforced by our worldwide military empire and our foreign proxies, destroys traditional communities. The devices we’re addicted to, on which we follow this hysterical narrative, are destroying people and nature in distant places, through their consumption of the earth’s energy, their consumption of nonrenewable raw materials, their consumption of exploited and sometimes enslaved labor.

Statistics, sheep, puppets. The emperor has no clothes. This is the real crisis. We are the real virus.

Closed System

From early childhood, our schools indoctrinate us in the propaganda of the state: the narrative of the freedom-loving Pilgrims, the wise Founding Fathers, the revolutionary Constitution, our precious Democracy and its heroes, from Lincoln to Roosevelt to Kennedy. And as we advance through the educational system, our cultural conditioning broadens to encompass the classical legacy of our European forbears: Western Civilization, from the philosophical and democratic Greeks to the orderly, civilized Romans, creators of the language we still employ in both law and science. To the European flowering of arts and sciences from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. And the generous role of European culture in spreading enlightenment and democracy throughout the primitive, superstitious Developing World.

Of course, our society’s failures clearly invalidated this narrative in the 1960s and 1970s, and that era’s Counterculture identified most of its fallacies. But according to our hindsight, the Counterculture was a failure, because it never offered an alternative paradigm that would preserve the lifestyle, the “standard of living,” to which we’ve become accustomed. Some people did try communal living and went “back to the land,” but they lacked the skills and/or sociocultural unity to persist, and the juggernaut of consumer culture ultimately overcame their idealism.

In the late 1990s, authorities increasingly drew our attention to another sociocultural failure: climate change. I joined a friend in dinner discussions between the “intelligentsia” – successful white professionals, graduates of elite universities – that again questioned the foundations of our culture.

Like the earlier Counterculture, we again found fault with most of the dominant paradigms of Western Civilization. But again and again, we fell short of condemning the whole shebang, the entire edifice of what used to be called the Establishment. We got stuck on one essential institution, and one undeniable accomplishment: the saving of lives through medical science and technology.

These people (with me as the lone exception) unanimously believed that all the failings of our cultural legacy are redeemed by the statistical increase in life expectancy and reduction of infant mortality achieved by Western Medicine. Hey, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater, okay? The important thing is that the baby survived!

A great irony of this conclusion is that the host of these discussions had a doctoral degree from Stanford, the home of Paul Ehrlich, celebrity author of The Population Bomb, and was inspired by Ehrlich’s thesis of overpopulation as our most pressing crisis. Overpopulation which is partly driven by modern medicine’s increase in life expectancy and reduction in infant mortality. Our greatest achievement, simultaneously causing our greatest problem? To paraphrase Freud, technology has increased the quantity of human life, while degrading its quality.

These people fancied themselves critical thinkers, because they’ve always been told that critical thinking is one of the key components of their liberal educations. But critical thinking is only as good as the knowledge it has to work with. And where do we get this knowledge? Almost none of us is working on the front lines of original research, extracting raw data and analyzing it, turning it into conclusions for peer review. Our knowledge comes primarily from our favorite authorities in the media. Ultimately, our “critical thinking” consists only in choosing between one authority and another. We’re sheep, following the leader.

To make things worse, both we and our leaders are participants in a closed system. The propaganda we’ve all been raised with obscures the reality that our society has become dominant by conquering, suppressing, and often erasing the cultures that could offer us alternatives to our failed values and institutions, and solutions to our problems. Our social discourse takes place in total ignorance of these alternatives.

The Ecology of Death

In natural ecosystems, the death of individual organisms is an essential event in the cycle of life and fertility. Each organism’s body is another organism’s food. The more science we do, the more this fundamental principle is reinforced. We die so that others may live.

But driven unconsciously by the Judeo-Christian mandate of man’s dominion over nature, European science repeatedly tries to prove that humans stand apart from the rest of nature, that we are the pinnacle of natural evolution, with our big brains, our “consciousness,” our reasoning, our languages, our technologies. Despite growing evidence that other animals share our “achievements,” and that our differences are quantitative rather than qualitative, that evidence remains confined to specialist discourse, and most of us are still taught that humans are exceptional. To people like the life-extension advocate Ray Kurzweil, humans should be immortal, and our death is a simply another problem to be solved by science and technology.

Many if not all traditional societies – those alternatives that we’ve conquered, suppressed, and ignored – recognize death as an essential, sacred event in the cycle of life. The events and phases of that cycle are what keep the cycle turning: birth, the learning experiences of the child, the adult’s roles as conceiver of new life and provider to the community, the elder’s role as steward of the wisdom needed to address crises. And death, the necessary return of one’s body to the ecosystem and one’s space to the community. This is why traditional societies haven’t developed our advanced medical technology. Not because they’re inferior and need our help, but because they’re often wiser and more successful than us at thriving on earth.

Let It Come Down

I often remind friends that I’ve spent the past 40 years waiting and hoping for our society to collapse. Some friends agree with me that our society is destroying the earth. Yet in a crisis like this, driven by a hysterical media narrative, many of them are victims of their media addiction. They forget critical thinking and become avid consumers of daily statistics, reflexive followers of their favorite media authorities. They forget that statistics are unaccountable, and media authorities are agents of the state, upholders of a failed paradigm. As citizens of the state, content to participate only as anonymous statistics, we surrender control of our lives to distant leaders we know only as talking heads on a tiny screen.

We forget that our economy, the Growth Economy, is consuming the earth. We forget that we Westerners live in bubbles of affluence and comfort – that worldwide, poor people suffer to provide us with the products of our “progress” and innovation. We only want things to get back to normal, so we can resume our “important” jobs within the machinery of this rapacious economy. We want our kids back in school to continue absorbing the same propaganda we were raised on, to prepare for their own “challenging, fulfilling” jobs within the destructive machine.

I hear serious people earnestly proclaim “Millions will die!” and “This country will never be the same again!” – their point being, our leaders must do something about this NOW!

And as always, I respond: Let go of this fantasy that you’re part of something big and wonderful that needs to be saved. It’s not your country – it never has been. It belongs to the rich and powerful. What you think of as your country is the Evil Empire. Despite its many seductive attractions, your culture is implicated in all the depredations of that empire. Your society will collapse – if not now, eventually – and that will be a good thing both for humans and for the earth.

Diseases are part of life, part of natural cycles. People sometimes die of diseases. Diseases are a natural regulatory mechanism in ecosystems. People are animals who live in natural ecosystems, whether we’re aware of it or not. The more intimately we participate, the more we collaborate in balance and harmony with our natural partners – wild organisms – the more we thrive. The more we rely on technology to save lives, save labor, and empower us, the more alienated and vulnerable we become.

Pandemics are caused by imperialism and globalism – the unaccountable dominance and exploitation of traditional societies by modern states, along with the global transportation networks that states use to maintain their dominance. Pandemics are caused by overpopulation, which results from our scientific and technological innovation: our artificially enhanced agricultural productivity, our medical increase in life expectancy and reduction in infant mortality.

This pandemic, this virus, won’t be the one that brings our society down. Despite the media hysteria, it’s simply not virulent enough. The vast majority of coronavirus cases experience minor symptoms and survive, and will end up suffering more from preventive measures than from the disease. The truly nightmarish epidemics of the past – the Black Plague, Cholera – as well as newer ones like Ebola – are still with us, and are capable of much greater mortality, and much worse suffering. We’ve only temporarily outsourced them to the traditional communities we and our proxies in Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa are exploiting or trying to destroy.

Ultimately, by engineering to prevent death, by isolating individuals from risk and danger, we make ourselves weaker, more vulnerable. Like all the wars perpetrated by our aggressive, competitive, domineering society, the scientific and technological war against disease is a war against nature, a war we can’t win.


Range of Canyons

Monday, February 3rd, 2020: Range of Canyons, Sky Islands, Trips.

Burned Ridge

With deep snow preventing access to my favorite local trails, I was desperate for something at lower elevation that would still give me a good workout. Around here, lower elevation mostly means further south, in the basin-and-range province where low desert basins surround isolated mountain ranges that rise anywhere from 2,000′ to 6,000′ above.

I’d visited the biggest of these southern ranges briefly when I first moved to this region, but I’d avoided it ever since because it’s world famous, developed for tourism, and sometimes crowded, despite its remoteness from cities.

But further research led me to an excellent amateur website providing information on hiking trails. Dozens of trails are listed, with conditions, distances, elevations, step-by-step descriptions, and topo maps – but thankfully, no photos. The more I studied, the more it seemed that, at least in winter, there might be some great opportunities to get away from the crowds and gain significant mileage and elevation, but without getting mired in deep snow.

This range gets up close to 10,000 feet on its crest, but many trails start at around 5,000′ – as opposed to my local trails which start anywhere between 6,500′ and 8,500′. At this latitude, north slopes hold deep snow at 8,000′ and above. So in the southern range, I’d have many options that could gain me 3,000′ without hitting deep snow.

It was a longer drive than my local hikes – an hour and a half just to get to the entrance of the range, and farther to the trailheads. But if I got up early on Sunday, I could hit the trail in late morning and still have 7 hours of light.

After turning off the Interstate onto the state road south, I began to notice that every third license plate I passed was Mexican. This highway leads north from a major border crossing. The Mexican drivers were all exercising caution, driving below the speed limit.

This range, like my home range in the Mojave Desert, is distinguished by its complex topography, with long canyons on all sides that lead up into broad interior basins that are hidden from the outside. Approaching from the northeast, I drove the paved road into the northeast basin, where most of the development is. I slowed down to pass the small settlement of vacation homes in the canyon’s mouth, then drove even more slowly along the rushing snowmelt creek between towering cliffs and pinnacles, along a narrow, forested floodplain dotted with sycamores, campgrounds, more vacation homes, and small, abandoned barns and pastures from pioneer days.

Despite the descriptions in the trail guide, I had a little trouble finding the trailhead – it wasn’t marked, but there was a wide spot beside the road just big enough for a small vehicle like mine, and after pulling over, I could barely see a trail sign partially hidden among gambel oak on the slope above.

The trail began by meandering gradually upwards across a rolling rocky upland shaded by a beautiful open forest of oak and juniper, interspersed with meadows of bunchgrass, beargrass, and yucca. Then it began climbing a steep ridge, where a small sign marked the wilderness area boundary. Most of the crest of the range lies within federal wilderness.

The trail climbed first the south side, then the north side of the ridge, where I began to encounter small patches of snow. The view started out good and just got better. I love snow, and despite trying to avoid it on the trail, I really enjoyed spotting distant snow-covered north slopes from this vantage point. And I saw plenty of birds, including two golden eagles.

Finally, climbing between a group of large granite boulders, I emerged onto a flat saddle five miles and 2,500′ above the trailhead. Much of the forest above this point was destroyed in a 2011 wildfire, but the web guide said this trail has been cleared for another couple of miles, so I planned to go as far as possible while still leaving enough time to get back to the vehicle before full dark.

Past the saddle, the trail climbed a fully exposed, badly burnt slope that continued to the crest. Much of this slope consisted of fine talus at the angle of repose, on which a slip would mean a fall of hundreds of feet to your certain death. The trail was good and the views exhilarating, but I was drenched in sweat here under full sunlight, and after less than a mile I decided to turn back.

Whereas the ascent had been fairly easy, loose rock on the trail made the descent exhausting for my problem ankle. I’d brought camping gear, but I was so filthy I couldn’t imagine going to bed without a shower. And there was still frost in the campgrounds along the creek, so I’d be making camp in the cold and dark, and waking to frost on my sleeping bag. I got back to the vehicle just before closing time at the tiny cafe and lodge at the mouth of the canyon, so I stopped there, got a room, and had an excellent burrito.

In the morning, I checked out the two tent-only campgrounds up the canyon, for future reference. Unfortunately, though the locations were beautiful, the campsites were right next to each other and none of them was designed for privacy. And I still need to get a tent…

The entire highway north was staked out by the state police that morning, and I was pulled over for driving 67 in a 60 mph zone. The trooper let me go without a warning when he found out I’d been hiking in the mountains.

Rocky Peak

I never hike the same area two weeks in a row, but this turned out to be the exception. I got up on Sunday expecting to return to the “Spire”, but after reading more trail descriptions for the southern range, I decided to try another hike there, a long canyon walk that climbed to the crest. It looked like I might be able to get enough distance and elevation there before hitting deep snow.

But on entering the mountains again, I stopped to review the trail description, and realized that most of the elevation gain occurred at the very end of the trail, where it was in bad condition. So I made a snap decision to take the very first and most popular trail in the canyon, a peak trail I’d avoided in the past because of its popularity, because it lay completely outside the wilderness area, and because it led to the ruins of an old fire lookout. Despite everything, it promised me over 3,000′ of elevation gain.

On this first Sunday in February, I passed three people. An out of shape couple about my age, who didn’t make it very far and were frightened when I came up behind them, dragging my feet in the rocks to make noise. And an athletic-looking solo guy probably in his late 40s or early 50s returning from the peak, about midway up the trail. In contrast to last week’s ridge hike, I encountered few birds – most of them concentrated in the little groves of pine and fir in high north-facing drainages.

Despite having climbed farther and higher many times, I found the top third of the trail exhausting. But it was well-maintained, and it was one of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever hiked. The cliffs above the upper part of the trail seemed impassable from below, but the trail designers cleverly found ways to wind around and between the many looming pinnacles. It was easy to get disoriented – it felt like something out of Lord of the Rings.

While working my way up short switchbacks and snacking on trail mix, I chipped a cusp off a molar, leaving sharp edges so I had to stop chewing on that side of my jaw. This happened last year – can’t tell if it was the same tooth – and my dentist patched it up, saying it might happen again. The old body’s just falling apart, piece by piece…

Finally, unexpectedly, after trudging in the shadow of the north slope for more than an hour, I emerged onto the crest, where a tiny wooden cabin stood, apparently a shed for tools and supplies for the old fire lookout. A little higher, an outhouse perched on the edge of a cliff. And higher still, a winding concrete-and-stone stairway led to the foundation of the lookout, which burned in a thunderstorm almost 30 years ago.

This peak stands isolated within the northeast basin of the range, so it provides a 360 degree view encompassing the desert basin to the north and the long snow-draped crest to the south. To the northeast, I could just barely see the mountains I hike near home, and peeking over a ridge to the northwest was the top of the other sky island I’ve explored, 80 miles away. I’d kept warm by walking fast on the way up, but there was a cool breeze here, and after signing the log, I put my sweater back on for the descent.

What a magical peak! The round-trip distance was just below 9 miles, so I knew I’d get back to the vehicle in time for another burrito at the cafe. But I wasn’t sure whether I’d feel like driving home in the dark. And I kept stopping on the way down for photos.

In the event, I did get a burrito, and I did drive home in the dark. There were no state troopers on the highway this time – in fact, hardly any traffic at all. Driving there and back in a day turned out to be perfectly viable. Stay tuned for more, coming soon!

Troop of Coatis

After studying the trail guide for these mountains, I’d made a short list of trails I thought would be good in winter – lower elevations – vs. summer – higher elevations. But on closer study of one of the “summer” trails, despite averaging more than a thousand feet higher than the trails I’d hiked so far, it appeared to mostly avoid northern slopes where the deep snow is found. And the guide said it had been completely cleared of logs and brush by volunteers last year. Plus, it offered an overlook of the 400′ waterfall I’d glimpsed on my first visit.

Conveniently ignoring my past experience – that above 8,000′, deep snow can also be found on east and west slopes – I decided to give this “summer” trail a try, here in the midst of winter.

