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Be Careful What You Wish For!

Monday, July 15th, 2019: Trips.

Five years ago, before I was crippled by joint problems, my cardio routine consisted of one or two 4-mile weekday hikes within 15 minutes of home, plus a 5-7 mile hike a half hour away on the weekend. But when I finally began recovering, it inspired me so much that I became a lot more ambitious, and it’s getting harder and harder to find hikes that challenge me – and don’t bore me.

So I’m driving farther now, even for the midweek hikes. Every other weekend I’ll drive an hour or two away, hoping to get into some canyons and ridges with exposed rock. Our lower-elevation pinyon-juniper-oak forests tend to get monotonous, as do the mixed-conifer-and-Gambel-oak forests at higher elevation.

But last weekend I’d done one of the farther hikes, so this weekend I was condemned to something closer to home. I decided to try a route I’d never done before, using part of the famous national trail system to get to the highest peak near town. I’d climbed that peak many times from the opposite direction, but the topo map for this alternate route showed numerous ups and downs that would give me even more cumulative elevation gain. And the trail would take me across the north face of the Twin Sisters, a distinctive formation on our local skyline.

Our monsoon still hadn’t really kicked in, but by hiking in mountains I had managed to get into some rain in two of my last three hikes. Today, however, the forecast gave only 20% chance of rain, which is generally hopeless, and there were only a few sparse clouds over the mountains and clear skies over open country. It was supposed to be a little cooler, with a high of 89, but by the time I found the trailhead it was sweltering. I passed several people on their way out, having sensibly started much earlier in the cool of the morning.

But I had an attitude about hiking in heat. Thirty years ago I’d accompanied wildlife biologists on field trips in the Mojave Desert, and in the middle of summer, with temperatures 10 degrees hotter than it ever gets here in New Mexico, we would start a hike at 11am and climb rugged mountains off-trail all day in full sun, only returning to camp after sunset. And just a few years ago I did a backpacking trip there involving strenuous climbing, in temperatures pushing 100 degrees. So I viewed our local heat as no impediment at all.

I was hoping for some shade, though. I’d studied Google satellite view and it looked like maybe two-thirds of the hike would be in pine forest, with maybe some sparse cover throughout the remainder. But the reality was disappointing.

A large proportion of the national trail turned out to utilize old forest roads, so there was a wide corridor where trees had been cleared, hence no shade. And the middle section of the trail traversed a rolling plateau with my most hated surface: embedded volcanic projectiles, roughly rounded and pitted rocks ranging from tennis ball to bowling ball size, embedded in hard clay. This is a common feature of our local mountains that I’ve learned to avoid whenever possible. The rocks can’t be cleared by trail workers, so all they do is remove the vegetation around them and call it a trail – and walking over this unevenly cobbled surface is slow, perilous, and hell on your feet and leg joints.

The trail began with a steep climb, and the lack of shade meant that I was drenched with sweat within a few minutes past the trailhead. Crossing the plateau was a true ordeal. I hadn’t been able to figure out how long this trail was before starting it – I hoped to reach the 9,000′ peak, but there was a possibility it might be too far for a day hike. And the first third of the trail turned out to be twice as long as expected. I was not optimistic, but I wanted to at least reach the Twin Sisters, about two-thirds of the way to the peak.

There was a small patch of dark clouds hanging over the peak, so I silently let myself hope for some weather. And by the time I was traversing the north face of the Sisters, clouds were providing periodic shade over the trail, and I started praying out loud. “Clouds!” I shouted. “Storm! Lightning! Thunder! Rain! Bring it on!”

Past the Sisters, the trail finally entered a continuous forest of tall pines that provided blessed shade. And thunder started cracking and rolling up ahead of me, on the far side of the mountains. I dug some snacks out of my pack for lunch and began hiking faster, eating enroute.

This forested part of the trail traversed the west side of a long, narrow canyon to the drainage at its head, then turned out the east side of the canyon to a switchback that began climbing to the peak. It was getting close to the time when I should turn back, in order to get back to town at a reasonable hour, but I was tantalizingly close to my original goal, the dark clouds moving over were energizing me, and I was moving fast. Just before I reached the point on the trail where I had turned back, months ago, coming from the other direction, little drops of rain started to fall. My prayers had been answered!

It was only a sparse rain at first, and most of the time these little rains are short-lived, so I kept climbing without donning my poncho. But within minutes it was raining harder and I suited up. I was climbing fast, and I was halfway up the switchbacks to the peak when a downpour began rattling the hood of my heavy rubberized poncho like machine gun fire. The lightning and thunder were getting close, with long echoes of thunder rolling out in all directions from the clouds directly above. We’re often sternly warned against hiking in thunderstorms, but I figured my rubberized poncho would protect me from lightning strikes. The rain was so loud on the poncho’s hood that I looked more closely around me, and suddenly realized there was hail mixed with the rain.

I had a vague idea of where I was, and had started to hope I might actually reach the peak, regardless of how late it might make my return. I was getting so close! But the storm had moved directly over me. The wind whipped the hail against me from all sides. My feet were drenched in my supposedly water-resistant Goretex boots, and I would have to hike all the way back in them. Even my shirt felt soaking wet, inside my poncho.

Being inside the storm was so exhilarating that I kept climbing, onto the last switchback before the peak. Then I noticed that the trail ahead had turned into a stream, a flood pouring down the mountain toward me. Hail was piling up around the bases of the rocks and pines. The lightning and thunder were continuous, all around. I finally gave up and turned around, and even then, I had to walk above the trail because it was all flooded. With the wind against my poncho, I felt a continuous flow of water into the tops of my boots, and I tried to hold the front and back of the poncho away from my legs, but the wind pushed it back. The temperature had dropped from the high 80s to the low 50s, maybe even the 40s, up here near 9,000′, and I was wearing a light, soaking wet shirt and shorts. I wasn’t really worried, because thunderstorms are short-lived and I still had snacks for energy and mobility to generate body heat, but I knew I was in for hours of discomfort.

The farther I walked, returning down the trail, the less violent the storm became, until it was just a gentle drizzle. But then the wind picked up, whipping the tall pines, just as I entered a burn area where there were dead trunks, snags, still standing. The trees and snags were creaking in the wind, and before long I encountered a big one that had just blown down across the trail ahead.

By the time I started back across the north face of the Sisters, the rain had stopped, but enough cloud cover remained to shade the trail and keep the temperatures down. My wet feet were getting really sore from picking my way over the volcanic cobbles, and I still had a few miles to go, so I popped a pain pill that gradually improved my attitude. As it turned out, when I got home and checked the official point-to-point mileage for the national trail, this was a 15-mile round trip hike, the longest I’d done in decades. And despite the wet feet, I was feeling better, nearing the end of the trail, than I had towards the end of some recent 10-mile hikes. The progress of my recovery seemed almost miraculous.

By the time I rounded the final peak and began to descend toward the trailhead, I could see the storm dumping a few miles to the west. My storm, the storm I’d prayed for and been blessed with!

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Summer Solstice 2019

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019: Solstices, Summer 2019, Trips.

Climbing the Soup Bowl

For more than a decade, I’ve been driving past this mountain on my way west from my New Mexico home. When I’m westbound, it’s mostly hidden behind lower hills, and I only glimpse it over my right shoulder. When I’m driving eastward, on my way home, I first spot its distinctive steep-sided, flat-topped elephant shape far in the distance, across the high grasslands, standing off by itself, isolated from the rest of its volcanic range. I’m especially attracted to high plateaus, and I always wondered what it would be like to climb to the top.

During those early years, its steep slopes were draped in dense conifer forest, slashed here and there by the avalanche scars of black volcanic talus. Then, eight years ago, the state’s largest wildfire, started by careless campers, swept across from the main bulk of the range and destroyed virtually all the mountain’s forest. I was sickened, but as more of our southwestern mountains were deforested by wildfire, I got used to hiking in burn scars, and came to view it as a chance to learn about ecological adaptation. So I figured I’d eventually end up hiking this one.

The Spanish called it the Soup Bowl because its top features large bowl-like meadows above 10,000′ elevation. It’s actually the state’s third-highest mountain. Since the fire, the dead high-elevation forests all over this vast range have been filled in by virulent green thickets of ferns, aspens, and Gambel oak.

The local offices of the Forest Service make little attempt to keep their public information up to date, so I was unaware until I reached it that the fire lookout tower on the peak had been damaged and abandoned after the fire. But the trail has been cleared by the incredible effort of sawing through thousands of downed trees.

The first part of the trail, to the first bowl at 10,000′, was tightly hemmed in by aspen: mature stands unaffected by fire, and the young thickets that often replace burned conifer forest. It wasn’t until I’d climbed past the first grassy bowl, “Tool Box Meadow,” that I encountered the white skeleton forests of burned Engelmann spruce, and heard their eerie wailing. There was a constant gale-force wind blowing across the top of the mountain, and it triggered resonant frequencies in the high skeletal branches of the tall spruce snags. At first I thought it was a flock of birds crying off in the distance, then it moved closer and sounded more like a crowd of women wailing hysterically in pain and despair. It was my constant companion for the rest of my visit to the top of the Soup Bowl, and the longer it lasted, the more I wanted to get out of that place.

Although the abandoned lookout tower had been fenced off, other hikers had found a way under the fence, and I followed, intending to climb to the balcony for a better view. But the higher I climbed, the more the steel tower vibrated in the wind, and the harder I had to hold on to keep from getting blown off the steep stairs. That, plus the wailing forest below, really freaked me out, and when I was about two-thirds of the way up, I noticed the top of the stairs were blocked by a locked trap door, gave up and carefully climbed back down.

Adding to the weirdness on the mountain top was an abundance of trash from recent hikers along the trail, all of which I gathered and packed out. I’ve never seen anything like this on a trail in New Mexico, even near town. I get the feeling that in general, Arizonans may be more likely to trash their habitats than New Mexicans.

