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Mojave Desert

Spring 2012: Places

Sunday, May 13th, 2012: Mojave Desert, Trips.

On my way to the Mojave Desert for a birthday powwow with friends, I spent a night in the Wigwam Motel on historic but dilapidated Route 66 in Holbrook, Arizona. From a restaurant window on Holbrook’s main drag, I watched a parade of broken men limping to and from a liquor store.

Over the years, my remote, spectacular wilderness retreat in the Mojave has bonded me with two biologist friends who also love the place. The three of us arrived late Wednesday afternoon and hiked up to the spring where one of them had placed a motion-sensor camera six months earlier. Then we returned to camp and cooked dinner as the waxing moon rose in the east.

On Thursday, I tried to follow my friends on a long hike searching for an “old Indian trail,” but became dehydrated and exhausted after trudging twelve miles under the desert sun. So on Friday I went looking for shade, walking up the gulch to the decaying shade house, built by miners a century earlier, where I had lived during my “year in the wilderness” long ago. First I found some old sheet metal and hauled it over gaps in the roof, anchoring it with heavy stones, then I spent the rest of the long, hot day lying in my Yucatan hammock: reading, listening to birds, soaking up the infinite peace of the desert. Bliss!

More friends arrived Friday evening, and we were all entranced by the “supermoon” which rose later and bigger each night.

After five days camping in the desert, I rejoined civilization, flying from Las Vegas over Death Valley, the glittering snowfields of the southern Sierra Nevada, and the waterfalls of Yosemite. As we approached San Francisco, my seatmate, an ex-stripper wearing layers of unhealthy-looking makeup, asked me if I’d seen the bird poop on the mountain tops. She said her father had told her about it and seemed truly surprised when I assured her it was snow.

I spent a few days hiking and catching up on more good conversation with old friends before attending a business meeting in Palo Alto. Before moving to New Mexico, I had lived beside the Pacific for eight years, and a walk beside the Bay in San Francisco’s Presidio left me missing the ocean. So the next day, a friend drove me over to Pescadero for a walk on the beach. It turned out to be high tide, so there wasn’t much beach to walk on, but we were treated to basking sea lions and crashing surf.


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Spring 2012: People

Sunday, May 13th, 2012: Mojave Desert, Trips.

This year’s desert powwow was enlivened by two totemic groups: the media-industry fathers and sons, and the field biologists.

The boys had the time of their lives climbing the boulder-strewn slopes near camp, and fathers and sons together had fun exploring the old mining ruins. Farther afield, the scientists roamed for miles over the surrounding ridges and canyons with their field glasses and GPS units.

My biologist friends are also expert gardeners and foragers, and we all enjoyed extravagant evening meals, featuring sazeracs and the legendary desert lobster.

The fathers had a chance to talk shop at midday under the shade canopy while their sons scrambled about outside, seemingly impervious to the sun’s rays. And around the late-night campfire, after the others retired to their tents, the scientists shared war stories of species and bureaucracies.

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Spring 2012: Animals

Sunday, May 13th, 2012: Mojave Desert, Trips.

Spring is a great time to see desert wildlife, and we were blessed not only with abundant sightings, but with photos of animals that visited the spring on our land over the winter, since one of the biologists had placed a motion-sensor camera there last November.

Mountain sheep expert John Wehausen spotted a group of rams at the head of the gulch, and the other biologists encountered numerous rattlesnakes on their hikes.

I was lucky to run across a couple of rattlers, a gopher snake and two variable ground snakes. Plus, I saw several western tanagers on migration, a flock of Gambel’s quail, and lots of jackrabbits. Redtail hawks were out in force, and from camp we saw one chasing a raven across the inner basin.

During my later hikes in the San Francisco Bay Area, I ran into lots more snakes, lizards, birds and insects – plus a group of sea lions basking on offshore rocks.

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Spring 2012: Flowers

Sunday, May 13th, 2012: Mojave Desert, Trips.

Several people remarked that this year’s spring bloom was below average due to drought, but I suspect that we were simply in the desert at the wrong time, in between the early bloom of annuals and the later flowering of perennials. Nevertheless, I spent my last day photographing what flowers there were, and I think they’re pretty impressive. What do you think?

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Spring 2012: Artifacts

Sunday, May 13th, 2012: Mojave Desert, Trips.

Our land is in a mountain range that had special significance to the desert Indians, but it’s doubtful that our property saw much use by Native Americans. There are lots of mining ruins dating back to the 1870s, but whereas I’ve found prehistoric campsites, potsherds, and rock art elsewhere in the range, I have yet to run across artifacts in our canyon.

But my scientist friends hit the jackpot on this trip, finding a large agate scraper on the bajada, and a nice small arrowhead on the slopes.

The boys revisited an area up the canyon where the old miners disposed of their bottles and cans, and collected some nice pieces of purple and blue glass.

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The Desert, November 2013

Thursday, November 21st, 2013: Mojave Desert, Trips.

18 months had passed since my last visit to my wilderness home in the central canyon complex of this remote, little-known mountain range in North America’s harshest desert. Since then, I’d learned more about how to manage my ruptured disc and bad hip, and I’d intensified my workouts, increasing my strength by 20% in the past year and building up my cardiopulmonary capacity by doing 8-12 miles of peak hikes per week at 7,000-9,000′ elevation. I had felt strong and confident. But during the past month, I’d suffered the worst flareup of back pain in years, followed by a week of searing pain in my thigh as a result of compensating for the back pain. The pain had finally subsided just before the trip, but I wasn’t sure how much hiking I’d be able to do. In any event, I was really looking forward to spending time with friends who love this place as much as I do.

Thursday 11/14

I turned off the old highway and took the gravel road down through the ghost town early in the afternoon. Two men were walking around the abandoned tungsten millsite, with a backhoe parked nearby. I wondered what they were up to, but I was anxious to reach the mountains, so I drove on up the pipeline road to the entrance to the Pass, where I stopped to deflate my tires to 16 psi for better traction in the sandy road. This was the first time I’d tried to make it in my little 2WD pickup, which was light on the driving wheels and often got stuck or lost traction in sand, mud, snow or ice. But renting a 4WD vehicle to get out here was no longer in my budget.

The little truck had no problem on the Pass road or the Gulch road up the almost imperceptible slope of the vast alluvial fan, lined with “desert pavement,” surrounding the west side of the mountains, with its wide vista from the distant white mountains in the north to the low-lying dunes in the south. There was only one old eroded set of tire tracks up the Gulch, clearly preceding the late monsoon rains, indicating much less traffic than in the past. Finally I reached the high point of the road before it enters the mountains, where you can look up the gulch and see the Statue rising on the central ridge of the range, framed by our north and south ridges, with the big dry wash flowing toward and below you on your right.

From here, the road dips onto the Pleistocene bench and then into the big sandy wash, which the little truck negotiated with no problems, all the way to where the interior basin opens out and the road turns left toward our gate across the bend of the upper Gulch, where the dramatic, incredibly rugged Mine Peak rises directly ahead like something out of heroic myth or legend. There were no tracks past the gate. I arrived at Cowboy Camp, our historic main camp site above the gate, at about 3pm and began assembling the shade structure for our ice chests from salvage materials stashed around the camp. The sun was rapidly setting behind the west ridge, and camp was in full shade by 3:30; what had been a mild day turned cool in the shade.

Based on a cell phone conversation in the morning, I’d expected Dave and David to arrive soon after me, but the west-facing slopes turned bright orange, the sun set, and I started a fire, set up my stove, and began cooking ground venison and rice. Finally around 6pm, a caravan of 3 trucks rolled up the wash under the nearly full moon: David, Dave, and their friend John, a biochemist from Ventura.

The night was totally still, not even a breeze. After dinner the four of us walked up the Gulch about a mile and a half in the moonlight. Shortly after we turned back toward camp, I felt myself racing to keep up with the three long-legged, fast-walking guys who were at least a head taller than me, but when I slowed down, my bad hip started hurting. The others disappeared up ahead without stopping or looking back. I was limping at first, but it became so bad I had to take half-steps, alone, stopping every hundred yards, all the way back to camp.

Mosquitos drove the others inside their camper shells, while I struggled to set up a net over my sleeping bag. The refueling flights (for decades, the military has used this mountain range to train pilots for mid-air refueling) came over, then clouds began to drift across from the west, becoming a continuous white quilted ceiling backlit by the moon, which lasted most of the night, incredibly beautiful.

Friday 11/15

In the morning, the others, compulsive distance hikers, were anxious to get started on their first serious hike, up to the Mine then along the ridge to Carbonate and across the head of the Gulch to the head of Bert. My hip was still sore, and I decided to head for the shade house and spend a day relaxing and absorbing the spirit of the place. There, I added another weighted piece of sheet metal to cover gaps in the dilapidated roof, lay in my Yucatan hammock reading, made a short hike to our seep, and had lunch. In the morning, I sporadically heard the voices of the others as if they were nearby, and saw a hawk wheeling above the ridge. The seep turned out to be dry, but bees were active in the cracks and there was a little green moss indicating water within the rock. The day was warm but breezy and chilly in the shade. A roadrunner explored outside the shade house, and curious phainopeplas were everywhere all the time.