Getting to the trailhead itself is a challenge for most folks – you have to climb a mile and a half up a high-clearance, 4wd-only road barely wide enough for a single vehicle. Most people are advised to park below and walk the road. Driving it was slow but fun in my Sidekick. It climbed through a beautiful riparian forest of sycamore, oak, and conifers alongside a rushing snowmelt creek, dappled with sunlight and shade.

The trail began in unburned but open pine forest, and quickly rose into burn scar where long-thorned locust saplings and the hand-high briars of wild roses grabbed my shirt and pants and scratched the backs of my hands. Crisscrossing a steep slope on long switchbacks, I trudged awkwardly up stretches of hard snow crust where I had to kick footholds with my stiff boots.

Clouds were closing in, and a cold wind came and went. An hour of hiking got me to the waterfall overlook. The waterfall was barely flowing – last week’s cold spell had turned it into a spooky ice sculpture. And the overlook was a narrow, precarious gap in the chaparral that only revealed the top section of the falls.

The overlook was less than 2 miles from the trailhead. My target – should I be lucky enough to find my way clear of deep snow – was to hike to the end of this trail where it joined the Crest Trail, and from there make my way to the peak of the range, almost 2,000′ higher.

But my first challenge was a set of tight, steep switchbacks which climbed a steep north slope, and crossed patches of snow up to knee-deep, which were mostly crusty but occasionally gave way underfoot, toppling me sideways. The view was spectacular but my wishful thinking was fading fast.

Finally the trail crested another saddle and entered a partially-burned canyon. At first the way was level across a mostly open slope. But then I came to a maze of green branches, the crown of a seemingly healthy, mature Ponderosa pine than had fallen across the trail. And from there on, it got worse. Tree after living tree had toppled, just in the past few weeks, to make the trail virtually impassable.

Resolute, I climbed and crawled my way through for about a half mile, at which point I encountered a seemingly endless, intertwined pile of fallen trees. It was so extensive I couldn’t see a way to climb around it, so I gave up and turned back.

Why did all these living trees fall? After a bad fire, the soil is progressively destabilized as the roots of burned trees rot and crumble, soil and rocks erode without the support of soil biota and roots, and the dead snags fall. So the surviving trees lose much of their root support. Mature trees have grown as part of a fairly dense forest, losing their lower branches and becoming top-heavy, and without the collective windbreak of the trees that have died and fallen around them, the survivors are more isolated and vulnerable to the force and impact of wind. And inside the trees, invisible fungal infections can make both trunks and branches vulnerable to breakage. It’s a killer combo.

Cloud cover was now nearly complete – it looked like a storm was imminent – and the rising wind was harsh and cold. I made my way down at a steady pace, sinking and toppling occasionally in unstable snow. But before I left the snow behind, I heard voices, and crossing the next patch of snow I saw two people approaching.

The first was just a boy, barely out of his teens. I had spotted something at my feet and bent to turn over a tiny bird, smashed inexplicably into the snow. When I rose, I noticed the kid was wearing a fancy cowboy boot on one foot, and on the other, one of those open-toed plastic medical boots you get when you fracture your foot.

“Damn!” I exclaimed. “That’s hard core!”

He smiled and asked how much farther the overlook was, in a sweet country drawl. He said this was his first time – he used to hike these mountains from the other side. I told him there was an even better overlook higher up, but he shook his head, pointing to his partner who was struggling to catch up. “She’s from Florida. She’s not used to this.”

An underdressed woman who appeared twice his age, she caught up with us, looking down at my feet. “You’re wearing real hiking boots!” she muttered in dismay. I noticed she had on thin canvas sneakers. It reminded me of all the other times I’ve encountered woefully unprepared people out in nature.

I expected to find their vehicle near mine at the trailhead, but it wasn’t until I’d driven all the way to the main road that I saw it: a spotlessly clean late-model 4wd monster truck, lifted on huge off-road tires, with a Florida plate. Apparently the lady hadn’t been confident enough to actually take it on a 4wd road, or maybe she was afraid of getting it scratched. So they’d walked the road to the trailhead, adding 3 miles round-trip to their hike – no wonder she was dismayed.

Despite the letdown of the impassable trail, the payoff for my day’s labors finally arrived, just a short distance down the rough road from the trailhead, as I slowly approached a creek crossing. I suddenly spotted a small animal crouching to drink from the creek, stopped my vehicle, and realized it had to be a coati. I rolled down my window and scrabbled on the passenger seat for my camera. The coati was lithely bounding from stone to stone, ignoring me, and I shut off the engine and cranked up the emergency brake. Then I saw another farther up the bank. They were wandering back and forth, poking between the rocks, occasionally dipping to take a drink. I got my camera open and awkwardly leaned out the window to start shooting video, zooming in on them. Suddenly in the corner of my eye I sensed movement – more coatis were streaming down out of the forest above the road to my right.

When I glanced back, the original coatis had drifted left across the creek and were making their way up the opposite slope between the tall pines. The new coatis arrived at the creek and milled around drinking and foraging. There was a brief lull then more coatis streamed down from the right. I noticed the camera’s screen had turned black – it had shut itself off somehow. By the time I got it started again, a dozen coatis had crossed the creek and moved up the opposite slope, and more were moving down from the right. I figured at this point there’d been about 20 in the pack. The whole time, they completely ignored me and my vehicle – safety in numbers I guess.

Some were dark brown, others pale. At home I learned that females and their young move in packs called “troops,” numbering up to 25 individuals. They keep their tails raised so they’re more visible to others in the troop. They’re supposed make quite a noise as they root around in the dirt, but the tumbling creek drowned that out in my case.

Closer to the Crest

After a bad cold limited my hiking for almost a month, I was anxious to rebuild my capacity and do more exploring. And in a time of global pandemic caused by urbanization, overpopulation, and globalization – among other failures of our imperialistic industrial society – I was super grateful that two decades ago, long before this man-made disaster, I’d made the decision to move to a region which consists of tiny enclaves of humanity in the midst of vast open spaces with mostly intact natural habitat. At a time like this, my situation couldn’t be in stronger contrast with the situation of most of my friends, who’ve chosen to live in the midst of vast concentrations of humanity surrounding tiny pockets of severely degraded nature.

So until our failing government declares martial law, I can still spend an entire day in wilderness without seeing another human. “Social distancing” – what a cruel joke on those who prize the benefits of big cities. The skyscrapers, the lights, the bustle, the restaurants, bookstores, bars, cafes, and nightclubs. Same as it ever was – the dangerous delusions of industrial civilization.

Today’s hike took me back to the range of canyons, a two-hour drive from home, to an unfamiliar trail that ultimately converged with the first trail I’d hiked there, back in January. This time, I was hoping to reach the crest, in a 12-mile round trip. But three things prevented that: the extreme steepness of the unfamiliar trail, my poor condition after prolonged sickness, and the need for multiple difficult stream crossings at the beginning of the hike.

Despite these challenges, I was able to get closer than before, within about a mile of the crest. And with many, many stops to catch my breath, I managed to climb a little higher than on any previous hike in the past 20 years or more.

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First Steps in the First Wilderness Part 8: January

Monday, January 20th, 2020: First Steps in the First Wilderness, Trips.

Above 8,000′, the snow was too deep to hike my favorite trails. And my 4wd was in the shop so I couldn’t drive muddy and/or icy roads to most of the other trailheads. After trying and failing to drive an unfamiliar backroad an hour from home, I was forced to fall back on a low-elevation trail into a popular canyon, a trail much shorter than I usually hike on a Sunday.

But it was worth it! I’d forgotten how beautiful the landscape is from this trail. The side canyons had rushing water, and the main creek was raging with snowmelt.

After reaching the canyon bottom trail, working my way up along the raging creek, and fighting my way through clouds of leafhoppers that rose from trailside shrubs in the few sunny patches, I was finally stopped when the trail ended in an impassable rockslide. None of these trails has been maintained since the 2012 wildfire.

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First Steps in the First Wilderness Part 8: December

Monday, December 16th, 2019: First Steps in the First Wilderness, Trips, Wildfire.

There were snowstorms in the mountains over Thanksgiving, and more a week later. As the weather warmed after that, I discovered the creeks were too flooded with snowmelt to cross in many places, and the snow too deep and crusty to trudge uphill in. But the weather stayed warm and I was hoping I could get in one more hike up my favorite trail before more snow made it impassable.

The creek in the canyon bottom turned out to be very loud, but crossable. The bigger problem was all the new logs blocking the trail, fire-killed snags brought down as melting snow softened the soil. But I climbed over and around them.

Finally, nearing the crest, I encountered snow up to knee deep, but not enough to stop me. I was motivated by the views!

It was windy up there, so I didn’t linger. But for the third Sunday in a row, I was passed by a golden eagle – this time carrying what appeared to be a stick.

The five-mile descent was made difficult by an unexplained searing pain in my ankle. I’d started the hike earlier than usual, but nearing the winter solstice the days are short, and the pain slowed me down, so I expected to finish the hike in the dark.

Luckily I had my new headlamp to help me over the loose rock in the last half-mile of trail!

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Fall Trip 2019: Part 2

Sunday, November 10th, 2019: Fall Trip 2019, Southeast Utah, Trips.

Previous: Part 1

Into the Snow

I felt bad about leaving my friend, although I figured he’d probably be glad to be free of my bitching and moaning. Without me, he’d also be free to both hike and drive much faster and hence go farther. I’d be doing a solo trip as usual and bemoaning having no one to share it with. Such is life.

I spent early Wednesday morning washing the outside, and more importantly, vacuuming and dusting the interior of the rough-riding Sidekick. Then I hit the road north again. It was still cloudless, and the weather meant that I could keep my windshield clean – it was too cold for bugs! I knew it was also going to be too cold for me to camp, but I figured if I got to the area I wanted to explore, I could just do day trips outside and spend my nights in motels until the weather turned warm again.

Passing St. George on the interstate, I drove by a really rare British car, a Bristol coupe with quad exhaust. An older couple were driving and looking very self-satisfied. I’d heard of these cars but it was the first I’d ever seen.

I stopped again at the wood-fired pizza place in Cedar City – already much higher elevation, and on my way to higher still. Past there, I began to see snow on the high mountains to the east, and when I turned onto I-70 there was snow on both sides of the highway.

From the Interstate I drove even farther north, to the small coal-mining and oil-and-gas-pumping town I discovered a few years ago, in the heart of prehistoric Fremont Indian territory, which has some of my favorite rock writing and painting. That whole area has super-low room rates for some reason, and I checked into one of my favorite motels, where I can get a very nice room for $53/night, and decided to stay a couple of nights so I could spend a day doing laundry and working through my photos. At check-in, the desk clerk mentioned that current temperatures, here at the end of October, would be a record low even for the depth of winter in January and February.

Pagan Holiday

Thursday was Halloween, everyone’s favorite holiday but me. I spent a busy day at the motel and drove out for dinner that night, only to find that all the restaurants were closed for the holiday. Funny that Mormons should take a pagan holiday so seriously! I warmed up leftovers on my propane stove, back in the room.

Majestic Hike

The forecast showed the weather getting slightly warmer, so I hoped to resume camping on Friday, after a long-dreamed-of hike. But when I got up, the temperature was only 7 degrees above zero.

I packed up and headed south for the canyons. The back road crossing the broad sagebrush-and-grass plateau is well-graded over fine gravel, so I was able to get up some speed until I came upon a rancher driving a long trailer full of beeves.

He was doing nearly 40 but I could go 10 mph faster, so I crept up on his left to pass, and he pulled right to let me by. At that moment my left tires hit the loose gravel of the shoulder and I began to fishtail all over the road at high speed, threatening to end up in the deep ditch at the sides. To make it worse, he started braking and I nearly hit the back of his trailer where big-eyed cattle were shuffling about nervously.

The moment required fast reactions, and fortunately my morning coffee was up to it. I regained control and continued my pass, carefully avoiding the loose gravel of the shoulder, and soon had the relieved rancher in my rearview. My alertness was much improved after that.

I entered the head of the first canyon and twisted deeper through it, past the sacred cliff paintings, into the really dark and ominous part before the mouth, where it opens suddenly into the valley of the San Rafael River. My plan was to find the trail upstream into the river’s majestic canyon, and with good maps and directions this time I found it easily. It was about 11 am when I set out, still cool but warming in the sun, so that I gradually shed layers while keeping my warmer clothes packed for the shade of late afternoon.

Getting into this canyon had been a dream, and it didn’t disappoint. What surprised me was the quality of the trail. It was mostly smooth, hard-packed dirt, virtually all on a level except for short stretches that climbed over steep clay bluffs. On the floodplain at the foot of clay slopes it became a tunnel through thick riparian vegetation, sometimes past small sinkholes. There was a single mountain bike track visible in places, but I suspected that this trail was actually maintained mostly by burros and only adopted by hikers after the fact.

There was supposed to be a pictograph site up the first side canyon I came to, but I couldn’t find it. I did find lots of sign of both cattle and burros, but never saw the animals themselves. Ice rimmed the river bank, the water flowing steadily but turbid, with only minor rapids.

I had no way of knowing exactly where I was – I had only looked down into this canyon from above, at about the midpoint, but from down below I couldn’t tell where that was. It started out and remained spectacular all the way, with big floodplain meadows golden in the autumn, and the constant rustling of dead leaves in the big cottonwoods. Except for the birds and the rustling of leaves, it was an almost spookily quiet and empty place, like an open-air museum with towering walls of sandstone. As usual, I timed myself so I could get back to the vehicle, and even to the paved highway, before full dark, but I kept going a little farther than planned, just to see what was around the next bend.

The biggest side canyon I reached featured old ATV/UTV tracks and campsites of drivers who had obviously come down the canyon from its head, many miles away.

When I checked my terminal location later, on a floodplain meadow that extended far upstream to the west, I realized it had been the right decision – I’d made it to a point below the overlook where I’d first glimpsed this place from above. Back then, I could’ve looked down on the place I reached today. That was cool.

I figured I’d covered about 13 miles by the time I got back to the vehicle, walking rapidly for almost 5 hours on a smooth, nearly level trail. The sun was setting and I was stoked to camp, although I knew it would drop below freezing that night. I drove back up into the pictograph canyon to my favorite campsite. But as soon as I got out and looked around, I remembered that in this canyon, the sun rose very late, especially at this time of year when it was low in the sky. This campsite would stay cold until midday. It was also carpeted with fine sandstone dust, and I’d have to find a way to unload all my gear without getting it saturated with dust again. Damn!

I drove south to the Interstate – a long lonely drive in fading light – and from there, east to the dying town on the Green River, where there was an affordable retro motel I figured would be okay. The manager was surly, but the rooms had been remodeled tastefully, and there was a taqueria only a block away. The problems resumed after dinner when I wanted to take a hot bath for my aching body. There was no hot water! The manager said a handyman was working on the situation. He showed no sympathy for my desire for a hot bath but said he would let me know when it was fixed. I was fast asleep long before then.

Sacred Art

Saturday was still another cloudless and cold morning, but the hot water was back on at the motel. I loaded up the truck after breakfast and drove up the road toward a gas station. But once there, I found that my “check engine” light had come on, and my engine was surging at idle, between 1,000 and 2,500 rpm. It’s a spooky thing to have happen, like a demon has taken control of your car.

This had happened a week before my trip, and I’d paid my shop $300 to fix it by removing the valve cover and cleaning out the exhaust recirculation system. Needless to say I was pissed, here on the weekend in this declining podunk town, all set to go exploring but with a vehicle problem I’d already paid to solve.

The gas station clerk directed me to an auto shop miles away at the other end of town, but there was no one there. It was Saturday after all. I spotted another shop across the street, attached to a gas station. They were working on a big rig and said to wait a half hour or so. By then, the Sidekick was running fine. The shop said their computer was only good for later models, and suggested driving around a while to see if the problem returned. I spent another half hour driving aimlessly around the area, and it still drove okay, so I decided to just ignore it and go my merry way.

