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Vision Quest 2016

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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Vision Quest 2016: Mesquite Canyon

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

From this pass, the basin I’d entered from the beautiful canyon looked even nicer

The second day of the bighorn sheep survey focused on a drainage midway down the west side of the mountains. As on the first day, hikers would be dropped off at points to the north and south and gradually converge. The days were getting warmer, and the older, more experienced hunters maintained that sheep would rest during the day, so the group got up at 5 am and left before 6, leaving me alone in camp. I’d checked with them the night before, and they said they’d drive south at the end of the day, toward the final day’s destination, stopping somewhere to camp for the night. There was only one road south, and if I followed that, I’d eventually run into them.

So I slept in that morning, had a leisurely breakfast, and drove to the drainage they were converging on. It was an internal basin almost completely encircled by ridges, and I hadn’t been back there in over 20 years. Since the previous year, my curiosity had been focused on what I called the “Lost World”, the big southeastern basin, closed to vehicle traffic, and I believed that if I climbed a short canyon out of this place, to a low pass at its head, I’d get a view over into the Lost World. That was my modest goal for the day.

I drove the long sandy road into the encircled valley, passing one of the big white Fish & Game trucks and glassing in vain for the hunters, who were supposed to be somewhere nearby looking for sheep. I followed the old abandoned mine road up a narrowing wash toward the canyon I’d selected, until I reached some rocks my little truck couldn’t safely get over.

The day was warm, but I didn’t have far to go, and could expect shade from boulders or junipers once I got into the canyon. I loaded my pack and set off into new country I’d never hiked before.

This was a special place because it represented a gap in the range. The southernmost part of the mountains, a long and complex landscape in itself, was here neatly divided from the rest of the range by a fairly broad gap that became visible as I hiked into it. As before, I spooked both jackrabbits and cottontails as I followed the wash. Then I cut east across the gently rising bajada toward the mouth of my canyon.

No one on earth had the slightest idea where I was, or where I was going, but I felt that my plans were modest enough that I wasn’t taking much of a risk. And if the sheep group got worried, they could follow my tracks.

I dropped from the bajada into the wash coming out of the canyon, and came upon a grove of big desert willows, in the middle of which was a shaded hollow. Although the air temperature was mild, my body was overheating in the desert sunlight, and I stopped for a drink and some rest, still needing to catch up on the sleep I’d missed two nights ago.

As I got closer to the mouth of the eastern canyon, the main wash veered north. Suddenly I came upon a broad mesquite thicket, the biggest I’d ever seen in these mountains. Back home in New Mexico, mesquite grows like a weed, but here, it’s a rarity. The seed pods were prized by native people, and the wood made good tools. I’ve always looked upon it as a lucky find.

The wash continued to lead me northward, away from my destination, until I arrived at the mouth of a new canyon leading up into the north. Awesome but inviting, this canyon climbed between monumental walls of looming dark granite. At ground level, big, rounded and weirdly sculpted granite boulders lay half-buried in level, walkable white sand. I was faced with a moment of decision; looking up into this new canyon, I quickly abandoned my original plan.

The first thing I discovered here was sheep tracks, fresh since last week’s rain. It began to feel like the same sheep were preceding me everywhere I went. Then I came upon invasive tamarisk, but not the new growth we had in the northernmost drainages, which have been repeatedly cleared. These were old, long-established trees, with root stock a foot in diameter. Yet they were patchy in this canyon, instead of forming monoculture thickets, replacing native shrubs and trees, like they had on our land.

The tamarisk didn’t dismay me because this new canyon continued to unfold other surprises. During the lowest stretch, it was an easy walk, but every hundred yards or so there was a dogleg, revealing a new, higher stretch. Suddenly a patch of livid green appeared high up the eastern slope – another mesquite thicket, indicating water squeezing through a contact in the rock. I climbed up and examined it, but couldn’t find any surface water. Yet this must be a well-watered drainage, to support both mesquite and tamarisk.

I came to a pour-off, a jumble of house-sized boulders blocking the canyon, and had to climb around it, backtracking and struggling up and across a steep slope of loose rock and gravel. I ended up hundreds of feet above the canyon floor and decided to keep climbing, until I reached a place where I could look down into the next stretch of canyon. There I saw more groves of mesquite, sharing the canyon floor with patches of old-growth tamarisk. Could tamarisk reach an equilibrium state, sharing the drainage with native vegetation instead of crowding it out? This was truly a place of mystery, with its dark, looming walls and white, sandy floor.

The ridge above me, where I’d hoped to get a view into the Lost World, seemed to be getting higher and farther away, so I climbed back down to the canyon floor, where I encountered another, deeper, dogleg, with a north-facing cliff overhang that provided a large area of daylong shade. Here, I stopped for lunch, comfortable in the sand. What an amazing place! I’d found many beautiful places in these mountains, but this was surely one of the best.

Continuing north, I finally came upon surface water – a half-pint seeping into a rock hollow, it would soon dry up, but for now it supported wildlife. I climbed over or around more steep pour-offs or boulder blockages, discovering more thickets of mesquite, but leaving the tamarisk behind, until suddenly I topped out at the head of the canyon, emerging into a bowl-like basin in the sky, encircled by rugged ridges, with the wash splitting in front of me into two tributaries, each with a level white-sand floor beckoning in opposite directions, like a T-intersection.

Taking the right-hand tributary, I soon came upon another big thicket of mesquite. Ahead of me, I could see a low pass at the head of this wash, so I clambered eagerly up it, thinking it would give me a view into the Lost World to the east.

But after a quarter mile or more of climbing, I found myself looking down into another canyon system that curved away to the right. And in the far distance, over a shoulder of ridge, I could see the dry lakes to the south of the mountain range. South! How could I be looking south? This new right-curving canyon seemed to be dropping to the west, when I should be looking east! I was totally disoriented. Then I turned around and noticed a government survey benchmark, at the foot of a shrub, at the side of the low pass. What a coincidence – just as I found myself confused about directions, a team of surveyors from 90 or more years ago had left me a sign that I could check against my map, later, to figure out where I’d been.

From this pass, the basin I’d entered from the beautiful canyon looked even nicer. In addition to the wash opposite this one, there was another long drainage that came down between them. You could stay up here all day, in this secret, hidden world, just exploring. Both perennial shrubs and annual forbs were blooming here, and were bigger than elsewhere in the mountains – salazaria, Mojave sage, encelia. I returned and walked up the opposite wash, passing the biggest creosote bushes I’d seen anywhere around, and all the big shrubs were in bloom.

I’d come farther than planned, and I needed to allow time to look for the sheep survey group after returning to my truck. There was hours of potentially bad road to search before dark. So I had to start back, wondering when I’d get a chance to return and enjoy this new place more deeply.

The walk back was fairly easy. At the truck, I checked my topo maps and found that at that low pass, up in the sky, where I found the benchmark, I’d actually come full circle, looking back into the head of the canyon I’d originally planned to hike. It actually originated out of the north, so that my impression of the dry lake had been correct. To get an eastern view into the Lost World, I’d need to climb much higher over the wall encircling the high basin to the north. What a complicated topography – it even looked confusing on the map!

That evening, I drove and drove, farther and farther south, deeper into the desert and farther from paved roads and towns, with no sign of the group. The sun was going down as I drove past the southern tip of the mountain range, risking my truck in the deep sand of big arroyos where the road had been washed out by flash floods. Looking anxiously for the road I expected the group to take on the following morning, a road I’d never used or seen myself, I drove farther and farther up the low basin on the opposite side of the range, the mountains far away to my north. As night fell, I glimpsed a faint track out of the corner of my eye, behind one of the tall power transmission towers that lined the side of this utility road. I got my truck turned around, bounced it over a low bank of sand, and pulled off between the regular ranks of creosote bush in this otherwise desolate alluvial basin. The moon hung, nearly full, above the mountains to the east, as I warmed up leftovers for dinner, then went to bed, alone.

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Vision Quest 2016: Science in the Storm

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016: Mojave Desert, Trips, Vision Quest 2016.

The Amargosa toad

The suburban sprawl of Las Vegas became less finished, less dense and more expansive, and more under construction, as we drove north in a tunnel of freeway, surrounded by noise-barrier walls, with the newly snow-covered peaks of the Spring Mountains and Sheep Range closing in at west and east. The Paiute reservation went by in a flash, then the military and prison complexes began, first the artillery and bombing range with its mock Mideastern villages, then the drone base and the prisons for women and juveniles.

After the long drive to Beatty, we checked into our motel and stopped for an early dinner of Mexican food at an outdoor table by the highway, next to a group of retiree Harley hogsters and their wives. In the dusk, Jef drove us up the road to the Spicer Ranch, which the current patriarch is developing into a private mountain bike resort. Wonderful news for me, because I’d love to see these adrenaline-fueled machines outlawed from public lands.

Jef had raved about this new-age rancher who rode bikes everywhere, but Dave Spicer turned out to be a mellow, friendly guy. His ranch compound stretched all around, consisting of the usual meandering dirt roads, abandoned equipment, vacant houses and ruined sheds, and half-finished dams, ponds, and corrals. The ranch was sited here by his ancestors because massive springs drain from the slopes back of the compound, out of an area of colorful badlands, to vivid reedy marshes along the highway. As darkness fell, we tried to follow his directions to where we might find endangered Amargosa toads around irrigated meadows and ponds.

Jef parked in a grove of trees and we fanned out, quickly spotting toads. I helped gather them, and we added each to a ziploc bag which was marked, either “out of water” or with the temperature of the water where it was found, taken on the spot with a digital probe. We each accumulated toad-filled bags in our left hands, until we had a dozen or so. When Jef occasionally encountered a big invasive bullfrog, he’d grab it and sling it hard against a rock; bullfrogs prey on smaller native frogs and toads. Wind was blowing hard when we started, with lightning and thunder over the mountains, and the low, heavy clouds began to spit rain.

When we returned to the vehicle, wind and rain were lashing the little SUV, which Jef and Anthony began efficiently turning into a field lab. I sat in the back holding the metal clipboard of data sheets. As Jef and Anthony sterilized a forceps and scissors and Anthony prepared the individual glass culture plates, Jef handed me paper packs of wooden-stemmed sterile cotton swabs, numbering the plastic caps of glass sample vials and returning them to their rack which he likewise passed back to me. Then they both sterilized their hands and put on sterile rubber gloves.