Back at camp in the late afternoon, the others had cut their trip short by skipping Bert and coming down the Gulch, after climbing Carbonate. David cut up a big piece of recently-caught tuna for delicious sashimi. We all waited in vain for Friend and Jef to arrive, under a clear sky and a bright moon waxing toward full.

Saturday 11/16

Getting up in the morning, I saw a hummingbird on bladderpod flowers near my sleeping bag. Dave and David were ready to take John on a longer hike to Blockhead and the “Indian trail” to the south of our camp. After being left alone again, I explored the ridge above camp, still hoping for Friend and Jef to show up. My hip was feeling better, and shortly after 11am I started up toward the Mine, taking a pain pill and figuring that if I had to turn back I would have gravity on my side. The upper part of the hike is like something out of Lord of the Rings, involving risky traverses across steep, loose rock, precarious ascents of loose rock and boulders, and lots of tight squeezes between cliffs and deadly sharp yucca blades, all at dizzying heights with a glorious panorama of a hundred miles of desert spreading out thousands of feet below.

It was very dicy, but the pain pill kept me calm and optimistic, and I made it to the top in 2-1/2 hours, going slowly and carefully with lots of rest stops. I felt it was right at the limit of difficulty and danger that I can now risk, even with medication, and I vowed never to try it again alone. How ironic that I’d worked so hard during the past year, only to find that these “Achilles heel” type weaknesses, and the fear of triggering them by slipping or falling, can undermine all my conditioning! It was a sobering experience that a hike I used to find easy was now so daunting.

I’ve climbed many peaks, from legendary Mt. Shasta, at 14,200′, to Guatemala’s Volcan Atitlan at 11,600′, but something about the Mine peak, just shy of 5,000′, makes it feel taller, the air thinner and the view grander, than any other peak. On top of the world, on the ledge outside the improbable mine, with a sheer drop-off to a desert panorama reaching more than a hundred miles away without a paved road or human dwelling in any part of it, I ate my lunch among exotic rocks, pink barrel cactus, rusty metal, dry-rot timbers and the massive old Sullivan diesel engine that prospectors had winched up over 2,000 vertical feet of random boulders a century ago, an almost unimaginable effort driven by single-minded greed. The winter days were short and it was already time to head back; I started down the treacherous, super-steep east slope toward the seep, slipping again and again on loose rock, feeling old and feeble, and it really seemed to take forever. I remembered the first time I’d come down that way more than 20 years earlier. The loose rock had freaked me out, but I found that by imagining I was a bighorn sheep with opposable hooves, focusing on gripping the rock with my toes, it became doable. Didn’t seem to help much now.

Back at camp I met Friend and Everett, and the other hikers had returned as well. Friend and Everett had arrived just after I had headed up to the Mine, and had spent the day hiking near camp. David had found an amazing quartz crystal below Blockhead, and they had come upon a recent campsite with two cleared footprints for tarps at the top of the Indian trail. I couldn’t believe David’s luck in finding the crystal – after Dave’s earlier discovery of a beautiful museum-quality stone tool – objects the like of which I’d never found here myself. But David said, “Max, as an artist you get to create beautiful things, but I can only look for them!” Dinner that night was surf and turf: lobster, steak and sausage. Jef drove up as dinner was being cooked, completing our group.

Sunday 11/17

Friend planned to leave in late morning; John planned to leave in early afternoon and Jef planned to leave after dinner. The four biologists first walked up to the seep to check and service the motion sensor camera David had placed there 18 months ago. Max and Everett hiked up the ridge opposite camp looking for the “throne” Everett and Friend had created the previous day.

After the biologists returned, John left, and the remaining three headed over to Bert to check the camera Dave had placed there last March. It turned out that the camera had malfunctioned – or had been triggered by blowing grass, shooting thousands of identical images, but amazingly, in the middle of the series, it had captured a hungry-looking mountain lion, perfectly framed in the center of the image.

The photos from the seep included almost every other major animal and bird of the area, from ground squirrel to bighorn sheep, quail to hawk, and showing that our Gulch bobcat swings by almost every day, including within an hour of our visit, probably spying us and motivated by feline curiosity.

That night the reduced group feasted on grilled tuna belly and lamb steak, and Jef drove off under the full moon.

Monday 11/18

After a second day of relative leisure, I was ready for my special hike to my holy place, the sacred heart of the mountain range, the Plateau. I really wanted David and Dave to join me, but they said they were finally ready to relax after their three days straight of hiking at their own fast pace.

While finishing our breakfast we all suddenly noticed that the sky was filled with dozens of jet contrails going every which way. During the past days of our visit, we could only remember seeing an isolated contrail once or twice. It was spooky; we speculated an apocalypse in the outside world and discussed what we would do if we found civilization in collapse on our departure from paradise.

The Plateau hike involves two miles across the rolling bajada from Cowboy Camp, up a meandering sandy wash which is alternately narrow and broad to the base of the dry Waterfall, where you’re faced with a challenging climb, 500 feet up a very steep slope of loose rock and crumbling granite ledges protected by thorny cat claw and deadly yucca. Again, a pain pill placated my pesky hip and back.

At the top you drop into the Waterfall itself, which is a series of white granite ledges sculpted by water into sweeping curves and pools which you can walk up to the lip of the Plateau itself and the meandering streambed which is dry in most seasons. The Plateau is a rolling area with little level ground, mostly consisting of steep ridges and cliffs dissected by the stream drainage, with the central ridge of the mountain range towering above, punctuated by the Statue, who is now close. The stream itself is choked in many places with brush or boulders that require climbing around, but there are many rewards for effort; the Plateau hides the densest trove of riches in the entire range.

Like the Gulch Seep, the Plateau streambed was bone dry. At the foot of a small pour-off I encountered my first prize: the partial skeleton of a mature bighorn ram, from pelvis to skull, with one horn detached like the skull I had found at the top of the Plateau Waterfall on my very first visit more than 20 years ago.

Next I came to the first group of pinyon pines on the south bank above the streambed, and checked this year’s crop of cones for nuts, but all the intact nutshells I cracked contained only a paper-thin “ghost” of a nut. However, I began finding healthy pinyon seedlings, so some nuts must have matured in recent years.

The plateau is an island paradise of relict vegetation found nowhere else in these or the neighboring mountains: willows, scrub oak, silver leaf manzanita. I began encountering isolated, man-sized, perniciously invasive tamarisk plants in the lower drainage, and plants twice as tall farther up, recovering after the official eradication project back in the 90s. Masses of dead tamarisk still choked parts of the drainage from that old project.

I love coming upon the stands of coyote willow at places where water remains near the surface of the ground. The first stand grows around the “window” of a small rock shelter with convex ceiling; the next two include unusual tall trees, up to 40′ in height, which appear to be a distinct species but have the same leaves as the small coyote willows. The tall willow trees had died back significantly from drought, but in general the stands of coyote willow were looking good, maybe even expanding. I also love the small “meadows” of native bunch grass which cover shallow slopes next to the willow groves.

My destination was the Indian puberty site and campsite, which is hidden above the stream on a high ledge. I had discovered it 20 years ago when looking for a natural campsite; above a wet place in the streambed, surrounded by pinyon and juniper trees, there was a large, perfectly level space directly below the Statue with a sunset view and a collection of rocks at hand for a fire ring. On that first visit, I was fresh from my primitive survival course, and had initially tried to build a shelter of pinyon boughs and brush, but it got dark too quickly and I ended up trying to sleep in a cave which got so cold I had to keep a fire going all night next to my thin bedroll.

The morning after that long-ago cold night, I had breakfasted in a boulder nook soaking up the morning sunlight, when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a pottery shard lying in a crack between boulders, of the simple style the desert Indians made quickly and disposed of easily as they traveled lightly on foot across vast distances. I followed the crack uphill, finding more shards, to areas of soil darkened by generations of campfire ash, which were impregnated with more shards and colorful flakes of tool-making stone carried or traded from far away. Around the corner of a towering boulder was an alcove containing a flat-topped granite rock like a table, with shallow cuplike cavities carved laboriously into its hard surface. Years later, I met and worked with the newly hired archaeologist for the Mojave Natural Preserve, and he told me that these “cupules” were probably made and used as part of a girls’ puberty ceremony. Groups of girls who were coming of age would run together to this site from their home village – maybe on the Colorado River, far to the east, or Twentynine Palms, even farther to the west – to hold a mysterious rite somehow involving these carvings.

Here, far from civilization, in the ancient campsite of a people whose way of life we destroyed, on a high plateau surrounded by white granite cliffs, below an iconic anthropomorphic monolith revered by prehistoric Indians and Anglo prospectors alike, I always feel like I’m in the center of the world. But I never found a way to live here, and it’s clear that the Indians didn’t either. It’s hard even for wildlife; the resources are just too sparse on the ground. Bighorn sheep pass through here on their treks between major water sources. The Indians used this remote but sacred mountain range ceremonially and for opportunistic hunting, not for village sites or subsistence foraging.

Around the puberty site, I found some exposed pottery shards and stone tool flakes, but not as many as in the past. Again, these days were short; I didn’t want to have to shower in the shade back at camp, so I started back down right after lunch.

Dave and David had done an easy walk across the bajada to the boulder pile just south of the Waterfall; they showed up in camp after my return. Dinner was grilled lamb racks and sausages; we all agreed the weather had been perfect during the entire trip. Dave gazed silently at the roaring campfire while David talked excitedly about how relaxed he felt.

