Dispatches Tagline
2017 Trips

Rendezvous With Deep Time

Sunday, April 30th, 2017: 2017 Trips, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips.

Arrival at Night, and the First Day

I got a late start, and entered the mountains just as full dark was falling and all the stars were coming out on this moonless night. The military refueling flights were occasionally deafening as they droned though their long mechanical circles overhead, but they stopped at 10 pm. Snug in my sleeping bag, there under the glittering arch of heaven, I felt much more comfortable and at home than in my bed back in Silver City.

On the first day, temperatures were mild, with alternating wind and calm, clouds and blue sky, and I hiked up to the Shade House. There, I strung my hammock and lay reading and watching birds and pollinators move among the nearby shrubs and boulders. The clouds, some tantalizingly dark, brought temporary humidity but no precious rain. I was plagued by gnats, but at least they didn’t bite. I hiked up to the seep and found the catch basin dry – something that only happens in the deepest droughts.

A Walk Across the Bajada

The next morning I woke to a cold wind and put on layers of fleece before making breakfast and coffee. Discouraged by the drought, I thought of leaving and going elsewhere. But the sky cleared and I saw the big boulder pile 2 or 3 miles across the basin, where I knew there were inner chambers with shade from the full sun of afternoon and views out across the bajada.

The walk across the bajada reminded me that this is a special place for plants. I found dense stands of healthy bunchgrass, and surprising groupings of very different plants living together in harmony, in a desert that’s more commonly known for plants that isolate themselves from each other with chemical repellents. Many were blooming, long after the “official” annual bloom, from the tiny annuals at ground level to the tall cholla cactus and creosote shrubs. And I came upon bees, butterflies, birds, rabbits and hares, all enjoying springtime on the bajada.

That night it was so windy I had to anchor even heavy things down and turn my sleeping bag away from it, to the south. I could tell the wind was on the rise and planned to leave in the morning, discouraged by both wind and drought.

Rendezvous With Deep Time

High winds in the morning. I took my time packing up, and on the way out down the broad main wash, noticed a wedge of snow on Mount San Gorgonio, a hundred miles away through a haze of wind-raised mineral dust.

Then, just outside the mountains, I unexpectedly came upon a vehicle driven by someone I only knew as a legend – the geologist who’d discovered this place and helped put it on the international map of earth science. He was bringing some young students out, hoping they’d like it enough to resume research out here. So I turned around and joined them, and the legend gave me some glimpses of an incredibly dynamic, and incredibly ancient, story.

Here, the crust of the earth, then consisting of sedimentary – the limestones, shales, and sandstones of the Grand Canyon – and ancient metamorphic rocks such as gneiss – had been folded under unimaginable forces, and interpenetrated by younger granite rising from below, and the interfaces between the rocks were incredibly complex. In fact, much of the story remains a mystery today after decades of study.

In this migmatitic exposure, beautiful marbles had been formed, and embedded with colorful skarns in reds and greens. Layer upon layer of granites and recrystallized carbonates that had flowed over and under each other repeatedly, to be eroded across eons and exposed here for us in frozen waves and thin sheets like iced cream. Almost two billion years of the Earth’s history we hiked over, up a few hundred feet of steep mountainside.

The students hungrily scanned the rocks at their feet, but the legend kept redirecting their attention up to the deep blue of the sky behind the stony ridge, and to the special plants scattered around them, like the red Dudleya and the barrel cactus, that thrive on this particular substrate. And I pointed out my new obsession, biological soil crusts, which arise at the interface between rock and life. Easily missed knots of nondescript black matter in fissures of white stone. Subdued now in the drought, but ready to swell and glisten after a rain.


Return to the Lost World

Thursday, May 11th, 2017: 2017 Trips, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips.

First Glimpses, and the Dream

I first saw the Lost World in April 1994, from high on the central ridge of the mountain range:

In a large and complex range, with many interior basins, this is the largest: a valley eight miles long and four miles wide. And since the passage of the Desert Bill in October of that year, it can only be legally accessed on foot.

But the barriers in the way of entering this remote valley are even greater. The Lost World is almost completely surrounded by eighteen miles of high, steep ridges and peaks. Its mouth is little more than a mile wide.