For each bagged toad, Jef would remove it from its bag, announce its number, measure its length in millimeters, determine the sex and read off the bag data, all of which I would quickly note on the data form. Then I would rush to tear open the end of a swab package, handing it to Jef tip forward, and he would begin to swab the toad. Meanwhile I’d pull a vial out of the rack and struggle to twist the cap open, holding it up for Jef to insert the swab, then carefully return it to the rack. Then Jef would hold the toad legs-first toward Anthony, who would clip off a tiny bit of webbing between the toes as a DNA sample, dropping it onto a culture plate. In the process, Anthony would sometimes recognize toads he’d caught before, on previous trips.

Back in the lab on campus, Anthony would test all the samples for the spreading chytrid fungus, which is considered “the most significant threat to the world’s montane amphibian populations”, allegedly contributing to mass extinction. But field research generally raises more questions than it answers. Jef, Anthony, and other scientists haven’t even been able to figure out the mortality rate – how many animals infected by the fungus actually die.

After Jef restored the specimen to its bag and set the bag outside the vehicle, he and Anthony would remove their gloves, sterilize their hands and equipment, put on fresh gloves, and start with the next bagged toad, all in the confined space of the front seat, with everything they needed stashed precariously on the sloping dashboard or between their feet on the floor, the doors propped open for extra maneuverability, and weather gusting in from outside.

When all the toads were sampled and all the data were entered, Jef and Anthony would clean up and pack up, while in the back seat, I donned sterile gloves and lifted each vial out of its rack, snapping the wooden swab off so its tip remained inside and screwing the caps back on, changing gloves after each vial. Then we moved to a different location, collected more toads, and resumed the lab work, with the wind and rain hitting harder each time, and the night falling colder.

At our final location, along the Amargosa River south of Beatty, I caught a chill in my legs – I hadn’t dressed for the wind – and my body temperature dropped so I had to quit and return to the vehicle, where I sat hunched and shivering for about an hour, feeling sick, as they finished processing the last sample set with the doors cracked open and the rain and wind intruding. It was 1:30 am when we got back to the motel, and I fell asleep instantly.

We returned in the morning, and Jef pointed out that the entire riparian area had been bulldozed free of invasive tamarisk. There was no tamarisk to be seen anywhere now in this sea of green at the base of multi-colored badlands. The tiny river flowed clear through a wetland of cattail, riparian grasses and coyote willows, shaded by young cottonwoods. I wondered why the ubiquitous seed stock of tamarisk hadn’t regenerated. Maybe they’d poisoned it chemically and replanted native vegetation. Quite an expensive, energy- and labor-intensive project, like all conservation, only possible in an affluent society.

After our rough night, we spread out in a leisurely, meandering search for chorus frogs, which Anthony would take back as samples for his broader study of the fungal infection. I was lucky to find the first specimen, a pretty green one. Admiring it through the ziploc bag, I wondered what its fate would be as a pawn of science, but my mind was too exhausted to dwell on it.

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Vision Quest 2016: Indian Wars

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016: Mojave Desert, Trips, Vision Quest 2016.

And a beautiful translucent one

Long before I moved to New Mexico, during a period when my love affair with the desert was being tested, I was introduced to Dave, the archaeologist. He invited me along on a site survey, a search for sites or artifacts near a mountain spring in the Mojave National Preserve, we got to know each other a bit, and he gave me a copy of his master’s thesis. I told him about the Indian campsite I’d found in my mountains, and he said it was likely a girl’s puberty ritual site, a remote place that adolescent girls would visit with a female chaperone. The site included a flat-topped boulder with hand-carved hollows called “cupules”, in which the girls would mix paint for their faces, a part of the ritual.

In the years since, we’d fallen out of touch, but I knew he’d bought and moved into the former home of mutual friends, and I wanted to reconnect and get caught up on recent developments in desert archaeology.

Dave was on his way to a historic mining camp in the Preserve, where he was supervising restoration of cabins by volunteers. He invited me to join them, so I drove over in the morning to meet him at a crossroads, and followed him from there on a dirt road that climbed up into a steep area of granite peaks and slopes lush with perennial shrubs blooming red, yellow and blue, with cabins perched on ledges at different levels. It was an area I’d never visited, hidden from outside.

I’m not a fan of mining history or miner’s cabins, but I was quickly sucked into the volunteer spirit, and found myself brushing stain onto the frame of a cabin door while others bustled around me. Then Dave came up and suggested that I join him in a drive across the Preserve for some equipment. In his truck, we had our chance to talk.

My first question was a general one. Since first discovering traces of the Old Ones in this desert, 30 years ago, I’d developed a seemingly complete picture of its native inhabitants, the Chemehuevis, a branch of the Southern Paiute tribe that occupied southern Nevada and Utah. I knew archaeologists theorized that the Chemehuevi were recent migrants within the past 400 years, part of the so-called “Numic Expansion” from the northwest. But I took that theory with a grain of salt. I’d met Southern Paiutes who laughed at archaeologists and confidently asserted that their people had been here forever. I felt it was preposterous, and presumptuous, of Anglo scientists to rewrite the history of native people. Yet the other day, I’d seen a Park Service kiosk that claimed the Mojave Indians as prehistoric natives of the Preserve, omitting the Chemehuevis completely. I wanted to know which Indians I should talk to about the Native sites and artifacts I’d been finding, both here and in my mountains farther south.

Dave’s answer stirred up my settled local worldview. “Well, the Mojaves were here first. The Chemehuevi are newcomers to this desert. They came out of the north and kicked the Mojaves’ asses. You know about the Numic Expansion?”

“Yeah, I know about that theory. But the Southern Paiute had no history of a warrior culture. The Anglos just rolled over them with little resistance, everywhere they met. They avoided violence.”

“Well, that’s not completely true. They were guerrilla fighters. That’s how they beat the Mojave. The Mojave fought with clubs and tried to engage their enemy in hand-to-hand combat, while the Chemehuevis hid behind cover and shot them with arrows, from their powerful sinew-backed bows. They just kicked their asses, and the Mojaves gave up the desert and retreated to the River.”

“But how could the Paiutes have this overwhelmingly warlike, expansive culture of conquest for hundreds of years, then suddenly settle down and become peaceful once they’d migrated?”

“Well, they really didn’t. They fought back against the whites in the 19th century.”

“My impression was that they didn’t. Look at Carleton’s Campaign of terror, beheading them and mounting their heads on poles. We were the warlike ones, and we scared the shit out of the Chemehuevis.”

“Well, that’s true, but there are also accounts of Chemehuevis attacking whites. Dave Kessler, the rancher, was killed by Chemehuevis, along with a few other early settlers. And a war party of Chemehuevis trounced our military in a long, pitched battle at Zzyzx. You can read about that.”

“I will. I’ll read anything you can point me to. But I’m really having a hard time visualizing the Mojaves living out here. The Mojave are sedentary farmers. The Southern Paiutes are the ones who follow the old ways, nomadic hunter-gatherers perfectly adapted to the desert. How could some of the Mojaves live out here as nomadic hunter-gatherers, then just give it up and rejoin the main body of their tribe as settled farmers on the River?”

“That’s true. The Colorado River is the center of Mojave life and apparently always has been. But all the evidence shows this desert was dominated for millenia by what we call the Patayan culture, the ancient culture the Mojaves have inherited. I was on an excavation recently in the Woods Mountains, an amazing site with cultural materials in layers up to my neck, and it’s all Patayan, all Mojave.”

I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under my desert.

“The archaeologist David Earl has written about a big battle between the Chemehuevis and the Mojaves down in your mountains. The Chemehuevis just slaughtered them. They were not a peaceful people.”

It was a long drive across the Preserve to pick up the equipment at a historic ranch. On the way, we passed the stone cabin where my artist friend, Carl, had lived as a hermit for many years, perfecting his style of painting the desert. It was a high plateau lush with blooming shrubs in rainbow colors. The prehistoric cultures of the desert were Dave’s specialty – his passion – as an archaeologist. He was clearly sincere and conscientious. He gave me lots of references to papers and sources, and I needed to track them down and follow up. But I felt there were things in the prevailing view that didn’t make sense, that didn’t add up, and later, as I began to locate Dave’s references, I saw that the Numic Expansion remains controversial even among mainstream archaeologists. I kept seeing Calvin Meyers, the Paiute environmental activist, standing beside me on a desert mountainside, smiling out over the beautiful valley that our culture has since despoiled with a giant solar power plant. “We have our own stories. Why would someone else try to tell us where we come from?”

Dave mentioned rock art studies and theories alongside more conventional archaeology, which surprised me. In my experience, conventional archaeologists take a dim view of rock art studies, viewing them as pseudoscience, partly because rock art generally lacks a proven connection with dateable deposits and ethnographic accounts. But the desert is somewhat unique in that here, rock art is the most widespread, numerous, and visible artifact of prehistoric culture, so it can’t just be ignored. The last time I’d read about Mojave Desert rock art was when Whitley published his manifesto linking rock art with male shamans using psychedelics – I found that preposterous, citing all the petroglyph sites in exposed locations with clear functions of signage and wayfinding. Dave agreed that much of Whitley’s thesis had been rejected, but his identification of prehistoric motifs with “phosphenes”, the shapes we hallucinate or see under pressure to our eyeballs, is hard to dispute.

I asked him about treatment of the dead in prehistoric societies – did he think cremation or abandonment was more common, or were Native people just opportunistic and pragmatic? He felt treatment of the dead was a serious matter, following prescribed ritual. He mentioned cremation burials he’d found at Paiute Springs – rock cairns containing burnt bones and topped with upside-down metates, once again associated with Patayan or Mojave culture.

To me, the most important, most sacred, site in the desert is a cave that for me is associated with fertility and conception. It’s lined with colorful paintings with differing degrees of wear, suggesting that it was used and maintained for a long time, and I’d always assumed it was a Chemehuevi site. I thought I could remember young Chemehuevis visiting the site years ago, and it had later been purchased by members of the tribe and turned into a preserve.