Tuesday 11/19

Not having a job to get back to, I was the last to leave in the morning, getting started shortly after 10am as the refueling flight was making a morning pass. After the others left, I dismantled and stored the pieces of the ice chest shade structure and set up the cable gate across the wash. Feeling wistful, I drove slowly down the lower Gulch, out of the mountains and across the alluvial fan with its forever views. Below the Pass, I stopped to re-inflate my tires, a 25 minute job with a cheap 12 volt compressor. The day had started with a promise of warmth, but clouds had come over and even before noon it was getting cooler.

Despite the pain and frustration, I felt this was my most enjoyable Gulch visit in years. I regretted the shortness of time with Friend and Everett, and I wished that others had been able to join me on my hikes, but I felt that my mix of relaxation and hiking had been perfect. My lumbar condition resulted in frequent pain throughout each day when doing routine chores; camping is becoming more of a challenge with the requisite awkward heavy lifting, leaning, bending, crouching and kneeling, and I was looking forward to a bed and other conveniences, but I began thinking of ways to adapt my camping routine in the future, until the inevitable day when I would no longer be able to visit my wilderness home. We all reach a point in life at which bittersweet pleasures are the only pleasures we can expect.

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Birthday Miracle

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014: Mojave Desert, Southeast Utah, Trips.

Note: The photos below are viewable in high resolution. After clicking on the thumbnail, you can really get a sense of being there by clicking on View Full Size at lower right of the photo.

First view of my destination - the mountains on the horizon - from New Home Bench, above the Escalante River Canyons

A Spontaneous, Poorly Conceived Trip

Out of work, betrayed by faceless bureaucracies, threatened with financial ruin, sick for months with a mysterious infection that kept coming back, filling my aching head with mucus, making me disgusting to be around, slow and stupid, weak and tired from lost sleep, waiting in waiting rooms and in line at pharmacies, traveling sick in airport lines and crowded shuttle buses and crammed in airplane seats…

And now my birthday was coming up, and I had nobody around to celebrate it with, all my family and close friends were a thousand miles away – because we had drifted apart, I had moved, my attempts to make new friends were frustrated.

Antibiotics seemed to be working, but still tired and weak…needed to get out of my rut, to fool myself somehow into feeling good…a change of scenery? Couldn’t really afford to travel, even by road. But that seemed the only option, a camping trip. The cheapest place would be my land in the desert. What the hell, you only live once.

I immediately notified my partner in ownership – I never go out there without telling him – but it turned out he had already planned a trip without me, a father and son gathering with his son’s friends.

A sudden decision, no planning – a self-imposed deadline for departure – it was a setup for more stress, desperation and inevitable mistakes as I raced to pack, load the truck, get the house and my pathetic affairs in order. A heat wave was beginning. I have an impeccable list for these trips but I was two hours past my artificial deadline, the day was getting hotter, and I skipped the list.

A Desert in Ireland

Driving west across the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau on I-40, just past Holbrook, gently undulating steppes all the way to the horizon, 50 miles away on left and right. Suddenly I’m in haze, like fog, lying over the ground and obscuring the blue sky and scattered cumulus clouds above. The sagebrush and juniper look out of place, like a desert in Ireland. It’s been a hot drive, the AC is on, a curious harsh smell coming through the vents. Takes me a while to recognize it as smoke from a distant wildfire.

I drive through the monstrous tongue of smoke for more than an hour, and then there’s Flagstaff, with a dark sky of low clouds hanging about the San Francisco Peaks, which I glimpse through an opening, draped in fresh snow.

Wearing shorts, I stepped out into cold mountain air at the market, and it began to rain hard as I shopped for groceries and beer. One benefit of these trips is getting IPAs I can’t get at home. The beer shop had a new, lower-alcohol IPA from Stone that turned out to be a great new summertime beer.

Disgusted with the overwhelming generic yuppie landscape and cutthroat competitive traffic of Flagstaff – which I first knew as a sleepy little railroad town – I briefly tried to relax over a plate of carnitas in an upscale strip-mall taqueria, then raced onward through the black silhouettes of forested mountains toward the sunset and my cheap motel, where I could see lightning blinking above a dimly glowing horizon.

It wasn’t until the following noon in the Mojave, cresting the pass at Mountain Springs Road, that I suddenly felt happy and at peace, returning home to my golden mountains of stone riding like ships above their pale alluvial basins as far as the eye could see. On the way up the alluvial fan, while I was grinning at the summit peak over on the left with a suggestive white cloud hanging over it, a mature red tail hawk flushed out of the low roadside shrubs and swooped theatrically over the gravel road in front of me.

When I reached camp, met the LA crowd and saw their impressive array of expedition gear, I realized I’d forgotten my folding camp chair. Fortunately my partner generously offered me one of his for the rest of my trip.

Sleeping in the Open

Few clouds in the blue sky, little wind, warm but not hot. The rusty golden slopes, cliffs and peaks of ancient stone embraced the broad valley below us as I relaxed with the fathers in the shade of their canopy – the campsite has no natural shade – while the kids climbed around over the granite boulders. Their elaborate cooking gear and wheeled ice chests sat nearby in a ceremonial circle like Stonehenge.

We talked through the rest of the long day until sunset, when they burst into chaotic labor, trudging back and forth between their individual camp kitchens and their vehicles parked below in the sandy wash, servicing their kids’ needs and getting them ready for bed.

After dining, they all retired to the confinement of their tents, while as always I slept out in the open, watching the sky darkening, the stars emerging, and the Milky Way reassembling its vague, mysterious shape overhead. For some reason, on this trip I slept better on the ground than ever before; my 30-year-old ergonomically-designed sleeping pad felt so good that even with my bad back I could rest easily in any position.

I saw a falling star immediately on lying down, and woke sporadically through the night to enjoy the westward progress of the constellations and the galaxy.

Theriodonts and Chemehuevis

Warmer in the morning. The fathers were already preoccupied with leaving, returning to their deadlines and crises in the city, working hard to break camp and load their vehicles, while I fried bacon for everyone. With his father busy, one of the kids I hadn’t interacted with much gravitated to me and we talked about our favorite dinosaurs. I told him about the theriodonts, reptile ancestors of the mammals that provided evidence for continental drift. But in my mind I was regretting the way dinosaurs are used to pimp for Big Science.

I told him about the Chemehuevis and their 10,000 year cultural memory of the extinct horse. He seemed relaxed amid all the bustle of departure, enjoying my stories and our conversation, whereas one of the other kids had already had enough, immersing himself in computer games on his dad’s laptop, anxious to get back to his comfort zone in the city.

As they hurriedly piled into their vehicles, I asked them about the bag of trash they’d left. They all said they didn’t have room for it, apparently unaware it was theirs. This was the second time in a row they’d left me with trash to dispose of, but fortunately this time it was only half a bag. Last time it’d been two full ones that I had to sort for recyclables in the heat of Las Vegas. But hey, at least I got a chair out of it, that more than made up for a stinky load and a little dirt on my hands!

Amazing how much packaging trash and garbage families can generate in a couple of days – after an entire week of camping I can’t even fill a small grocery bag, let alone the full size hefty bags they bring. But then it takes me months to fill my city garbage can at home. They have the families, the urban lifestyle and high-pressure careers; I’m lonely and poor, but have plenty of time to focus on the little things.

Sweating in Silence

It was already quite hot when they left and I packed to head up to the shade house. I figured I’d spend the heat of the day in my hammock in the shade, then go for a hike around sundown. But I wasn’t thinking straight. Sundown would be very late.

I wanted to park at the overhang midway up the Gulch and take the shortcut path up the alluvial bench, but driving up the sandy wash I realized my 2wd truck probably couldn’t handle the deep sand of the first sharp bend, so I stopped in the narrows just beyond the beginning of the shade house road and filled my pack. Starting up the road I discovered that someone had recently driven up it – quite a feat since we’ve considered it undriveable for more than 20 years. Of course, this entire area is private property with a No Trespassing sign, but as any rural property owner knows, to many people that’s a challenge not an impediment.

Someone had obviously seen this as a Jeep commercial, one of those extreme off road opportunities with two-foot boulders to drive over. In the process they’d destroyed 20 years of beautiful native vegetation. With the sun directly above, the morning’s heat radiating from the 2,000′ rock walls above me, and still on antibiotics, I had to stop frequently to rest, even though it’s only about a half mile and a climb of 300 feet or so. At the shade house, I found a few cigarette butts lying around, and the macho trespassers had dumped out the old can of artifacts the kids had collected on previous trips: historic pottery, purple glass, and interesting pieces of metal.

I strung my hammock and began to read the library books I’d brought from home, but soon I was sweating in the shade, and it was only early afternoon. I had to go up on the roof and do some more patching to keep rays of sunlight from scorching me. I was sure it wasn’t as hot as when I had lived out here in the summer of 1992, but for some reason it was affecting me more now. I was uncomfortable for the rest of the day, and knew I wouldn’t be able to do any hiking, which is the main reason I come out here. Later, when I got back to civilization, I checked the temperature history of locations that match our land, and found that day’s temperature was likely 100 degrees, so in retrospect I didn’t feel like such a wimp!