Hard Lessons in the Interior

The next agenda item on my trip was to penetrate the interior of the mountains, a vast area with no paved roads and some of the worst devastation from the 2011 wildfire. It’s the watershed of the Black River, which is apparently famous among trout fishermen, and I knew that in the middle of it was an unlikely bridge over the river, by which I hoped to reach my next destination, a remote alpine lodge at the south end of the mountains. Along the way I’d get a feel for the landscape and the condition of the forest.

I’d spent a couple of nights in a resort village tucked away on the north side of the range, and I was relieved to be getting away, because hundreds of motorcyclists were converging on the village for the weekend, in convoys of a dozen or more that thundered through the alpine forest, dominating the sensory environment for miles around.

It was a long, slow drive on a rough road, winding along ridges, down into shallow, well-watered canyons, and finally to the rim of the canyon of the Black River itself, which is about 800 feet deep here. Ever since I spotted this place on a map, I figured it must be one of the most remote locations in the state. You do encounter little traffic on these back roads, but whenever you pass a turnoff, you can generally expect to see a group of big RVs and/or horse trailers parked back in the woods. Along the river beside the bridge were several parked vehicles, presumably for fishermen.

Across the river, the road rises steeply, and continues rising, higher and higher and higher, surmounting ridge after ridge until you can hardly believe there could be more. This is the edge of the Bear Wallow Wilderness, where the fire originally started. The climb from the Black River to this high country is 2,500′.

Near the top, I decided to take a side trip in search of a short hike. The side road I chose wasn’t bad compared to our desert roads, but my little vehicle has such a stiff suspension I felt like I was riding in a jackhammer – even the smallest rock in the road launched me into the air with calamitous thuds and rattles. I doggedly followed the road to its end, Gobbler Point, where there was a trailhead that was completely blocked by a couple of big trucks with horse trailers. And on the way back, I leaned over in my seat to reach for my camera, and instantly felt like I was being sliced in half at the waist. My dreaded back condition had been triggered, I’d be crippled for who knows how long, and my vacation was essentially ruined.

I carry pain meds for just this kind of situation. Fortunately my vehicle has seats with good lumbar support, and I was able to drive to a pulloff where I took a couple of pills and very carefully laid down on the pine needles to do my spinal twist stretch. It didn’t help much, so I got a beer out of the cooler and had some lunch, trying not to think of what lay ahead of me. The lodge I’d made reservations at is truly in the middle of nowhere, with no services to speak of, and no cell phone reception. I’d be pretty much on my own for the next couple of days, while dealing with paralyzing levels of pain.

The road seemed even longer on the way out. When I finally made it to the lodge, I was dismayed to find a big biker rally in progress. The entire front of the lodge was teeming with bikers guzzling beer and scarfing down barbecue. I was pale, my entire body tense with pain, when I carefully stepped out of my vehicle and edged through the mass of bikers and up the steps, walking like I was balancing a crate of eggs on my head. Taking my time and pretending to be normal, I checked in and somehow managed to carry my stuff up the inside stairs to my room on the second floor. It turned out to be tiny, with no space to lay out my stuff, most of the room hogged by the small iron bed. And of course there was no seating with adequate lumbar support, so it was either stand up, or carefully lie down on the over-soft mattress. I realized that sleeping on the soft mattress in my previous lodging had actually triggered the episode of back pain. It had been six months since my last episode, and I’d gotten careless, spending a lot of time lying on my back, which I knew I shouldn’t have done. I truly am vulnerable!

My back was even worse now, so I took another pill and crawled stiffly into bed. It was early afternoon, and I was hoping to feel good enough in a few hours to go downstairs for dinner. But the meds hardly helped. The entire lodge complex seemed to be operated by a single person, a small but rugged-looking woman about my age, and I realized that if I was going to eat anything, it would have to be with her help. But there were no phones in the room, so I’d have to get myself downstairs somehow to talk to her.

It took a while. Even the slightest wrong move could literally bring me to my knees on the floor, and that happened several times. I had to walk like I was on eggshells, but holding myself together also had a tendency to trigger an excruciating spasm. Eventually, pale and distracted, I found myself in the dining room, where three tables were already occupied. I fumblingly tried to explain the situation to my host, and she said she used to have back trouble herself and would be happy to bring something to my room.

But of course, there was no place to eat in my room. I found a card table and a folding chair on the landing at the top of the stairs, and rediscovered that folding chairs have great lumbar support, so that’s where I ate, with the host lady marching up to check on me every five minutes or so.

Back in my room for the night, I spent hours trying to find a position that minimized the pain and allowed me to sleep, but eventually I did.

Traversing the Rim

Of course, my back was even worse in the morning, so I took a couple more pills first thing, and made it into the shower, hoping the heat would do my back some good. The heat and the pills made it possible for me to walk stiffly downstairs for breakfast, and later to very carefully haul my stuff back to the vehicle after checking out.

I figured my trip was cut short and I should just try to get back home. There was the familiar route, north from the lodge to the highway that continues southeast to Silver City, or there was the unfamiliar road due south, which is longer but is the route I’d been planning to take. In view of my condition I turned north.

But after ten minutes or so on the paved highway, in my nice comfortable car seat, I was feeling bummed about leaving the mountains and guilty about wimping out. I’d originally planned to do a big hike today, ten miles or more, in this high country along the famous Mogollon Rim. Maybe I could just drive to the trailhead and conduct an experiment. After all, walking is supposed to be good for your back!

The road to the trailhead was at least as bad as the one on which my episode had been triggered, the day before, and even longer. But I toughed it out. And at the trailhead, I somehow managed to change into my hiking clothes, attach the tape and felt I use to protect my chronically injured foot, and get my heavy hiking boots on. I carefully shouldered my pack and started down the trail. I figured that if I fell and became immobilized, at least I had a couple more pills and my GPS message device…

This rim trail was clearly unmaintained since the fire. It followed an old stock fence which likewise had been abandoned and often simply disappeared, both fence and trail. But I managed to keep figuring out where it went and rejoining it further on.

I went down a long hill, then up another, then down that, then up another, in and out of forest and raw clearings, always with a partial view off the rim to my left, screened by trees, over more wild, unknown country to the south. While temperatures were pushing 90 back home, up here it was in the low 70s, with an intermittent breeze. All told, I climbed four hills, detouring around fallen trees and losing and refinding the trail over and over, before finding myself in a saddle, facing impenetrable thickets and no more trail or fence. So I pushed my way a short distance through Gambel oak to the rim, sat on a rock and had lunch. The view south was dim with smoke, but I could just barely see the silhouette of the Pinaleno range, about 90 miles away, where I’d done several hikes earlier in the year.

Halfway back, I encountered a college-age couple dressed in the latest hiking fashions, and warned them that the trail ended only a mile further. Funny, in the Forest Service trail guide this is called a popular trail, and is shown to connect with other popular trails. The guide apparently hasn’t been updated since the 1990s, but they’re happy to give it out when you inquire.

Driving the Lost Road

Now that I’d experimented with my pain level by driving a back road and hiking a trail, I decided to experiment further by driving the unfamiliar road south. I had a sense it was daunting – long, steep, and full of hairpins – but again I felt guilty about taking the easy route.

This road turned out to be a revelation! Who knew there was so much remote, wild country tucked away in an area that looked small on the map? Far, far from any city, and with no apparent settlements or even ranches in 50 or 60 miles, as this road climbed down thousands of feet, then up thousands of feet again, over mountain range after mountain range I’d had no idea even existed. Along the way, there were dozens of signed turnoffs for campgrounds and trailheads, but few signs of people or vehicles. And every time the road crested a mountain, there was a scenic overlook.

About halfway down this road, I was suddenly tailgated by a big late-model truck, and I pulled over to let it pass. It was the college kids! They had given up on the trail even quicker than I had, and were racing to get back to the city, four or five hours away.

Enlightenment Now

In his best-selling book Enlightenment Now, the celebrity Harvard professor Steven Pinker promotes the notion that white Europeans have been making the world a better place ever since their “Age of Enlightenment” in the 18th century – otherwise known as the Industrial Revolution. A consummate urbanite, Pinker is totally oblivious to nature, ecology, and the services natural ecosystems provide. Hence he has no concern for the ecological impacts of industrial society, such as climate change – he believes that anything which enhances the urban, affluent Euro-American lifestyle is an unequivocal step forward for the species and its, preferably man-made, environments. And his thesis is particularly attractive to young people indoctrinated in our Eurocentric colleges and universities, and to the industrialists and tech industry entrepreneurs who are actually creating our future.

The end of my trip found me passing through a modern manifestation of Pinker’s Age of Enlightenment, which he would likely call one of humanity’s greatest achievements: one of the largest industrial sites on earth. The sun was going down, my back pain was getting worse, and I realized that I needed to find a place to stop for the night. Home was still three hours away and I wasn’t going to make it.

I pulled over to take another pill, and kept driving south. And just as the scenery was getting really spectacular, I caught a glimpse of an artificial mountain, a salmon-red tailings pile, looming far ahead. I knew I would pass the mine, and I’d even flown over it once not long ago. But nothing could prepare me for this.

It literally went on for about ten miles, just getting bigger and bigger, and although it was Sunday they were working full-bore, with huge trucks racing back and forth like ants across towering slopes, and clouds of dust rising like erupting volcanoes on either side. This symbol of man’s power to destroy nature must serve as an inspiration for new-age industrialists like Elon Musk, whose “gigafactory” wiped out a big swath of wildlife habitat in Nevada, and whose electrical technologies are dramatically increasing the demand for unsustainable mining of copper and other non-renewable metals.

The road twisted and turned and rose and fell through this nightmare landscape, then entered the processing area, and finally the company town. Then it dove into a deep, dark canyon and entered the old, original mining town, in which picturesque Victorian commercial buildings and tiny residential neighborhoods lined the slopes of side canyons along the San Francisco River. I took a wrong turn and ended up ascending a steep side street that reminded me of Los Angeles’ Silver Lake district, with expensive European cars parked outside well-maintained Spanish-style homes packed together like sardines.