But somewhere in the midst of all that, my left arm went haywire on me with no apparent cause.

I’ve had recurring problems with my upper right arm for more than a decade, which I assumed had to do with poor form in my strength training regimen, until it was diagnosed last winter as a rotator cuff tear requiring surgery. The surgery is known for the longest and hardest recovery of any orthopedic procedure, and the initial period would’ve been impossible for someone living alone anyway, so I avoided it by devising my own improved training regimen, and gradually learned how to use that right arm and keep the shoulder strong without triggering the pain.

But along the way I realized my left arm – or shoulder – had the same problem, only less. And now, during my trip, somehow I had triggered the left shoulder, and that arm was hurting even more than the right had at its worst time. I figured I could get it working again eventually the same way I’d fixed the other shoulder, but for now, the pain was so bad it took hours to fade away, while I was trying to drive on really bad roads. This persisted for the rest of my trip, on top of increasing pain in my back and hip from other chronic conditions. But hey, at least that cramp in my thigh was gone, and I’d almost forgotten about the knee problem that had stressed me out so much at the start of the trip!

Temporarily ignoring my engine surging and warning light, I headed for a pictograph site I’d heard about but seen no pictures of. I knew it was very close to the Interstate but tricky to get to via intricate back roads that actually went through a culvert that often flooded.

The roads and the culvert drive turned out to be relatively easy, and the site, at the foot of cliffs visible from the freeway, turned out to be modest but exquisite.

There behind ancient junipers were two small painting panels, set up on the cliff well out of reach. The left one had been partially obscured by minerals draining down the cliff face, but that only made the quality of the right one more miraculous. I’d seen this style of cliff painting on and off for decades, but I was suddenly struck more than ever before how amazing it is that they’ve persisted in such good shape for more than a millenium. What of our graphical works can ever last that long? I suspect the answer is nothing.

This is a style of work on stone which can truly be called art, rather than writing. It also struck me, as an artist, that these paintings, confined to a geographical area that could easily be walked throughout the course of a year, could actually have been the work of a single artist. The style is so distinct, so meticulously and consistently executed. Others have speculated this, but most experts – none of them artists – believe stylistic differences indicate multiple creators.

In any event this modest site was a revelation that humbled me in many ways.

Devil’s Canyon

The day was still young and I was hoping to get in a good hike. I’d read about a nearby peak, the highest on this plateau, that seemed accessible via a road through something called Devil’s Canyon. I should’ve paid more attention to that name.

It was only one exit away on the Interstate, but this area is like a maze. Things look different from every vantage. The first road took me down into a broad meadow with a big encampment of huge RVs, the owners of which were all off riding their side-by-sides – except for one lady walking alone beside the dirt road, who frowned at me as I waved and smiled.

Then I got to the interesting part. These Utah back roads over sandstone feature actual rock ledges that you have to drive over – if you can – or perhaps build ramps over – again, if you can. This was exactly what I got my vehicle for, so I was totally stoked, until I reached a crest, spotted the peak miles away, and encountered the road into the canyon, which was clearly even ledgier. It was then that I recalled the name Devil’s Canyon.

I started down the road, easing the Sidekick over the ledges, carefully checking first for clearance. After I’d dropped several hundred feet I remembered there was a place in the bottom of the canyon that most vehicles could not pass over. I’d read that and assumed my Sidekick would be fine, but the way things were looking, I was losing confidence. I realized it was already too late to reach the peak, and if I continued, I would end up faced with another campsite deep in a canyon – Devil’s Canyon – that would be shaded and freezing well into the next day.

My only alternative was to drive much farther south and stay in still another motel, in a tiny half-dead settlement that I knew well, because it was the staging area for exploring one of my favorite mountain ranges. There I would surely find plenty of hikes, and if lucky even some pictographs, to satisfy me during the next few days.

I could only remember staying there once before. There were two motels, a no-frills but potentially more comfortable larger place, and an older, more funky smaller place where I had spent a night last year. I chose the newer place this time, and was grateful that I had. After checking in, I crossed the road to the Slickrock Grill, a sort of Hollywooded-up joint frequented by the few Eurotrash that make it this far off the beaten path of Utah tourism. There I had a very serviceable dinner featuring a massive filet of tender trout.

Ferrari Fails

On Sunday morning, my left arm was still aching and my neck had been stiff and sore on both sides for a couple of days now. But the mattress I’d slept on! It wasn’t particularly firm, but was topped with memory foam in such a way that it felt good no matter what position I was in.

My next destination was a pictograph panel I’d read about in the most remote part of the mountains. I’d also read that the road to that area had been washed out over the summer, so I wanted to check in at the local BLM office to ask about it. But today was Sunday, and I confirmed that the office was closed.

Today was also the day of the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, where I was hoping my Ferrari heroes would break out of their slump and thrash Mercedes. Between the BLM office, the arm pain and miraculous bed, and wanting to follow the race, I decided to stay over another night, and spend the day chilling on pain meds.

Ferrari failed miserably, but there were impressive drives by good people on lesser teams. And that bed!

A Mesa Too Far

Come Monday morning, the guy at the BLM office was circumspect. He recommended I just follow their excellent route map, which I’d obtained a hard copy of in previous years. I headed south down the highway to the remote turnoff to the “backcountry byway,” a euphemism for “you takes your chances.”

Yikes! I love these mountains! They’re so vast, yet so visible, with so many unforested slopes and distinctive peaks, so you always know where you are and can identify the landscape all around you.

Of course much of that is due to the human-caused wildfire that stripped forest – both lower pinyon-juniper and tall alpine conifers – from two-thirds of the eastern flank 16 years ago. It’s another really tragic impact of our “civilization” to behold, but these mountains are so vast, and so much is still intact, that you can easily see beyond the damage.

The road turned out to be just as hard on Sidekick as anything in the Arizona monument. But I was determined to find that pictograph site. I knew I had a long way to go, and my attitude remained positive all the way over the snowy crest to the other side of the mountains, 20 miles and 2-1/2 hours from the highway. Along the way I passed many mule deer and a group camp of hunters, all of whom were out riding UTVs which I passed later down the road. The dust was so bad that they were all wearing dust masks, and I was breathing dust even with all the windows and vents closed.

I reached a near-mythical place I’d only read about, and that was only halfway to my destination. There, beside a spring that had been capped off, I had lunch and optimistically celebrated with a Coors. I was really in the back of beyond, and preparing to go farther.

After lunch I resumed driving, and entered the new world of the western flank of the mountains. This was an area of sprawling mesas dissected by deep canyons. I was heading for the biggest mesa, which rose to 7,500′ and stretched for about 12 miles east-west and 8 miles north-south. I could see it off in the distance, and then I was below it in the canyons. I came across a large camp of equestrian hunters with luxury live-in trailers, and encountered more UTV-riders on the road, but still it was incredibly sparsely used compared to any other comparable place I’ve visited. In fact I really know of no comparable place, so wild and remote and little-known but with such high peaks and rich wildlife.

I’d read about this “hollow boulder” pictograph panel a few years ago, and although it appeared small, it especially intrigued me because it was at the southwest edge of their known range, and it was in one of my favorite mountain areas. Since I’d first seen it mentioned, the original information had dropped off the internet, and now the only available information was very vague. No one was saying exactly where it was – which is generally a good thing, to prevent vandalism – they just said it was “in the area” of this outlying mesa. There seemed to be only a handful of photos online, only one of which showed part of the boulder itself, with a tiny slice of background revealing a juniper. None of the people who were posting about it seemed to be hikers, so I assumed the boulder was visible from the road. I was hoping it would be easy to find.

Taking the turnoff for the mesa, I climbed a steep, rocky road over a low pass into a depression lined with white granite boulders, mostly screened by pinyon and juniper trees. I’d got it in my head that the hollow boulder was supposed to be on the mesa somewhere, so I kept going. Finally I emerged up on the mesa, and it was just a level plain of grass and sagebrush stretching off forever. The road wound back and forth through dust, the view vast but never changing. I went several miles before realizing that there were no boulders on this mesa. The pictograph boulder had to be back in that low place I’d traversed earlier.

So I returned to the depression with the boulders and pulled off into a campsite under some trees. Then I started exploring the boulders. I found bootprints and followed them into a cul-de-sac. I climbed up onto a high ledge and scanned all around me with field glasses. There were many hollows but none that resembled the pictograph rock.

I climbed down and explored some more. The problem was that the boulders were tucked away back in the trees – pinyon and juniper – and you could spend hours back in there just looking for another hollow boulder. And I needed to find a campsite, because the sun was going down again. This campsite was poor – the fire ring was on a slope and there was very little level ground – but I knew a place that was perfect, hours away in the foothills on the other side of the mountain. It was just possible that no one had taken it yet, and that I could get back there before dark.

It was another hell drive breathing thick dust, but enlivened by dozens of mule deer along the road, and the perfect campsite was still there waiting for me, beside its snowmelt creek with frozen edges. I started a fire and prepared a special dinner with fresh garlic, serrano chile, organic kale, black beans and sausages. And again I struggled to sleep in my too-warm, too narrow sleeping bag, with my painful arm, there under the beautiful stars in the freezing night.

Before finally falling asleep, I saw a satellite racing along a polar orbit from south to north. And I suddenly realized that my vision, which for years has doubled the celestial bodies, actually seems to have improved somehow – I was seeing single stars for the first time in many years, perhaps because I’m using stronger reading glasses for close work. As some things fail, others can improve – imagine that!

Peak of Danger

On Tuesday, after Monday’s failed search for pictographs, I really needed a success. Above all I needed a big hike, something I knew I was capable of but hadn’t done since Friday’s 13-miler. What I had in mind was climbing one of the 5 peaks of the range. I’d climbed the highest one, actually the easiest, twice already in previous years. I’d tried to climb the third-highest once but got bogged down in fire-succession thickets near the base. There were two lower peaks that were more like our desert peaks – rugged and bouldery all over – but when I checked my iPad I realized I hadn’t downloaded the actual route descriptions, and they sounded very tricky.

I had driven past the access road for the second-highest peak on that hellish byway the day before. I wasn’t going back there any time soon. So that left the third-highest peak to try today. It seemed to be a straightforward climb, up an old road to a saddle, and then up a single long ridge to the peak. The road there was worse than I remembered – I was realizing that my new Sidekick actually rides much rougher than my old leaf-sprung pickup truck – but I pulled off beside a corral along the way to pee, and discovered an abandoned axe with only a little bit of surface rust, lying in the dirt beside a fire ring. I’d never had an axe before – never actually needed one – but if I left it, it would only rust more, so I packed it in the Sidekick, to add to the amazing carving knife I’d found at a campsite 35 years earlier.

Despite the rough road, I made it over the pass in good time to start what I thought was going to be a straightforward hike of no more than 4 miles round-trip. Yeah, and 3,500′ of elevation gain, which I’ve done many times back home.

Well, first the old road turned out to be only a fantasy. What I encountered was a deep, rock-filled gully with only occasional clues that a road had once been there. It was much harder than just hiking overland, but hiking overland was impossible because of oak thickets.

Eventually I approached the saddle, and began wondering which ridge would be my access to the peak. A couple of incredibly steep ridges loomed above me, littered with a maze of fallen snags and interspersed with forbidding talus slopes. Before reaching the saddle I decided to try a shortcut straight up the side of the tallest ridge. From the top I should be able to orient myself, and maybe continue to the peak.

It was one of the hardest climbs of my life, because the fire had left deep ash on all the slopes and cleared the trees that held the loose rock in place, and it was now all just knee-high oak thickets and fallen logs and loose rock and soft dirt at almost a 45 degree angle. Before I’d gotten very far, trying to follow game trails that led straight up the slope, I suddenly heard rocks tumbling, somewhere high above. I stared for a long time until I spotted either a big mule deer buck or a bull elk, backlit by sunlight at least a half mile away, farther up the ridge toward the peak. It was working its way clumsily down a slope just as bad as mine, dislodging rocks along the way. Not a good sign.

But I kept going, until I was only a couple hundred feet below the ridgeline. Then I looked down. Woah! How the hell was I going to get back down! I’d been in situations like this before, having to downclimb on loose rock at the angle of repose, and it is not a happy situation. I suddenly realized that the descent was actually going to be dangerous. The sun was going down again, I still had two thousand vertical feet of long, steep ridge to ascend, and I was not going to reach the top of this peak today. In fact I’d be lucky if I wasn’t injured on the way down from here.

I fell twice, but my hard-won leg and hip strength saved me from injury both times, so that I was able to lower myself to the ground in a more or less controlled manner. That’s why I do those exercises every week back at home! I was very careful, and eventually arrived back in that deep rocky gully, along which I proceeded slowly back to the Sidekick. Another failed day, but at least I got a little workout.

This trip was turning into something of an expensive bust. I’d spent a lot on gas and motel rooms. I’d had some adventures and seen some cool stuff. I’d done a lot of hurting and complaining. I was in a lot of pain now – my back and hip were throbbing again, in addition to the sharper pain in my arm, and even my neck was stiff and sore all the way into my shoulders. It was time to head home. I got back in the Sidekick and drove like hell through the most exotic country on earth, the canyons and mesas of southeast Utah, to the dismal little mesa town where I usually start these trips.

There, I checked into a motel that was once special. Designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, it had featured beamed vaulted ceilings and clerestory windows you operated with a crank on a pole, and the rooms were furnished with custom-built midcentury furniture. All that was long ago replaced by cheap drop ceilings and cheap garish decor, and more recently it had been essentially vandalized by the owners, with sloppy wiring and ragged holes through the walls. It wasn’t even that cheap, but choices are poor in that town – I’ve stayed at all of them. At least they have a bizarre Mormon version of Chipotle on the same block, where I got a healthy burrito.

I was falling asleep at 10pm when a knock came on my door. “Who is it?” I called hoarsely.

“Your neighbor. We were making popcorn and blew the power.”

“What can I do about that?”

“Our power comes from your room. There must be a reset button somewhere.”

I opened the door and a heavyset young guy loomed. “Can I come in?”

I looked around my cheesy room, cluttered with all the unpacked gear I need for my mornings and evenings. “I’m not sure about this.” I went back to look at the various extension cords and outlets along the wall. I motioned him to come in.

We both looked and couldn’t figure it out. Then I thought of the power strip I’d connected my computer to. We got down on the floor to look under the surviving midcentury built-in bench, and sure enough, it led through a crude hole in the wall over to his room. All we needed to do was turn the power strip back on, and hopefully he and his girlfriend could finish their popcorn, and I could go back to sleep.

Under the Rainbow

Wednesday morning I checked the weather forecast. I was hoping to drive all the way home today. And lo and behold, although the sky was still cloudless up here, at home it was supposed to rain.

And as I drove south through the huge Navajo reservation, storm clouds began to form ahead. And eventually rain fell, sporadically at first, then more heavily. I was hurting all the way, but happy to be going home, and happy about the rain.

Finally, driving through my beloved White Mountains from eastern Arizona back into New Mexico, I saw the rainbow. I often see rainbows up there. I pulled over to enjoy it, all the other traffic racing past toward more important things. Then I drove home, through more rain, and arrived at sunset, to turn up the furnace and the water heater and warm up leftovers from my last camping meal.