In mid afternoon I became aware of an eerie silence. The night before, I’d strained to hear a single cricket intermittently chirping in the distance. I hadn’t seen any birds yet. Now, in the springtime, there should be an abundance of both birds and insects. The day before, we had talked about how the desert willow seemed to be blooming sparse and late. At camp I’d noticed how dark and shriveled the leaves of the creosote bush were. A female phainopepla appeared briefly at the shade house, but otherwise there were no birds and no bird or insect sounds throughout the entire day. It might have been the driest, and most dormant, I’d ever seen this place.

Finally, by 6:30 pm, the sun dropped behind the western ridge, and I began to pack for the trip back to the truck. I was so weak at this point I didn’t even feel like hiking the short distance up to the seep to check the motion sensor camera. The next day was my birthday, and I wondered how the hell I was going to celebrate in this unbearable heat?

Maybe it would be better to lie on the sand under the overhang in the Gulch, which is in shade from late morning. But I still wouldn’t be able to do any hiking, and I would probably exhaust my reading material early in the day. Sadly, I realized I’d have to leave my land and drive to someplace cooler to spend my birthday in comfort.

Driving back to camp I passed two cottontails huddled together under a bush.

I was staging my meals in order to make best use of the meat I had brought. The chicken would spoil first, so I had to grill it tonight. I waited until 9pm to start a fire; it was still uncomfortably hot out, but the chicken ended up tender and succulent. Finally, by about 10:30, the night started to cool off and I went to bed naked. There had been no moon either night, so the stars had it all to themselves.

Air Conditioning and a Pool

Awakening on birthday morning, I decided to head in the general direction of my favorite mountain range in southeast Utah, where I knew there would be moderate temperatures, alpine hiking, and shady camping in aspen groves. It was a long day’s drive and I didn’t want to spend my birthday driving, so I would need to find a comfortable motel, somewhere in the hot desert not far from here, to break up the trip. I envisioned air conditioning and a pool, someplace with little traffic, but I didn’t know where that would be yet.

As an omen of the day to come, by the time I had broken camp at 8:30 am, it was already too hot to exercise. I bid a sad farewell to my home in the Mojave, flushing a big jackrabbit out of the desert willows near our gate.

My route would inevitably take me through the southern tip of Nevada, but I wanted to avoid the madness of Las Vegas at all costs. Between Goffs and the 95, I stopped to top up my tank with the gas from the extra can, and checking the map I found there was a long way to bypass Vegas through the Lake Mead recreation area, which I knew to be fantastically beautiful. I would look for a historic motel in Boulder City, which I knew from old desert trips, when one of my biologist friends was living there.

El Rancho Boulder turned out to be perfect. I had the large, clean pool all to myself for a birthday swim. What relief after the extreme drought and heat! Decadent, yes. Wasteful and unsustainable, for sure. I spent my calendar birthday in a motel, but my spiritual birthday was yet to come.

Paiute Homelands

The next day’s drive was better than I’d remembered, better than I’d expected. The road past Lake Mead became vaguely familiar as I arrived at a massive roadside spring. I had stopped here with a girlfriend, not sure which, returning from a road trip decades ago. The garish clay domes and fantastic redrock outcrops were intimations of what I’d find far ahead in Utah; the Moapa Valley was a bizarre mix of huge trailer parks, irrigated farms, and McMansions on hills.

From my place in the California desert, to my destination in southeastern Utah, is the ancient homeland of the Southern Paiutes, people whose sophisticated way of life was, unlike ours, perfectly adapted to their environment. They were “environmentally sustainable” for thousands of years, until the Spanish enslaved them, the American frontiersmen and military hunted and killed them like wild game, the Mormons and other white settlers appropriated their fertile farmland and forced them into indentured servitude on Anglo farms, culture hero Mark Twain ridiculed them as subhuman degenerates – and now they’re forgotten or ignored by our culture of Mars rovers and Google Glass.

Yet they may thrive again as our tottering society consumes itself.

Back on the interstate, I made the improbable crossing through the monumental Virgin River Canyon into Utah and steadily uphill to Cedar City, where I took a road east that was new to me. After a week of increasingly hot weather I felt the temperature drop rapidly as the road climbed into aspen and fir forest, past lush alpine meadows and extensive snow-packed slopes. Suddenly, the heat was behind me! At 10,000′ there was an overlook from which I could see the towers of Zion far to the south. Then, driving faster because I was concerned I wouldn’t reach my destination that evening, I came upon the Markagunt Plateau, an amazing highland of brown and black lava flows in which an aspen forest has taken root. Snow beside the road, meandering trout streams, lots of roadkilled deer.

Then, descending into the Sevier River valley, with more lush pastures, ponds and lakes, incredibly beautiful country following the river north.

I turned east again across the high Bryce plateau, then down into dry ponderosa forest and the warm, dry Paria River valley with big silver-leaved trees along the floodplain. At the farming village of Henrieville I left all the tourist traffic behind. So peaceful here; I had to stop in the town for a red hen leading 7 grown chicks across the highway.

Climbing again toward dark, heavy clouds dragging tendrils of rain, through badlands divided by small running streams, more lush high pastures and meadows surrounded by ponderosa, and the smell of rain. What a country we’ve invaded, damaged and polluted!

I stopped for gas in Escalante and found the most beautiful gas station restroom I’ve ever seen.

Dropping into the red sandstone of the Escalante canyon, a powerful musky smell and edible Prince’s Plume blooming everywhere along the road, then up onto the vertiginous narrow ridge of New Home Bench overlooking the white domes and canyons of the Escalante Country. It was there that I realized more than ever how roadbuilding is a sin – and paved roads are a cardinal sin.

You will say I’m a hypocrite because I use these roads to quickly reach my favorite places, but two generations ago these places were reached by dirt roads that had vastly less ecological impact, and two generations before that people simply drove their old, high clearance cars across untracked land, getting to the same places that we’ve spent millions to pave. And before that, of course, they went horseback, and before that walked, and because of it were healthier than any of their descendants. All these places were always accessible, but with far less impact, and an unpaved track is quickly reclaimed by nature.

I began to think of the places where paved roads are most evil: Yosemite Valley, Tioga Pass, the Virgin River Canyon, Long Canyon, the Burr Trail, Comb Ridge…the list is endless.

At the edge of Boulder I turned off on the Burr Trail, a road my aboriginal skills instructor called particularly wicked, a road fought bitterly by environmentalists in a losing battle against redneck yahoos. Driving up Long Canyon, which should have been a hiking trail not a road, a fat red-brown marmot bounced across the road in front of me.

Camping on the Edge

The sun was setting behind the cliffs as I crested the head of the canyon, with my first view of the distant mountains that were my destination, dimly silhouetted far in the east, with visible patches of snow on the crests. Below, I saw a dirt trail off to the side and followed it to a campsite on the edge of a cliff overlooking multi-colored hills and canyons and juniper plateaus.

It was still mercifully cool up there, but I knew that down in the canyon lands to the east, it would be as hot as in the Mojave. I gathered just enough small firewood for a cooking fire. I reached into the ice chest for my birthday steak, which I had bought four days ago frozen but had thawed immediately. The lamb sausages had been waterlogged the whole time. I put them all on the grill and overcooked them; I joined the steak with a cabbage salad and saved the sausages for another night. Midges and lacewings attacked me gently after sunset; a bat hunted through camp, and an owl hooted down in the canyons before I went to sleep under clouds that gradually broke up and revealed the stars.

At dawn I was awakened by my first mosquito; the midges were bad in my ears and eyes. I hoped they wouldn’t be like this in the mountains.

Back on the Burr Trail, I passed a big but young mule deer buck standing in a dry meadow staring at me. He was so big I first thought he was an elk.

Down the legendary switchbacks into another long valley where I turned north into that amazing hidden country of sporadic, huge, lush farms and ranches, the prelude to my destination. I’d never approached it from the south before and I overshot my turnoff.

Salivating for Snow

My attraction to these mountains is almost as mysterious as my seduction by the Mojave. I remember driving past them with Katie on our rock art expedition in 1987, and thinking they looked inviting, a high, green, presumably cool oasis in the midst of a vastness of red rock. Somehow that vision got lodged in my mind; more than 20 years later I found myself retracing our expedition path, and ended up climbing to the summit and falling in love. Since then, I’ve found a few others who also treasure this remote, little-known range.

As far as I can tell, these very mountains were the eastern limit of the Southern Paiutes, the tribe I know and admire the most, the tribe that branched and became the Chemehuevis who claimed what is now my land in the Mojave. The group that lived in this area was called the Yantarii. Nothing seems to be known about them; they managed to evade our historical appropriation.

Back on course, across dramatic badlands and climbing up, up the big mountain from sagebrush foothills through pinyon-juniper into the ponderosa and then the alpine fir and spruce. Dark clouds swirled around the summits up ahead and I salivated for that snow! Someone had driven the road much earlier when it was saturated after snowmelt, and their deep ruts, meandering back and forth, had dried rock-hard so that it was very slow going in my bouncy, rattling little truck. It was yet mid afternoon and I wanted to park at the pass and try the summit hike.