Finally I arrived at the town’s only motel and pulled up outside the office, but it was unattended and there was no way to reach the owner. I would have to keep driving, another 45 miles south where I knew there were plenty of lodgings. I had just enough gas, and just enough light, to make it, to end this long day.

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Protected: Old Woman Mountains Conservation Meeting

Wednesday, May 29th, 2019: Uncategorized.

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Spring Trip 2019

Monday, May 27th, 2019: Mojave Desert, Trips.

A Test

During the past five years, my body seemed to be failing and accumulating injuries and disabilities. I could’ve easily assumed this was irreversible – the new normal.

But I was lucky in that I’d stopped pursuing a career and had few responsibilities except to myself. I had as much time as I needed. I kept experimenting and working harder and harder to stay in shape. I’d spent the past six months in training, working on my strength and flexibility to get around the rotator cuff tears in both shoulders, very gradually increasing my hiking distance and elevation until I even passed the point I was at when things started falling apart. The only question was, could I hike off-trail in the desert mountains I loved, with all the steep slopes of loose rock? I’d already learned that loose rock was the ultimate challenge for my chronically injured foot.

So in addition to the meeting, this trip was a test for my body. And ironically, after more than 15 years, I’d finally acquired a 4wd vehicle, and this would be the first test of that, too.

The first thing I discovered was that I had to re-learn hiking out there. Since my foot injury, I’d lost my confidence and had to regain it, going slower and more deliberately, more mindfully, especially downhill. But I did OK, doing rugged hikes easily and even some construction work that required moves I couldn’t have done a few months ago.

And so did my vehicle. I ended up on old abandoned mine roads, where the Sidekick kept crawling through deep sandy washes, rocking back and forth 60+ degrees between deep ruts on its truck frame, and climbing straight up loose shaley slopes, to many places my 2wd, low-clearance truck would never have reached. The Sidekick never had a problem, nor did my body. We both passed the test.

Hitting the Road

Arrival

The main reason for this trip was a long-planned meeting between those who love our mountains. But the hot days of summer were coming, and since there’s no natural shade at our campsite, I’d designed a shade canopy that I hauled out, in pieces, on top of my new vehicle to assemble onsite.

Second Day

Meeting Day

After the many months and numerous communications required to plan and schedule our meeting, it ended up being pushed back to a date that was closer to the heat of summer than some of us were comfortable with. But as the date approached, the forecast was for a cooling trend, and in the event, temperatures were mild for the entire week I camped in the desert. In fact, I was too cold the first night sleeping out, and had to progressively swath myself in all the layers I’d brought, because my warm-season sleeping bag wasn’t enough.

Wind out there can be fierce, but the day of the meeting was calm. And the day after, we even got rained on briefly, which is a very rare treat. We were so blessed by the weather, the rocks, the plants, the animals, and the people!

The Day After

After most of the others left, a remaining friend and I hiked over to explore a corner of the mountains I’d never seen. We were amazed at the vitality of both flora and fauna after a wet winter. More jackrabbits, cottontails, birds and reptiles than we’d encountered in a long time. And around camp, with the blooming desert willows, there was a constant swarm of hummingbirds.

We could see a storm moving over from the west, and as we crested a ridge, rain began to fall lightly, and strong gusts of wind threatened to blow us down.

On the Road Again

Different Desert

In search of prehistoric rock writings I hadn’t seen before, I headed to a different part of the desert, a part I’d only visited briefly before and wanted to explore thoroughly in future trips.

Climbing

After rain drove me out of my solo campsite after dark, it soon stopped, encouraging me to wait it out. It ended up raining four separate times in six hours, but only for 10-20 minutes at a time. The last time it rained, I simply wrapped my sleeping bag in my plastic tarp. After the rain stopped, I slept well for the rest of the night, and in the morning, started hiking up the mountain behind camp.

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In Search of the Lost Trail

Monday, April 8th, 2019: Trips.

After a ten-day hiking hiatus, I was anxious for a big weekend hike. And I wanted something more special than the boring dirt-floored forests we have near home. I wanted exposed rock!

I’d already checked out everything within an hour’s drive. I’d already pushed that radius out to two hours, exploring a suitable mountain range a couple hours away (see The Perfect Sunset Hike). Now, I continued that radius around in all directions, so that it encompassed a second range to the southwest. I spent hours studying the Forest Service website and various hiking websites that mapped and described trails, and trip logs from previous hikers that included photos. If I was going to drive that far, I wanted some idea of what I would find. I knew that most terrain would be just a copy of what I already had near home: forest and more forest. I wanted some variety!

I’d recently acquired a better exploring vehicle, a cheap little 4WD that could get me places my 2WD truck wouldn’t reach. So eventually I settled on a trail in the “Sunset Hike” mountains that would offer me a big hike, with plenty of distance and elevation, and plenty of rock.

The Forest Service website had a description of the trail. The hiking websites had topo maps showing the trail. It went up an outlying ridge on the west side of the major canyon on the range’s south face, a canyon I’d looked down into from above, when I first visited these mountains last year (see Consuming the Final Frontier). Detailed information was sparse, confusing and contradictory. There were no trip logs or photos, and every web page showed different figures for both distance and elevation. Trail length ranged from 5.3 to 6.5 miles, and elevation gain ranged from 3,700′ to 5,700′. Were any of these figures correct? Careful study of the topo maps showed that the actual elevation gain would be just over 4,000′.

Even if the lower mileage was accurate, the round trip would still be a bigger hike than I’d done in the past decade of joint failure and injury. It would take me up a canyon lined with cliffs and dramatic rock outcrops, from open desert through sparse pinyon-oak-juniper forest into the shady groves of mixed-conifer forest dominated by tall ponderosa pines, a tantalizing variety with endless views at every point. So I packed up and started driving west.

Two hours and change later, I was 45 miles from the nearest town, driving north up a desert plain toward an extremely remote state prison, the dark mountains looming behind with patches of snow near the crest. The prison had been a 19th century fort, established beside the major stream that ran down from the 10,700′ peak and out into the plain. The Forest Service said the trail had been built for, and used by, pack trains traveling back and forth between the fort and the crest of the range, more than a hundred years ago.

The Forest Service website instructed me to drive around the prison and through the staff housing, where I would find a locked gate blocking an old dirt road. I could supposedly get a key for this gate at the guardhouse.

Having driven up the plain to the prison, I was at the northern edge of a truly vast desert basin, between 4,000′ and 5,000′ in elevation, ranging from 20 to 30 miles wide and extending for over a hundred miles from north to south, all the way into Mexico. Bordering it on the east and west were various stark mountain ranges, and ahead of me, rising behind the prison, was the tallest of them, the penultimate sky island. And behind me, far out in the open basin, were a few green patches of isolated farms and ranches, irrigated with groundwater draining from the sky island.

It was a small prison, quiet and inactive on an early Sunday morning, and I followed a paved road right around the fence on the northeast, and immediately entered the staff housing, a tiny suburb of modest, identical suburban homes surrounded by kids’ bikes and toys, right outside the razor wire fence, the whole thing about as isolated as you could get from the rest of society.

A sign directed me through the housing to the Forest Service gate, which turned out to be wide open. The hiking websites had hinted that the Forest Service road might become impassable, and that I might need to walk some distance before reaching the actual trailhead, adding significantly to my overall distance. And in fact, before reaching the foot of the mountains, the dirt road turned out to be blocked by the creek, roaring and raging in flood from the winter’s heavy snows, from one to three feet deep and choked with boulders.

I could see from tracks that somebody in a hardcore Jeep had recently crossed, but my vehicle still had road tires and would’ve ended up shipwrecked, so I parked on the bank above the creek, loaded my pack, and scrambled upstream through the riparian forest looking for a place to cross. A hundred yards up, I found a log that someone had manhandled across a narrow spot between a couple of boulders, and I very carefully shimmied across, whitewater spraying my boots.

I’d started hiking at 9:30am, which is fairly early for these drive-to hikes. It was a beautiful spring day, mostly clear with scattered clouds. From the weather forecast in nearby towns, I’d expected temps in the 50s, but it felt warmer already. From the creek crossing, I walked east up the old road, opening and re-closing a stock gate, and finally turned left, making a dramatic entrance to the mouth of the canyon, with its boulder-choked creek roaring out through a dense, canopied riparian forest of oaks and sycamores. The first thing I saw ahead was the feathery, upraised tail of a whitetail buck, bouncing over a rise in the shaded tunnel of the road.

After hiking another half mile or so through the riparian forest, up the boulder-embedded, sandy roadway, climbing several hundred feet in the process, I eventually reached the trailhead, marked by a Forest Service sign. It’d taken me a half hour to get there from my vehicle, and checking topo maps I’d brought on my iPad, I could see I’d walked 1-1/2 miles from the creek crossing. The Forest Service sign showed the full trail distance as 7 miles, for an overall distance of 8-1/2 miles from where I parked.

I figured it was unlikely that I could hike 17 miles round-trip and get back in time to drive to Silver City before dark, so I needed to plan on how far to hike before turning back. Ideally I’d get back in time to drive to the nearest town, get an early dinner, and drive the two hours back to Silver City by about 7:30pm. So I figured I needed to be back at the vehicle by 4:30, giving me seven hours to hike. Halving that, I’d need to stop and turn back at about 1pm.

But in my eagerness to hike farther and higher, I forgot about the time difference – I was now in a time zone that was one hour behind Silver City – and I conveniently overlooked the fact that I still had a 45-minute drive back to town for dinner. And lastly, unless the hike turned into a major bummer, I was likely to keep going 30 minutes to an hour beyond my planned turn-back point. That would only be human nature.