Challenges and Changes

I encountered many challenges on this trip, some of which were new, some of which were repeated from previous trips:

  • The conflict between traveling styles of me and my friend
  • My stress level, which is typically high due to factors beyond my control
  • Multiple sources of pain and disability which come and go unpredictably
  • The itinerary of my multi-week spring and fall trips takes me to multiple, widely separated places with long drives in between, and it’s hard to drive all day then set up camp and cook, then break camp and drive again the next day, let alone spend a day hiking, so I spend more time in motels and less time hiking
  • Problems with my new vehicle: solar heating through the big windows, intolerably rough ride, heavy clutch hard on knee and foot, inadequate sun visors, poor door seals (doors flex in frame)
  • Unpredictable climate to adapt to, with unseasonable cold and winds
    • Sleeping out in strong wind
    • Camping in freezing weather
    • Camping in deep, shaded canyons in cold weather
  • Bathing while camping
  • Camping gear which is cheap, worn out, inefficient, inadequate, or high-maintenance
  • Those of us who sleep outside on the ground can’t really leave our base camp for the day to explore the area by vehicle, because our camp only consists of a sleeping bag on a tarp, which many intruders would interpret as abandoned. That’s one of many advantages enjoyed by RV, trailer, and tent campers.

It’s like I work really hard at home, and then go out and punish myself on what most people would expect to be a vacation. I know I need to make some changes, and I have a growing list of ideas. I know they won’t come cheap, so deciding is not easy. My friends have been generous with their advice, and sometimes quick to anger if I raise the slightest objection. Non-camping friends typically just wonder why I do it at all, recommending some sort of comfortable indoor retreat. After all, if I’m really an artist, why don’t I just focus on my creative work, which gets interrupted and delayed by these long trips? But my camper friends understand that it’s a lifelong part of me that I can’t abandon.

Speaking of art, two things that have always limited me are my aesthetic sense, and my resistance to consumer culture. I’ve always dreamed of camping with all-natural, handmade gear that are in harmony with my surroundings. I’ve come up with natural-material designs for essential things like shelters, sleeping bags, and backpacks, but much more pressing needs always get in the way of actually making them. And now my body seems to need more comfort and ease, which seem to mean more investment in the consumer culture I despise. Few people seem to understand or sympathize with this.

Failing Society

Most of my friends are aware that I’m a critic of our dominant, European-derived culture and society and its institutions. Most people seem to accept the story and interpretation of our society that they were taught in school: we live in a democracy, a nation governed by and for the people, which is the result of centuries of progress from the despotic monarchies of Europe, the oppressive feudalism of medieval city-states, and the desperate savagery of primitive tribes.

But by questioning the fundamental assumptions, values, institutions, and habits that underlie our society and culture, and by taking radically different societies and cultures seriously and observing them carefully, I’ve come to see our “democratic nation” as simply a direct evolution of the capitalistic, imperialistic European global empires that arose during the so-called “Renaissance” and flourished during the so-called “Enlightenment” by violently conquering native people in distant places and ruthlessly exploiting their resources.

As a society, we have a passionate, irrational belief in technological progress, in the ability of “innovation” – new materials, products, and machines – to solve all of our problems and make us happy.

On these trips, while trying to reach intact natural habitats and experience rich, diverse natural ecosystems, I witness again and again the failures of our society, its fundamental beliefs and values: the habitats and ecosystems destroyed by dams and reservoirs – like the silting-up lake and the Bighorn Society’s sheep drinkers – the massive solar plants and wind farms, the devastating wildfires caused by failed scientific management, the toxic industrial farms and ranches enabled by corporate science, the trash we spread – like helium-filled plastic balloons – and the ruins we leave – again, as a result of corporate science – and the destructive invasive plants and animals – like tamarisk and feral burros. I see more and more people wasting huge amounts of fuel and other raw materials and energy sources driving massive RVs, trucks and trailers, ATVs and UTVs, to camp and hunt luxuriously in places where native people used to travel on their own two feet and make everything they needed from local materials by hand.

I hear people condemning me for “romanticizing the noble savage” while they praise science for eventually rediscovering the insights that native people have effectively practiced for thousands of years, like controlled burning of forests and brush. Despite all the harping of liberals about diversity and tolerance and the empowerment of exotic gender identities, we live in a time of near-universal conformity to dysfunctional institutions and behavior patterns, for example: consumerism, imperialism (patriotism, globalism, space exploration), and the belief in technological progress. The old adage still stands, regarding our society and its supposed advances: the Emperor truly has no clothes, and people are afraid to admit it.

Rocks, Landforms, and Roads

My rough-riding vehicle gave me a new perspective on the familiar geology of the Southwest, from the plutonic and volcanic mountains of the Mojave to the red and white sandstone mesas and canyons of the Colorado Plateau. Back roads in the Mojave, with their soft sand, loose dirt, and loose boulders, present a different challenge than the sandstone ledges of Utah.

Hiking the soft sand and gravel of washes and bajadas in the Mojave is becoming harder for my chronically injured hip, knee, and foot. It’s also harder for me to hike slopes off-trail in the increasingly prevalent burn scars of wildfires, where fallen snags create a maze of obstacles, and loss of canopy shade, tree roots, and brush has loosened both rocks and soil and created debris flows that are dangerous to cross.

Little or no monsoon rain in the areas where we traveled has contributed to what seems to be severe drought conditions, with so much dust on the roads that we were constantly breathing dust and trying to clear it off our vehicles and gear. My vehicle, especially, seems to have poor seals around the doors, so even with windows and vents closed a lot of it gets in.

Petroglyphs and Pictographs

I didn’t get to see much prehistoric rock writing or rock art on this trip, but I did get more insights and raise more questions about it.

Conventional archaeology has long interpreted petroglyphs and pictographs as forms of “art,” whereas many native people view it as a form of writing. After working in the internet industry as an information architect and user experience architect, making and communicating with graphical models, I concluded that much so-called “rock art” was actually created as maps or diagrams for communicating complex information. And that was reinforced on this trip. But there are many kinds of markings or paintings on stone, and many potential functions, from writing all the way to what we normally think of as art. The spiritual paintings of the Colorado Plateau seem more like art than writing to me – not that there’s a clear boundary between any of these functions.

Desert Oases

My scientist friends have taken me to many natural water sources over the years. Unfortunately, many scientists also take for granted the water sources developed by ranchers and hunters for specific species, which become a perpetual maintenance problem and may limit access by other species. To an artist, most of these developed water sources are repugnant.

The big oases that my friend and I visited on this trip were impressive, but in most cases they’ve been trashed by our society, and are under continual threat by the by-products of our culture, such as feral plants and animals. As our society and its institutions collapse, these habitats will continue to evolve as invasive species reach new equilibria with natives.

Venturing Underground

Despite my criticisms of industrial society, one of my favorite experiences from this trip will remain our exploration of a desert mine. Many native people saw the underground realm as the abode of spirits. I gained ecological insights through our discovery of grasshopper wings and bird nests deep in the mine.

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Fall Trip 2019: Part 1

Sunday, November 10th, 2019: Fall Trip 2019, Mojave Desert, Trips.

Blinded by the Light

I started this fall’s road and camping trip in a conflicted state of excitement and anxiety. On the one hand, I was proud of the past year’s hard work and the accomplishment of recovering from five years of multiple disabilities and surgery, to regain strength, mobility, and the stamina to hike farther and higher than before all this started. I was eager to test my new abilities alongside those of my younger friends, who provided a benchmark for what I hoped to do in my favorite stomping grounds of the Mojave Desert, Great Basin, and Colorado Plateau.

On the other hand, three months earlier, while treating sciatica in my right foot, I’d experienced a sharp pain in my left knee that had plagued me two or three times in the past decade. I’d always assumed it was patellar tendinitis, treated it by hiking with a knee band or sleeve, stuck to my mindful stretching and strength training, and it’d always gone away within 2 or 3 months. But within the past couple of weeks I’d become worried that the knee pain would get in the way of my hiking on the fall trip, and I started practicing some additional, commonly recommended treatments for patellar tendinitis.

But those treatments made the pain significantly worse, to the point where on the eve of my trip I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to hike much at all. Driving with a manual transmission, working the clutch with that knee hour after hour, is especially hard, and it seemed like my aging body was out to sabotage my dreams again.

Following the pattern I’d developed during recent years, I hoped to explore southeast Utah, southeast Nevada, and the east Mojave over a period of up to 3 weeks. But last minute plans involved joining a younger friend in the desert at the beginning, where we would discuss a joint itinerary to occupy the first week and a half. The weather forecast for the desert was calm with mild temperatures before I left home, so we were expecting some easy camping and good hiking.

Planning to leave home on Monday with a 6-hour drive to Flagstaff, I put off most of my packing until Monday morning, figuring my long experience would make packing straightforward – and it was. I’d acquired a 1995 Suzuki Sidekick 4-door 4wd last winter and tested it a bit in a short desert camping trip in May, but this would be the first significant test, since I planned to explore some serious back roads that wouldn’t have been accessible for my 2wd truck. With the back seat removed, cargo space was so ample that all my gear barely showed above the windowsills, and the only thing I had to carry on the roof rack would be gas cans. Which was good, since with apparent rotator cuff tears in both shoulders, I couldn’t lift heavy weights that high anyway.

Unfortunately, the final drive to Flagstaff occurred as the sun was setting directly in front of me in a cloudless sky, and with the high profile of the Sidekick and the small sun visors, it meant I spent the better part of two hours driving with one hand raised to block the sun. Why didn’t I stop somewhere and wait for the sun to set? At times, I had zero visibility on the Interstate with its heavy truck traffic, steep grades, and 75 mph speed limit. It was so nerve-wracking I was a mess by the time I reached my motel.

I’d researched and located a Cajun restaurant near the motel, and walked over there in the dark after checking into my room. The food was great but it turned out to be a much longer walk than expected, through a semi-industrial neighborhood with heavy traffic and few sidewalks or street lights, where massage parlors were the only open businesses. I felt like I was in a slum in a big city, not a historic railroad town high in the mountains.

Smelling of Mildew

Flagstaff is my routine shopping stop for camp food and any needed gear. I needed a few items that turned out to be hard to find, so it took me most of Tuesday in a town that is one of my least favorite. For example, I went to 5 different places in different parts of town before settling on plastic gas cans and a new plastic water jug – cheap but important items that are mostly poorly designed and built.

In the meantime, I’d heard from another friend that he might be able to meet me the next morning to show off his native community in the desert. So I was planning to spend this night in the dying river town and drive to his place Wednesday morning, after doing laundry that would give me enough clean clothes to last a week of camping.

So again, I ended up driving due west toward the setting sun in another cloudless sky, on the high-speed Interstate with even steeper grades, reaching town again a nervous wreck from holding up my hand and squinting for poor visibility, to check into a dilapidated motel room that smelled strongly of mildew – normal for a dying town that pins all its current hopes on the cannabis industry.

Then I drove a half hour north past the big reservation farms for dinner at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants – since the dying town lacks a good dinner place.

Pleistocene Lake

Wednesday morning I did laundry at the motel, bought block ice to fill my two coolers, and headed down to my friend’s native community.

There, I entered the small resort area, parked, and walked to the restaurant on the lake shore. A wall of glass overlooked a choppy sea that extended for 2 miles to a steep alluvial fan at the foot of distant mountains. Completely blanketing the fan was a vast, unexpected city. Not that the lake was expected – it was all as surreal as a Star Trek set. So much water in the desert, all of it draining from mountains up to a thousand miles away! So much hubris, the unsustainable engineering of habitat for humans by our industrial civilization. While waiting for my friend, I watched private fishing boats venturing out from the harbor of the small resort, and a small ferry shuttling passengers between this and the much larger resort on the opposite bank.

My friend arrived, we had lunch, then I drove us around the area as he gave me a tour and told me the story of his people and their land. First we went to a spring that featured in ancient legends I’d read about decades ago. The preservation of this spring on public land was my friend’s first achievement as a custodian of his people’s traditions, and he was understandably very proud of it. As a precious water source in what used to be undeveloped desert, it featured a rock outcrop which used to be covered with petroglyphs, but most of them had been chipped off by whites – including government agents – to use as yard decorations. My friend pointed out how the one panel that remained represented an ancient map showing the Pleistocene shoreline of a lake that was similar to the present lake, indicating that the river had been dammed naturally at one point thousands of years ago. The map even showed village boundaries on an island which is now a peninsula.

We talked about LaVan Martineau, a white man taught by Southern Paiutes in Utah, who published interpretations of rock writing which are generally dismissed by archaeologists and other white experts. We agreed that Martineau probably offered a better perspective than most of the so-called experts.

He told me the story of a historical conflict with another community at this place, a raid and massacre, and retaliation of the survivors, which included one of his wife’s relatives. The spring had since been used as a stagecoach stop, and a stock watering hole for a native rancher. My friend pointed the way to the actual spring, which I found silted up, with just a damp spot at the base of a shrubby hillock. When I returned to the vehicle, my friend was talking to his nephew, who was out there hunting rabbits with a friend.

In the space of a few decades, the community has overcome huge obstacles to win back a small fraction of their traditional lands from our rapacious and unsustainable imperial society. They freely admit to making mistakes during their long, lonely learning experience. Even gaining control over the private resort within their boundary required a long struggle, but it now represents their main source of income and jobs that gradually attract more far-flung, disenfranchised community members to this developing haven.

With that income and a few hard-won grants and loans, they’ve developed basic infrastructure – government, public works, a health clinic, fitness center and small cultural center – all recent and well-maintained. My friend proudly showed me around their large organic farm, a work in progress where native plants have been tended as cultural and nutritional resources. Then he showed me the head of the lake, where silt from upriver was constantly settling and posing a danger to recreation. He shook his head at the folly of our dominant European society, and recounted a story from one of his elders.

As the downstream dam was being completed by our government and the ancestral farms of his people were being flooded, the lake extended upstream, drowning a vast riparian forest. His elder, who was then a young girl, said she watched as coveys of quail gathered for refuge in the branches of drowned trees, far from the spreading shore, and as the water rose and drove them from the branches, they tried to fly to shore, and fell one by one to drown as their short wings failed them.

Continuing the theme he’d introduced at the desert spring with its petroglyph map, my friend kept musing about deep time, and how different this landscape would’ve looked in much wetter periods of the earth’s history. He freely admitted that his people are recent immigrants from farther north, an archaeological consensus I’d come to doubt.

Leaving him in midafternoon, I drove back through town for gas and headed west toward my mountains and the rendezvous with my camping partner. He was still far away, and expected to arrive after 9pm, long after dark. We agreed to meet in the ghost town just off the stretch of highway which had been closed for years, as the state gradually replaces bridges washed out by flash floods.

Showering Onstage

The ghost town is on a main railroad line, and when I arrived, trains were passing in opposite directions every 5 minutes, each blowing their horns loudly as they approached the rarely used crossing. I pulled into the abandoned tungsten millsite, an industrial ruin from the 1950s, sparsely surrounded by sprawling, decrepit tamarisk trees and the mostly collapsed ruins of bungalows and post office from a town that had finally died in the 1970s. It was a junky place but would be nicer in the dark. As the sun set, I gradually felt myself shifting my gaze upward to the emerging stars as the stress of preparing and driving was removed from my shoulders. The moon had set in early afternoon, and falling stars were sporadically streaking the cloudless night sky. I realized again how our culture, with its tech obsession and downward focus on screens, deprives us of an accurate worldview and gives us spinal problems and neck pain. And I was grateful for the desert’s liberation from our unhealthy habits.

It had been a long, hot day, and my first desire was to get clean. Among the ruins of the millsite I found a raised wooden platform with an H-frame of pipe overhead and an adjacent lower structure that provided a handy shelf. I’d bought a cheap solar shower bag in Flagstaff, filled and hung it from the frame, and set my hurricane lamp on the shelf along with soap and towel. The engineers of passing trains had a dramatic view of my “sleek, powerful body,” all lit up on stage, but it was total bliss to get clean outdoors in mild weather under the arching canopy of stars.