But when I asked Dave for contrasting examples of Mojave and Chemehuevi rock art, what he showed me associated the oldest, most prevalent, and most coherent art – all the art I was used to, including the fertility paintings – with the Mojaves, the sedentary floodplain farmers, rather than the nomadic hunter-gatherers who were perfectly adapted to the desert. Apparently the association had been made by rock art specialists on the basis of comparision with patterns on Patayan pottery. Dave repeated his assertion that the campsite I’d found was a girl’s puberty site, and that based on my description of potsherds found there, it had to be a Mojave site, more than 400 years old. Anything old and lasting in the desert was from the Mojaves, not the Chemehuevis.

It was tough news for me to chew on, especially as I recalled the oral culture of the Chemehuevis, recorded by ethnographers, which included myths and legends describing the creation of this desert landscape. How could newcomers enter and conquer a strange land and then establish detailed and elaborate songlines – all-night song cycles including a place-based mythology – within a few generations, a process that the Aborigines of Australia had 45,000 years to develop? Is it likely that the Chemehuevis would have borrowed these songs and stories from the Mojaves, the people they conquered? That certainly isn’t what we Anglo-Europeans did when we conquered and imposed Christianity on the natives of North and South America.

Later, back at one of the miner’s cabins which had been “stabilized” with a new roof, windows and a furnished kitchen, Dave finished working on a contract for his latest project, a study of black homesteaders in the Mojave. Whereas the local historian, Dennis Casebier, had labored for decades to record and publish the stories of white homesteaders in the Lanfair Valley, nobody, including me, had heard the story of Lanfair’s counterpart, the adjoining black community of Dunbar. Dave had stumbled upon it accidentally, won a sizable grant for research, and was really excited to see it unfold.

The restoration group gathered around us that night: the serious “cabin brotherhood” from suburban California, the female nonprofit staff from Santa Fe, and their young Navajo carpenters from Gallup. The Santa Fe staff complained about “anti-cabin” forces in the Park Service, while the brotherhood spoke of their admiration for the old prospector who’d built this place, and their intimate relationship with his descendants. They’d set up a shrine of sorts to him and his family, along one side of the kitchen. So many obscure hobbies and subcultures in our huge, affluent society, consuming resources from all over the world!

Dave entertained us with the story of a Park Service ranger who, unwilling to appear ignorant, lectured European tourists on how the local name “Ivanpah” came from an early Russian prospector – whereas it’s actually derived from the Paiute term for “clear water”. One of the cabin brothers described a group of visiting Russians he’d encountered on a previous trip, high up on the rocky ridge above the cabins. They were all burly guys with long black beards, and they claimed to have walked almost 40 miles without food or water, but they refused any help or supplies, and they wouldn’t say where they were going.

The cabin brothers had unrolled their bedrolls in the back room, and most of the rest of us had set up camp outside, spread out across the upper slopes. But the young women from Santa Fe had pitched their tent inside a side room of the already weatherproof cabin, as if they weren’t sure whether they wanted to be indoors or out. They’d found a cell signal and sat inside the tent, inside the cabin, texting or Instagramming, to the amusement of the rest of us.

I laid out my bedroll in the duff under a juniper and wrapped the tarp around the sleeping bag for extra insulation. The temperature dropped into the 30s overnight, but I was snug as a bug in a rug.

A week later, I returned to my mountains for the last time before heading home to New Mexico. On one of the first hikes of this trip, looking down from the edge of the plateau, I’d noticed the house-sized rock outcrops standing out on the bajada, and I remembered that my friends had talked about hanging out there once, around the time they’d found artifacts in the area. Some old hippies I’d met camping in the gulch also mentioned finding artifacts around one of these rock piles, so it suddenly hit me that there were probably prehistoric sites nearby that I’d been walking past and missing for years. It occurred to me that this might be an outlier of the girl’s puberty site above on the plateau, a staging area where the girls might camp out after their long walk from home, before making the strenuous climb to the plateau. I couldn’t go home without taking a closer look.

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Vision Quest 2016: Challenging the Patriarchy

Friday, May 27th, 2016: Mojave Desert, Trips, Vision Quest 2016.

Senna holding one of the video cams that Ally and Haneen used to study pollinators in the creosote understory

The Chicken and the Egg

Driving the highway east across the desert in late afternoon, I looked south across the basin, watching the old cinder cones far in the distance. When I had a view between them into the Pass, I pulled over to try the field glasses. Sure enough, I saw a glint of sunlight on glass and chrome, ten miles away, at the campsite behind one of the low hills. I hadn’t been able to reach John after getting his email a couple of weeks ago, so I’d been taking a risk that their plans might’ve changed and I’d be spending the night alone, after shopping and driving hours to make this rendezvous.

With all the rain damage to the roads, it was an hour later when I pulled into camp behind the volcanic hill above the Pass. The first people I met were hunters who’d volunteered to help find and count bighorn sheep with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, or “Fish & Game”. I drove further into the clearing at the center of the circle of pickup trucks, and asked who was in charge. An attractive young woman approached, saying “You must be John’s friend! He hasn’t showed up yet, but we’re expecting him any minute now.”

I parked my truck in an open spot across the circle, got out and took a look around camp. At first, all I could see was attractive young women with long, tanned legs, wearing skin-tight short shorts that looked like underwear. I’d attended many other sheep surveys with Fish & Game, and they’d all involved a bunch of rugged outdoorsmen overdressed in khaki, so this was quite a surprise. John later explained that the girls were biologists working with Fish & Game under a program he’d set up, and that they’d been doing all his sheep work for a while. Paige, the one I’d met at first, was the leader of this trip. The few women I’d met before in this role had been stereotypically plain. Later on my trip, another male scientist would complain that attractive young women are getting all the good jobs in biology now.

I laid out my tarp and unrolled my pad and bedroll. John drove up shortly and parked in the remaining spot next to me. The sun was setting, and Paige called everyone together to plan the next day’s work. As we stood in a circle, about a dozen of us, she passed out photocopied maps with the planned routes into the northernmost canyon system of the range. I could see immediately that they were beyond what I would be able to do, at least at the speed I expected John, and these younger people, to maintain. I didn’t want to slow them down, and I didn’t want to push myself trying to keep up, and end up straining the muscles and joints I’d spent months trying to rebuild since surgery. I said that, and Paige quickly grabbed my map back and handed it to someone else.

As I expected, John spoke up first, choosing the most difficult route for himself.

After the planning session, the group broke up. No hanging out around a campfire or lantern, getting to know each other, as we’d done on past Fish & Game outings. John returned to his truck and laid out his own bedroll, then brought a folding chair over to sit with me. I asked him if he’d memorized his route. He laughed. “I helped plan those routes! I’ll go wherever I damn well please!”

I questioned him about the respiratory epidemic, and how it might be spread. One topic of current research is the movement of sheep between ranges, and that led us into a discussion of climate. John scoffed at concerns over human-caused climate change. “There’s no question that humans are causing climate change in the near term, but my perspective, studying sheep populations, is much longer! In my perspective, global warming is just a blip. We’re still in an interglacial – in a few thousand years, this desert will be forested again. Where will the sheep go then?”

John took this as an opportunity to emphasize the primacy of evolution as the explanatory theory of life in the universe, reiterating the population biologist’s dominant view that genes are at the root of everything, determining everything important. So I had to point out that genes and evolution only apply to the individual organism, and no organism can live in a vacuum, without the context and interactions of its ecosystem, so ecology is really the foundation science. “No, no!” John protested, but I forged ahead. “Evolution is just popular in our technology-crazed society because it’s reductive and instrumental – we can easily crunch genetic data and manipulate the genome – whereas ecosystems are far too complex and chaotic for us. Ecosystems are the context for evolution, not vice versa, but they resist our understanding and hence our exploitation, so we say that evolution is more important than ecology!”

“So it’s a chicken and egg problem, which came first?” said John, starting to get my point. “I still say you can’t have an ecosystem without organisms, and you can’t have organisms without evolution.”

“It makes sense that genes are fundamental to you, as a population biologist,” I said. “But what biology traditionally sidesteps is the importance of non-living things in the ecosystem. Non-living things like rocks and clouds – geologists speak of the living rock – can be said to evolve, but not by means of DNA and genes.”

“Well, it’s not completely true that biology ignores the abiotic – climate and substrate are figured into ecological cycles…”

Fear of the Noble Savage

Night had fallen, the air was cooling, and the mass of the old cinder cone loomed beside us. The stars were out over camp, but we could still see the trucks and the silhouettes of people moving about, and hear the occasional rustle of pots, pans and other domestic affairs.

Thinking back to climate change, I wanted to restore humans to the ecological picture, as participants rather than detached, godlike manipulators. John’s interests are eclectic like mine, and it had been a long time since we’d had a good talk. I wanted to share some of my recent findings with him. I suggested that we Westerners needed more holistic paradigms, and that we might have lessons to learn from other, more traditional societies.

“There you go, romanticizing the noble savage again,” John cut in.

My biologist friends really don’t like to hear anything positive said about traditional or indigenous cultures. At the first hint, they tend to cut me off before I can explain, reacting to a stereotype in their own minds instead of what I’m trying to say, and accusing me of the romantic fallacy of the “noble savage”, a cliche of European literature and philosophy during the 17th-19th centuries.

Recent archaeological studies in widely separated parts of the world have shown that many prehistoric societies were like us, engineering their habitats for their own benefit and causing significant damage to local ecosystems. Reading these reports in the popular literature, scientists who don’t study other cultures conflate all traditional societies with the destructive ones, painting everything they don’t know with same broad brush. Worst of all, biologists blame ancestral Native Americans for “overkill” leading to the Quaternary Extinction Event in North American, a mass die-off of megafauna, even though this hypothesis is disputed by specialists who study it. Finally, coming from academia, they’re predisposed to dismiss traditional people as backward, ignorant, and superstitious.

My heroes in biology have been independent thinkers like Lyn Margulis and Gary Paul Nabhan, but my friends tend to work at the grass-roots level without power or influence, laboring away at their super-specialized studies and taking the dominant paradigms of their fields for granted because they’re not in a position to challenge them. They’re often frustrated in their careers, defensive in the face of anti-science political conservatives and religious fundamentalists, and helpless to stop the destruction of natural habitats & species that they see firsthand in their work.

But unlike my other biologist friends, John has worked with archaeologists and knows something of the history & philosophy of science.