The trail twisted and turned its way up the foot of the ridge, out in the open between granite boulders and dense shrubs, alternately appearing and disappearing. Sometimes I would find myself climbing through the dry, chest-high bunchgrass without any evidence of a trail, only to emerge on a ledge with a narrow path leading onward, looking more like a game or cattle trail than a hiking trail. But here and there were cairns, often only a single rock perched on a boulder. The old pack trail had seen a lot of use more than a century ago, by men riding horse or mule, but now seemed virtually abandoned by humans, and only used sporadically by game and livestock.

Still, I was grateful for what trail I did find, because the vegetation on this slope was largely chaparral – dense thickets of shrub that would’ve been a nightmare to bushwhack around. As I mentioned earlier, I’d expected temps in the 50s, dropping as I climbed higher. But on this exposed slope it felt close to 70 degrees at mid-morning, and I was sweating profusely from the start of the climb. I’d started at 5,150′ elevation, and once I reached 7,000′, I hoped to find cool, shady pine forest and easier footing for the remainder of the climb.

Whereas many of the trails I’ve hiked have been damaged by erosion and deadfall in the aftermath of wildfire, this trail just seemed abandoned and overgrown. There was lots of evidence of trail work from the distant past – rock berms to divert runoff or mark the turn of a switchback – but they, as well as the trail itself, were often buried deep under thick grass or shrubs. Still, I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the ground, and I managed to stay on the path until the trail crested out on a high shoulder overlooking the main canyon. Here there was lots of evidence of isolated sparking from the last wildfire that had mainly burned the upper slopes, thousands of feet above.

And here I really lost the trail.

When you lose a trail, you need to stop focusing in front of your feet and look around at the landscape holistically, as a tapestry that might hold barely visible clues. If there are shrubs or big trees around, where are the natural openings between them? Can you spot any disturbed or trampled vegetation, cairns or other man-made rock formations, patches of bare ground, saw-cut stumps or branches? Sometimes, off in the distance, you’ll sense just the barest hint of a path.

There on the shoulder of the ridge, there were lots of man-made rock piles scattered around, probably the remains of old campfires. A hill loomed above, but the shoulder I stood on was fairly level and there were big junipers for shade, and a lot of cow shit. Some kind of ancient cowboy campground and recent bovine resting place.

I circled the area and set off in every direction that looked promising, but after a half hour of careful searching, I never found the trail. I could see some challenging terrain ahead, sheer cliffs, and whenever I tried to traverse around the hill to get to the upper ridge, I ran into a wall of boulders. So finally I just scrambled up the hill, and on top, in the least intuitive place, I found the trail again, about a quarter mile from where it had disappeared.

This trail is switchback-crazy. There are switchbacks with sections only a half dozen feet long, following natural fracture zones in the rock. Zigging and zagging, climbing and climbing through sparse oak and juniper forest, I finally reached some thin stands of short ponderosa pine, many of which had burned in the big wildfire a few years ago. It was now my planned turn-around time, so I stopped to have lunch. Another item I hadn’t factored into my schedule for the day.

But this was no kind of a destination. I hadn’t reached the cool, shady mixed-conifer forest that I’d expected at this elevation. There were cliffs towering above me, and I figured I still hadn’t hiked half the trail. I just couldn’t stop here. Chances are I wasn’t going to make it back home tonight, in any event.

So I continued, around and up the next level of the ridge, and around and up the next level after that. Here, after staying on the east side of the ridge for a long time, the trail crossed back over to the west side, where I lost it again. This time, it only took me ten minutes to relocate it.

It kept climbing for a short distance then began going gently down, for the first time on this hike, which was something I wasn’t excited about. I’d saved some detailed topo maps on my iPad, and consulting them, I could see exactly where I was, at slightly less than 8,300′. Again, this was no kind of destination. The trail was getting ready for another major ascent of nearly a thousand feet, to the crest. I still hadn’t found the tall, shady pine forest I’d expected, but I’d climbed more than 3,000′ already, covering at least 6 miles one-way, and I really needed to turn back. I spent a few minutes stretching, in an attempt to ease my hip pain, then shouldered my pack and started down.

It was weird how elsewhere on this south side of the range, you would find dense forests of tall ponderosa pines at this elevation. But on this outlying ridge, it was all open terrain, dominated by scattered oak and juniper, in what the Forest Service calls a “transition zone” amounting to more than 3,000′ in elevational thickness. It may be that the exposed rock cliffs and outcrops I came here for create a microhabitat hostile to the establishment of true forest at these elevations.

Down hiking isn’t necessarily easier than climbing. In this overgrown terrain, the dry grasses concealed loose rocks the size of tennis balls that twisted my ankle and made me stumble repeatedly, so that I really had to concentrate with every step. Apparently my new boots have really good support, because I made it without injury.

I lost the trail twice more on the way down, in different places this time, adding another 20 minutes to my hiking time. I was wearing shorts for the first time this season, and my skin had some kind of allergic reaction to the grasses on the trail, so my shins and the sides of my lower legs were quickly covered with an angry red rash. And I’d failed to apply sunscreen at the beginning, and now my calves were burned pretty badly. But when I reached the trailhead, and worked my way carefully down the old road of water-polished boulders, in the late-afternoon shade of the riparian canopy, I felt better than I had at the end of other, shorter hikes in the past months. It seemed I was actually making progress.

I got to town at sunset, found a cheap motel room, and discovered that since it was Sunday night, almost all the restaurants were closed. So I found myself ordering dinner and a margarita in a cavernous, obviously unpopular new place where only one other table was occupied. But I was really dehydrated – I hadn’t taken enough water on my hike and ran out hours ago – and I started feeling nauseous shortly after my food arrived, so I had to pack it up for the next day.

In my room that night, I checked the maps carefully to verify my distance and elevation. It’s clear from the topo maps that I climbed 3,150′, but considering how many times I lost the trail and had to scout far and wide to find it, and considering how many dozens of short switchbacks there were, distance is hard to estimate. I had to have covered at least 12 miles round trip in 7-1/2 hours of hiking – that’s the minimum, based on the detailed topo map/elevation profiles on hiking websites, and including the cut-off part of the old road that I had to walk back and forth to the trailhead. But I’m used to averaging a mile every 24 minutes, even with frequent stops, on our steep trails at home, which would yield almost 19 miles for the day. Highly unlikely, so I’m just calling it 12 miles and 3,150′.

Physically, in terms of my fitness and conditioning, it was a resounding success. I’ve been doing weekly cardio workouts for almost 30 years, but nothing like what I’m trying to maintain now. When I lived in the city, I did 4-mile runs, with little elevation gain, or mountain bike rides with at most a thousand feet of elevation. Now I’m climbing up to three peaks per week, typically walking fast, totaling up to 20 miles and 4,000′ of elevation gain. It seems crazy. I don’t want to overdo it, but I believe it’s good for me, and at my age, I need to work hard just to maintain my ability to do the things I want to do. Because as you age past a certain point, your body’s natural tendency is to deteriorate, to rapidly lose strength and capacity. You can’t just sit at a desk for months and then go out and do a 20-mile hike, like you could when you were in your 20s. And hiking is much more rewarding than the running or biking ever was, because it connects me better with nature.

But this abandoned, overgrown trail, with little variation from bottom to top, was a hike I won’t be doing again, anytime soon. Just too much work for too little reward!

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First Steps in the First Wilderness

Monday, March 4th, 2019: Trips.

Part 1: March

I didn’t move to the mountains of southwest New Mexico, near the Gila Wilderness, because I loved the landscape. I actually found it boring because unlike the mountains of my beloved desert, these mountains are heavily forested, and there’s very little exposed rock.

But it’d be a sin to live in a place surrounded by wild, undeveloped natural habitat and not take advantage of it. Gradually, I learned about local trails and special places from my new friends, and as my body started to fall apart and I could no longer handle the impact of running or the unnatural posture of cycling, I needed challenging hikes to maintain my cardio fitness and lower-body strength.

Paradoxically, the vast Gila Wilderness was one place I avoided from the beginning, because it encompasses the higher elevations of the Mogollon Mountains, and I could see that the peak trails were all forested in, without the long-distance vistas and sightlines that I enjoy in the desert. I respect forested habitat, but it’s a lot less interesting to me than open country with endless views.

Then our series of severe wildfires began, and in May 2012, the high core of the Mogollon Mountains was consumed. My hikes in other areas began to take on the theme of fire adaptation as I trekked through burn scars, but it took me a while to realize that now, I could probably venture into the Gila Wilderness and get the views I needed, because much of the forest had been killed off.

After the fire, it was many years before the Forest Service began to clear and reopen a few of the formerly vast network of wilderness trails. Hundreds of downed trees, so much erosion, required a tremendous effort to clear, and so far, seven years later, only a very few trails have been reopened, and even those are quickly re-damaged by erosion and deadfall within months after work crews leave.

This area is a longer drive from home – it takes me over an hour to reach a trailhead into the wilderness – but I could see from the maps that I could reach higher elevations on these trails than I could on the ones near home, so it would make a great weekend expedition.

After studying the Forest Service website and online topo maps, I picked a trail that could net me 3,000′ of elevation gain in 5 miles, and set out, on a beautiful day with blue skies, fluffy white clouds, and moderate wind.

The forest road to the trailhead was an adventure in itself, cut into the precipitous wall of a canyon, rising steeply into pinyon-juniper woodland. I entered the wilderness after less than half a mile of climbing, and traversed into a part of the canyon that had been burned intensely but now carried roaring meltwater from heavy winter snows, with added color from new grass, red boulders and carpets of rust-colored oak leaves. In the canyon bottom there were already many fallen snags blocking the trail, requiring frequent detours.

After two miles the trail turned north into a shady side canyon and began to climb more steeply along the tributary stream, below snow-patched eastern slopes. I stopped for a short lunch after another mile, then followed the trail up switchbacks in dense, unburned pine forest.