I passed a rancher in his pickup truck; these mountains are grazed to the top. I passed groups of mule deer, and a small area of recent clearcut with a pile of ponderosa logs and a trailer. I passed the first aspen groves above 9,000′ and carefully inched my way up the final steep, rocky grade. Entering the fir forest near the pass I encountered an ATV trailer someone had surprisingly parked right in the road; I squeezed past it, rounded a turn and came upon a deep snowdrift blocking all but a couple feet of the roadway. So I backed to a wide place in the road, parked and loaded my backpack.

Talus and Tundra

The pass was only a few hundred yards past the snowdrift. Out of the trees I encountered a gale force wind, as I had in my previous visit. The air temperature was probably about 50 degrees, and the steady west wind was only slightly less than what would knock me down – maybe 60-65 mph.

The pass is 10,500′; the peak is only a thousand feet higher, at the end of a crestline of four progressively higher peaks. The initial slope is a gentle grade, but with my weakness and the relentless wind I felt uncertain starting out and quickly lost heart and breath. I kept having to stop to rest. I thought I might stop at the first low peak and turn back.

The crest line is true alpine tundra, which, I’m guessing, exists unusually in this latitude and elevation probably because of the constant cold wind. Thus the slopes are clear, and the approach is mostly a good trail, with occasional traverses of brittle diorite talus, festively decorated with orange lichen.

I reached the little grove of wind-stunted dwarf spruce and firs at the first peak, and tried to cross a snowdrift that blocked the trail between the trees. At first the snow was hard, then my boots sank deep and I got snow in them so I had to briefly take them off in that harsh environment. I was not feeling particularly robust at this point.

The trail to the next peak was much steeper. It just headed straight up the slope. I forced myself to try it. And somewhere in that difficult climb, in that howling wind, I got my spirit back.

At the second peak I was on top of the world. I could see across all the canyon lands, a maze of red, yellow and white rock to east and west, burning hot way down there while I was freezing up here: the engine of that wind. Ahead of me across the trail to the third peak was a slab of snow hundreds of feet long, with a small cornice facing me. I skirted it along a soggy slope that got steeper, until I had to find a way across the snow.

I found a place where it seemed to be shallower, and tried kicking my boots into it. It was soft but firm and I could climb over it. The rest of the third crest was nonstop talus, with that howling wind threatening to topple me from every loose rock I stepped on. Then there was the steep climb to the final summit, over big, sharp, barely eroded loose diorite chunks and slabs. Occasionally I saw a spider scrambling between rocks; I came upon three ravens; otherwise nothing but lichen and hardy tundra plants hugging the sparse soil.

The clouds were pulling back as I reached the summit. I couldn’t believe I’d made it, feeling the way I had at the start. I was so elated, I made a video for whoever may have wished me a happy birthday, back in civilization.

Coming back down was actually the hardest part, because without the heat of exertion I felt the cold a lot more. I cinched my hood as tight as I could around my face. The next day my lungs were burning and I coughed a lot, but after that it cleared up.

Waiting for the Dark to Fall

With this cold and this wind, my former campsite in an open grove at the head of a ridge was way too exposed, but I knew there was another attractive aspen grove protected in a bend in the road farther down. What I didn’t know was how cold it would get at night; I had only my lightweight summer sleeping bag.

When I pulled out beside the lower grove, I found faint old vehicle tracks that passed the grove up a gentle slope, and walking up I found one of the best campsites I’ve ever seen, in a mature grove of very tall aspens, some of whose trees had started to die, providing ideal bird nesting habitat. It hadn’t been visited or used yet this year; there was lots of dry firewood; there was a woodpecker working loudly high up in the canopy.

I got out one of the lamb sausages, sliced and mixed it with some seasoned black beans and rice I’d cooked days earlier in the Mojave. I started a small fire and sat waiting for the dark to fall. I thought about how I keep making these trips alone, because I have no one else to make them with. I know of only one other guy who might rarely go camping alone. Most of my friends would never venture it, and certainly not the climbs or canyon hikes I do by myself. The arrogant jocks and bullies who threatened me and called me a coward in high school are now all out of shape and in poor health and probably couldn’t handle a single night outdoors.

It was a chilly night, but I slept with all the warm clothing I’d brought, and in the morning I woke to a form of paradise.

Miracle in the Morning

My grove was full of birds and birdsong. The woodpecker was still working. The first bird I saw was a hummingbird, attracted to the red in my sleeping pad or mosquito screen. I lay in bed for a while as sunlight poured over the crest and gilded the high canopy. Then as I prepared my granola and made coffee, I marveled at the avian spectacle all around me. They were working the ground, the middle space, and the sunlit tops of the aspens. I saw flashes of blue and green, tan, red, black and white, all sizes from hummingbirds to jays. Small, sleek swallows kept swooping through my camp. I had my breakfast and while I was eating they all suddenly moved on, as an ensemble, to another grove nearby. Completely different kinds of birds, working independently, yet moving together as a group. I was surprised and inspired.

As I was rinsing my dishes I heard a sudden crashing at the low end of the grove and looked up. There, about 40 yards away, three bison were galloping away through the trees. Apparently they had been grazing their way closer and suddenly became aware of me. I sort of remembered hearing there were bison in these mountains, but had never seen them – and had certainly never seen bison wild, outside a national park or a billionaire’s ranch. Now my birthday celebration was complete! First a spontaneous, poorly conceived trip, then an insurmountable obstacle leading to an unplanned detour, and now these miracles!

Traversing the Middle Peak

I wanted to stay there forever. But like my LA friends, I had a deadline and a crisis back in town. I felt I needed to somehow get in cell phone range today to call my mortgage officer – today was the deadline for her to call the lender and extend my application. I could just assume she would remember, but if she didn’t I’d be screwed, with a lot of money down the drain. And I wasn’t sure how far I was from a phone connection: 3 hours, or as much as 6 hours. I was really out there.

After studying the maps I decided to try a new route across the mountains. To reach it I’d have to drive back down into the lower foothills. Before that turnoff, there would be others higher up that led to 4wd-only roads I needed to avoid.

But of course I turned off too soon, following a sign that seemed to point where I wanted to go. After many miles of steep climbing on a bad road at 5-10 mph, I realized I was on the 4wd road to hell. But if I turned back, I would likely miss my call. So I kept going.

It took me up across the southwest face of the northern massif. I gradually became confident. I was filling in the blanks of my knowledge of this range. I hadn’t encountered anything undoable. I saw the middle peak getting closer, with its solid granite outlier formation. I began to see exactly where I was on the map. I followed the road down toward the saddle connecting the peaks. Then I came to the bad spot.

Fortunately I was going down. I might not have been able to come up this part of the road. It turned to deep red powder sand with big, sharp rocks sporadically embedded in it. First there was a sharp turn that was just deep sand. Around the turn was a steep downslope of sand and rock. Using gravity, I inched around the turn and carefully lurched down the long rocky hill, and breathed a big sigh of relief at the bottom.

Now I was in an entirely new part of the range. I came into a fairly recent burn area; the entire north and east slope of the middle peak had burnt intensely in 2003 and the ponderosa forest on its slopes was being replaced by thickets of Gambel oak. The middle slopes were gently rolling, with large expanses of grassy meadows and sagebrush flats, with a few small groups of cattle grazing at great distances from each other. The road was, if anything, rockier than ever. I could see the canyonlands desert off in the distance, with its highway that might lead me in calling range, but I couldn’t hurry on this road.

After stopping to make lunch in a sunny flat at about 8,000′, I slowly made my way across and down the east side of the mountains into the desert, dropping into the canyon of a major creek and coming suddenly upon a major encampment of ATV enthusiasts with big trucks and RVs parked beside the stream. A few miles beyond I hit the paved road.

I still had no phone signal; I kept driving southeast through my old familiar canyon country, across the big river and over high mesas, until finally high up on the edge of Elk Ridge I saw three bars on the phone and pulled over to try calling the bank. It was 4:30 pm on Friday; she was away from her desk so I left a message.

I had hoped to do another hike before driving home, but I had used up the entire day driving across the best hiking country in the world, just trying to make a futile, and probably unnecessary, call. I was starting to think about dinner; I drove to the village of Bluff on the San Juan River, where I knew there was a good steakhouse, but as I passed it I realized I still had leftover lamb sausage, beans and rice, so I decided to look for a picnic spot on the river. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed that my old favorite cheap motel in Bluff had re-opened.

Folk History in Bluff

Several miles later I was in a grove of cottonwoods beside the San Juan, starting to unpack my cooking gear, until I realized that my stove was buried under everything else, and there were bugs here, and no good camping spots, and no place to camp on the Navajo Reservation if I kept driving. So I decided to return to the Mokee Motel, get a room for the night, and warm up my leftovers there. The next day would be a reasonable 6 hour drive back home.

Per usual for this time of year, Bluff was hot as hell. After dinner, with the air conditioner rumbling, I intermittently read Richard McKeon’s Thought Action and Passion on the iPad and glanced at a PBS fundraiser on TV featuring mainstream, baby boomer folk music acts of the late 50s and early 60s, some of whom had been part of my childhood. Most of them were insipid, and I was reminded of why I don’t really like folk music. It’s a genre primarily consisting of uptight, overeducated urban white people self-consciously trying to reproduce traditional music divorced from the traditional context. Like professional sports, its another way in which our culture has specialized and commodified the life out of its traditional roots.