“Our cultural bias leads us to focus on large-scale, technologically advanced societies of the past who were more like us,” I pointed out. “These were the aggressive societies that rolled over their weaker neighbors, like us against Native Americans. And societies that dominated people also tended to try to dominate nature.

“Jared Diamond popularized this idea that only the winners are relevant, that cultures who were conquered are failures that we can dismiss. After all, history is written by the winners.

“But let’s look at this rationally. Even the U.S., the most powerful country on earth, could be wiped out by an asteroid. Might doesn’t make right, and weakness and defeat don’t prove inferiority. In the 1950s, a multidisciplinary group of scientists spent 18 months on a remote atoll in the Pacific, studying every aspect of the terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and using native people as their assistants. And the leaders of the expedition came to admire the native culture so much that they would’ve given up their careers and stayed for the rest of their lives if they hadn’t had families back home.

“These peaceful people had achieved a stable equilibrium in their very limited habitat, cultivating food plants in patches of wetland without trying to engineer or manage the entire atoll, and harvesting seasonal resources from the ocean, sustainably. And they managed to keep their population from growing beyond its capacity.

“They’re part of a larger anthropological project by the University of Alabama called Peaceful Societies, and pacifism is roughly correlated with sustainable ecological practices. By focusing on the dominant winners and ignoring the submissive minorities, we may be missing some valuable lessons.”

John and I went on to have a long, productive, wide-ranging talk, our first in many years, until he realized he still needed a shower and good night’s sleep before the early morning start.

I, on the other hand, lay awake all night, watching the moon trail away over my shoulder to its own bed, watching the constellations rolling after, and the Milky Way rising in the final hours of darkness. My mind wasn’t racing, I wasn’t worried about anything. I just watched, resting my eyes occasionally, never falling asleep until dawn, when our camp came alive again, and I crawled out of bed, exhausted, to start the first day of the survey.

Challenging the Patriarchy

I always look forward to meeting grad students doing field studies at the desert ecological preserve, in hopes of learning about their work and deepening my understanding of the desert. This time, hauling my gear into the residence hall that I helped build 25 years ago, I met Ally and Haneen, beautiful young PhD candidates working together on a study of ecological facilitation in the understory of the creosote bush.

Traditionally patriarchal like all science, biology is undergoing a demographic revolution as female recruits increase. And at a much slower rate, the male-biased dogma of biology are being challenged as women gradually replace influential male peer reviewers.

The aggressive, coercive, domineering nature of Anglo-European society ensured that male biologists would see competition and negative interactions, rather than cooperation and positive interactions, at the foundation of both evolution and ecology, but female biologists are beginning to restore balance and a more accurate view of nature.

A generation ago, Lyn Margulis overcame male resistance to gain wide acceptance of symbiosis – interspecies cooperation – in evolutionary theory. More recently, some biologists have turned their attention to “facilitation” – cooperation and positive interactions in ecology. The distinction between positive and negative, competition and cooperation, is another historical artifact of Anglo-European tradition; the reality is clearly a continuum or spectrum of behavior and interactions that can go in or out of balance around a state of dynamic equilibrium.

The women and I got to know each other over a period of days in the common room of the preserve facility. Ally, from Toronto, was blonde and wholesome-looking; Haneen was raven-haired, tanned, more reserved and enigmatic. We were joined from time to time by Fred, an older botanist and plant illustrator, and Tasha and the kids, who had adopted the “girls” as big sisters. In contrast to my older scientist friends, Ally and Haneen were at the beginning of their careers, receiving a lot of support and encouragement from the establishment, excited about their future rather than discouraged by the setbacks that plague us all as we age and see more of life.

I talked about desert places and phenomena they hadn’t encountered yet. Haneen was interested in my music, and Ally pointed me to some background reading on facilitation. Her current work focused on the use of the creosote understory by other plants and by pollinators. Facilitation spans an infinite variety of natural phenomena that we really only need common sense to observe, from spatial structure (one species creating a nursery, home or workspace for other species) to community diversity (structuring interspecies interactions), from protection from stress and predation, to seed transport by birds and rodents. A male Anglo-European eye is likely to see selfishness behind it all, but that’s only one perspective, a form of anthropomorphism.

Hidden Underfoot

I arrived in the desert the day after heavy rain, and hiked up to the seep on our land, where I began to notice something I’d been only marginally aware of in the past. Here, the gravel slopes were laced with outcrops of white, sometimes translucent metamorphic rock, and my eyes were drawn to vivid black clumps of “stuff” that was neither plant, nor rock, nor soil, knobby mats swelling around cracks in the bright rock, as well as in patches in the pale gravel. I guessed that it must be biological soil crust, a community of lichens, bacteria and other tiny organisms that work together to build these structures on the interface between the living and the nonliving. Why hadn’t I noticed and studied these before, in the 35 years I’d walked among them? Probably it was the rain, the water they’d absorbed that made them more prominent, and their contrast against the bright substrate here.

I’d first encountered soil crusts, or cryptobiotic soil, 25 years ago during my Paiute skills course. The instructors had started by briefing and warning us about the extremely delicate crusts in the powder sand of the Colorado Plateau, an important part of the ecosystem which is instantly crushed when walked on and takes centuries to regenerate. I always work hard to avoid trampling these when I go back there, but I’d totally ignored their counterparts in the Mojave.

Now I was smitten. I got down on my knees and examined our local crusts. Unlike the Colorado Plateau crusts, which form a distinctive, modular architectural pattern, our Mojave crusts are free-form. They may swell around cracks in the rock like a spreading amoeba, or appear as small bumps across the bajada. My favorites are the scalloped rings.

Close up, their structures reveal a chaotic pattern of irregularly-shaped, variously sized knobs separated by gaps. The crusts in the white rock appeared black at first glance, but those out on the bajada showed more of a dark rust color. Whereas the Colorado Plateau crusts are delicate, these feel tough, like old leather.

Humble soil crusts were mostly ignored throughout the male-dominated history of biology and ecology. Macho male biologists tend to focus on charismatic megafauna. But crusts are finally getting more attention, which I suspect is a result of more women in the field. Per usual, there’s controversy over whether crusts are primarily competitors or facilitators in the ecosystem. A botanist friend told me that they’re essential for regeneration of shrubs, which may be set back by centuries when crusts are trampled or burned by wildfire. I remembered this the following week, when I hiked into a remote, heavily grazed valley where invasive bromus had replaced native grasses, encouraging a wildfire which had stripped the center of the valley of its shrub cover and significantly reduced its capacity to capture water in vegetation. I followed the tracks of the cattle and eventually saw them in the distance, half-wild, running away from me up a steep hill.

At the ecological preserve, I asked Tasha and she referred me to a female crust specialist, from whom I hope to learn a lot more about these fascinating communities of organisms working together at the foundation of life on earth.

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Vision Quest 2016: Hiding Our Failures

Sunday, May 29th, 2016: Mojave Desert, Trips, Vision Quest 2016.

The huge Ivanpah Solar Power Plant, a failure, but only one of the many collusions of government and industry that are destroying wildlife habitat in the name of "green energy"

The War on Everything

On our way through the northern Mojave to help protect endangered toads from the worldwide epidemic of chytrid fungus, the conservation biologists and I finally overtook the legions of heavy machinery hungrily consuming natural habitat and extending the suburban sprawl of Las Vegas. Next, we passed Creech Air Force Base, where young suburbanites use flying robots to kill unknown villagers thousands of miles away, in the Middle East, without any risk to themselves, simply by pushing a button.

This is one way the dominant society exploits the desert to hide its violent, domineering nature, and this is how individual people try to do good while surrounded by destruction and denial. The natural landscape of the Mojave is divided up and fenced off by huge military bases from north to south and east to west, from the bombing range of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center to the Nevada Test Site, where scientists and engineers tested the apocalyptic weapons of mass destruction that Americans alone invented and used, unnecessarily as it turns out, against foreign civilians. From the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, where trained killers practice urban warfare outdoors in simulated Mideastern villages, to the shadowy indoor evil of Creech, where technological innovation enables Americans to terrorize and kill from a distance, without risk or accountability.

Much more is hidden from us overseas, far beyond the borders of our country. The United States and its allies have not given up their 19th century global empires – contrary to rhetoric, maps, and popular belief, Anglo-European empires continue to expand, imposing their military bases, legions of trained killers, and high-tech weapons of mass destruction on the populations of almost every country in the world.

Peaceful societies like the Amish thrive by promoting cooperation, discouraging aggression and avoiding conflict. They refuse to use violence to defend themselves, and their long European martyrdom strengthened their communities, whereas the military and police culture of dominant societies breeds conflict and endless cycles of violence. Their history has taught the self-sufficient Amish to carefully observe trends in the surrounding dominant society, so they can locate new homes and migrate when necessary to avoid conflict and violence, unlike the victims of civil war in failed states like Syria, who are betrayed by their dependence on central governments and the institutions of civilization, ending up helpless in crowded refugee camps. Unlike urban refugees who look for jobs in cities, the Amish can always find a new home by settling the endless supply of farmland abused and abandoned by high-tech societies, which the Amish restore to productivity with their proven low-tech methods.

Virtually every day or night my friends and I spend hiking and camping in our remote desert wilderness, we have to deal with the U.S. military, in the form of bizarre aerial refueling maneuvers. These are pilot training exercises; both the tanker and the smaller plane are propellor-driven and loud, flying between 4,000′ and 6,000′ altitude. I’ve occasionally been hazed and nearly knocked over by showoff fighter pilots appearing out of nowhere in their multimillon-dollar jets, flying just above the ground at near-supersonic speed, but these refueling flights are relentless. The two planes fly in broad lazy circles, courting each other from afar and gradually converging, the big plane extending its penile hose and the little plane accepting it, as they continue locked in intercourse, finally detaching and withdrawing, their engines growling over our heads. It’s a real-life version of science-fiction’s machine sex. Now that our land is inside a new National Monument, I’m hoping I can get the BLM to pressure the military to use their own huge reservations instead of our smaller scraps of public wilderness.

Addicted to Punishment

On my way to the desert, driving across the beautiful high plains of northeastern Arizona, I pass the Apache Prison, isolated, like most modern prisons, far from any town. But in the Nevada part of the Mojave, a concentration of prisons clusters in view of commuter traffic along the highways near Las Vegas, joining the military bases and casinos in a sort of gauntlet of shame.