High on this eastern slope, the trail crossed the side canyon to climb steeply toward its southern shoulder. It was a hard slog that just went up and up without relenting, for about a half mile. And when it finally turned back north, it was even steeper. I was really laboring but I was determined to push myself and go the full 5 miles and 3,000′, which would be a milestone in my recovery.

The trail finally reached another turning point, and entered a forest of tall pines where the fire had blown rapidly through, killing sporadic trees but clearing all the undergrowth, leaving steep tan-colored slopes of dirt and gravel that were sterile-looking even seven years after the fire. I could see the skyline around me through the trees and felt I was approaching 9,000′ elevation, but I couldn’t tell where the trail went from here. After traversing this new slope for another quarter mile, past patches of snow, I reached a section of trail where snow had drifted across at a steep angle. I tried kicking steps for myself in the treacherous slope, but a few yards across I realized there was ice under the snow. If I slipped, I’d fall far and surely be injured.

I made my way back and looked for a detour, but the slopes above and below were equally daunting, consisting of gravel loosely embedded in dirt saturated from snowmelt. My recovering foot felt like it was nearing its limit for the day, so I decided to turn back. When I got home, I re-checked the topo maps and discovered I’d hiked over 8-1/2 miles round-trip and reached my goal of 3,000′ of cumulative elevation gain, despite having to turn back at the snowdrift.

In retrospect, I realized that I still hadn’t found the wildfire-cleared slopes and open-country views I’d been looking for, because naturally, the Forest Service had focused on clearing trails in less-burned areas where crews faced less damage to repair. Maybe if I’d been able to go farther, I would’ve entered the backcountry where the fire did more damage, but I have no idea when or if I’ll be able to do that.

Part 2: April

So…a month and a half later, I went back to finish what I’d started: climbing over the crest, for a view into the back country, with its high peaks.

During the intervening weeks, I’d been carefully, and very gradually, tackling higher elevations and longer distances, trying to take care of my foot while walking on difficult terrain: crusty snow, avalanche slopes, loose rock overgrown by deep grass.

On this return visit to the Gila Wilderness, my experience of the trail was very different. I found the lower part of the trail much harder than the upper part, which just goes to show that the state of your mind and body are as important as your external environment. I’d started the hike with a certain lack of confidence, but when I passed the point that had stopped me before, I felt liberated. I knew I was going to make it over the crest and into the burn scar of the big wildfire, where I’d get a view of the backcountry with the highest peaks of the range.

The creek’s roar was toned down by now. Deciduous trees in the canyon bottom wore spring’s bright green foliage, wildflowers were coming out, butterflies were swarming. The banks of the creek were blanketed in lurid green grasses and forbs, and the golden bunch grasses on the slopes above had already gone to seed.

There’d been another vehicle parked at the trailhead before me, and a Silver City couple had signed in to the trail log before me. I encountered them about a mile and a half in. When they saw me coming through the riparian forest, they began scrambling about, and when I emerged fully into their view, the hysterical barking began.

It was a man and woman in their 70s, and the two of them were hugging a Rottweiler and a Shepherd each, holding them upright, barely restraining the big dogs as they filled the canyon with their violent barking, jerking and straining against their elderly owners to get loose so they could attack me. “Sorry! Sorry!” the owners kept shouting, but the dogs were so loud and so agitated that there was no question of me answering, let alone stopping to have a conversation. So I smiled and shook my head and continued up the trail, and eventually the barking ceased behind me.

If dog owners assume strangers are afraid of their pets, why do they impose their pets on us like this? I actually never have a problem with the animals themselves – the scourge of pet ownership is mainly down to pet owners’ irresponsibility, and it really has become a scourge, as a result of social media. Now, it seems like irresponsible pet owners form the majority. Dog owners, in particular, selfishly impose their antisocial pets on the rest of us, self-righteously adopting abused “rescue” animals and neglecting to train them or take responsibility for their behavior in public. And over and over again, when I’m in nature looking for wildlife, what I find instead is out-of-control pets and thoughtless, neurotic owners.

I labored up the side canyon, the trail’s grade exceeding 40% in places, through mature, dark, unburned forest with looming lichen-encrusted boulders and outcrops. There, a small hawk, maybe a male Cooper’s, dropped improbably to a limb in the dense lower canopy to check me out. After that, the switchbacks at the canyon’s head, and the long traverse to the stark, sparsely burned upper forest. A quarter mile beyond where I’d stopped in early March, I came to the runoff from a spring perched above the trail. The trail switched back again and climbed through the upper edge of the unburned forest toward the sharp edge of an outlying ridge.

I was already above 9,000′, and when the trail rounded the edge of the ridge, I entered the burn scar and saw the back side of Sacaton Mountain, five miles away across Big Dry Canyon, still draped with snow. On the stark east-facing slope ahead of me, young firs and pines had already established themselves at the feet of the remaining fire-killed snags. From here, it was only a short climb to the actual crest, at 9,500′, where thickets of aspens had sprouted after the fire, but hadn’t leafed out yet this season. Through the thickets I glimpsed the peaks of the range laid out in the distance to the east, each carrying the last snowfields of winter.

I walked down the trail another half mile on the far side, just to get a sense of it, but I’d already reached my objective and didn’t want to lose more elevation that I’d just have to regain. Besides, this part of the trail seemed to be completely hemmed in by dense aspen thickets.

It was gusty up there and I often had to hold onto my hat. I had a really hard time with my footing on the way down, trying to maintain grip and balance on loose rocks and the thousands of broken, rolling fragments of branches from trees that had fallen across the trail since winter. Struggling down a steep slope, trying to keep weight off the chronically injured ball of my foot, using the muscles of my ankle and foot to leverage my stiff boot as a semi-rigid platform, I ended up walking the five plus miles back to the trailhead with a pretty unnatural gait. This seems to be the new normal – I’ll never be able to forget this chronic injury, and I’ll never be able to keep up with robust hikers on treacherous ground. And I knew that after I got home, I’d need to ice my foot and do contrast bathing for a couple days, to get rid of inflammation, before going out for another hike.

But I was elated the whole way back, and even more so on the drive home, as my accomplishment began to sink in. Careful study of the topo map, elevation profile, and a GPS coordinate I logged before turning back, would show that I hiked a little over ten miles round-trip but climbed over 3,700′, the most I’d climbed in one day in over 40 years, since I was in my 20s. All in all, it was one of the six biggest day hikes of my lifetime, although nowhere near my 6,234′ ascent of Volcan Atitlan in 1978 or my 18-1/2 mile traverse of Utah’s Boulder Mountain in 1990.

The pictures hint at, but don’t fully convey how spectacular it was up there on the crest. The human eye is so far superior to the camera and digital screens – I was reveling in the details of the snowpack on distant peaks, which barely shows up in the photos, and I could see the rectangles of pastures, cropfields and farms many miles away and many thousands of feet below, through narrow passes in the outer ridges, which are totally invisible in the high-resolution photos I took.

It was great to be able to stride along the ridgetop, seeing the vast landscape shift around me in three dimensions, because the forest had been burned away. But it was also great, and surprising, to see patches where the forest seemed to be regenerating way up there on the crest, with abundant young trees and seedlings, in exactly the same mix of the parent forest, without any intermediate “successional” vegetation. The old notion of ecological succession was clearly an oversimplification – or could the Forest Service be doing some re-seeding?

The trail I hiked continues on for another four plus miles, to the heart of the wilderness where it intersects with a bunch of other trails which haven’t yet been restored since the big fire. There seem to be plenty of springs along the way, even at high elevation, so it might make for a good backpacking trip, a further exploration of wildfire adaptation. No end of future challenges!

Part 3: May

Third time a charm? Or perhaps a rude awakening.

With the warm, dry days of May upon us, I was looking for a canyon hike this time. A chance to spend most of the day in the shade of riparian forest alongside a babbling brook. Like the previous hikes into our first wilderness area, this would end in a climb to the crest, but only if I felt like it after walking up the canyon bottom a few miles. And I didn’t expect to feel like it, because the last big hike, a thirteen-miler, had taken a lot out of me. I was beginning to suspect that I’d reached the limit of what my aging body was capable of, so this hike was intended to be more modest.

I was starting late, after 11am, but there was only one vehicle ahead of me at the trailhead, and a half mile up the trail, I ran into its owner, an older woman with a small dog, on her way out already.

What little information was available in advance suggested that at least the lower part of this canyon was somewhat developed, with a cabin and some sort of mine. And the first thing I noticed was the abundance of invasive species, from the countless dandelions that blanketed the trail to the noxious tree-of-heaven sprouting on the banks of the creek. All brought in by the horses and cattle of the pioneers.

But this canyon had a lot more water too – probably four times as much as the previous canyon, rushing down from snowfields on one of the highest peaks in the range.

And wildlife! I found myself wading through clouds of butterflies the whole way. Massive dumps of black bear scat fresh this morning, so I made sure to project plenty of noise to announce my presence.

The terrain a little more rugged, with huge boulders, cliffs, and pinnacles looming everywhere. A mile or so in, I came to the abandoned cabin, and a little later, the mine, and after that it was all wilderness.

The endorphins kicked in and I was feeling good enough to climb out of the canyon to the saddle on the crest, which had been the absolute farthest I’d planned to hike. It was a long, steep, virtually straight slog through mostly burned forest in a side canyon.

About a third of the way up, I suddenly heard barking from higher up the canyon ahead of me. Just three or four sharp barks, lower-pitched – nothing like a hunting hound or a coyote would make.

Normally, you hear a bark, you expect either hikers or hunters, but I knew I was the only human in this whole watershed. There’d been no footprints or hoofprints in the canyon bottom. Could it be wolves? I didn’t really even know whether wolves could bark.

I stood stock still and waited. After a few minutes, another bark, much closer, coming from the slope opposite me, where the view was blocked by trees. And another bark, already farther down the slope. Whatever it was, it was moving fast, covering twenty or thirty yards between barks, over steep, rocky terrain.