Tamales in Chambers

Traffic was light across the Navajo reservation. I was on the decompression leg of my journey. I still had the White Mountains and all the other watersheds of the San Francisco River ahead of me, and the open Gila Country, but first I had to stop somewhere for lunch. There used to be a Denny’s-type coffee shop attached to the motel at the Chambers exit on I-40, so that would be my first attempt.

It was open, and it was now a bare-bones Navajo eatery. A big TV was blasting at the end of the room; a pony-tailed older Navajo was eating and watching from his booth, and an Anglo couple were finishing lunch at theirs. I sat at the counter and a shy young Navajo guy handed me a menu. A middle-aged lady was cooking behind the order window.

I ordered tamales, and they came out looking good, with big whole kidney beans and rice. The tamales and sauce were much better than I’d expected. I took my time, reading from my iPad. The other diners left. The kid asked me if I wanted him to turn off the TV and I said sure. As I was getting up to pay, the cook came out and I told her I liked her tamales. She went to the other end of the room and started a long, soft-spoken reply that I couldn’t understand, so I smiled and chuckled and strolled out to my truck, to end a journey that turned out pretty well after all.

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The Lost World

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015: Mojave Desert, Trips.

So Many If’s

The mountain range in the Mojave desert that I consider my spiritual home provides subsistence habitat for two large wild mammals: the mountain lion and the mountain sheep. Soon after buying land out there, I befriended the scientist who has become the senior authority on desert bighorn, and 23 years ago, he took me in a Fish & Game helicopter on a sheep survey of the range.

We flew over the highest part of the range; we flew over my land; and we flew across the rugged mountains of stone to a distant canyon where we rose stealthily from behind a ridge to surprise a small group of sheep grazing on the other side. A few years later I summited the central crest of the range and looked out across a vast internal basin toward that same canyon. The map showed no roads going in there, and the Desert Protection Act, which went into effect at that time, enclosed the entire area in federally protected wilderness, with no vehicle access.

For some reason I couldn’t explain, it looked to me like the Promised Land.

This year, two decades later, my birthday was approaching, and I still hadn’t tried to go there. So many things had gotten in the way, and my body was showing its age. I was plagued with back pain from a ruptured disc, and I was walking on a hip with no cartilage that gave me chronic pain, often prevented me from hiking, and had been scheduled to be replaced until my surgeon was hit by a car a few weeks earlier. Currently, it was aching from all the trips I’d made up and down a ladder while working on the roof of my house. But I still dreamed about visiting that hidden valley.

The week before my birthday, I consulted my scientist friend, who remembered the area well, decades after visiting it himself. His voice brightened and he recalled that place as really interesting.

He also told me that bighorn were dying all over the desert from pneumonia spread by livestock; populations had crashed as much as 75% in a few months. A recent survey was unable to find a single sheep in my mountains. So anything I could observe might be helpful.

There were many obstacles protecting that hidden valley. My friend warned me that there was almost certainly no water available there now. He had mapped three surface water sources there after a wet winter three decades ago, but none of them had been significant, and we had not had a wet winter for many years.

I checked the weather forecast and found there was a heat wave approaching: every day was supposed to be hotter than the day before. I was already getting a late start; afternoon temperatures would be reaching 90 degrees by the time I reached the mountains, meaning I would need to carry lots of water. Hiking all day in that weather, and/or climbing thousands of feet, all with no shade, I would need to drink more than a gallon per day, probably more than I could carry in my condition. But if I didn’t go now, I’d have to wait all summer for cooler weather in the fall, or even longer if I went ahead with surgery.

With no vehicle access, the only way in would be by climbing over one of the surrounding ridges. But those ridges themselves were hard to reach now, because the closed wilderness boundary began miles away from the base of the mountains. There was only one place where an open road penetrated the wilderness to the foot of a slope, and that’s where I hoped to start – if I could even drive any of those roads.

None of the “roads” reaching this mountain range are maintained; they’re all rough tracks over packed dirt, rocks, gravel, and loose sand, temporarily graded by miners in the 19th century and abandoned to erosion ever since, used sporadically today by desert rats and by the rancher who runs cattle around one corner of the mountains. All of these roads cross long stretches of deep sand at some point. A friend had been out recently and said the sand was very dry due to drought. Dry sand offers no traction, and my 2wd truck is front-heavy and bogs down easily.

None of my friends was available to join me at such short notice, so if I was going to do it, I was going to do it alone.

So many if’s: if I could reach the mountains by road without getting stuck in the sand; if my bad hip and ruptured disc would let me carry enough water in a heavy backpack up some of the most rugged mountains on earth, where there are no trails, you have to carefully pick your own way in advance to avoid insurmountable obstacles, and where bouldering skills are often needed, potentially climbing up and down thousands of feet in two days; if I didn’t get bitten by one of the rattlesnakes I was sure to encounter at this time of year; if I didn’t lose my balance or slip on one of the thousands of loose rocks and sprain an ankle or break a leg or fall into the razor-sharp two-foot-long spines of a yucca or the thousands of needles of a cholla cactus; if I didn’t run out of water and electrolytes and get dehydrated and lose my mind, as I almost had 18 years ago, with a friend, in our “death march” over some of the same ridges.

But would I rather grow old and die in some hospital bed without ever trying?

So I spent two days loading my truck with water and ice chests and everything I could think of to help me get there and back, plus supplies for alternative destinations in case my dream didn’t pan out.

The Ancient Road Warrior

It’s a two-day drive from home, and when I arrived at the halfway point late at night, I was surprised to find the cheap motel almost full. I was given the last upstairs room at the far end. The next to last space in the partially flooded dirt parking lot was occupied by what seemed an abandoned station wagon from the 1970s, completely filled with trash.

But when I looked closer, I saw the tires were all inflated, but bald, and the next morning as I was leaving my smelly room, I saw a man come out of the room below mine and open the driver’s door of this derelict: a big, hunched-over old guy in shapeless, worn-out clothes, with a thick shock of grey hair pointing outward in all directions. And I realized that he’d kept the driver’s seat clear.

Nighthawks Over Camp

Unless you use them regularly, you never know where a road is going to turn to sand. After more than an hour off the paved road, on the long, bone-rattling approach to the mountains, I suddenly found myself driving uphill in deep sand. At such a point, there’s nothing to do but keep going, because if you stop, you’re definitely stuck.

So I kept driving, with the solace that I was prepared to get unstuck, and the drive out would be downhill. Still, it’s nerve-wracking when you’re doing this alone, dozens of miles away from a cell phone signal.

But my success was short-lived. When I reached the spur road to my planned starting point, I found it closed off with a secure cable gate, despite being shown as open on the BLM access maps.

So I climbed to the nearby shade of the sacred cave that, for me, is the center of the universe, North America’s answer to Australia’s Uluru, and pondered what to do next.

It was mid-afternoon. In any event, I’d need to find a place to camp before starting out in the morning. I scrambled out of the cave and looked up at the mountain wall looming behind it at the head of an enclosed valley. A shallow dip in the ridge, perhaps 1400′ up, would give me access to the hidden basin behind. I decided to try it the next morning.

That night, I camped among boulders a few miles away, where I’d last camped on the winter solstice more than 6 years ago, with friends, in a very rare 6 inches of snow. We’d made a snowman – hard to believe now.

I uncapped and started on a bottle of the new Stone Ruination 2.0 that I’d picked up on the way, and sat in the shade of a boulder, watching the light change color on distant peaks. After a while I climbed down into the big wash and spent some time gathering and hauling back dead catclaw branches for firewood. After starting a fire, I laid out my bedroll in some level sand: plastic tarp, heavy foam mat, cheap sleeping bag, and pillow, with a partial mosquito screen rolled up nearby, just in case. As usual, I wondered about my dad, who taught me to camp in tents, and some of my current friends, who persist in using tents to shut out the stars at night. I feel lucky to have broken free of that.

As the sun started to set and I prepared dinner over gas stove and wood fire, I was treated to a rare exhibition by two or three nighthawks chasing insects in the upper air, swooping, flapping and twirling like big slender bats. And then the bats themselves began shooting through camp.

After dinner, I walked up the road a mile or so in the bright light of the half moon, listening to crickets at various distances off in the desert.

I slept well, only waking briefly a couple of times, to track the progress of the forked galaxy, after the moon set behind the mountains in the west and left the night to the stars.

Over the Wall

The last time I’d tried backpacking, several years ago, it was on a maintained trail, and I’d had to turn back after two miles because my feet, my back, and my hip were hurting too much. I had been wearing the cheaper hiking boots with less support, and my heavy old Swiss Army rucksack with no waist belt.

This time, I had better boots, but the same pack. I’d shopped again and again, but I just couldn’t abide any of these new neon-colored high-tech packs, and none of them were designed for desert conditions anyway. Just walking past a catclaw bush would rip that thin nylon to shreds, and most of those fancy suspensions would leave your back soaking wet with sweat in no time. I’d actually designed my own desert pack using natural materials, but hadn’t been able to source the materials yet.

I did update my stash with two collapsible 96-ounce plastic canteens, so that my total fluid load ended up including 8 liters of water and one liter of electrolyte drink. Plus that big sleeping bag, warm clothes for the cool night, jerky, cajun sesame sticks, energy nuggets from the Co-op back home for morning, and miscellaneous survival odds and ends, including maps, folding knife, lighters and my water zapper just in case I got lucky and found water. If that happened, I could stay a day or two longer!