Many societies throughout history have successfully practiced restorative justice, but these societies have all been conquered and dominated by violent, coercive societies employing punitive justice. Despite centuries of failure to prevent crime, Anglo-European societies like the United States perpetuate this counterproductive paradigm, achieving ever-expanding mass incarceration, out of sight and mostly out of mind. The punitive paradigm is applied selectively, to isolate and contain poverty and mental illness without preventing or treating them, and to control problematic racial and political elements in society. But punishment fails by cultivating and perpetuating a culture of destructive antisocial behavior. By hiding prisons in the desert and other places which are invisible to the population, the dominant society tries to sustain its illusion of order, peace, health and harmony.

I learned on my trip that ironically, crime in Las Vegas is rising, because prisoners from other states have learned to converge upon the desert city after their release, finding easy pickings in the vast sprawl of walled bedroom communities which are often vacant and unsupervised in the daytime.

Innovating to Death

After camping with the Park Service archaeologist on the Mojave National Preserve, I headed north on Interstate 15, through Mountain Pass, between Clark Mountain and the Mescal Range. At almost 8,000′ peak elevation, Clark Mountain hosts extensive conifer forests, with much cooler temperatures than most of the California desert. It’s a beautiful mountain with spectacular canyons of limestone, but the Mountain Pass Mine, the only source of rare earth elements in the U.S., has been eating away at it for decades.

Both smart phones and wind turbines rely on rare earths, and their production generates toxic and radioactive waste. Every new technology comes out of a hole in the ground and poisons rural habitats and communities somewhere. This is the dark side and the hidden failure of technological innovation, realities which are hidden away from “consumers”, in the desert and other distant rural locations.

Peaceful societies like the Ifaluk focus on sustainable subsistence rather than technological innovation, minimizing their consumption of natural resources, living within their means rather than continually seeking to grow and expand.


Grassroots solar energy activists promote “rooftop solar”, but an industrial society is not a grassroots society. Governments pursue large-scale, industrial solutions: interstate highway systems, transcontinental railroads, giant dams and reservoirs, power plants, transmission lines and regional power grids. Field biologists warn that our studies of natural ecosystems raise more questions than answers; we engineer what we don’t understand.

North of Clark Mountain, I crossed the broad, sloping Ivanpah Valley. Ivanpah comes from a Paiute word for “clear water”, and as in most desert basins, the valley’s creosote scrub provided a home for a large population of desert tortoises, jackrabbits, cottontails, and other rodents, many species of birds, and countless of species of wildflowers and their insect pollinators. This home and its diverse life were destroyed during the past decade by BrightSource Energy, with the approval of the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, which had originally opposed BrightSource’s Ivanpah Solar Plant, but accepted bribes to withdraw their opposition.

After destroying many square miles of wildlife and habitat, the huge, expensive “green energy” plant remains a failure, unable to generate more than a fraction of its planned output, but the State of Nevada, in its aggressive promotion of industrial energy development, has enabled many other facilities to destroy many more square miles of desert life and habitat, both in the Ivanpah Valley and along U.S. Highway 95 southeast of Las Vegas. I drove past them all on my trip.

A new proposal would install the world’s tallest wind turbines in a wild mountain range south of Las Vegas, on the very boundary of a national monument.

The dominant society hides its “green” energy developments in the desert, so that few can see the ecological destruction caused by these purportedly earth-friendly industries. As with conventional industrial developments, these highly political solar and wind power projects are rife with corruption and waste, and they accelerate the long-term destruction of critical wildlife habitat and hasten the extinction of endangered species.

White Trash

Approaching the Amargosa River, where we would locate and sample endangered toads, the conservation biologists and I caught a glimpse of Yucca Mountain, the Mojave Desert range that our government blasted and undermined with tunnels for its long-planned high-level nuclear waste disposal site. Under increasing scrutiny from environmental groups, scientists eventually admitted that they didn’t adequately understand the site or the proposed storage technologies, and Yucca Mountain was abandoned, perpetuating the history of ruined desert construction sites and settlements of the past.

Everywhere I go in the desert, even in remote areas designated as wilderness, I find the abandoned trash of Americans and the ruins of their ambitious engineering projects, many of them considered quite innovative for their time, preserved for posterity in the remotest corners of the desert. From the mining ruins now used as targets by antisocial gun nuts, to the acres of broken household appliances and plastic toys surrounding trailer trash homes. And the millions of neon-colored plastic balloons bought by thoughtless suburbanites at markets and fairs, abandoned by their children, and blown hundreds of miles out into desert wilderness, where they remain impaled on cactus thorns to represent us long after the dominant society collapses.

Colonize Now, Pay Later

Twenty-five years ago, when we acquired our desert land, one of the first problems we faced was the invasive middle-eastern shrub, tamarisk, which was introduced to the American West accidentally, in the 19th century, as a by-product of human colonization. Tamarisk emits salt, preventing the growth of native riparian plants, and it produces vast numbers of tiny seeds which are spread by wind and water until it forms solid thickets, where it consumes more water than native plants, drying up streams and springs and lowering the water table, killing still more native plants.

Most of what we think of as “nature” is being continually tranformed, degraded, and sometimes destroyed by alien species that we dominant societies introduce to native ecosystems as collateral damage of our exploration, trade, tourism, colonization, and expansion into new places. Although the examples featured here have historical origins, new invasives are being introduced constantly, and at a higher rate than in the past, as technological progress increases the mobility of our species. Our mobility is the enemy of nature.

Ranchers, pet owners, and hobbyists kill wildlife accidentally, through diseases spread by domestic animals

While futurists fantasize about colonizing other planets and encountering alien life in outer space, alien invaders introduced by actual Anglo-European exploration and colonization continue to threaten native ecosystems across the planet.

Hiding Our Failures

If the least-developed and most-ignored region of the most powerful nation on earth is strewn with our failures, imagine the status of other places our culture has colonized but we’re now warned away from: Africa and the Middle East, for example.

Illusions of peace and progress are maintained in dominant societies by compartmentalizing or outsourcing problems. Our institutions, from government to industry and the military, hide behind cosmetic facades that obscure their primary functions. The media distract us with distant threats and celebrity scandals. Glued to our screens, seeking stimulation or comfort, and avoiding supposedly empty and hostile places like the desert, most of us avoid the inconvenient truths of our society. The desert is where our society hides much of the evidence of its ongoing failures, the blind spots that are edited out of our worldview to validate fantasies of success, progress, and the future.

Those who study deserts know them as places of rare beauty, priceless reservoirs and frontiers of biological and cultural diversity, teeming with undiscovered species and gaps in our knowledge and wisdom. But since the vast majority of voters and “consumers” have never experienced a desert, and assume deserts to be empty of life, politicians are able to designate desert habitats as “sacrifice zones” which are allowed to be consumed and exploited for industry, waste disposal, or industrial “infrastructure”. These deserts, some of our best teachers about how to adapt and live a sustainable life, are being destroyed to keep us ignorant.

We can safeguard our families and their future, not by following the masses in their pursuit of the chimera of progress, but by disengaging from the dominant society and its destructive institutions, to study and learn from the peaceful societies and focus on building sustainable local communities. This was demonstrated in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire, during the misnamed “Dark Ages”, when instead of suffering from disorder and chaos, local communites thrived in the absence of oppression and exploitation.


Vision Quest 2016: Hidden Diversity

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016: Mojave Desert, Trips, Vision Quest 2016.


After leaving the desert, I visited family in the Midwest and hiked in a lush temperate forest, an environment which is paradoxically much less diverse. In the desert, the lack of an arboreal canopy allows life-giving sunlight to reach the ground almost everywhere. The patchy nature of vegetative cover has resulted in level upon level of diverse flora, from lichen and soil crusts at ground level, to tiny forbs, larger forbs, sub-shrubs, shrubs, various forms of cactus, agaves and yuccas, riparian trees, and the conifers and hardwoods of upland slopes. More leafy annuals and perennials, as well as mosses and ferns, are found in the shade of boulders and cliffs.

While armchair adventurers dream of exploring outer space, the desert is a true frontier nearer at hand. Here, mysteries abound and alien life remains to be discovered. Scientists have identified only a fraction of plant species in the desert, and are discovering new ones constantly. Much of the desert’s diversity is hidden at ground level, or far from the highway. It takes an effort to find it, but the rewards never fail.

Worlds Apart

The day I arrived on my land, I eagerly hiked up the wash looking for water. The first thing I noticed was that the desert lavender was blooming, and the bees were swarming it. Desert lavender, Hyptis emoryi, is sparse in our canyon system, which is dominated by desert willow, Chilopsis linearis.

The following week, I hiked into the next drainage to the north, only two miles away, but separated by a high ridge. There, I found desert lavender to be dominant, and desert willow completely absent.

During my decades of exploring mountain ranges in distant corners of the desert, with their dramatically different forms, colors, and geologies – from sedimentary to metamorphic, from plutonic to volcanic, and mixtures of the above – I’d noticed subtle differences in the vegetative cover and isolated differences in the dominant plant species. But on this trip, prompted to revisit adjacent canyon systems in my home range, I discovered that even in a single mountain range, different drainage basins can have dramatically different botanical signatures.

The canyon system spanned by our property has a floral mix that I’ve known for so long that I take it for granted and barely notice it on a conscious level. From the alluvial fan at 2,500′ on the edge of the mountains to the watershed on the ridgetops at 5,000′, the dry washes and gullies are dominated, in succession, by desert willow and catclaw acacia, then catclaw with baccaris or seep willow, then coyote willow, and finally juniper, pinyon pine, and shrubby hardwoods. There are three small clumps of mesquite scattered far apart, noticeable but barely hanging on.

The beautiful canyon that I discovered on the second day of the survey was dominated by mesquite – perhaps 30 times as much as I’d found elsewhere – followed by long-established tamarisk, the destructive exotic.

These drainages may be separated by as little as two miles, but the intervening ridges create a barrier from hundreds to thousands of feet high. Still, it surprises me that certain plants haven’t been able to colonize adjacent drainages, using humans, birds or rodents as seed carriers, during thousands of years of relatively stable climate.