I kept waiting, but whatever it was, it was long gone.

A little farther, I came upon the bleached, scattered bones of a cow, strewn along the trail for a few hundred yards.

The view at the top of the saddle was blocked by post-fire saplings. Still feeling good, I continued on up the trail, without a map, not knowing where it went from here, but excited about gaining some more elevation. The end of the next ridge was blocked by a huge rock outcrop, but the trail dipped and went around it, so I kept going, traversing into a new side canyon, hoping to eventually top out on a new crest with a new view.

I came upon a section of trail very popular with elk, littered with piles of scat. But I knew I was pushing my body and would pay for it on the way back, so I finally stopped, in the midst of a stark burn scar with a spectacular view, and had a brief snack before turning back.

This trail didn’t deliver as much elevation gain as the previous wilderness hike, but it sure provided better footing! Despite being “unmaintained,” and blocked by countless deadfalls, the footing was mostly smooth dirt and dry leaves, which made my problem foot very happy.

After the long traverse down the side canyon, I felt relieved to be back in the canyon bottom, figuring a walk-in-the-park back to the trailhead. But this is where my body started giving out.

Hiking down the main canyon seemed to take forever, and I gradually lost most of the strength in my lower body, from hips to ankles, so that in some stretches I was stumbling every third step. I kept thinking “the cabin’s got to be around the next bend, and after that it’s only another mile or so.” But the canyon just kept twisting and turning, between its cliff walls.

I got to a deep swimming hole I’d spotted on the way in, and climbed down to it, thinking an ice-cold plunge might just be the ticket. But the rocks and banks beside the pool were swarming with ants!

Finally I reached the cabin. I was feeling just about dead, but I knew I had a climb ahead of me to get back out of the canyon. The final stretch was just a blur of aches and pains and fatigue, and after that I had about an hour’s drive back to town.

I’d worn long pants this time, to avoid the rash and sunburn I’d gotten when hiking in shorts. But when I rolled up my pant legs, back at the vehicle, to loosen my tight boots, I discovered my lower legs were again covered with an angry rash. What I’d thought was sunburn or an allergy was actually the infamous “hiker’s rash” or exercise-induced vasculitis, a poorly-known condition in which the circulatory function of your lower legs fails and your blood vessels become engorged and inflamed. Apparently it’s incurable – you just have to deal with it for the rest of your life.

So a rude awakening! After six months of striving for longer and longer hikes, it now seems I may be permanently limited to medium-distance treks. And that with a lightweight pack – who knows how much more restricted I’d be for backpacking? And my lower legs are just going to catch fire whenever I go out – no getting around that. All flesh is grass!

Part 4: June

When I returned, in pursuit of my first big hike after a few weeks off training, it was the height of springtime in the mountains. In my part of the world, late spring is our hottest and driest season, and it was forecast to reach 90 degrees today. It did get plenty hot out there, but as they say, and believe me it’s true, it’s a dry heat! And last winter’s snows ensured that the creek was running, the riparian corridor was a jungle, the wildflowers were rampant, the flies were annoying, and the birds were ecstatic!

Not to mention the wild strawberries that I feasted on for extra energy, and the poison ivy that crowded the trail in the canyon bottom. I tried to be careful, but I fear another nasty rash may show up on various inconvenient areas of my body in the week to come…

Part 5: July

When I returned to the high wilderness in July, our monsoon was officially late. Hot, dry weather had intensified since June, with maybe a slight, tantalizing drizzle once a week, in the middle of the night.

But clouds were forming, and thunderstorms were producing rain nearby. I hoped that if I headed over to the peaks in the west, I might get lucky. And while driving up the highway, I did see a few fluffy clouds floating over the peaks ahead.

The canyon was even more of a jungle than before, and there was still a little stream flow from winter’s snowmelt on the peaks. New flowers were blooming to add to those I’d found before, fresh bear scat littered the entire trail, and birds were busy as ever. Gnats were especially annoying, and my energy came and went throughout the hike, so that in some stretches I had to stop and rest frequently, while in others I just powered my way up the steepest grades. I’m starting to learn that I need to take plenty of high-energy snacks and gulp them down regularly, instead of relying on a meal from hours ago.

During the climb, dark clouds covered half the sky above me, while the other half showed patches of blue. I couldn’t tell whether storms were moving toward me or away, but it was all beautiful, and with frequent shade the air stayed cool. I felt better on the upper stretch of trail and decided to go all the way to the crest, because the payoff here is the views at the very top.

On the way down, I decided to investigate the spring located just below Holt Peak, which dominates this stretch of the trail. I’d always thought it unusual to find a spring near a peak, but it sits on a steep slope above the trail, and I could see a cast-concrete spring box up there and figured it might be piped, so I hadn’t actually investigated it before. This time, I traversed across the slope of loose rock and deep pine needles, and discovered it’s a natural spring that simply drips out of a shallow bank on the hillside.

Normally I’m very careful about treating groundwater. But with no sign that this mountaintop had ever been grazed by livestock, and little chance that backpackers had ever camped above this spring since the trail bypasses it for more obvious destinations, I decided to have a drink. It was ice-cold, and delicious! It suddenly occurred to me that this was my best hike yet in this wilderness. My body was holding up well, the weather was great – I was still holding out hope for a storm – and I was drinking from the mountain, an experience that is always precious.

Sure enough, as I dropped down into the big side canyon, the dark clouds moved over, and a few drops began to fall. And when I reached the bottom, and the junction with the main canyon, rain began to fall in earnest, lightning struck somewhere nearby, and long avalanches of thunder began, lasting and reverberating between the canyon walls for many minutes.

I stopped, pulled my military surplus poncho out of my pack, and replaced it with my hat. But then the rain stopped and I was left carrying the poncho down the canyon.

Finally, about halfway down the canyon, a long spell of rain began and I donned my poncho. Even after the rain stopped, twenty minutes later, the air was cool and I kept it on, hoping for more rain later.

Sure enough, just as I reached the wilderness boundary a half mile from the trailhead, it really started pouring! My dream came true…

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The Perfect Sunset Hike

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019: Trips.

Driving on the Interstate, I saw the snow-capped mountain rising from the horizon, forty miles away. But I wasn’t going there.

I was going to the city to see if a spine specialist could figure out what was wrong with my right arm. Almost a year ago, as the rest of my body seemed to be getting better, the arm had started going haywire. Now, after x-rays, MRIs, and physical therapy, the local docs were stumped.

I’d resumed exercising, devising workarounds that allowed me to function, but the damn arm hurt every day, in all sorts of routine activities, and it woke me up at night, usually about once an hour.

The city doc said it had nothing to do with my spine. I’d have to see a shoulder specialist and get another MRI. Two more trips back to the city.

I dealt with the crowds, the traffic, the concrete, the filth. My town no longer recycles glass, so I took the accumulated bottles of the past year to the city recycling center, where a worker gave me a half-hour lecture about why glass is no longer recycled. He said that on street corners in the barrio, there are guys who collect glass and haul it to California, where they trade it for watered-down brandy.

I tried to do some shopping but failed as usual. In the age of Amazon, even in cities, brick-and-mortar stores no longer maintain useful inventories.

On Monday, one of my gym days, I did a strength-training workout in the fitness center of my hotel. Three younger guys, professional-looking, came in after me, did intense workouts, huffing and puffing, and left before I did. For young city people, it’s all about packing your workout into the shortest time possible, so you can spend more time doing your meaningless, soul-killing job.

On Tuesday, one of my hiking days, I thought of that snow-capped mountain. I researched the Forest Service website for a couple of hours and decided to take a detour on the way back home.

It was so good to leave the city, and get away from the outlying towns and their commuter traffic. Finally I was in the open desert.

Just before I turned off the highway, a weird military plane flew out of the pass I was headed for, at very low altitude. I watched it soar low across the desert basin, apparently aiming to crash into the mountains on the other side.

The pass immediately excited me. It was beautiful, full of golden granite boulders. Cattle grazed here and there, but I could see no buildings – just the boulder slopes with their junipers and oaks, and dry grasslands below.

It was mid-afternoon. The sky hung dark and low, threatening weather. Bring it on! I turned off toward the mountains, onto a deeply eroded dirt drive with mud and pools of water. There’d been a storm recently – hence the snow on the peaks – a storm that hadn’t reached us at home. I hadn’t brought a pack, but I had snacks and a water bottle. I suited up for any kind of weather I might meet and started up the trail.

Very narrow, it was one of the best-built trails I’ve hiked. It just went up and up, as steep as the steepest trail I hike at home. The Forest Service has three ratings – Easy, Moderate, and Difficult. This one was rated More Difficult. But it started more than a thousand feet lower than the trails I’m used to, so it was a breeze for me.

Fresh deer and bear sign everywhere. Tall grasses choking the trail. Manzanita, a beautiful shrub we don’t have at home. As I climbed the mountainside, heading toward the 9,000′ ridge high above, my views got better and better. After a while, the weird military plane – an A-10 Thunderbolt, nicknamed the “Warthog” – returned. They were introduced in the early 1970s and are used for killing people and destroying vehicles on the ground.

I really wanted to reach the big pines and the snow, but I had little hope. This trail started at 5,500′ and climbed to 8,500′ in five miles, but I only had time to hike half of it and return before dark. This was a south-facing slope, and at this latitude, I figured Ponderosa would grow no lower than 7,500′, with the snow line about the same, higher than I had time to hike.

It kept getting darker, and the temperature was probably in the high 40s to low 50s, but I was going fast and soon stripped down to my t-shirt. I climbed and I climbed, like going up rock steps, and after an hour and a half, I emerged into a grove of Ponderosa pine with patches of snow! Wow! I must’ve climbed nearly 2,000′ in 2-1/2 miles.

To be honest, I’d hiked longer than I’d planned, because I realized the sun was setting later now, and I’d probably still have plenty of light to get back. But I had to turn right around, no time to rest.