I figure the total weighed about 30 pounds, almost a quarter of my body weight.

Incidentally, for the first time in my life, I had a walking stick. My mom had left it behind after one of her visits, and I’d put it in the basement never expecting to see it again. But with my bad hip, I knew I’d need all the help I could get. And it really did help. It was often in the way when climbing over boulders, but even more often, it took the weight off my bad hip, so that stick, more than anything else besides water and food, enabled me to get there and back, so thanks Mom!

The walk up to the base of the ridge, across many crisscrossing spines of rock and deep ravines, was challenging as usual. A beautiful specked rattler stretched across a small gully in front of me just as I started out.

The climb up the steep headwall, pacing myself in the heat, zigzagging back and forth to avoid sheer cliffs, took a couple of hours. The wonderful Mojave sage was finishing its bloom, but I enjoyed patches of its fragrance all the way up. Three-quarters of the way up, I came upon fairly recent scat from a group of 7 or 8 bighorn.

I reached the saddle at the top of the ridge with little pain in my hip, and for some reason I hardly felt the weight of the pack, unlike last time. And like most ridgetop saddles, this one was swept by wind, so that although it was midday and the sun beat down with no shade anywhere, it actually felt cool up there.

I knew the down climb would be the most dangerous part, but this turned out to be a complicated saddle, with successive shelves that dipped down gradually to the west, so that I couldn’t even see my destination, the hidden basin, until I’d worked my way around and down the sheer palisades of these rock shelves.

When I finally reached a viewpoint over the hidden basin, I saw that it was lower than my starting point, and my climb down would be even longer than my climb up.

Again and again, even with the stick, I stumbled and regained my balance, on a steep slope that wouldn’t have caught me in time if I’d fallen. It was a horrendous, fearsome down climb, worse than anything I’d done before.

Finally, two-thirds of the way down, I came upon a big granite outcrop eroded into caves and tunnels, and found shade in a shallow cave. After drinking and resting, I scouted the remainder of my route. I was getting tired, but it was not yet 3pm, with the hottest time of day still to come.

Six hours after starting, I reached the bottom, at the edge of a deep gully where my friend had found water 30 years ago. Everything was gone dry now, but in the distance was a boulder pile that offered shade, and I cut across the bajada toward it, through stands of cholla denser than I’d seen anywhere else in the range.

Sunset in the Lost World

The shade of the boulders wasn’t extensive, and cholla balls were scattered over the ground. I brushed some sand as clean as I could and laid out my sleeping bag to lie on. Tired but restless, I kept getting up and looking out from my tiny patch of shade. My water was more than half gone already, so I needed to stay put. I was totally alone in a very inaccessible place.

I found a small shard of the simple, disposable low-fired pottery that the People used out here. So they were over here! I thought of the 4-dimensionality of this place for those of us who’ve visited it for decades. All the different sites and elevations of the mountains are populated in memory with the family, friends, and girlfriends who’ve been with me here at different times. The People are just an added layer, still here with me in the eternal present, living the way I was taught to live at the school in Utah, at the other end of their territory.

Hours later, the sun started down and I shouldered my pack and got moving again. In the lowering light, the grandeur and mystery of this landscape, hidden for decades, grew before my eyes. Completely surrounded by high rock walls and boulder-strewn slopes, powerfully isolated from the outside world. The sunset light picked out towering cliffs and pinnacles as rugged as those in any other part of the mountains. Huge dry washes converged in the lower distance toward the central drainage of the basin, miles away. By some magic of topography, the big eastern canyon I’d wanted to explore caught the last light of the sun, turning brilliant gold behind foreground ridges that were already dark.

I worked my way down into the big washes, looking for a camp site, and found no evidence that anyone had ever driven in here. It was the first drainage I’d seen in these mountains without tire tracks or footprints. And there was no sign that cattle had ever been in here, confirming my friend’s 1985 report. This was probably the most pristine habitat in the entire range.

I walked down to the convergence of drainages. It was a huge wash, hundreds of yards across, thick with healthy stands of baccharis and other riparian shrubs. It was getting dark and I wanted a more enclosed camp, so I walked back up the northernmost drainage, the one I’d use in the morning to find my way out of the valley.

There, I found some outlying junipers with deep layers of duff underneath that I could use for padding on the hard sand of the wash. The light was falling fast, and I had no lantern nor anything to do after dark other than sleep. I made my primitive bed like the People, ate as much jerky and sesame sticks as I could, drank a little more water, and went to bed in the heart of the Lost World. The night was perfectly still, and a thin layer of clouds had been forming during sunset, so that I hoped for cooler weather in the morning.

Sunrise: The Old Ones

I slept well, but the sky cleared during the night. Hoping to make as much of the hike out as possible in the shade of the eastern mountain wall, I woke well before dawn, ate a bunch of energy nuggets and drank a half liter of my precious water, and was packed and on the way by 5:30am.

Coming down, I had vowed not to go back the same way. I would walk miles to the north, skirting the base of the eastern wall, to try the shorter climb to the pass I’d originally selected, the one with the closed road. Once I reached that road, it would be only two or three miles back to my truck, with its 15 gallons of drinking water, under the full sun of a hotter day.

As the drainage ascended to the bajada I began to find my first “modern” artifacts: a plastic shotgun shell casing oxidized into tatters, and an old rusted can with a wire threaded through it as a handle, just the way the People would do it, according to the way I was taught. You could prop it over a fire with a stick and cook a meal in that tiny pot adapted from a can the white man would toss aside as trash.

In the wash last night, and across the bajada this morning, I found many husks of skinny mushrooms and compact puffballs, always a surprise in the open desert. The decomposers seem to find something to work on in any habitat.

My first destination was the base of a spur of the mountain that projected out into the valley. I would need to get around it to reach the low pass. The bajada went up and down, I threaded my way around and between stands of cholla and creosote bush, and the rising sun began to gild the peaks to the north.

Still walking in the cool morning shadow of the eastern wall, I finally approached the projecting spur. At its base was a pile of ancient granite boulders, blackened with desert patina. I always check these patinated outliers for rock art, and from the pottery shard I’d found the day before, I knew the People had been here.

I lifted my pack, set it down, and walked over. As I rounded from the south to the north side of the boulders, I saw them. High up on the rock face, faint, and damaged in spots by the white hunters’ shotgun blasts, the marks were strange but their style was familiar. The People had been here, perfectly adapted to this harsh environment, living sustainably with minimal impact, neither firing the grasses nor damming the drainages nor building the machines of destruction that we’re so good at. If that is romanticizing the noble savage, so be it. It’s what we know about them, and no defensive, guilt-ridden news bytes about the destructive practices of other indigenous peoples in other places can invalidate that.

In the short time between yesterday afternoon and this morning, I’d found more than what I’d come for: wild, timeless habitat, and the presence of the people who lived as an integral part of it, eating wild food, making everything they needed, by hand, with the natural resources available here. Peaceful people who avoided conflict. People our soldiers decapitated, mounting their heads on poles as a warning to those who would not be civilized. Tell me about our progress: how we outsource the behaviors we no longer want to see, such as slavery, to distant lands that are destroyed to feed our hyperconsumption; how we learn to depend on money and machines to do everything for us, so that we become weak in body and spirit. Too weak and poor in spirit to live the way the Old Ones did.

There’s nothing shameful about admitting you’re wrong, you’re on the wrong path. There’s nothing shameful about admiring the people who came before you. That’s not romanticizing, that’s honesty. Your myth of progress: now that’s romanticizing.

The Climb Out

Recharged by my discoveries, I walked the final miles to the base of the pass. I believed I was going to make it, but I was still being careful. There were many challenges, routes to pick from a distance around cliffs and boulder-choked ravines. Loose rocks to avoid, some of them so big they appeared solid.

It wasn’t an easy approach; it never is, because the base of a steep drainage collects the biggest boulders, and erosion exposes the foundation rock which is too steep to climb with a pack. You have to aim for the alluvial parts of the slope, which lie between the exposures of solid rock. As I was following one of these slopes upward at an angle, I came upon a diamondback rattler asleep in the shade. Totally out. I admired it for a moment then looked for a way around that wasn’t blocked by yucca or catclaw.

In the same area, I found another shard of pottery which showed that the People used this pass as well.

Luckily, this slope got easier toward the top. I had climbed out of the shade; it was after 8am. When I got to the saddle, my water bottle was empty. I found shade behind a boulder and drained the remainder of my last big canteen into my drinking bottle. Then I walked east to scout the down slope.

It was totally gnarly. Walls of a different, dark red granite projected across from the south, probably impassible. The center of the drainage was choked with boulders as usual. The north side had some sediment but was in full sun.

I managed to find a way down between the central boulders and the red walls, stopping frequently to reconnoiter, weaving my way back and forth. The lower I got, the more I was forced into the boulders with their sheer drop-offs and impassible clots of vegetation. Still, it was a beautiful slope, dotted with pinyon pine and thick riparian shrubs. At one point a hummingbird dropped in front of my face to check me out. I could see the end of the road at the bottom, with a cleared turnaround. I just had to be smart and patient and keep going.

The walk back on the road was a walk in the park, but it reminded me again of how special the Lost World is, free of the roads we build for our machines, free of the giant trampling beasts we attempt to manage in our efficient but wasteful commodification of food.