My last stop in the desert was one of our biggest ephemeral watercourses, a corridor of green draining a huge alluvial basin, shaded by a canopy of tall, old-growth palo verde, a tree which is sparse and generally of modest size elsewhere in the Mojave. Unlike many less arid habitats, the desert is surprisingly diverse.

My Mountains: Watercourses

Riparian diversity has been reduced in many parts of the Southwest by the invasion of tamarisk, a shrub from the Middle East which was accidentally introduced in the 19th century when its non-invasive cousin was planted in windbreaks. Once tamarisk blooms, it’s impossible to keep its zillions of tiny seeds from blowing across the landscape or washing downstream in flash floods. As a result, it’s in virtually every canyon in the desert, to greater or lesser extents.

Invasive plants generally only colonize soils disturbed by non-native intervention, by cattle or humans and their machinery, but riparian plants can take root in sand disturbed by natural flash floods. Once established, tamarisk emits salts that poison the soil and prevent native plants from thriving. My friends and I have worked hard, but in vain, to eliminate tamarisk from our land, and government agencies as well as volunteer groups have been attacking it for decades. Invasive species, and their damage, are here to stay.

But our native riparian flora hangs on in many places, and it’s always rewarding to come upon it.

My Mountains: Bajada

The bajada, a rolling shrubby upland at the foot of mountain slopes, is the hotbed of floral diversity in the desert. Toward the end of my trip, as the sky cleared after a morning thunderstorm, I ate some magic mushrooms that a friend had left with me years earlier, and spent the afternoon hiking the bajada, marveling at the blooming cactus and shrubs, as the sun went down and the multicolored plants seemed to glow from within as they were backlit from the west.

My Mountains: Upland Slopes

Slopes above 4,000′ host islands of conifers and hardwoods. I headed for this zone on my first big hike, and found both junipers and pinyon pine suffering from a mysterious blight. Fortunately it seemed to be confined to our drainage and didn’t appear elsewhere in the range.

Joshua Tree Woodland

After my arrival at the remote ecological field station, I was invited to join two botanists on an all-day field trip, looking for rare plants in the high desert. Jim, the leading plant expert in this region and one of my heroes, has worked tirelessly to catalog endangered species and fight solar and other developments that threaten desert habitat. He was taking Fred, a botanical illustrator, on a search for rare plants that will be featured in a book they’re working on. Jim brought us up to date on the dominant society’s greed and corruption as we drove from site to beautiful site.

People who follow the media may get the mistaken impression that our society is expanding its protection of desert habitat via a new series of national monuments, but in the fine print, these contain provisions that may actually accelerate mining and other developments.

The upland basins and gentle slopes of the Joshua tree forest that we visited first host a rainbow of blooming shrubs in springtime. They also tend to host more native bunchgrasses than other habitats, sometimes forming broad grasslands with abundant, nutritious forage for wildlife.

Limestone Slopes

From the Joshua tree grassland, we drove up onto an isolated ridge of limestone. These limestone mountains and outcrops are scattered among the dominant volcanic and granitic ranges of the desert, providing a substrate for some unique endemic plants.

Red Rock Canyon

Our final botanizing site featured a contact between granite and sedimentary rock, a literal rock garden for cactus and rare species, and an interesting canyon through gabbro, a coarse-grained plutonic rock with big embedded crystals.

Creosote Flats

The grad students I met at the field station were pioneers in the study of ecological facilitation, the beneficial cooperation of very different plants and animals in their habitats. The desert is a frontier of this new field, showing how little science really knows about the earth, as research continues to uncover more questions than answers.

The graceful, drought-tolerant creosote bush, a “medicine chest” for desert Indians, achieves nearly pure stands in sandy low-elevation basins. These basins appear barren to the inexperienced eye, but may provide critical habitat for desert tortoise, pollinators, and many other species. These habitats, with their austere beauty, are the first to be sacrificed for giant solar energy projects.

Granite Peaks

After leaving the ecological preserve, I camped out at higher elevation in a lush basin surrounded by granite peaks.

Overgrazed Valley

Next, I drove a couple of mountain ranges north and hiked into a remote valley hoping to find a beautiful canyon I’d discovered long ago. Instead, I found half-wild cattle and a trampled and overgrazed landscape. It was a mistake to introduce cattle to this landscape in the first place, and it should be a crime to run them here now.

Badlands Oasis

I joined conservation biologists on a field trip to the Amargosa River to study endangered toads, and we found a wetland and riparian corridor recently recovering from the removal of invasive tamarisk.

Tunnel of Shade

Before leaving the desert, I stopped at a huge dry watercourse with a forest canopy that had always intrigued me, far to the east of my mountains. This 20-mile-long wash channels the occasional powerful flash flood, but is dry at other times, providing a rare tunnel of shade from high on the alluvial fans to the distant Colorado River.

Sonoran Outliers

At the eastern edge of the California desert, iconic Sonoran Desert plants appear, in a narrow band along the western shore of the Colorado River: ocotillo here, and saguaro cactus farther south.

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Vision Quest 2016: Joy of Surviving

Monday, June 6th, 2016: Mojave Desert, Trips, Vision Quest 2016.

I was fresh and motivated and made it to the top in good time

Drinking the Plateau

I loaded the old Swiss Army surplus rucksack with the minimum gear I’d need for an overnight without cooking, including only enough water for a day hike, since I expected to find water up there after the recent rains. Then I set out across the basin for the plateau.

I walked over humped fingers of bajada under a clearing sky, through breezy air that was pleasantly cool, avoiding dark patches of cryptobiotic soil, until I reached the big wash I could follow all the way to the base of the dry waterfall. It was all good walking with the sand of the wash firm under my boots.

As I reached the point in the wash where the banks were lower and I could see the ridges completely surrounding the basin, my mind was still on water, and it occurred to me that this exposed landscape of stone and sediment is a hard country to find water in, because it seems to break the rules people make elsewhere. Here, surface water may be found in high places with no vegetative indicators, for example in a deep tinaja or pothole in a rock outcrop. Water may pool on the surface in the bottom of a gully, simply because it hits a contact with impermeable stone, while above and below, the gully is bone dry. Trees and thickets may show livid green while the water table beneath them remains inaccessibly deep, because their taproots reach fifty or a hundred feet down.

Walking up jackrabbits, cottontails, and coveys of quail along my way, I reached the base of the cliffs. Without a trail, this would be my first real test of hiking since my hip surgery. And I made it even harder by going light on my left leg, to relieve the past year’s chronic tendonitis, and overloading the recovering right side. The overloaded right leg felt weaker, which made the already brutal climb feel super hard. But I was fresh and motivated and made it to the top in good time. There, I found a thin ribbon of water strung over the rounded, polished granite ledges of the dry waterfall, fed by tea-colored pools in the cavities of the rock.

I’ve known this plateau intimately, alone and with friends, for almost 25 years, and traversing it brings me, again and again, to favorite places, like the sacred sites of a pilgrimage. Today I was heading for the old Indian campsite I discovered near the head of the plateau, and I was reminded that it was Grey Fox who’d led me to discover it long ago, as she tried to divert me from her den.

Midway, I found a narrow place in the rock where water drained from a small cavity over a tiny waterfall into a large pool. The running water seemed clearer than the tea-colored pools, and I refilled my water bottle and used the SteriPEN on it. In the bottle, the water showed the pale green of single-celled algae.

I drank the mountain water eagerly as I continued up to the campsite. Reaching the top of the roughly terraced bank below camp, I saw a golden eagle hunting in the cliff wall at the head of the plateau.

When I reached the boulder alcove where the Indian girls had mixed their face paint, my body felt thrashed by the climb. I unrolled my sleeping bag in the boulder shade and lay there thinking I was insane to be doing hikes like this without more rehab, especially at the very beginning of my trip. This hike had seemed harder than ones I’d made in the year before surgery. As a friend had pointed out before I left home, these solo trips into the wilderness, without a plan or schedule, and without any means of communicating with the outside world, were very dangerous for me and saddled my friends and family with anxiety over where I was and whether I was safe. I realized I’d failed to check my backpacking checklist before starting out, although I didn’t seem to have forgotten anything important.

I rested in the shade as the beautiful waterfall song of canyon wrens tumbled from the cliffs above. Occasionally I’d get up and look around for Indian artifacts, colorful rock flakes and dull potsherds. My belly started to swell and cramp, and I began to wonder if the mountain water I’d drank contained giardia that had survived the SteriPEN. The sun sank in the west, my stomach didn’t get better, and I started to envision being really sick up here, alone and without drinkable water. I decided I’d rather be sick walking back to the truck than lying up here, five rugged miles away. It was 6 pm, I should have just enough daylight to finish the dangerous downclimb, and if I survived that, there would be plenty of moonlight to follow the big dry wash, with its reflective white granite sand, back to Cowboy Camp.

So I packed up and retraced my steps, back down the cliff, across the plateau through the narrow, meandering gully with its dozens of obstacles. Struggling through willow thickets, over boulder piles and pouroffs, mostly in shade now, to the top of the dry waterfall, 500 feet above the basin, with a half hour of sunlight left. And climbing carefully down the steep wall of loose rock, lowering myself from narrow ledge to narrow ledge, where a slip could impale me on yucca blades or bounce me hundreds of feet to my death. The sun set beyond the western ridges just as I reached the bottom, and realized my stomach cramps were gone.

Night fell as I followed the moonlit trail of the big, sandy wash. It was full dark as I reached the lower stretch of the wash, exhausted, so I couldn’t spot the shortcut over the bajada that would’ve saved me a half hour or so. By the time I reached camp going the long way around, I had walked ten miles round trip with my overnight pack, by far the most work that hip had been asked to do since surgery.

Maybe algal wastes in the mountain water had upset my stomach, rather than living parasites. I had a cold supper of leftovers, and drank two beers, twice my usual, before turning in under the bright half moon. I was asleep long before it set behind the peak above camp.

The Longest Nights

On the following Monday night, the moon was near full and still rising in the east when I crawled into my sleeping bag after my long talk with John. The dozen or so members of the wild sheep survey were already sleeping on the other side of our circle of pickup trucks. I love to sleep on desert pavement like this, exposed in all directions.