On the way up, my focus had been on the ridge towering above, silhouetted by a fringe of tall pines, with glimpses of snow in the shadows between them. But heading back down, I was looking straight out over the vast southern landscape, basins, peaks, and jagged ridges all the way to Old Mexico. I could see the state prison sprawling at the foot of the mountains to my right. I could see a ribbon of sparkling water straight ahead, 40 miles away, where the playa had flooded in the storm. I could see other snow-capped mountains even farther south and west, here near the Mexican border.

I suddenly saw something I’d missed hiking up, right beside the trail, an agave that had born fruit and died this past season, turning psychedelic colors I’d never seen before. I just stood and gaped at it for a while. How could this be real?

This was already one of my favorite hikes of all time. Everything just clicked. Despite the arm trouble, I was feeling better than I’d felt in years. I could hardly wait to come back and finish it later.

The clouds were breaking here and there. As I came down into the foothills with their golden boulders, the sun dropped below the cloud layer in the distant west and gilded everything around me. I realized I couldn’t have timed this hike better.

I drove to the nearest town in the dark and found a room. And in the morning, there were the snow-capped mountains, towering behind the town. It was hard to leave.

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Fall 2018 Part 4: Bittersweet Journey Home

Saturday, November 17th, 2018: Fall Trip 2018, Trips.

The Discoverer’s Duty

As I dove into the smog-choked Las Vegas basin, my trip entered its final phase. As usual, I’d used up much of the day checking out the last prehistoric site. My intention had been to drive through Vegas at mid-day, stock up on supplies for desert camping, and hit the road again at mid-afternoon with plenty of time to find a camp site in a familiar part of the Mojave. Instead, the sun was setting as I pulled into the Whole Foods parking lot in the upscale shopping mall and tucked my old, mud-splattered truck between the sparkling luxury SUVs and sports cars of the suburbanites.

I’d spent more than a week far from cities and industrial civilization, immersed in nature, walking through ancient campsites, surrounded by the art, the writings, and the ghosts of the Old Ones who’d lived lightly and sustainably on this beautiful desert land. Now I was suffering the usual shock of returning to civilization: the stressed-out crowds milling through a generic and completely artificial environment, competing against each other in their conspicuous consumption of the ravaged earth’s bounty. I tried to stay calm but failed.

It was dark by the time I emerged with my purchases. It’d been a long day, my crippled arm was sore from driving, and my only practical option at this point was to head for the cheap motel I knew in nearby Boulder City. My cooler still needed block ice, which is becoming increasingly harder to find, but I found it in the Boulder City Albertson’s, and as stressed as I was, while leaning over to rearrange my ice chest in the bed of the truck, I forgot to bend at the knees, and triggered my always-lurking lower back pain.

The whole trip so far had entailed a lonely struggle to keep my various sources of chronic pain at bay, while many of the routine chores of traveling – driving, reaching, turning, bending, lifting – threatened to cripple me. This is what I’d tried and failed to explain to my doctor before leaving: we never know when this kind of pain is going to be triggered by something, and when it is, if we don’t get immediate relief, we’re going to be crippled and our plans waylaid. Fortunately, I still had a dwindling stash of the emergency meds that are getting harder and harder to refill, as our Puritanical society wages war against doctors, pain sufferers, and legitimate pain relief.

Would I be able to continue with my trip, or would the pain sabotage my plans? I was really looking forward to finally camping out with friends in the familiar, welcoming environment of the Mojave Desert. But with the pain threatening me in the background, I had one more duty to fulfill before joining them.

In Part 3 I mentioned the ranching families who’d collected artifacts from their land and put them on display in the local museum. It was actually apparent from the displays that these collections were only on loan – the families still considered these relics of the people they’d displaced as their private property. Like all of my family and friends, I was raised in a society that is confident in its superiority over indigenous peoples and its right to virtually everything those natives once used or created.

As a child, I inherited a handful of arrowheads that my Dad discovered or was given by his elders back east. Everyone took for granted that anything you discovered was your property. Decades later, Katie and I went crazy when we started to find potsherds and stone tools around our desert cave. She was already beginning to collect historical artifacts and dead bushes to assemble into art back in the city. This was even better. We never gave a second thought to collecting parts of the landscape that others had left behind.

But now, more decades later, like most of my camper friends, I had a small collection of artifacts that I’d dragged around from home to home and that mostly spent their time hidden away in boxes. I had no one to leave them to, and I figured that when I died, some rushed, stressed-out acquaintance would probably end up tossing them in the trash without even looking at them. Unlike the Mormon families, I didn’t believe finding and collecting them made them my “property” – even if I’d found them on land I owned – because I don’t really believe in land ownership in our Eurocentric, legal, capitalistic sense.

There are a couple of sanctioned dispositions available for prehistoric relics in our society: transfer to science (archaeology), or repatriation to tribes. I’d kept pretty good track of where these – mostly potsherds – had come from, but after what I’d learned on this and previous trips, I’d lost faith in archaeologists, and I was really confused about what, if any, contemporary tribes had jurisdiction over the source of my collection.

My ultimate conclusion was that every generation needs the experience of discovery that I and my friends had had, the realization that people actually lived off the land and created things here that were both beautiful and functional, in this exotic place we initially treat only as a recreational playground. The best place for artifacts is where we find them, not in a private collection or even in a museum. My hope is that by returning these pieces where they came from, I can help launch someone else on the path I’ve followed, through the veil of civilized illusion to a clearer view of humans in nature.

Nuwuvi Desert

Returning those artifacts was one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had. When we’d found them, more than 30 years ago, we were camping a quarter mile or so off a lonely dirt road, after parking our vehicle on a dirt trail under a telephone line alongside the road. Now, the road is paved, it’s the main highway through a National Preserve, and where we parked our vehicle is a big, paved parking lot with a sign proclaiming “Scenic Overlook.” Whereas we used to wait a half hour or more between passing vehicles on that road, there’s now continual high-speed traffic, and almost always tourists parked there.

A cold wind was blowing – there was a high wind advisory across the desert for the next 24 hours – and in order to pull on my jacket and load my backpack, I had to squeeze between the open doors of other vehicles and the bodies of milling tourists, in this place that had once been so remote and lonely. I could feel them staring at me as I dropped over the edge of the parking lot and headed down into the desert alone. They soon left, and others arrived, as I revisited our cave and the spots where we’d found these creations of the old Indians, always aware of the strangers’ curious eyes aimed at me from a distance. It was a bittersweet visit, but it also felt like a circle was beginning to close. Now, my only future duty here would be to remove the furnishings of our cave, and it would be ready for someone else.

Now that I was in the National Preserve, the revelations of my journey through Southern Paiute territory were constantly on my mind. Until now, I’d taken the name “Mojave Desert” for granted – I’d even defended it against the Anglicized version “Mohave” used in Arizona. But the name had taken a more sinister dimension after I discovered that my sometime friend, the Park Service archaeologist, had ensured that signage and kiosks in the National Preserve identified only the Mojave Indians as natives of this desert, completely erasing the Indians I knew to be its historical inhabitants, the Chemehuevi branch of the Southern Paiutes. He was following the archaeological consensus that the Southern Paiutes were a violent, invasive group that forced the Mojaves out of the desert a few hundred years ago. And maybe he’d made friends in the Colorado River-based Mojave tribe, and was also playing favorites. But my journeys, as well as my recent anthropological readings, had revealed a contradictory story. Now I was primed to reject the very name of my beloved desert.

The name Mojave is a Spanish corruption of “Aha Macav,” the Mojaves’ name for themselves. Nuwuvi is what the Southern Paiute call themselves, and I now feel we should call it the Nuwuvi Desert, for the peaceful people who tell us they’ve always lived there, the people whose entire prehistory reveals a consummate adaptation to challenging arid habitats.

With that in mind, I headed home to my land in the Nuwuvi Desert. As the Chemehuevi say, “kaiyani” – my mountains.

Bittersweet Homecoming

When I discovered this mountain range, it was the remote, hidden oases I was attracted to. Scattered all over the range, a few miles apart, were isolated spots where water seeped out of the rocks and filled small basins that I, my friends, and our wild animal companions could drink from. These springs and seeps were sacred places. And now, after years of severe drought, they were drying out, one by one. The fracture zones that stored rainwater within the mountains were empty, and who knew when they’d ever be replenished? Our vaunted science is brought to its knees by the Great Mysteries, but many scientists, in their ignorance of the broader context, continue to aid industry in its unsustainable capitalist exploitation of resources we’ll never fully understand. A prominent geologist, a friend of a friend, is one of the founders of the controversial water project which aims to privatize the aquifer below our land and sell it to the city of Los Angeles.

One accidental theme of this visit consisted of revisiting places within a few miles of camp that I hadn’t seen in decades. Nooks and crannies I’d explored more than 20 years ago after first acquiring this land, but had avoided since, for whatever reason. And in every place we visited, I was, as usual, awed by the resilience of life in an environment that seems so parched and challenging to us weak, enervated domestic creatures.

At one point, returning from a hike, a couple miles from camp, I stopped to get something out of my pack. I took it off, set it on the ground and got what I needed, but when I tried to lift it to put it back on, I felt the old stabbing pain again, the one that can break out a sweat, stop me in my tracks and make virtually everything painful for the next week or so. Fortunately I caught this one early enough, but I still had to be super-mindful and careful for the rest of the day. The new normal.

Outdoor Life

The high winds came and went, and returned four days later, in the cycle I remember from winters past. Wind so strong, in this landscape of mountains surrounded by vast basins, that you had to lean into it to remain standing. And everything in your campsite has to be weighted down, or it can be blown away and impaled on the nearest bush of thorns or spines.

In the still intervals we could hear the birds stationed about their wild territory, calling to each other. The moon was coming back from new, its thin crescent slice growing barely perceptibly each night, but it set early to leave the sky to the stars, the constellations, the galaxy, and the always-present meteorites and high-altitude jets. We even saw a satellite once rushing down its orbit from pole to pole.