Still worried about hiking with knee pain, I cracked a beer, ate some snacks, and waited for my younger friend, who eventually arrived around 10pm. Meanwhile, train traffic had decreased to one every 20 minutes or so, but a strong wind had come up. A recently updated forecast suggested we were in for fierce winds during the next 48 hours. This is a typical challenge of desert camping. I’ve had very capable friends who were literally driven out of the desert, in both day and night, by unbearable winds. We quickly agreed to lay out our sleeping bags in the partially ruined assay shed, a sheet metal building with 3 standing walls and a roof, all riddled with bullet holes but adequate as a windbreak.

Miraculous Oasis

Unfortunately the sheet metal walls and roof rattled and creaked loudly all night, and the trains continued to blow their horns and shake the ground underneath us, making for sporadic sleep. But we were in our beloved desert, so we woke on Thursday, another cloudless day, with good expectations.

Our first impromptu decision was to visit the major spring in the area, which we’d both heard about but had somehow avoided for decades. It was a straight shot up the alluvial fan from the ghost town, but the road to it turned out to be the most challenging of my entire trip. My vehicle was perfectly adequate, but going was very slow over boulders and washouts. Like most backcountry roads, this is an example of a road that was never built and is never maintained by the authorities – it consists of tracks and tread laid down by “users” – private individuals who drive it, reroute it, and repair it as needed for their own access.

The spring, a true desert oasis in the midst of barren foothills, was a revelation to both of us. A golden eagle soared overhead as we got out and began exploring. The vegetation, from cottonwood and willow trees to thick, incredibly tall cattail thickets and a lot of riparian vegetation I didn’t recognize, was rampant for a long distance up the canyon, and at its head was a true spring, a short overhanging bank out of which water flowed continuously. Miraculous!

Night of Brutal Wind

We had lunch at our vehicles below the oasis, then headed back south, toward a campsite from which we hoped to hike into the southern end of our mountains, which I’d never explored before. The temperature was mild, probably in the low 70s, but I drive with my windows closed to keep out the dust, and my new vehicle’s high profile means that the big windows let in more solar radiation, turning the entire vehicle into a sweltering hothouse regardless of outside temperatures. I avoided using the air conditioner because my shop had said it was on its last legs and needed major repairs, so before we were halfway to our destination I was drenched with sweat, frustrated and angry. Eventually I stopped, and my friend pointed out that all I had to do was find a way of covering the windows facing the sun. Why hadn’t I figured that out for myself? I used a towel and a dirty t-shirt, and from then on I was okay, but it pointed out a major flaw of my new vehicle.

On the drive up the side road to the basin where we planned to camp, I flushed a mature, classically-colored redtail hawk out of the roadside brush. The wind was really fierce when we arrived in camp, in a broad wash at the foot of a cliff. There was a big stone fire ring, and an incongruous dead, rust-colored Christmas tree and two store-bought wreaths leaning up against the cliff, near where I’d previously found boxes of clay pigeons. Two months till Christmas, and everything dead already – how inconsiderate!

As we began to unpack our gear in the howling wind, the first thing that happened was that a small, colorful bird, which looked to me like a warbler, flew up erratically and landed on my friend’s hand. The poor thing was fluttering and staggering in the wind, and next, as I set up my folding chair and changed into my hiking boots, it zigzagged laboriously over and perched on the back of my chair, behind my left shoulder. Neither of us had ever seen a bird behave like this. My friend was enchanted. I was too, but I also wondered if it were simply disoriented by the wind.

There was enough daylight for a short hike, so after the bird left, we headed north toward a low saddle in a west-trending ridge. There, we discovered a stand of tall milkweed-like plants we’d never seen before on the slopes of these mountains. And at the top, we looked down into a lush, hidden canyon that confused me for a while, until my friend explained that the opposite slope was the main divide between us and the next watershed, where we’d both hiked in the past. The canyon below us was actually a hidden part of the complex basin we were camping in.

Back in camp, I started a fire, using the dead wreaths as kindling, while my friend made salad. I’d brought a couple of whole chicken legs, but with the solar heating in the vehicle, the ice chest hadn’t functioned adequately and I was afraid the meat had spoiled. We both smelled it and it seemed okay, so I started it grilling over my friend’s charcoal, the wind whipping through everything we did.

The salad was excellent, but at my second bite I discovered the chicken was rancid, so it became a meatless dinner. Fortunately I’d also made pilaf, so it wasn’t all fiber!

How to sleep became a real challenge, and I recalled that I’d had wind problems the last time I’d camped here. It was at the end of a long flat space, and the wind was traveling down that corridor unimpeded toward our only sleeping spot. We both made our beds independently, struggling against the gale. Since it wasn’t that chilly, I was optimistic and crawled into my warm-weather bag wearing only underwear and a t-shirt. But I was soon cold enough to pull on thermal top and bottom. And even that wasn’t enough. I sat up and put on my fleece jacket.

And got even colder with the wind rushing over me, drawing away my body heat despite the layers of insulation. So I decided to resort to the tactic I’d learned in survival school, which had worked many times in the past. I got up, raced downwind to the vehicle, and dug out my heavy, military surplus rubberized poncho. I laboriously wrapped that around my sleeping bag and snapped it shut from the inside – it should provide a solid windbreak.

But within minutes, I realized that even that wasn’t enough. The wind was so strong it was actually using the heavy poncho as a sail, to push against me and threaten to turn me over in bed. Now I was really angry! What kind of a camper was I, after decades of camping in this desert, that I couldn’t figure out how to sleep in the wind!

Well, I’d slept in a vehicle’s passenger seat before, as uncomfortable as I knew it would be. I laid some weights on my bed to keep it from blowing away, and went to transfer cargo inside my vehicle so I could recline the passenger seat. Then I unsnapped the poncho, bundled up the sleeping bag, and laid it out inside the Sidekick. At this point I was so pissed off I was ready to give up on the whole trip.

Determined to sleep, I even took a sleeping pill. And it worked.

Southern Passage

I ended up getting more than 5 hours of sleep, and in the morning, the wind had begun dying down. When I got out of the vehicle, I saw that my friend had built a low wall of gear boxes around his head, to effectively keep the wind away, and he’d had a good night’s sleep outside as a result. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

We had a long hike planned for this Friday, but we both agreed to move camp first. We would try the abandoned mine, the only other likely campsite in this basin. And by the time we got there, the day was proving to be calm, and completely cloudless yet again.

We parked the vehicles on a ledge high above the basin, not far from a gaping vertical shaft, simply a pit in the ground, that appeared bottomless until your vision adjusted to its shadowy depths. As we packed for our hike and I prepared my foot protection and knee strap, my friend noticed a coyote crossing the foothills below us and checking us out from time to time.

This was a hike I’d dreamed about for years: exploring a “southern passage” between tall outlying ridges, a 5-mile north-south corridor of seemingly level bajada between this basin and the mouth of a southern canyon which held the only known perennial water source in the southern part of the range. It was such a natural walking route that I wondered if we’d find any prehistoric remains.

As it turned out, the first remains we found were more recent – colorful plastic balloons, formerly helium-filled but long deflated, stuck in thorny shrubs, blown from thoughtless and unaccountable family celebrations hundreds of miles away, which my friend gathered into his pack to carry to some urban landfill. These deflated balloons appear more and more in the wild lands of the west, a form of litter that’s mostly out of sight, out of mind as more young people are raised to be strictly urban dwellers, isolated from the consequences of their lifestyle.

We crossed the straight tracks of rodents between hiding and feeding places, encountered the bleached belly plates and shell scales of dead desert tortoises, and the bleached skull fragments of bighorn rams. As we walked gradually uphill to what turned out to be a watershed divide early in the passage, we noticed that while the steep eastern ridge consisted of pale, finely fractured rock, the equally steep western ridge was dark and composed of big, wind-rounded granite boulders and pinnacles, which made it look far more rugged. High among the boulders we saw more of the tall milkweed-like plant we’d discovered the day before.

We were drawn to a section of western slope with boulders hollowed by wind into domed caves, and inside one I found mountain lion scat surrounded by bighorn scat.

We explored a short, winding side canyon which featured spectacular geology and a small “window” rock, unusual in these mountains.

Shortly after that we approached a dramatic, house-sized free-standing boulder, and sure enough, I found a faint petroglyph at its base.

Then we reached the mouth of a big canyon on our right, the head of which was a natural pass between the northern and southern parts of the western ridge. I saw that timewise, we’d reached the halfway point of our hike if we wanted to get back before dark. And getting back before dark had become an obsession with me. I’d ended up hiking and camping in the dark many times in my youth, but I believed that avoiding that was a mark of hard-earned wisdom, and the very idea of finding my way back to camp after dark, over ground that was dangerous to my vulnerable body, made me angry. I told my friend I would start heading back, but as usual he wanted to keep going.

We had only just parted when I heard him yelling, and turned to see him waving me over.

He was standing near the edge of a deep wash, pointing to prehistoric potsherds littering the desert pavement, shards of ceramic with such a glossy red finish that they seemed to have been recently dropped there and broken up. I’d found lots of potsherds in the desert, over a 35-year period, but had never seen such fresh-looking examples. They covered an area of several dozen yards, and all seemed to be from the same pot.

My friend still wanted to hike farther, so I headed back north toward the low divide. Along the way I found faint vehicle tracks and large, glowing patches of golden shortgrass which seemed to be unique to this southern habitat. Passing a bouldery outcrop I encountered a busy flock of small birds, and after trying to photograph them realized they were a mixture of species.

My friend caught up with me about halfway, and we both enjoyed the colors the setting sun painted on the surrounding peaks as we arrived back in camp. My left knee survived the hike pretty well, but I had somehow developed a weird cramp in that thigh – and the long trudges up the loose gravel of the bajada had really fatigued my leg muscles.

I’ve been so proud of my hard-won recovery from disabilities, and my regained capacity for hiking, but part of my recovery has involved retraining myself to protect my chronic foot injury by taking shorter steps. Of course this increases my handicap compared to my much taller – not to mention younger – friend. But in all it was an exhilarating day.

We both showered and started making dinner. I had some fresh sausages to grill and hoped they wouldn’t turn out bad like last night’s chicken. This campsite was much better situated, with a fantastic view in the moonless starlight. The night was totally calm, the sausages we fine, and my friend made delicious salad as usual, while we both enjoyed the frequent flares of meteorites. Finally, an easy night camping!

Something happened midway through the evening that neither of us could explain. While preparing dinner I noticed, out of the corner of my vision, a sharp burst of white light on the western silhouette of the ridge above us. All my friend noticed was a flash of light from somewhere above. All I can imagine is that it was an exploding meteorite, something you hear about but rarely see.

Journey Underground

I started Saturday with the unexplained thigh cramp that would hamper me for the next few days, especially while driving and working the clutch. We planned to move camp again to the base of the canyon that featured the perennial spring, beyond the south end of the passage we’d walked Friday. But first I wanted to get some photos inside the mine, which we’d taken a brief look at after dinner the night before. It looked amazing!

This was the first true desert mine system I’d ever been able to explore. Others I’d come across were either vertical shafts with rickety dry-rot ladders, flooded tunnels, low unbraced burrows half-blocked with debris, or dangerous-looking diagonal bores. This began with a solidly-braced tunnel, mostly tall enough for me to walk upright, passing below ventilation shafts that eventually led to a T-intersection. The left side continued to a right turn, where it eventually led to a small chamber that had a bricked-up doorway – some kind of lockable storage room. Inside was a broken folding lounge chair.

The right tunnel led to a vertical shaft going down about 40 feet, with a well-preserved ladder. There appeared to be another tunnel leading off from the bottom. Beyond the shaft our tunnel continued a ways to a cave-in, where there had apparently been another shaft leading to the surface.

It was a clean mine – virtually no trash, nor was there much in the way of artifacts. The floor of the tunnel was cracked from having been flooded by rain draining through the air vents. There was rodent scat everywhere, and I found some weird tiny wings on the floor which my friend identified as grasshopper wings – food for rodents. Then he found two bird nests, deep into the transverse shaft, in an area that received virtually no light. Swallows?

Since I have little interest in mining history or the Anglo exploitation of the West in general, I was surprised that this mine turned out to be one of the most impressive things I experienced on my trip. The fact is, I just love going underground!

Canyon of Death

We packed up and drove out of the mountains, to another ghost town by a railroad side line where we lunched in an old concrete bunker, one of the few standing structures. From there, around the south end of the mountains past the small, remote salt mining camp, which was inactive that day. Then east and north to our turnoff for the road to the spring. That minimal road, where I’d destroyed one of my truck tires 3 years ago, turned out to be an easy drive to the big wash downstream from the spring, where we decided to set up camp. By then it was mid-afternoon and we both needed shade, so using bungee cords we strung my big new tarp between our roof racks for an impromptu canopy.

We hung out a couple hours, drinking light beer, until we felt like hiking again. The sun was going down and I figured, from my previous map studies, that we had less than a mile to go to the spring. But I was way wrong!

After a mile of walking we were just getting to the mouth of a steep canyon. On the way, our hike had taken a spooky turn when my friend found the severed head of a lizard impaled on the thorn of a bush. I knew it had to be the remains of a meal by a loggerhead shrike, a small but very aggressive bird. I also found parasitic mistletoe growing on a creosote bush, something I’d never noticed before – I’d gone so far as to proclaim to all my desert friends that it only parasitized catclaw acacia in this habitat.

After we entered the canyon things got more apocalyptic. There was some kind of apparently parasitic vine over many of the shrubs – I remembered seeing it in a canyon at similar latitude on the east side of the range. The multicolored, striated and jumbled rock was beautiful, but early on, we came upon the recent skull and skeletal torso of an old bighorn ram, and after that, we encountered a trail of bighorn bones, most of them from lambs, leading all the way up to the spring. And fairly recent bighorn scat everywhere, scattered among the bones. I figured all the mortality was probably from the respiratory epidemic, but had no way of knowing how recent it was. And then there was that lion scat I’d found the previous day, not far from here.

Before we got to our destination, I realized we had gone a mile and a half, the sun had set, and even if we turned back now, we’d probably end up walking over rough, unfamiliar terrain in the dark, struggling to find the right way back on ground that was dangerous for my chronic foot injury. I got angry and began complaining to my friend, who was already far ahead of me, around a bend in the canyon.

When I began to catch up with him he urged me to keep going, and suddenly yelled “There it is!” I looked up and saw a couple of huge camouflage-painted fiberglass tanks, the usual setup installed by the Bighorn Society to maintain game populations for hunting. The canyon was very steep and rocky – it would’ve been beautiful in its natural state – and despite their camouflage, the tanks looked totally out of place.

There was a small metal drinking basin below them, fed via some kind of float valve, and a piping system higher above that fed groundwater from the original spring by gravity down to the tanks. Directly behind the tanks was a stash of equipment used by the Bighorn Society crews. The whole thing was repugnant.

We climbed up and found the original spring had been dammed and was completely silted up, so to get to its water you’d have to dig deep. Now the only water source was artificial.

We began the long hike back to camp, with me complaining angrily along the way, and pushing myself to walk too fast with my short steps. Fortunately we came across an old roadway that we’d missed on the way up, and it gave us a much easier path to camp that turned my attitude around. There was still a bit of light left in the sky when we finally arrived, and I raced to take a shower, with my water bag perched atop the spare tire mounted on the Sidekick’s dusty tailgate, before starting dinner.

My friend made and shared salad as usual, and I simply warmed up a can of chili that I’d picked up on a previous trip. Another calm, cloudless night, but this time I lay in my sleeping bag listening to coyotes calling, a short distance out on the bajada below our camp, while overhead the meteorites continued to streak their brief trajectories.