I got back to the truck with a half liter of water. It was 10am, already fiercely hot, and there was no shade within 50 miles of driving for me to park in, wash up and rest for the remaining 10 hours until sunset. I needed a rest. I had pushed my deteriorated joints far beyond what they deserved. So, as a product and a lifelong victim of an advanced society, I headed for a motel with air conditioning.



Vision Quest 2016: Surprised & Blessed

Monday, May 23rd, 2016: Mojave Desert, Trips, Vision Quest 2016.


I smiled and laughed

By early April of this year, I was a nervous wreck, embarrassing myself by overreacting to problems and suffering lapses of judgement. Just too much stress, pain and trauma in the past year. I’d had hip surgery in the hope that I’d be recovered enough by now to explore the backcountry of my desert mountains, relying on surface water from El Niño to roam freely and camp wherever I pleased. This had been a dream for so long, it had turned to desperation.

Recovery had been slow and frustrating. I hadn’t been able to resume my pre-surgery hiking routine until the past week. And although there’s no way of telling how much rain my mountains get without actually visiting, El Niño had disappointed in nearby parts of the desert, as in most of the Southwest. My dream might never become a reality, but I had to get away, I had to take what most people would call a vacation.

The problem was that my spiritual home is also the ultimate land of mystery, an outdoor classroom and teacher of lessons about living in nature. I’d spent years accumulating questions and projects I wanted to pursue out there. It would be a working vacation.

First, I wanted to research and brainstorm ideas and resources for a program of group wilderness adventures that I dreamed of leading, in collaboration with my friends. Related to this would be the search for a base somewhere along the highway near my mountains, a home, studio, gallery and event space that might catch the eye of passing travelers.

One component of the program would be aboriginal living skills, and I wanted to recover and practice the techniques I’d learned 25 years earlier, so I packed my fire drill, deadfall trap, flintknapping materials, and notes.

The fragility of my family requires me to be on call for emergencies at all times, so I had to pack for a possible mid-trip diversion to an airport, and a flight across the country to the big city. With that in mind, I had no idea how long I’d be gone. I was thinking two months at the outside, but I didn’t really know how long I’d last.

As usual, I’d be camping, and making dangerous hikes, alone, in areas with no cell service. I’d be out of touch for up to a week, but would get back in touch when I left the mountains for supplies and my phone regained a signal.

With an optional agenda but no real plan or schedule, I set out, contacting some desert friends along the way, and remembering and reaching out to others, the farther I got. The trip just unfolded, I discovered new places, learned new things and met new people, and my goals both changed and expanded as I relaxed into new rhythms and a new sense of time.

My hip hadn’t fully recovered – there was residual stiffness that would take months to break up – but the new hip didn’t hold me back at all. What held me back was the opposite knee, which had developed chronic tendinitis. It’s treatable, but I couldn’t treat it while hiking in the most rugged country on earth, so I scaled back my ambitions instead, went slower and rested for days between longer hikes.

Friends gave me a lot of feedback and advice about the group adventures, some of it discouraging, but all of it useful, though nothing concrete or definite materialized. I didn’t find a base along the highway, but that’s because I was having too much fun doing other things. And although I kept having to move them out of the way to get to other gear, I never used my primitive implements, partly because I didn’t get a chance to camp in the backcountry, and partly because I heard things that challenged my picture of prehistoric life in the desert and urged me toward further research.

In the end, I spent nearly a month out there, hiking, camping, working with scientists, visiting friends, sharing good conversation, learning and being inspired. I was blessed with amazing weather, the hospitality and generosity of friends, the opportunity to spend quality time with kids – which only seems to happen with my desert friends – and a handful of challenging, revealing new themes or topics for research that expanded my horizons of ecology and anthropology: biological soil crusts, ecological facilitation, wildlife tracking, controversies over Native American conflict and migration, and the myriad ways in which our society trashes the desert and uses it to hide the things we don’t want to see, know about, or deal with.

The details will be revealed in installments. I hope you enjoy them and find something to think about and comment on!

Reading the Ground

Mesquite Canyon

Science in the Storm

Indian Wars

Challenging the Patriarchy

Hiding Our Failures

Hidden Diversity

Joy of Surviving

Bones of the Living Earth

Growing Up in the Desert

The Sheltering Desert


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Vision Quest 2016: Reading the Ground

Monday, May 23rd, 2016: Mojave Desert, Trips, Vision Quest 2016.

I tested myself by following my own tracks back to camp

Driving across northwestern Arizona the previous afternoon, I’d encountered heavy rains, and crossing the river before nightfall I’d seen a low ceiling of dark clouds ahead, hanging over the rugged mountains of the Mojave. But this afternoon, the sky had cleared, with only scattered clouds, as I parked my truck at Cowboy Camp. I started walking up the sandy wash past the big bend, and soon crossed animal tracks from the north, cut through the dry surface into wetter sand.

They were tracks of adult bighorn, and they’d been forcefully pounded, forming a ragged circular pattern in two places a few yards apart. Last summer in the mountains of eastern Arizona, I’d been lucky to see, for the first time, wild sheep jumping up and down in place, which John says is “play” behavior, so these tracks spoke to me in a way they couldn’t have before. Assuming it had rained yesterday or last night, these sheep had been here since, perhaps only hours before me. Scanning the area, I guessed there had been two sheep, perhaps yearling males. Backtracking down the wash, I crossed another set of tracks, including those of a lamb – probably a lamb and its mother. The adult tracks appeared again, high above the Gulch, in sand leading to the water hole fed by the seep in the narrow side canyon.

The recent rain gave me an unexpected opportunity to sharpen my tracking skills, since animals were more active now, and there was a clear contrast between fresh tracks and old, eroded tracks. I’d been encouraged in the weeks before the trip, when back home in New Mexico, I’d encountered my first mountain lion, then identified his tracks shortly afterward, near where I’d seen him last, associated with the prints of a group of javalina. The day after my arrival in the Mojave, I set out across the central basin into the main wash, and came upon a mountain bike track – illegal in the wilderness – and eroded footprints which I assumed were my friends who had visited only a week earlier. Near them were the tracks of a large dog, and farther up the wash, a large cat track, maybe a lion, and fox prints.

After the difficult climb to the Plateau, one of the toughest climbs in these mountains, I encountered one set of old footprints in the occasional sandy patches of the narrow gully. I’ve found solitary footprints there on some earlier visits, but not often. Here there was water, standing, the color of Lipton Tea, in hollows lined with patches of dead algae, sometimes wearing a thin scum, or sluggishly flowing over the lips of rock barriers. Later, talking this over with scientist friends, I concluded that there had been some good rain early in the winter, followed by gradual drying, through unseasonably warm weather that supported the kind of algal growth we usually see in late spring. This week’s rain had stirred up that dead algal mat. The old, eroded footprints had probably been made during the past two months. A single adult male hiking across this remote, hidden, hard-to-reach plateau, maybe familiar from previous visits, but possibly just drawn by the landmark pinnacle at its head. And there were recent sheep tracks, but only from one or two adults. I was reading a detailed story and drawing a picture from evidence on the ground that might’ve been mute before.

From then on, I was always looking for tracks, and reading more from them. In every wash and every drainage, I found the fresh tracks of one or two adult sheep, showing that individual sheep were responding to this week’s rain by ranging widely in search of fresh forage. I frequently walked jackrabbits or cottontails up from the big washes of the bajada, and their tracks were everywhere, along with those of ground squirrels.

During the Fish & Game survey of bighorn sheep, when I was doing my shorter hikes as the others were converging over peaks and ridges into a central drainage, I’d occasionally come upon the small knobby prints of the young women’s hiking boots and puzzle out where they’d come from and where they were going. And later, walking down the basin to the southern ridge, I followed vehicle tracks showing how the local rancher had driven his big contractor’s truck deep into the wilderness area and far up three tributary drainages in succession, places that hadn’t been driven in decades, insteading of walking like me. Holding the grazing allotment, he claims a legal right to violate the federal roadless area prohibition, but there are actually no cattle and no range improvements to check over here. He’s a younger man than me, in good shape, and isn’t recovering from hip surgery. Like so many, he just can’t be bothered to walk when driving is possible, and it broadcasts a message of disrespect to the public.

More than a hundred miles to the north, exploring a long, winding drainage between low foothills into a hidden basin, I came upon fresh sign of cattle a mile before I spotted them, way ahead of me, spooking and stampeding up a steep slope. Then I came upon a burn area – clear of living shrubs but dotted with the charred stumps of creosote and the fallen husks of Mojave yucca, broad evidence of a wildfire – but knowing that burned stumps can last for decades or even centuries, and perennial vegetation can’t easily regenerate in soil trampled by cattle, I had no way of judging its age.

Whereas the evidence of surface water may evaporate quickly after a rain, desert life that’s invisible most of the time will appear miraculously and persist longer.

Finally, returning from the last hike of my trip, I looked for the tracks I’d left on my way out, improbably found them in the midst of miles of open space, and tested myself by following them back, despite temporarily losing them over and over again as they vanished across stretches of bedrock. The desert was teaching me a form of literacy far more profound and essential than we learn in school, because it transcends our species and bonds us with our partners in the ecosystem.

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