We’d had a great talk, and I was a little buzzed, but it was late. I watched the moon and the stars, I turned on my side, I turned on my belly, I tried the other side. I wasn’t sleepy in any position. The hours went by and the heavens swiveled painfully slowly toward the west. I had sleeping aids packed away, but didn’t think to use them. Eventually the moon set and more stars emerged. I turned over. I turned over again. I was waiting for the Milky Way to rise in the east. Finally it appeared, and then the dark began to fade way over there as the sun prepared to rise on a new day.

My mind wasn’t racing, I wasn’t worried about anything. I just watched, resting my eyes occasionally, never falling asleep until dawn, when our camp came alive again, and I crawled out of bed, exhausted. I ended up hiking six miles up an unfamiliar canyon that day.

The Monday after that, I was high up on a mountain, a hundred miles to the north. I’d been up late again, talking with Dave the archaeologist, the cabin brothers, the girls from Santa Fe and a Navajo carpenter. My sleeping bag lay under a juniper, wrapped in a plastic tarp against the expected cold. As always when camping out, I was super comfortable. Really even better than at home on my expensive mattress. But again, I couldn’t fall asleep. There didn’t seem to be any reason for it this time, either. I tossed and turned. The temperature dropped into the 30s and I was too comfortable to get up and take a pill. I watched the sky, and it finally began to brighten in the east.

After that second sleepless Monday, I drove 50 miles to the north and did an eight mile round trip hike into an unfamiliar canyon.

The third Monday night of my trip, I was camping on my land again, and the pattern held, even after a long hike. When I’d laid there for two hours with no sign of sleepiness, I gave up and took an Ambien. During the remaining half hour before I finally fell off, I happened to be facing east when a meteorite caught fire there, leaving an incandescent trail to the horizon.

Bush 1, Tire 0

My little old low-clearance rear-wheel-drive pickup truck was meeting its match on this trip. To gain traction in sandy washes, I’d lowered the tire pressure to 16 psi all around, so the clearance was even lower than usual, and again and again, on the long-abandoned mining tracks that we call “roads” in these mountains, the undercarriage had been slammed and dragged across bedrock.

The evening after the solo hike on which I’d discovered Mesquite Canyon, I drove and drove, farther and farther south, deeper into the desert and farther from paved roads and towns, looking for the wild sheep survey group. At the south end of the range, 50 miles from the highway, I found that the graded road to the salt-mining settlement of Milligan had been washed out by flash floods. The tire tracks ahead of me detoured through the deep sand of big arroyos.

The sun was setting, so I just kept pushing my little truck, making it through low-lying Milligan and still farther down the alluvial fan toward the salt marshes. Driving downhill in sand is not so hard, but once I found the northbound powerline road, I’d be driving uphill in sand for a dozen miles or so.

There I was on a road I hadn’t driven in 25 years, racing the night and looking for the turnoff I expected the sheep group to take in the morning, a road I’d never used myself. Comparing the odometer with the map and glancing west in the growing darkness, where the hundred-foot-tall skeletons of transmission towers accompanied the road north one after the other like the Martians in War of the Worlds, I’d gone farther than expected when I suddenly noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a faint vehicle track, back in the creosote scrub, and I braked slowly to a stop just past the tower access pullout.

It was a trick turning around in the narrow road with its high banks, and then getting up enough speed to bump over the bank onto the access road, but when I drove past the base of the tower, I found a vehicle track leading back into the desert toward the now-black shadow of the mountains, which were silhouetted against the last light.

The moon, nearly full, had risen in the east. I camped there near the transmission tower, in the midst of creosote flats that stretched all the way to the next mountain range, warming up some leftovers for dinner. In the morning I was enjoying coffee and granola when the last of the sheep group showed up in their big Fish & Game truck: Paige, John and Amy. It turned out I’d found the right road, and they invited me to join them. I didn’t want to hold them up, so I said I’d follow at my own pace and explore the area, to join them at their truck at the end of the day.

Instead, a half hour after they left, I blew a tire, for the first time in over 20 years. It happened the silliest way, only a mile from my camp. The road there was smooth and level through firm gravel, but it was seldom used, and the low crown had been colonized by creosote and other shrubs. The sidewall of my left rear tire had been punctured by the projecting, broken-off branch of a miniscule shrub.

I was 60 miles from the highway and 100 miles from the nearest auto service, which was in Needles. I’d already passed through Needles once and sure didn’t want to see that dying town again until absolutely necessary, but this appeared to be the time, if I could make it there, over 60 miles of rough sand, gravel, and rocks, on a temporary spare.

The days had been getting hotter, and this was the lowest elevation I’d reached since arriving in the desert, so it was even hotter here, and my mind wasn’t in top form. First, I set the jack under the frame instead of under my leaf-sprung rear axle, and wondered why I had to raise the jack to its limit. It wasn’t until I’d got the tire off that I realized I couldn’t get the jack high enough to put the spare on. So I had to go off looking for a big enough rock to prop the brake drum up while moving the jack. Not many rocks in this part of the desert.

But I eventually found one, and then spent another half hour trying to figure out how to get the spare out from under the truck bed, since I’d never used it before. Then, once I’d moved the jack, raised the axle higher, and mounted the spare, I realized I’d be much better off with a real tire on the rear driving wheel, so I removed the spare, propped the brake drum on a rock again, moved the jack to the front and replaced my right front tire with the tiny temporary spare.

In all, it took me two hours to do all this, and I did not feel particularly deserving of the dominion of the earth promised me in Genesis. I wrote a note telling the sheep group what had happened, found a piece of scrap wood under the tower, and used a rock to pound my duct-taped sign into the middle of the road facing the mountains.

But whereas the big tire had been brought down by a shrub, the little tire held up over 60 miles of rocky road and 40 miles of Interstate Highway. In Needles, I spent almost an hour getting to know an old black dude as he laboriously searched online for a replacement tire, until at the end I felt like the tire shop was my family. I spent another low-grade night in sad old Needles, missing my sleeping bag under the stars, and my new tire arrived the next morning, when I enjoyed a further hour of family drama as the shop owner harshly abused his son-in-law, who was trying to mount my tire in the midst of constant interruptions by his young wife, visiting from a block away to complain about the kids. I wished I could have helped them all.

Running for Life

I may not have had a plan when I came to this desert, but I seem to have had a strategy: “Hey, I survived that! Let’s see if I can survive this!

After leaving my archaeologist friend and his cabin restoration project way up in the mountains, I was on my way to meet up with Jef, the herpetologist, in Las Vegas. But that would be hours away, in the evening, so I decided to head up to a mountain range Jef had introduced to me long ago when we were surveying wild sheep together. On a long, difficult hike he’d taken me into a spectacular canyon that was unlike anything I’d seen in the desert. I didn’t have a topo map for that area, and too much time had passed for me to recognize the terrain, but I figured it was worth a try. Also, the storm of the night before had dumped snow on all the mountains to the north, and I was anxious to see it closer, and find water.

It was a long drive down into a basin and up the other side on a well-graded road I could drive fast, at least until I spotted a snake asleep in the road ahead. This was the road where Jef had been forced to kill a dozen or more jack rabbits because they were literally streaming across the road at night. I got the snake out of the way, but when I reached the turnoff for the south side of the mountains, instead of the lonely wilderness I remembered, I found a parking area full of new SUVs and a BLM information kiosk. And in the creosote scrub beyond the kiosk, three young women wandering around, staring at the ground. I went over to meet them; they turned out to be biologists from the Needles office looking for rare plant seeds. I told them I’d been shown a lot of rare plants last weekend by the most experienced botanist in the desert, but they were neither impressed nor interested. And this was their first visit here, so they couldn’t help me find my canyon.

The surrounding landscape seemed vaguely familiar but still mysterious. The Spring Mountains, just visible to the northeast, wore a heavy coat of dazzling snow that almost made me feel like I was in the high desert of central Asia glimpsing the Hindu Kush. I drove the side road back over a pass onto the high end of the alluvial fan south of the range, looking north trying to spot my canyon amidst the confusion of ridges and peaks. I passed a big group of tourists camping right next to the road. This place, once remote and wild, now seemed to be competing with Yellowstone or Yosemite.

I could see from the map that this road led farther and farther south, away from the mountains, so at some point I would just need to park and traverse on foot. The first opening I could see in the mountains to the north seemed like it might lead to the mouth of my canyon, so I pulled off at the first place I could find that commanded a view, loaded up my rucksack and started walking. Before long I came upon an abandoned mining road that led me around an outlying ridge, across a deep arroyo, and up a long valley between ridges. Ahead, I could see the valley turning west around another low ridge – maybe that would lead me in.

Miles later, completely cut off from the outside world, I walked into a big interior basin and came upon fresh cattle tracks. Not a good sign. And when the abandoned road I was following took a turn away from the mountains, I left it and hiked across country toward the head of the basin, and finally saw that this couldn’t be my canyon. But I was here, and I might as well explore it. I just had to keep an eye on the time and start back with plenty left for my rendezvous with Jef, who was still a long drive away in Vegas.

The basin was slightly domed and broken up by many low washes cutting diagonally across my path. Invasive, destructive bromus grass spread by the cattle covered the ground, and I suddenly realized that the red tint all over the surrounding hills was due to a carpet of invasive bromus. I came upon an old burn area, where bromus had encouraged the spread of a wildfire that had killed off all the larger shrubs, and cattle trampling had prevented their regeneration. This whole basin was in terrible shape.

Then I spotted the cattle, still a mile ahead of me but spooked and running uphill. I glassed them and saw they were a longhorn mix. Maybe some would break a leg running.

I came to a big, deep arroyo lined with desert willow, the only pretty spot I’d found so far. I had to skirt it to get to the head of the basin, where I hoped to get a view to the north up the canyon whose mouth I could see there. My available time was up, but I didn’t want to leave with only a half mile to go.

It was rough going from there, and when I got to the mouth of the canyon, I saw more cattle, a hundred yards in, just as they spotted me and began to run uphill. I stood there taking pictures of some cool rock outcrops to the south, thinking that was probably the way to get to my long-lost canyon. And when I turned to face north again, I saw another cow. Except this one wasn’t running away. I had my field glasses around my neck, and by the time I got them focused, I could see it wasn’t a cow, it was a bull, and it was charging me.