Messages From the Past

By Sunday morning we’d been camping out for 3 nights and 2 days. We’d done two fairly short hikes and one longer one, through the passage. But we’d also spent a lot of time driving. I had indicated up front that I was anxious to get to Utah and didn’t want to spend much time in the desert, so we decided to head northeast into Nevada, where we both wanted to explore some wild country that we’d only recently learned about. On the way I could shop for food and other supplies.

It would take more than half a day of driving to get there, and we convoyed and arranged to make frequent stops to reconnoiter. Before we left California I thought of a stop that might be interesting for my friend – a famous petroglyph site in a canyon near the Colorado River – so we detoured over there. It’s an amazing site and we both appreciated the stop, but it left us facing a different route north as the day was coming to an end. My friend had mentioned an interest in the mountains on the Arizona side of the river, so I suggested we spend the night in a campground I’d discovered on top of one of those ranges.

Temperature Drops

As we’d been driving, the temperature had been dropping and wind had been rising. I hadn’t seen a weather forecast for nearly a week so I had no idea what was happening. It was just our luck.

I did think to buy firewood in Arizona before we reached the mountains. That would turn out to be a true blessing.

As we approached the mountains, I could see a long cloud mass hanging over it, reaching toward the river in the west. It was the first cloud cover I’d seen since leaving home, and would be the only clouds I saw until the last day of my trip, a week and a half later.

The sun was setting as we drove the steep, twisting road to the crest. We found the campground, at aptly named Windy Point, only occupied by one other party, a young couple traveling in a rented RV. The wind and cold were already brutal up there. We quickly set up camp in the most protected site we could find, surrounded by pinyon and juniper, and I started a fire with our new wood. It turned out to be some kind of well-seasoned juniper, cedar, or cypress, smelled great and gave off plenty of heat.

My friend made us a hearty stir-fry with sausage, cabbage, and kale. We enjoyed the fire for a while, then went to bed, where I had a “bedgasm” crawling into my down bag for the first time this year. Seldom have I so appreciated this overstuffed bag, which is normally too hot. But the wind and cold were getting worse, and after a short while I got up to move my cooking basket over, as a windbreak. After that I slept really well.

Driving Vs. Camping

On Monday I woke to find my one-liter water bottle frozen – only about 2/3 frozen, not frozen solid like I’ve had happen a few times before. The 5-gallon jug still had enough liquid water for making coffee and washing last night’s dishes. I was actually energized by the cold weather and was really glad we’d gone up there. But we were continuing a pattern of long drives, no base camps, and less time for hiking. Today we still had another long drive and shopping to do.

We convoyed off the mountain and drove north to Boulder City, where I planned to shop at Albertson’s. Separating, we came up with different plans for lunch. My friend bought supermarket chicken pieces before I could suggest stopping at a good local taqueria. He ate his chicken bits in his truck while I waited an excessively long time for my fresh tacos. It was another indication of different trip styles. My family and lifelong friends have always approached long camping trips as “road trips” in which spells of camping are interspersed with stops at museums, motels and restaurants along the way. Opportunities to do laundry, restock supplies, and process the experiences in nature. By contrast, my younger friend gets in the mindset that once you start, you should be camping out every night and eating only from your vehicle’s stockpile of groceries.

From Boulder City we paid the exorbitant fee to drive through the federal recreation area and bypass Vegas traffic. It’s an endlessly beautiful drive but a long one, ending back at the Interstate, where we gassed up for our venture into the unknown.

We had both been into these national monuments on the Nevada/Arizona border before, and each visit had whetted our appetites for more. This Monday, we only had time to drive in and quickly find a campsite as the sun was setting again. The site we found was spectacular, but the weather had gotten even colder so there was no opportunity to clean up after the long day. I’d bought decent steaks and grilled them, to accompany more of my friend’s salad. And I felt, more than on previous nights, the hassle of the extra chores I have to do to care for my aging body while camping, and how much harder it seems to be to do everything with my cheap, elderly camping gear. All the doors of my vehicle creaked loudly on their dust-filled hinges and everything was plastered with dust from the back roads. I continued bitching and moaning while we were getting ready for bed.

This site was a few thousand feet lower than last night’s, and despite the increasing cold I was unable to sleep in my over-insulated down bag, going to bed feeling dirty and getting even sweatier, tossing and turning in the confined space. I ended up resorting to another sleeping pill just to salvage a few hours of rest before dawn.

Suffering Oasis

By Tuesday, my friend had gotten a weather forecast on his smart phone. We were at the beginning of a serious cold wave. Everyplace in Utah was heading toward the teens at night. My friend really needed to stop driving and start hiking, and he suggested we head east to find a base camp at lower elevation – hence warmer – in the adjacent national monument, which was terra incognita for me. We could camp there for days and hike off in different directions. He seemed to know exactly where to go and sang its praises, so I packed up and followed his vehicle into new territory.

The first part was driving over a pass that I’d long wanted to see. I was actually more interested in the mountains above the pass, but on our low-elevation agenda we dropped down the other side into a vast basin rimmed by low cliffs in the far distance. Those cliffs were apparently our camping destination.

First, he led me to a sprawling oasis, one of the biggest I’d ever seen in the desert, reaching down a shallow valley surrounded by low, stark volcanic hills. It was incredibly lush with tons of unfamiliar vegetation, including screwbean mesquite, but it was also overrun by burros, and there were tiny tropical fish in the water, probably introduced mosquitofish. Someone had started to build a steel fence to keep out the burros, but they’d abandoned their supplies with the job unfinished and the damage continued.

I also found several examples of honey mesquite burdened with mistletoe, again negating my former belief that it stuck to catclaw acacia, and supporting another friend’s observations in his community by the river.

We hiked through much of the oasis and had lunch there, before continuing deeper into the national monument. Like the canyon with the bighorn drinker, this desert spring was a once-magical place that both impressed me and made me sad.

Max Bails

The next road took us up onto a volcanic plateau, and that’s where things turned really bad for me. As if I hadn’t been having problems all along!

Like me, my younger friend had recently bought an off-road vehicle – in fact, just before the trip, so this was literally his first chance to put it to the test. His was used like mine, but much newer, larger, more expensive, and more capable in some ways. The differences really came into high contrast on these backcountry roads (see video in Part 2).

The road to his proposed campsite was a track over a plateau of embedded volcanic cobbles, and he immediately raced off ahead of me. Meanwhile, my vehicle – with all new shocks and struts and reduced tire pressure – was riding so rough that I had to slow to less than 5 mph to keep from getting shaken apart. Eventually he got so far ahead that he stopped and waited. When I caught up I was totally freaked out. I said it would take me until well after dark to reach camp at this rate, and we all knew how little I liked that.

So he suggested we turn around and re-enter the other monument, where there was a good campsite he knew about a ways to the south, on a good road.

But I misunderstood him, and first, he led me much deeper into the Arizona side, to cross back over to Nevada at a place far from where I expected. He was moving so fast up ahead there was no way I could signal him to stop, so I just followed, shaking my head in frustration. At least this particular road was much smoother than the previous.

When we finally emerged onto another high plateau, I saw his vehicle parked by the road while he explored a small pile of boulders. He said there were several possible camping areas here on the plateau, but they would all be really exposed to wind. The site he had in mind was farther south, off a side road that he claimed was well-graded for passenger vehicles like the vans and big RVs we’d seen yesterday on the way in. Then he raced off again.

Well, the side road turned out to be almost as bad for me as the volcanic cobbles. It ran over dikes of rock and sections of really coarse gravel that threatened to shake my vehicle to pieces, and I finally totally lost my temper. Ignoring my vehicle apocalypse, I sped up and raced after him, bouncing and banging over the rocks and gravel. I caught him just as he was disappearing down another side track toward a big wash, in an area of low, stark volcanic hills with no trees, boulders, or shade of any kind. I honked for him to stop, and we both got out and met halfway between our vehicles. I announced that I was leaving, would head back to town, and probably proceed onward to Utah from there. We hugged, and that was the end of our trip together.

I drove more carefully during the long slog out of the monument, and took the river road up to the nearest town, where there was a Best Western where I could earn points. Near the motel I found a car wash which would be my first stop the next day. I was sore all over and took a pain pill before warming up leftovers in my room and hitting the sack early.

Next: Part 2

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Climbing the Spire

Monday, October 7th, 2019: Climbing the Spire, Trips.

First Visit: October

Local Landmark

I live on the southern edge of a vast mountainous zone extending at least 250 miles from east to west. But the peaks of this zone are uniformly rounded and undifferentiated. Our horizon consists of nothing but long ridges and gentle humps – nothing like the craggy, dramatic peaks we associate with the Rockies, the Sierra, the Tetons, the Alps, or the Andes. With one exception.

The landmark peak of our region features a dramatic granodiorite spire, dominating its small mountain range, which stands isolated in the midst of a high-desert plain southeast of here.

Conflicting Information

One of the first locals I met said he’d climbed it with friends in his youth. I had mountain-climbing aspirations in my own youth, but my focus had shifted, and now I was more interested in wildlife, watersheds, habitats, and ecosystems. My hikes usually led me to the top of a peak, but only to gain the views that would put my ecological knowledge in the context of the surrounding landscape.

Still, I’d read up on this peak when I first arrived, and the hike sounded daunting. I got it in my head that you should never try it alone. I’d heard it was something like a 12-mile round-trip with thousands of feet of elevation gain and technical rock climbing skills needed to get to the top, and if you started at dawn, you still might not make it back down by sunset.

However, despite its prominence as a local landmark, it wasn’t really that tall. The mountains I normally climb range from 8,000′ to 10,000′ – this was on the low end at 8,400′, and it wasn’t forested, so it didn’t have the habitat diversity of the taller peaks.

But it’s less than 40 miles away as the crow flies, and it was hard to ignore as I continued to look for new weekend challenges, so eventually I resumed my online research. The range wasn’t part of a national forest – it was managed by the BLM – and although there was a long record of people climbing the peak, the trail was not formally maintained, and both maps and directions differed widely from source to source. The only thing they all agreed on was the main access road. This county-maintained gravel road led in from the south, which would add a half hour or so to my drive.

Regarding the granitic spire at the top, sources said it requires either a Class 2+ or Class 3+ “scramble” to ascend, and everyone recommended not looking down, to avoid vertigo. Sources differed widely on the hiking distance – from 5 miles to 12 miles round trip – but they agreed roughly on the elevation gain: 2,600′ to 3,000′ cumulative. The differences apparently had to do with how close you could drive to the trailhead, on a newly-created BLM dirt road that was very bad and absolutely requires high clearance and 4wd.

The mountaineering class system is Greek to me – I’ve been climbing rocks and peaks for over 40 years without using it. Apparently Class 2 means scrambling up a steep incline, using your hands from time to time. Class 3 involves “moderate exposure” to a fall, carrying a rope for backup, and using your hands full-time. Hiking alone in the sandstone canyons of Utah, I often run into situations that I know I could handle, but don’t feel comfortable trying without other people to back me up. All of these situations involve using my hands full-time, but I have no idea where they rate on the Class system, nor am I interested. I just figured I would make a judgement call when I got up there, and if I didn’t feel comfortable climbing the last hundred feet or so to the top, so be it. Thank God my self-esteem doesn’t depend on things like that.

I got a reasonably early start for a Sunday, finishing my domestic chores and leaving home before 10am, but because I had to drive 10 miles past the mountain range and loop around east and north again, it ended up being a late start to the hike. The sky was fairly clear and the air was warming back toward the 80s in the high desert foothills where I would start the hike, and it was very windy when I arrived in the range. I mainly worried about high winds on the peak blowing my precious straw hat to kingdom come. If it came to that I’d just have to stow it in my pack.

The roads got more confusing the farther back I went, passing occasional cattle and isolated stock tanks in broad grassy basins that narrowed into shallow canyons embraced by the foothills. I didn’t see a house anywhere, but I eventually came to a corral and a locked gate. I’d brought the conflicting directions with me and compared them with what I encountered on the ground, and finally figured out which turn to take onto the BLM road.

That road provided the first serious test of my 4wd Sidekick. It was exceedingly rocky and deeply eroded, with patches of loose sand between the rocks – very slow going – but the Sidekick was more than up to it.

Online sources seemed to agree that you could cut up to 3 miles off your round-trip distance by driving this road to the “4wd trailhead,” but by 12 noon, more than two hours from home, I was well past where this trailhead should’ve been. I came to a stock tank with a disabled windmill and solar pump, and pulled off the road. I figured I might’ve passed the “trailhead,” but in any event it was time to stop driving and start walking. It turned out the trailhead, unmarked but obvious, was another half mile up the road.

Cairns and Cowpies

The trail begins as an abandoned mining road, eroded into a shallow gully, that leads from the more recent BLM road straight up an alluvial fan to the foothills. It’s marked by hundreds of cairns – one disgruntled online peakbagger said it was “over-cairned” – and in general this amateur trail is much better than most of the government-maintained trails I hike. Entering the foothills, it ascends a steep, narrow canyon, through dense brush, juniper, gambel oak, and pinyon pine, toward the left shoulder of the spire. The canyon bottom and surrounding slopes are very rocky, with many sheer cliffs that make bushwhacking off the trail virtually impossible.

There was a little water draining from the peak most of the way down the canyon – the higher I got, the more water I found seeping out of the rock cliffs – but there was also a lot of cowshit all the way to the crest of the range. BLM: Bureau of Livestock and Mining. Despite how wild it looks in the pictures, it felt less like wildlife habitat than most places I hike, and more like a big hilly ranch.

It was a steep, steady climb, with fewer switchbacks than most agency-designed trails, but it was such a high-quality trail that I was able to make pretty good time anyway. With the spire looming high above me most of the way, eventually I came into the grassy meadow of a saddle below the peak. Here, an old barbed-wire fence, mostly intact, delineated the rangeland on the east and west sides of the mountains. And here the trail failed me, at least temporarily. Cattle had made tracks in all directions across this saddle, and cairns were few and far between. By scouting around as usual, I was finally able to pick up the trail again. I was a little concerned about finding my way back, but as it turned out, I wasn’t concerned enough.

Scramble in the Sky

Getting closer to the peak, I was wondering more and more if I’d be able to handle the classified “scramble” up the rock face. Looking up from the high saddle, I thought I could guess what would be the easiest place to scale the bare rock. But it was still farther away than I thought.

From the saddle, the trail got much steeper, rockier, and more precarious. Midway to the spire there was a fifty-foot rock face I crossed, using a narrow crack, and halfway across, clinging to the bare rock, I encountered a baby rattlesnake hiding in a fissure. It got really upset and I had to find a way around it.

If I had looked down at times like this, I could’ve easily freaked myself out. After all, I was clinging to bare rock 3,500′ above the desert floor. But that never turned out to be a problem. I’ve always been a good climber and my concentration up there was as solid as ever.

Finally I got to the penultimate scramble. The cairns leading me up from the saddle had been plentiful, and I could see they continued up this slanting crack in the side of the spire. It definitely required both hands and feet, and I decided to leave my pack at the base of the rock, so I wouldn’t have to worry as much about balance. Then I started up.

It’s funny – like I said, while I was climbing, I didn’t look down. But I can see from the photo I took while climbing that despite the putative classification of 2 or 3, you are totally exposed to risk of death while climbing this spire! If you fall, you are not just injured – you die, bouncing down hundreds of feet before your battered carcass gets stopped by some bush.

But for me, the climb itself was easy, and I didn’t feel like I was taking unnecessary risk. And at the top, there are gentle talus slopes to cross, again marked by cairns, to get to the actual peaks. There are two, a lower south peak and the higher north peak, which has the only actual 360 degree view in our region.