One thing I’ve always loved is to listen to the wind moving across the basin below camp, from shrub to shrub, from miles off in the distance to yards away in the big arroyo. But my companion noted that it even sings a complex “chorus” across the boulder-strewn slope above camp.

Driving Into Winter

As I was leaving our desert mountains, a cold wave was clamping down on the Southwest. I was reluctantly returning to a New Mexico home where the nighttime temperatures were in the teens. And the time change was working against me, so I didn’t get very far the first day of driving. And all my warm clothes were dirty from camping, so I had to do laundry again, and got a late start the second day. It took three partial days to get home, wrapped in thermal layers even in the truck so that when I stepped out for gas or to take pictures, I wouldn’t freeze.

This trip of revelations had also been a sobering lesson in how challenging camping can be when you’re struggling to cope with pain and physical conditions that need to be treated daily. I’d slacked off because it wasn’t convenient or there just wasn’t time, and I needed to get back on the program and resume spending a couple hours a day at home treating my conditions, including my daily schedule of stretching and working out, that I pursue mainly as conditioning for these wilderness trips. It’s all a very lonely pursuit, now that my friends and I are scattered all over the place, and busy lives rarely allow us to meet up. We didn’t know how lucky we were when we were young, healthy, childless, and couldn’t care less about our jobs back in the city.

Tragic Legacy

What did I learn from those two-and-a-half weeks of exploring what most people assume is old familiar territory for me? Why do I keep going back to Southern Paiute territory, when my friends are flying off to Spain, Iceland, or Australia, and probably not spending any more money to visit those presumably more exotic places, when you consider my gas and lodging costs?

Something that was percolating, annoyingly, below the surface of my consciousness, is how I’ve spent my life. Yes, as an artist, a bohemian, and an outdoorsman, I’ve had an incredibly exciting life. No complaints there. But I’ve also had two separate professional careers, two separate phases of my working life, one throughout the 1980s, the other from the late 90s through the mid-teens, that chewed up huge amounts of time, energy, and natural resources, and didn’t necessarily make our world a better place. It’s high time for me to acknowledge and deal with that, in some way.

The mid-term election in the U.S., with its corresponding social media hysteria, is probably one thing that forces me to deal with my professional legacy. The software interfaces that I led the design of, not just as a worker bee, but as an acknowledged “guru,” have turned out to be a force of destruction. I long ago stopped believing that they were a force for good, as some of my colleagues hoped in the beginning. But now it’s obvious that, like virtually all of our technology, they’re alienating us from nature and each other. They’re making it easier for capitalists to exploit us, to track our behavior and steal our private information. They’re addicting us, deluding us, depressing us. They’re even driving people to rape and kill each other, as in the case of Facebook and Myanmar. So much of my precious life, misdirected and wasted on works that betray my deepest principles.

Actually, it’s more likely that my recent discovery of my old friend James’s death is what started me on this re-evaluation. James recognized that to the extent you pursue a career in the capitalist economy, you’re part of the problem, and he had the courage to resist it his entire life. People can say that’s what isolated him and made him unhappy. But there are alternatives, people I know who, while forced to work in the capitalist economy, put their hearts into building resilient local communities. I tried to do that with my Harvest Festival, but although it succeeded for the community, it was a community I wasn’t able to join. There are no guarantees, and most attempts will fail, because the destructive power of our society is almost irresistible.

In addition to the revelations about rock writing, the Nungwu, Southern Paiute culture, and the Nuwuvi Desert, one significant discovery was the hidden, gradual, pernicious conversion of our country’s wild lands for mechanized recreation. It hasn’t been publicized, even in conservation-oriented regional media like High Country News, which are usually more focused on urban-centric politics anyway. In remote rural places, trail networks have been widened and developed for the new quad ATVs or UTVs, and tent campsites have been razed and graded into parking lots for monster RVs. And of course, in southern Nevada and eastern California, vast areas of high-quality, productive natural habitat in the desert have been destroyed and replaced with huge industrial solar plants and wind farms. Gas-powered RVs now have fuel economy in the single digits. Imagine how much natural habitat would need to be permanently destroyed to power a big electric RV in the future! That’s the world we – and our engineers and tech billionaires – are destroying for our children. I wonder how many of those engineers and entrepreneurs will eventually wake up too late to their tragic legacy, like I did.

I’ll have to think much more about the paradigm shift from rock art to rock writing, and the ubiquity of rock writing in native habitat. I still don’t understand the relationship between artistic expression and symbolic communication in my own work. Maybe I don’t need or want to understand it, just to continue to experiment with it in my future work – and I do have specific work planned and waiting to be made, when I can find the space and time to make it.

Regarding the development of roadside prehistoric sites – along existing roads – I can often lament the fact that a road was made there in the first place, especially when sites have already been severely vandalized. But the development I saw on this trip was uniformly protective and enlightening. And the vast majority of sites are still out there, hidden away, only accessible by strenuous hiking, waiting for future generations to discover and learn from. So that much is good.

In all, another bittersweet journey. Wish you could’ve joined me – we’d have much to remember and savor together.

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Fall 2018 Part 3: The Rocks Begin to Speak

Friday, November 16th, 2018: Fall Trip 2018, Trips.

High Prehistoric Tech

Five days and nights of my trip were already gone, most of them spent driving, zigzagging north across the emptiest parts of three big Western states. Four nights in widely-separated cheap motels, a hair-raising escape from an alpine blizzard, a detour to check out spectacular prehistoric rock paintings, and finally a cold night camping in a breathtaking canyon. The weather was getting still colder and windier and I was running out of clean clothes. I drove to the nearest town, farther north, where on an earlier trip I’d discovered a cheap but fairly luxurious motel with a laundry room. There I edited my photos and prepared the first couple of Dispatches. I’ve never found a decent restaurant in that town, so I’d eat in my room, from the simple stash of groceries I’d picked up at the first town I’d driven to, and leftovers from my night camping and cooking out.

It was the northernmost point I wanted to reach: the northern edge of the territory of the prehistoric Fremont people I’m trying to better understand on these trips. From here, I’d gradually make my way south and west, stopping whenever I saw something interesting, making side trips to check out rock art, hoping to find good campsites in late afternoon. I still had a week before I was due to meet my friends on our land in the Mojave.

Two days later I hit the road south. But I’d barely driven a half hour when I noticed a sign for a museum in this tiny village. It turned out to have quite a bit of thematic overlap with the much larger museum in the town to the north, but its more homespun curation raised intriguing questions that would haunt the rest of my trip. It was chock full of prehistoric artifacts donated by the ranching families who’d found them on their land.

What’s our responsibility – not the responsibility of citizens of a nation or a “civilized” culture, but the responsibility of invading ranching families who find the artifacts of the native people their society has dispossessed, stashed all over their newly-acquired ranchland?

What happened to the people archaeologists call Fremont – did they evolve into the Southern Paiutes, or were they replaced by them? On past trips I’d observed that the core Fremont lifestyle had to be eminently peaceful, and I knew from historical and anthropological accounts that the more recent Southern Paiutes were a peaceful, pedestrian people who were victimized by the warlike, equestrian Utes.

Who made the rock art in the Fremont area? The government archaeologist for the Mojave National Preserve had assured me, with photographic examples, that the only rock markings Paiutes were capable of were random scratches used to efface the work of other tribes. He’d repeatedly confirmed the archaeological consensus that Paiutes were warlike newcomers who’d spread out of eastern California across the Great Basin within the past millennium, killing off other tribes and appropriating their land.

And finally, how much more advanced are we modern people than those “primitive, superstitious savages?” With all our power, speed, and convenience, do we really live better lives?

Needle in the Haystack

Gratefully leaving the little museum, I drove a half hour farther south to a turnoff where I expected to find a rock art site. What got me interested in prehistoric rock art in the first place? Thirty-seven years ago, when I was at a turning point in my growth as a visual artist, a friend sent me a postcard of a site called “Newspaper Rock.” It was the first time I remember seeing prehistoric rock art. Dense with symbols, some representational, some abstract, it resonated with the new work I was creating. My graphical work – drawings, paintings, prints and collages – had always encompassed both “pictures” and “messages,” but I hadn’t been fully aware of that distinction. In recent years I’d expanded my pictorial work from simple rendering to narrative composition, and that had led me to the use of images as symbols.

At the same time, I was beginning to explore the Southwestern deserts, and as I kept developing and focusing my work, it evolved into compositions made of stylized natural imagery inspired by what I’d seen on camping trips. And eventually, in 1987, my girlfriend and I were shown real prehistoric rock art, outdoors, tucked away in remote corners of the Mojave Desert. We were hooked! As artists, we had heard of so-called “Land Art” by people like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, who used bulldozers and other heavy equipment to mimic the creations of ancient civilizations. But rock art was humble, uncivilized, intimate in scale, much better integrated into its natural environment. It seemed like it would’ve been part of the daily and seasonal life ways of the people who created and used it – people who lived lightly on the land, hunting and gathering, not building cities and temples like the inspirations of the “Land Artists” of the 70s.

During the postwar economic/science/tech boom of the 1950s, when the authorities wanted us to get out and burn gas on those fancy new highways – just like they want us to burn electricity now – AAA maps flagged prehistoric sites, including rock art. But those sites, all found in lonely places, were totally unprotected, and they were rapidly being destroyed by the vandals that are continually produced by our violent, narcissistic society. So by the time my girlfriend and I started studying rock art in the mid-80s, none of the sites were identified on commercially available maps, and on the ground, virtually none of them were marked by signs or had any sort of informative infrastructure. They were like the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Long before the internet, cell phones, or apps, we were shown rock art by friends, we picked up books at remote gift shops, we did research in libraries, we contacted experts by mail. We made our own lists and annotated paper maps. On road trip after road trip, camping and backpacking into remote canyons, we discovered work that blew our minds.