This was only my third encounter with a bull on the open range, in over 25 years. The first time was on my Paiute skills course, as part of a group of eight young people in peak condition, when we left a forest and began crossing a big meadow where cattle were grazing. Tom, our leader, spotted a bull watching us from the opposite side of the meadow. Tom was physically imposing and normally exuded total confidence and fearlessness, but he immediately ordered us back to the trees and led us on a long detour to avoid the bull. Even so, we could see it following us in parallel across the meadow, keeping an eye on us until we were no longer a threat.

The second encounter happened the very first time I explored my desert mountains, looking for land to buy. I’d gotten my car stuck in a very remote place, given up and started walking out, then figured out a solution, and ended up hiking away from my vehicle, a couple of miles up the bajada, to spend the night under a juniper.

In the morning, on the way back, I discovered that a huge Brahma bull was stalking me on the other side of the shallow arroyo, about 20 yards away. When I stopped, he stopped. When I walked forward, he walked forward. I did not think running would be a good idea, so I just kept walking and watching him out of the corner of my eye, trying to appear like Mr. Casual out for a Sunday promenade. As I got nearer the car, the wash got wider, leading us farther apart, and he lost interest and wandered off.

But today, I had no choice, I had to run. There was nothing to climb on, no escape terrain, and we were both on the same side of the deep gully I’d been skirting. My route back was like the ultimate obstacle course, up and down broken land and around small boulders and dead yuccas, and as I ran I was looking for a big stick, something to defend myself, but the fire had eliminated the larger shrubs and all the sticks I saw were rotten. The ground was too rough to safely look over my shoulder as I was running, but suddenly I saw a big stick and leaned to pick it up. It was also rotten and hard to hold onto. My heart was pounding so loud that if the bull were right behind me I probably couldn’t have heard him. Stick in hand, I stupidly tried to start running again at the same time as trying to look back, and my thigh rammed into an unseen boulder, the hip I’d had surgery on wrenched under me, and I started to tumble forward over the rock.

There was a split second of “Dude, this is it, you’re fucked” but my adrenaline ratcheted a little higher and I put my other hand on the rock, stayed upright, and managed to look back before checking whether my hip was damaged.

At first I couldn’t see anything, and then I saw him above me on the opposite bank of the deep gully. He was much closer to me but he wasn’t running any more. He was just following me in parallel, like the Brahma bull had. He had actually put a barrier between us but was signaling his dominance and vigilance by climbing and getting some elevation on me.

Still, he was closer now. My hip was sore but seemed to work okay, so I resumed moving away, walking as fast as I could rather than running. Every time I stopped to look back, the gully between us was getting wider, so he was getting farther away. But still watching.

Eventually I lost sight of him. My heart was still racing, but now, instead of terrified, I felt fantastic. I congratulated myself on saving time by running, so I had a better chance of making my rendezvous with Jef in Las Vegas.

Halo of Sunlight

In addition to the traditional Paiute gear that I’d packed for the trip but hadn’t used yet, there was one other thing I hadn’t used: a baggie of magic mushrooms. I hadn’t tripped in many years, and I would’ve planned to make these a highlight of my trip except for one circumstance: the friend who gave them to me, several years ago, said they’d made another person sick, so he didn’t know if they were good or not.

That’s an odd thing to say about mushrooms, since it’s common for people to vomit after swallowing them, often just because they taste bad. The gift put me in an awkward position, so I’d just stashed them away and forgotten about them until now. I was also unsure if I was emotionally or psychically ready to take a hallucinogen, after the trauma and stress of the past year. But they had to be pretty stale by now; even any potential bad effects should be mellowed out, right?

I wasn’t really thinking about them until I approached my mountains for the last time, with thunderstorms building all around, and drove into that rare experience, rain in the desert, which even some of my desert-loving friends haven’t had yet. I was intending to hike off into the rain-drenched wilderness looking for an Indian campsite. If this wasn’t a good time to try the shrooms, what was?

I started out with about a third of the bag, which, if fresh, would normally be enough to get me raving high. An hour later, I’d found the Indian camp site, but still didn’t feel anything special, so I took a little more, and kept exploring. I was going to walk in a big circle, about six miles total, across the most botanically diverse part of the mountains, easy ground to walk on, with only a few hundred feet of elevation gain. I had found pottery shards and stone tools, and halfway through my hike I found a spectacular multi-level cavity inside a tumble of house-sized granite boulders. I ate some more mushrooms, and eventually, as the sun lowered, backlighting the cactus with an iridescent halo, I felt it.

It was very mild, similar to what Katie and I had experienced when taking small doses of acid and looking for rock art in remote wonderlands of the Colorado Plateau. Sensations, especially vision, were heightened, and I smiled and laughed and spent way more time than usual inspecting plants and taking pictures. The Mojave bajada in springtime, after a rain, really is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but we civilized humans are usually too uptight, distracted, and stressed out to be present, to fully appreciate it. My timing was perfect.

Joy of Surviving

One important reason why I left my hometown in Indiana was that everyone there had me convinced I was a coward, a fundamentally weak person. That was because I was smaller than most people, and our local culture was a bullying culture, in which the strong were encouraged to dominate the weak. I was constantly being threatened, chased, or beat on by bigger kids, all through childhood.

My mostly absent dad unintentionally reinforced my timidity. He was huge, had a terrible temper, and compensated for his absence by intimidating the shit out of me. He took my brother and I camping every couple of years, but taught us that nature was dangerous. A camping trip required careful planning and loads of expensive gear that took lots of time to set up and maintain. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s, exploring the arid Southwest with Katie, that I began to overcome my fears. She was utterly fearless outdoors, and I began to learn from her, until at some point all my fears evaporated.

I’ve made that dangerous climb to the plateau and back as many as 20 times during the past two decades, and all but four of those trips were solo. I didn’t start out wanting or planning to visit the desert alone, and I always wish I had company, but I’ve seldom been able to find a companion who has the free time or is as motivated as I am.

So, unexpectedly, I’ve discovered that I really enjoy the feeling of putting myself out there and surviving some threat or danger, because that’s when you feel most alive, and most grateful for being alive. And although I’m not generally an addictive person, I’ve probably come to crave that feeling.

Of course, there are many ways to get it in our world. Most of them involve machines, like mountain bikes or cars or guns or jet fighter planes. The great thing about risking your life on foot in the desert is that if you fail, you’re in a beautiful place, and you become truly one with it. I’d sure hate to die in, or be killed by, a fucking machine.

That’s another opportunity I’m grateful to my desert for.

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Vision Quest 2016: Bones of the Living Earth

Thursday, June 9th, 2016: Mojave Desert, Trips, Vision Quest 2016.

My mountain range is known for its granite pinnacles which provide distinctive landmarks on the ridgetops

Two of the three reasons why I first fell in love with the desert had to do with rocks. One: I spent my early childhood in the foothills of the Appalachians, playing around cliffs and caves and outcrops, and I love that in the desert, the bones of the earth are exposed, dominating the landscape, instead of buried under forest and foliage. And two: the boulder piles I first encountered in the desert offered natural shelter.

Mountains Alive: Landscape, Weather & Orientation

Peaceful peoples around the world hold mountains sacred, unlike dominant societies that disfigure them with prominent castles, industrial mines, watch towers and antennas.

Mountains are part of the living skin of the earth, rising, tilting, eroding, shaking, or erupting. They shape climate and weather, channeling wind and forming clouds, storing their water and making it available for humans and wildlife, and providing habitat and shelter for level upon level of diverse ecosystems.

Those who live, work or play in mountains rely on their peaks, pinnacles and canyons as landmarks for orientation and wayfinding. This is even more true in the desert, where the lack of uniform forest cover makes unique landforms visible.

Joints, Contacts & Basins: Storing & Releasing Water

People talking about mountains and water often refer to the rock’s permeability or impermeability, but mountains rarely consist of a single solid mass of rock. Granite is a plutonic rock, formed as a great mass of molten material rises through the earth’s crust, cooling and crystallizing into bulbous shapes that continue to settle and deform as they cool, resulting in a three-dimensional network of internal fractures or joints.

Rainwater or snowmelt trickles into these fracture networks, which become storage reservoirs as they slowly fill with water. When the water encounters a solid, impermeable surface below it, it will look for a way out: a seep or spring.

Channeling Water: Erosion & Sediment

In granitic mountains, the shape taken by the cooling surface of the pluton provides the original framework for the landscape. Once the living rock is exposed to the air, wind, rain and snowmelt follow hollows and joints on the surface, polishing and eroding for eons, sculpting canyons and valleys, carrying sediment down and away from the mountains, spreading nutrients and creating habitat for diverse communities of life.

Alluvial Fans & Basins

Sediment carried down the mountains by streams and floods is deposited outside, building up for eons to form alluvial fans which gradually bury the living mountains up to their shoulders, separating mountain range from mountain range by broad alluvial basins.

In the bottom of each basin, the alluvial fans of opposing ranges may meet in a big arroyo, or they may drain into a playa, a dry lake with no outlet, sometimes accompanied by a salt marsh and/or wind-formed sand dunes. Alternately flooding and drying out, dry lakes collect, concentrate, and expose mineral salts which become another valuable resource for humans and wildlife.

Volcanic Rock

The southwestern Mojave is crossed by a belt of recent cinder cones and the extensive lava fields they produced. Volcanoes are both destroyers, in the short term, and creators, in the long term: creators of mountain habitat, and conduits elevating mineral nutrients to the surface from deep inside the earth.

Plutonic Rock

We desert dwellers know that the best drinking water comes from granite.

Metamorphic Rock

Sedimentary Rock

Interface With Life

Biological soil crusts, which have been around much longer than humans, were one of my major discoveries on this trip.


Tools & Signage


Mining by dominant societies has been terribly destructive to both human communities and natural ecosystems, but ironically, my friends and I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the desert for all these years if these mountains hadn’t been full of valuable minerals, and if we hadn’t had access to the roads built and long abandoned by miners and prospectors. I actually bought my land from an old prospector who just loved being out there and used prospecting as an excuse for camping in the mountains.

As likely applies to the other sciences, many if not most geologists work for private industry, prospecting for minerals to be exploited. Compartmentalization in science, as in the larger society, undercuts accountability, since a specialist has little or no knowledge of the larger system his work will impact.

Landscape Engineering

The engineering of natural habitats for sole human use appears to be the critical error leading to the downfall of dominant societies across time and space, from ancient city-states in the jungles of Southeast Asia, to the modern United States. You can see examples of this all over the desert.

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