The wind had died down and the weather was perfect up there. I spent a half hour or so soaking it all in. I signed the log, and discovered I was the first person up there in the past ten days. Then I scrambled carefully back down to the grassy saddle. Which is where the day started going horribly wrong.

Descent Into Perdition

I thought I had a pretty good idea of how the trail crossed the grassy saddle. But after easily following the cairns down from the peak, I suddenly found myself at the old fence, with no more trail and no more cairns.

I scouted around briefly, then crossed the fence at a low point and continued down a gentle slope toward the ridge I thought I had come up earlier. Still no more cairns and no more trail. I kept going down because I was sure I would cross the trail before I got to the ridge.

I spotted something that looked like a trail off to the left. I followed it farther down the ridge, and soon encountered a cairn. Great! I kept going, and the “trail” petered out. There were no more cairns.

I was on a steep knife-edge ridge above a deep, dark canyon, which I assumed was the canyon I’d followed to get up here in the first place. I found narrow trails with no cairns, and followed them for short distances, but they all turned out to be cattle or game trails, ending in thick brush.

The sun was going down, I had a 3 or 4 mile down-hike ahead of me, and even after I reached my vehicle, I would still be two hours from home. I was literally at the head of the canyon I believed I had come up, and although I wasn’t crazy about bushwhacking down a steep, rocky slope through dense scrub, I was sure that sooner or later I would encounter the trail. So I started down.

Emotionally, it was a little like jumping off a cornice on skis. You know you should be scared shitless, but you give in to the voice inside you that just says “Jump!” But here, instead of landing on snow, I was trying to maintain my balance on sharp rocks and boulders piled randomly and hidden under a maze of branches and foliage. I could at least console myself that I was wearing new boots with something called an “Ankle Bone Support System.”

I had to stay constantly focused, using both hands and struggling with the balance of my pack, as the canyon became more and more canyon-like the farther down I went. Oaks and junipers closed in and were joined by riparian trees and shrubs, and I had to shimmy under and between low branches, while constantly watching out for hidden rocks and boulders underfoot. Surprisingly, no matter how steep and rocky the slope, no matter how thick and trackless the vegetation, cattle had always been there before me. Down and down I went, but whenever I peered out through the vegetation I seemed just as high above the valley where my vehicle was parked. And there was still no sign of a trail.

I often wondered if I wouldn’t be better off getting out of this narrow, tree-choked gully and traversing the sides of the canyon. But the canyon itself was the fastest way downhill; traversing the slopes would slow my descent. What really worried me was that I’d get caught between sheer cliffs and a pour-off, a dropoff that I wouldn’t easily be able to get around.

I never did. But likewise, I never found the trail. I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the bottom, and the sun was still going down. It was really dark in that congested canyon. A year ago, when injuries and disabilities had eroded my confidence, I might’ve panicked at some point during that desperate descent. But I’ve been testing myself on difficult all-day solo hikes in remote places on a weekly basis for the past year, and I knew that panic was not an option. I briefly considered the possibility of having to spend the night in that nasty place. There were occasional ledges with tiny clearings. But I’d have to build a fire and spend the whole night sitting in front of it, shivering. I just kept going.

In one particularly challenging passage, I was climbing down a pile of sharp boulders and working my way through a maze of branches when my knee hit the point of a big rock and both hands reached out in opposite directions for something to steady myself on. I felt my left hamstring tweaking and my palms abraded by bark as my torso twisted in place, burdened by my pack. My thigh cramped up and the space was too tight to straighten my leg. It took me a few minutes to get out of that position, my whole leg throbbing. I thought I’d injured myself, but I knew that wasn’t an option. I had to keep going. So I ignored my burning hands and got my leg stretched out over a low limb, and took as many deep breaths as it required to relieve the cramping. And then I kept going downhill, through more mazes, taking big deep breaths and trying to concentrate even harder on where I was stepping.

After more than an hour of this, the canyon began to open out. I could see more of the valley below, and I looked up over my left shoulder for the distinctive spire. It wasn’t there! I suddenly realized that the canyon I’d climbed down was not the canyon I’d started up. The trail was a half mile away, in a completely different drainage. But in my favor, although I still had a long distance to bushwhack down this canyon, it should actually come out closer to my vehicle.

Eventually the slope alongside the canyon was gentle enough that I left the canyon bottom to hike down the open slope. But it wasn’t much easier – it looked grassy from a distance but was actually made up of randomly embedded rocks that I had to constantly watch for and step over or around. It was very slow walking.

I followed this slope down toward the valley for what seemed like ages. I still couldn’t see either the road or my vehicle. But finally, after crossing through a small pinyon-juniper forest, I spotted a segment of the road that I remembered. It was still far away, on the other side of the valley, but it was something.

I reached a heavily grazed part of the slope that was deeply eroded by gullies I had to cross, one by one, while swerving back and forth to avoid clumps of thorny mesquite. I lost sight of the road, but I suddenly spotted my vehicle, far off to the east. There seemed to be a deep canyon between us, so I tried to avoid it, veering to the left, but that just led me into more eroded gullies. Up and down, around and around. I was about to give up on finding the road when Voila! it appeared right in front of me.

I only had another half mile of road now before I’d reach my vehicle. The sun was just dropping behind the spire, on the western ridge, when I finally got there. Now all that remained was the perilous drive down the 4wd road – my Sidekick bottomed out once on a jutting boulder – and the long drive out the county road to the highway, and to the nearest town, where I hoped to get dinner sometime after dark.

Second Visit: April

Haunted By Bulls

Since my weekly hiking program hit the 20-mile, 6,000′ threshold, I’ve had to expand the radius in which I search for long weekend hikes to meet the goal. Hikes with at least 3,000′ of cumulative elevation gain are the target, and they’re all at least an hour’s drive from home.

On Sunday morning, when I considered my options, there were really only three that were reasonably close. One I had hiked last weekend, and I avoid hiking the same trail two weeks in a row. Another exceeds 9,000′ elevation, where deep snow could still be a problem. The only one left was the Spire, which tops out at 8,400′, an hour and a half away.

My only real concerns with this hike would be the presence of cattle, and the lack of clear trail across the high saddle. I didn’t want to repeat my desperate thrash down that steep ravine when I lost the trail on my first visit. It’s weird that this social trail has such a gap there, while all the rest of the trail is over-marked. And I’m never really excited about hiking in overgrazed terrain trampled and shat on by beeves. But I figured I could mark my way across the saddle with sticks or cairns or something clear enough to find my way back. And the cattle I’d just have to put up with.

The sky was mostly clear, and mid-day temperatures in the canyon bottom would be in the 70s. I arrived in the canyon earlier than expected, so I parked my vehicle near the start of the rough 4wd road and began walking the road itself, in order to increase my overall hiking distance and elevation gain.

The first thing I noticed was a couple of black cattle on the side of a hill, a couple hundred feet off to my left. One was lying down, but it immediately stood up when it saw me, and they both stood staring at me with great interest. They were both clearly males, and I interpreted this as bull behavior; cows or steers will usually either ignore you or start moving away. I’m paranoid about bulls because I’ve been charged or pursued by bulls in remote places, three different times during the past 30 years.

But that was always either solitary bulls, or bulls defending a herd. These guys were hanging out together, away from the herd, and may have just been young buddies. I kept walking, which gradually took me farther away from them, and they stayed put, while remaining vigilant. I passed the herd of cows and calves farther up the road. I knew they’d move around during the day, while I was up there hiking, and I hoped I didn’t return later to find the bulls blocking my way to the vehicle. But I’d deal with that when the time came.

Tower of Wind

I trudged up the 4wd road, winding around, down into, and up out of deep gullies. Picking my way over and around loose boulders and sharp ledges in the rough roadway, I finally reached the abandoned windmill where I’d parked the last time. A trickle of water was leaking out of the big stock tank and draining down into the ruts of the dirt road. I continued another 1/2 mile to the fork, and from there to the deeply eroded beginning of the trail to the Spire. My shirt and pants were coated with tiny winged insects that I brushed off from time to time.

Where the trail entered the mountains, there was a stream, running heavier than last time, and thick with algae and moss. I hadn’t seen any human tracks, but cattle had been up, maybe a week ago, pounding deep pits in the trail and shitting in the creek as usual.

The trail up to the ridge was much harder than I remembered it. It just seemed to be a steady 20-30% grade, exhausting, requiring regular stops to catch my breath. As with other recent Sunday hikes, I wondered if I’d give up and turn back before reaching the top.

There were butterflies and birds everywhere, but I was working too hard to pay much attention. Finally I reached the ridgetop, but that just led to another difficult traverse that I’d forgotten about.

When I reached the high saddle, and the trail disappeared as before, I started leaving sticks as markers to find my way back. It took me a while to find my way to the base of the super-steep hill that leads to the base of the Spire.

The wind, which had been gusty all the way up, was howling up there, and bitterly cold. I pulled my shell jacket out of the pack, put it on, and cinched down the hood. And then I started up.

This part feels like something out of the Lord of the Rings – you’re up in the sky, hoisting your way over tall, narrow steps of stone, between the piercing spines of cacti and yucca, feeling like an insect up there with the rest of the world laid out far below you.

It gets steeper and rockier as you go, until finally you face a rock wall that’s about 30 feet tall, with a zigzagging crack you have to climb. And that leads to the second wall, about 5 times as tall, with its own crack, ending at the talus slopes that surround the actual Spire.

I braced myself against that wind on the peak. Cliff swallows zoomed right past my head as I looked back down at the path I’d taken. I thought I could spot my vehicle, more than 2 miles away as the crow flies. And I could see a big white truck, parked farther up the 4wd road, a more recent arrival. I thought about the bulls and wondered what was waiting for me. I had a long hike back.

I pulled the log out of its jar in the summit cairn, and was surprised by the number of visitors in the past month. Especially since the only prints I’d seen on the trail had been from cattle, and none of them were recent.

Stuck in the Mud

From the Spire, the way down looks much more perilous than it really is. But it’s still a long, steep trail with a million loose rocks, and the piercing blades and spines of yucca and cactus.

I finally reached the 4wd road, and rounding a bend, saw the big white truck up ahead, and a couple of people doing something around it. It turned out they were stuck, with their big truck set exactly at 90 degrees blocking the road, and their back tires in a rut, in a little patch of mud from the leaking stock tank. They’d taken an ATV off the truck bed and it was parked on the bank above the road, just behind the open tailgate.

There was a man, maybe in his early 50s, and what I initially took for his daughter. But on a closer look, she might’ve been his younger wife. They were arguing about what to do, and neither one of them seemed to have any experience with this kind of situation. It was a 2wd truck and the tires were nearly bald. The guy said he’d been trying to turn around, but he’d clearly picked a terrible spot to do that, with a steep bank behind and a steep slope ahead of the truck. He said he’d let some air out of the rear tires, and I said not to let out any more or the tires could puncture. The woman was just standing there watching and looking worried.

“There’s some boards and other junk up around that old windmill,” I said, pointing up the slope.

The guy shook his head. “I don’t know what to do!”

I took a closer look at the tire, then glanced around at the disturbed ground below the stock tank. The rut wasn’t deep, nor was the mud, and the ground was rock hard all around. The rear tires weren’t even dug in – they were just sitting there in the little puddle. The only problem was the steepness of the bank behind the tires.

“What you need is a bunch of smaller rocks, laid out both in front and behind the rear tires. Just something to give you enough traction to get out of that rut, without destroying your tires.” I started gathering up little rocks and laying them in front and behind the tires. They just stood there watching me, seemingly clueless.

I knew it wouldn’t take much. After gathering and laying out a couple of small patches of rocks, I said, “That should do it. Just gun the engine. Once you’re out of that mud, you’re okay.”

He climbed in the cab and revved the engine, looking out the passenger window at me. But his tires weren’t even turning. “Are you in gear?” I asked. He looked down and blushed, reaching to disengage the emergency brake.

Then he gunned the engine, the tires immediately found traction on my rocks, and the truck took off out of the mud and up the dry dirt slope, where he parked it and got out.

“Yay!” cried the woman. “Thanks!” said the guy. “I’d give you a big hug if it wasn’t for this damn virus.”

“What’s up there?” he asked, looking up the road the way I’d come.

“I was just climbing the peak,” I said, pointing to the Spire.

“No, what about caves, and mines? That’s what we’re looking for.”

“I don’t know about caves. I’m sure there’s mines. This road seems to go all the way over the mountains, but I don’t think you should be driving it with that truck and those tires.”

I wished them luck and continued on my way. The little herd of cattle were grazing nearer to the road, but they ignored me, and there was no sign of bulls.

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The Big Rain

Monday, September 16th, 2019: Sky Islands, Trips.

This was our longest storm of the monsoon season; a vast, low cloud layer had covered the region, and rain fell intermittently all weekend. Without lightning and thunder, it was more like a winter rain.

Early Sunday morning, I decided to drive back across the state line to the Sky Island, to finish one of the hikes I’d never had time to finish before. The time difference, gaining an hour, was in my favor. I’d end the hike around sundown, but there’s a small campground at the trailhead, and I figured it would be empty due to the weather. So I loaded my vehicle with camping gear.

Unexpectedly, the rains had brought wildlife onto the highways. Shortly after I left town, a quail ran under my vehicle, and on the road to the Sky Island, a small bird dove suddenly out of the sky to hit my front bumper. Returning in the evening, I rounded a bend to surprise a large snake coiled in the middle of the road, and shortly after that, was barely able to miss a flock of two dozen turkeys running down the road en masse.

I was returning in the evening because when I got to the trailhead that morning, I discovered I’d forgotten my sleeping bag. What’s more, I’d forgotten my hiking orthotics, so on this steep hike I had to use my street orthotics, which aren’t as protective.

Overnight rains had drenched the thick vegetation that covers the trail, so that within a few hundred yards my boots and pants were soaked to the knees. The trailhead temperature was in the 60s, but the clouds parted, and after a little climbing, all my clothes were soaked from head to toe with either rainwater or sweat.

The clouds closed in again in afternoon, with sporadic drizzle, and on the upper slope the temperature dropped into the 50s. This is a well-maintained trail because it climbs through intact forest that was missed by the big wildfires on the crest, but for the same reason, once I entered the pine forest, I had no views. All I could glimpse between breaks in the trees was low clouds.

I’d never seen so many deer – white-tails – in any forest before.

The top of the trail, which I’d often fantasized about, was anti-climactic, because it just ended at the paved crest highway, with all the slopes and views hidden in cloud. Dripping wet, I trudged the five-plus miles and 3,000 vertical feet back down the trail.

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Treasure the Relationships That Don’t Last

Wednesday, September 11th, 2019: Musings, Society.

(Note: None of the couples shown in these photos are still together…but their relationships made all of our lives richer)

The Problem of Marriage

Can you be single and happy? Our society doesn’t seem to think so.

A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly is subtitled: “A course at Northwestern University teaches students about what makes a healthy relationship.”

The first sentence of the article begins: “Research shows that practically every dimension of life happiness is influenced by the quality of one’s marriage….”

The article never questions the institution of marriage in our society – the author takes it for granted that young adults are going to get married. The primary focus of the Northwestern course is to enable students to marry successfully. What they teach is, in a nutshell: figure out who you are first, then find someone who shares your worldview.

It’s good to see someone in national media talking about worldviews, after I worked for years to clarify what they are, and to convince people of their importance. But how accurate are the worldviews of 18-year-olds? Wouldn’t it be better to partner with someone whose worldview is radically different, someone you could learn from?

And what about happiness? What do we mean by that? If we mean contentment and self-satisfaction, isn’t it more important to learn, to grow, to change, to see the world clearly for what it is – which can result in discomfort, even pain?

Statistics show that roughly half of adult Americans are unmarried, and 40-50% of marriages end in divorce. These statistics are mirrored among my own friends and family. Should we conclude that up to 75% of Americans are unhappy, mainly because they failed to achieve a lasting marriage? As someone who is single late in life, has never been married, and has no ambition to be married, should I consider myself a miserable failure, or just totally irrelevant?

Actually, I suspect that many of my married friends might consider me a failure for those very reasons. As a young adult, I spent years single and celibate, and felt little peer pressure to find a partner, but when I reached my 40s and found myself between relationships, I came under more and more criticism of my choices and behavior. Friends pressured me to “put myself out there,” to find a compatible partner and avoid the tragic fate of being “old and alone.”

In our society, young adults are expected to find a partner, make a long-term commitment, live together, get married, and form a nuclear family. Everything from our legal and economic systems to our architecture are based on that. Our housing industry creates privacy for isolated units of consumers, with locked apartments for single people and childless couples, and the holy grail, the fortress of the single-family home, designed for the nuclear family.

The social norm of marriage is part of our culture’s overall plan for our lives: establish a career, get married, make a home, and have children. A failure in any of those is a failure in life, condemning us to unhappiness. Conversely, those who succeed in all four are encouraged to look down on the rest of us. And they often do, like smug children who are rewarded for following the rules.

Marriage is considered so essential to happiness and fulfillment in our society that biracial couples, gays, and lesbians have fought for decades for the legal right to marry. To those who’ve been denied this right, marriage is a precious accomplishment.

Each time I came to the end of a relationship, friends called it a failure and blamed it on some personal inadequacy I needed to overcome via soul-searching, therapy, or some other form of “personal growth.” The assumption, shared by the instructors of the Northwestern course, was that these short-term relationships were just the trial runs, preliminary to the real thing. If I could overcome my own problems, I would ultimately find and keep a life partner, and that partnership would become the foundation for my happiness.

The Atlantic article is yet another example of how national media encourage conformity to social norms that few of us question. And it highlights our society’s bias against aging without a partner. As we age, the pressure gets worse, and self-satisfied conformists smugly condemn us single elders as miserable failures.

Is this fair?

Seeing Only Failure

I began life in a nuclear family, but my parents separated and divorced while I was still a child. Then my mom moved my brother and me in with her parents, and the rest of my childhood and youth were spent in a traditional, multi-generational extended family.

But my grandparents and most of the families in our neighborhood had stable marriages, and the overwhelming message from media and the society around me was that you met your personal needs by finding a partner and pairing off. Marriage would be the ultimate result of that, and it would in turn satisfy your duty to society when you and your spouse produced offspring. Unmarried adults were oddballs, objects of suspicion.

My personal needs were abundant. I was turned on by girls from my earliest memories, but I was undersize and sickly as a child, so I was harassed and bullied by other kids. I needed companionship and comfort as much or more than most.

I became an adolescent as our country entered the Vietnam War, and my generation was inspired by what has come to be known as “the Counterculture.” Many friends in my peer group agreed that marriage was an obsolete institution of a failed society. Only conformists got married. Freed from society’s shackles, we nonconformists would love honestly, equally, and respectfully, and if we fell out of love, we’d simply part ways, hopefully as friends. Liberated by “The Pill,” we also resisted having kids, partly because we didn’t feel mature or stable enough, and partly because we believed our parents’ generation had screwed things up so badly that we didn’t want to take the chance of bringing kids into such a damaged world.

Although I’ve seen much more of life since then, and have acquired much deeper insights, my adolescent introduction to relationships via the Counterculture bore abundant fruit. Beginning in high school, I’ve had a long series of intimate relationships, most of which were monogamous and lasted from two to six years. Several involved living together, either in a private apartment or group home.

As the Northwestern University course recommends, my first long-term girlfriend and I did share worldviews. But as the instructors of the course should know, our 18-year-old worldviews could form no stable basis for a long-term relationship, especially in the volatile world we found ourselves in. We were unformed adults, wildly romantic, naive and ignorant. We thought we were Aragorn and Arwen from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The best that could happen was that our worldviews would change radically as we explored the world, exercising critical thinking, gaining experience, knowledge, and wisdom for decades to come. The chances of our relationship lasting through those changes was minimal. It would certainly be unfair to both of us to try to “work it out” as we both turned into different people, and it would seem unfair to society as well, especially if we’d had kids, only to separate and divorce like my parents.

My high school sweetheart and I rejected marriage, in keeping with the Counterculture, believing our bond was deeper and more sacred because we respected each other as distinct individuals. But we grew apart, and eventually broke up. And a decade later, as I turned 30, both I and society had changed in many ways. The Counterculture was seen to have failed – its critique of the Establishment may have been valid, but it hadn’t offered any viable alternatives. The world had gotten scarier – with everything from economic recessions to serial killers and nuclear meltdowns – and the future looked a lot less hopeful. And I had gone from a timid, uptight, naive, and ignorant small-town prodigy to the ambitious, aggressive leader of a big-city bohemian post-punk enclave.

My fourth girlfriend was a young professional woman from an elite college, who proudly considered herself a feminist. By the standards of the Northwestern course we appeared misfits from the start. I was immersed in my bohemian milieu, living in a communal loft in the midst of an industrial slum, experimenting with art, music, and drugs, while she was part of the newly-minted yuppie class, a compulsive shopper, living in a luxurious, frilly apartment in an upscale neighborhood. And she made it clear on our first date that she had a life plan, and getting married and having children were her primary goals. I was honest in my rejection of both, yet we fell in love and spent two rewarding years together, learning from each other, after which she married, had kids, divorced, and eventually remarried after her kids were grown up.

A decade later, when I met my seventh girlfriend, the world and I had continued to change. Some of my friends were getting married and buying houses. My long-secure day job was imploding. I’d achieved national recognition as a musician and bandleader, but I’d also become a serious outdoorsman, falling in love with the desert wilderness, studying aboriginal survival skills, dreaming of going “back to nature.” My new lover was much younger, nearly as unformed as I was two decades earlier, and I was her first really “mature” and caring partner. But whereas she wasn’t much interested in marriage, she did announce on our first date that she planned to have at least one kid.

Despite our differences, we also had a fulfilling relationship for almost two years, and I ended up loving her so deeply that she changed my whole vision of life. Toward the end of our time together I told her I wanted to work toward marriage, and if that happened, would like to have children with her. It was a momentous, scary prospect that put butterflies in my stomach. A few months later, she left me for a man her own age.

Three of my long-term relationships, including that one, have ended in anger and pain, resulting in lasting grief and disillusionment and the criticism of my peers. There were long periods of celibacy between some of them. And ultimately, after the tenth relationship ended traumatically, years went by without one, until I found myself “old and alone.” Was there really something terribly wrong with me, as some friends had suggested?

I always paid close attention to my friends’ relationships. A few of them were never alone – they were always either dating, with ever-changing partners, or in some kind of relationship. Some were more like me – holding onto a relationship for a while, going through a more or less difficult breakup, then being single for a while before finding someone new. A few of my friends achieved stable long-term relationships. Some got married, often for economic reasons. Some of those had kids, while others stayed childless.

Some of my girlfriends left me for abusive men, which turned out to be a pattern for them. I suspect there’s an unconscious belief, on a biological level, that strong, aggressive men will be better protectors, although it’s actually more likely that they’ll be abusive. And both friends and girlfriends sometimes fell into “co-dependence” on alcoholics or addicts. I had a couple of girlfriends – artists both – who turned out to be addicts and were occasionally violent, and one – highly educated and creative – who inherited mental illness from her mother. After being burned enough times, I developed zero tolerance for the addiction or instability of others.

But from earliest adulthood, I always had a few peers who were perennially celibate and frustrated, apparently due to low self-esteem. Some of them self-medicated with drugs or alcohol. Some of them had an occasional one-night stand that left them even more miserable. Those of us who regularly got laid, and those of us who were mostly in relationships, always pitied them, and if we couldn’t sustain a relationship very long ourselves, we always feared we’d end up like them. The Counterculture slogans of free love and open relationships had long been forgotten. Instead of being liberated, we were paranoid of being left alone in a world that made relationships ever harder to form and sustain.

It got worse as we got older, and more of my peers got married and had kids. The older I got, the more I saw how the solitary among us were pitied, and the more difficult it became to be single, because I felt inferior, and I was afraid it was finally all over for me – I’d never have another girlfriend, never find a life partner, let alone my mythical soulmate.

When I made perhaps the most radical move of my life – the move from the San Francisco Bay Area, where I’d spent thirty years, to a remote small town in the least populous corner of New Mexico – I’d been single, celibate, lonely, and depressed, for five years. Frankly, one thing that encouraged me to settle here is that on my first visit, I met more attractive single women than I’d met in all those years of loneliness in the crowded megalopolis.

I spent the first few years flirting with and getting to know all of those women, and the more I got to know them, the more red flags appeared. Eventually, I found myself lonely and depressed again in my new home.

Finding Myself

Before moving to New Mexico, during a long period of unemployment, I’d started a project to finally figure out who I was and what I was supposed to be doing here on Earth. I studied ecology and anthropology, and tried to make sense of powerful visions that I’d had throughout life, visions that seemed “spiritual” for want of a better word.

Venturing into the past, and into the spiritual realm, and trying to envision the future, made me aware of alternate interpretations of time – the diverse phenomena of motion and change. Our technocentric culture is ruled by the linear time defined by our machines – the strictly ordered forward progression from past to present to future, in standard increments of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. Alienated from nature, our way of life perpetually creates problems, so we envision the forward march of time representing “progress” from the problems we created in the past to the imagined solutions of the future, and we want each generation’s life to be better than the previous.

Traditional societies, which depend more directly on nature for their sustenance, tend to seek stability and sustainability rather than change and progress, because to thrive, they must stay within the finite limits of resources in their local habitats. Thus they experience time in the repeating cycles of nature: the solar day and night, phases of the moon, seasons and harvests, and the longer cycles of drought, fire, flood, and human generations. Instead of associating their past with problems and their future with solutions, they honor their past and work to make sure the future will be just as good. This may be called cyclical time.

With their deep communal memories of cyclical time, oral cultures move through a landscape teeming with potential phenomena from both past and future, so unlike us, they’re prepared to adapt to surprises. Thus they may also visualize time as a lake, in which the surface is our present consciousness, and the depths represent the continuum of experience, past and future. I experienced a powerful vision of that simultaneous time once, with loved ones from my past, as well as strangers from my future, rising briefly from the depths, only to plunge back down into the darkness again.

To make up for the lack of attractive single women in my life, I had added a few images of past girlfriends to the walls of my house, and I’d put together “scrapbooks” to memorialize our relationships. Unconsciously, I was manifesting simultaneous time. One of the unexpected consequences of aging, and my new phase of life, was that I could truly live in the past, present, and future simultaneously.

As I observed my family, friends, and acquaintances in this new light, reflecting on their experiences and relationships and comparing them to mine, I suddenly realized that despite coming of age in the Counterculture, I’d been made to feel inferior as a celibate single person, and when a relationship ended, society had made me feel worse about the breakup.

But now, reflecting on the long series of romantic relationships I’d experienced, which felt just as present and real as anything in my current life, I felt like I’d achieved more, in some ways, than people who’d married young and maintained stable lifelong marriages.

I began to see the pain and trauma I’d experienced in a few of my relationships, and in some of our breakups, as priceless inspiration for some of my best art, music, and writing. All of those relationships, from first to last, were physically and emotionally rewarding. In all of them we professed profound love for each other and shared countless moments of warm caring and tenderness. None of my relationships were abusive. I’ve loved deeply and intensely and have been loved deeply back, year after year.

By spending at least a year – a full round of the seasons – in each of those relationships, we’d gotten to know each other in the context of natural cycles, in cyclical time. And now, all of those partners are still with me every day, in my growing awareness of simultaneous time. Most of them are still friends, though we may never see each other again – and I still feel the love we shared as a daily part of my life, every bit as real as the pain and frustration of chronic injuries and disabilities that come with aging.

I compare this new awareness with the previous belief, reinforced by my closest friends, that as each relationship ended, it became a failure, proving there was something wrong with me that had to be fixed, either through soul-searching, therapy, or some other form of “personal growth.”

The revelation of this past year is that contrary to the assumptions of the Atlantic article and many of my friends, happiness can result from a long life of “failed” relationships. Far from failing in my ultimate state of singlehood, I’ve achieved deeply loving relationships with not just one, but many diverse partners, in which we lived adventurous and fulfilling lives together. Sure, there was plenty of discomfort, distrust, anger, pain, and trauma. But as an artist, rather than seeing these as evidence of an inadequacy that needed to be “fixed,” I now see them as precious raw material for my creative work.

It turns out that being an artist has determined the course of all my relationships. I’ve always had personal passions, goals, and projects that have either competed with, deferred, or replaced relationships. Some of those things I could do with a partner around, but many took me places where my partner couldn’t follow. I’ve used long periods of solitude to take chances, explore dangerous places, and get a lot of work done. Some have called me selfish. It looks like I’ve been unable to let go of my ego, unable to lose myself in something bigger, whether a one-on-one relationship or a community where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

That’s partly true, but hardly anything in life is ever that simple. Like most artists, I’ve had to have a “day job,” conscientiously giving decades of my life to other people’s projects and the collaborative work of teams. I started a harvest festival as a gift to a community I wasn’t even part of, and have spent 13 years volunteering to make it happen.

And while in relationships, I’ve sincerely tried, and sometimes succeeded, in giving selflessly to those I loved. You can ask any of my ex-girlfriends about that.

My newfound contentment and appreciation of my past relationships doesn’t mean that I want to restart any of them! On the contrary – our paths diverged for good reason. We are all different people now, and what brought us together originally is no longer there.

Not the Only Way

Is marriage really essential to happiness?

What about the broader notion of “partners for life?”

The nuclear family?

Are any and all of those valid goals for young adults?

Are married people successes, and single people failures? And should solitary elders regret their failure to maintain permanent relationships?

The Northwestern University course maintains that a marriage can be successful if you first figure out who you are, then find someone who shares your worldview. But in a society as patently dysfunctional as ours, and as I certainly learned, finding out who you are is a lifelong project. If you’re really diligent about examining both the world and yourself, your worldview is guaranteed to change. What are the chances of your partner making the same changes, and continuing to share your changing worldview along the way?

We should never forget that we’re animals. The survival of our communities depends on at least some of us reproducing, and reproduction requires partnership. Many of us are clearly driven by biology to find partners we can reproduce with, without even thinking about it. Most of my peers did think about it, though, at the time when we were becoming adults, and we put off having kids until very late, if ever.

Anthropologists like a teacher of the course at Northwestern should be aware that marriage in our sense is the exception, not the rule, across the incredible diversity of human societies. In many, if not most indigenous societies, men and women pair up opportunistically, stay together as long as it works, then drift apart. They may have children together, but those children are raised by the community, not by a stable “nuclear family” in a private fortress home. The lives of both parents and children take place in the context of a small, intimate confederation of people of all ages and genders who work together to take care of each other, rather than in the context of atomized families that live isolated from each other in private homes like ours. Traditional societies tend to lack the stigmatization of single people that our society perpetuates.

The evidence shows that marriage is no sure path to selflessness. Many or most marriages have a dominant partner and lead to oppression or divorce. From my point of view, it isn’t just biology that drives people to get married and/or form permanent partnerships – it’s also insecurity – the fear of being on their own and taking risks. They seek safety and security, whether real or an illusion.

My Quest

Whereas some of my girlfriends and peers started adulthood with a conventional life plan, like getting married and having kids, I left my family home in the midst of a cultural revolution in which all the rules were supposed to be broken. For years I’d been told I had great talent and potential, and college was