That opening at the south end of the valley is two miles from the nearest legal road, a poorly-maintained track through deep sand. From the road, it’s a two-mile hike uphill across low desert through sparse creosote scrub. There are other points where a legal road approaches within two-to-four miles of the valley, but most of those approaches involve a strenuous climb over the intervening, steep, tall ridges that almost completely encircle the valley.

I returned for another view in October 1994, and again in December 1998. I was clearly becoming obsessed with that vast, unexplored, difficult to reach valley:

Many years passed, in which I dreamed of somehow getting back in there. I remembered that in 1992, a friend who studies the wild mountain sheep had taken me in a helicopter over the north end of this valley, and across a deep canyon on the east side where I could see lush vegetation. He’d also given me a map of water sources that he’d made in a very wet year, and the map showed that even in a good year, the Lost World is devoid of water sources except in two places, both near the mouth of that canyon we’d flown over. So unless I visited after several years of heavy rainfall, I’d need to carry my own water for miles into the valley. And the warmer the weather, the more water I’d need to carry.

2015: The Northeast

The barriers to access, and the lack of water, stood in my way for over twenty years. It wasn’t until 2015 that I first set off to enter the Lost World, hiking up a smaller exterior basin on the east and over a high, steep ridge, to end up near the mouth of canyon we’d flown over. Unfortunately, the desert was still in a deep drought, and I had ended up hiking into a heat wave, so the springs were dry and I only had enough water to get back out. So I was only able to explore about two miles of the main valley floor. However, beyond my wildest expectations, I discovered potsherds, worked stone, and petroglyphs – prehistoric rock art of the Old Ones – showing that people had spent time over here, in wet years when there was reliable water nearby, probably near those very boulders.

In 2016, I did an eight-mile round-trip hike from my land in the north, up to a ridge that overlooks a northwestern corner of the Lost World. There, I had a limited view of the valley’s eastern wall, including part of the area I visited the previous year. I wanted to go back, but there was a wall in my way.

The routes I took in and out of the valley in 2015 were extremely rugged, prompting me to take a closer look at the alternatives. One was two miles to the south, but looked even more rugged on approach. Another was far to the west, and would involve a long hike around and over a narrow pass that opened into the lower, southwestern edge of the valley. Again, I would have to carry all my water. And this spring, I finally found myself in the desert again with a forecast of cool weather and rain, the best conditions I could hope for.

2017: The Southwest

I had a three hour drive to get near the pass, including about forty miles on paved highway, interrupted by several miles of detour on dirt roads, and ending on thirty miles of poorly-maintained or unmaintained, and heavily eroded, gravel, sand, and bedrock tracks. On the way, before I got to the really bad parts, I had to stop and deflate my tires for traction in sand. So I didn’t arrive in the mountains until early afternoon. Once I’d located a campsite, I did a two-mile hike to the mouth of Mesquite Canyon where I knew there’d be afternoon shade at the foot of a short cliff. There, I encountered abundant cottontails, jackrabbits, quail, and mourning doves, and anything red I carried was an endless curiosity for hummingbirds.

By the time I returned to camp, heavy, dark clouds had formed over the northern part of the range. I gathered branches for firewood and grilled all the meat I had left from last week’s shopping. Just as I finished laying out my bedding, it began to rain.

I quickly gathered my things up and retreated into the now-crowded cabin of my truck, where I watched and listened to heavy rain on the metal roof and lightning and thunder eight to ten miles to the north. It rained intermittently hard for about forty-five minutes. Then I unpacked all my bedding and laid it back on the wet sand. It was so windy, I had to turn my sleeping bag around, but after that, I finally got a good night’s sleep.

I woke early the next morning, and was able to load my pack and start hiking toward the pass by 9 am. The weather was perfect for conserving water – it would be in the 60s all day. I figured I would aim to be back by 6, for a total of nine hours of hiking. Over open ground, I could theoretically make eighteen miles in that time, but I knew I’d be stopping a lot for photos and side trips. And “open ground” is misleading in desert scrub, where every dozen yards you need to detour around a sprawling creosote, catclaw, or cactus, around an even larger granite boulder or outcrop, or down into and up out of a deep wash with steep banks of loose sand.

After the first mile of gentle uphill slope, I entered the pass itself, two miles of traversing across the foot of a steep ridge, with views of distant mountain ranges to the south between smaller, isolated peaks that form the southern walls of the pass. This pass is a really beautiful and interesting area in itself, but I was on a mission and didn’t linger much.

Finally I came out into the southwest side of the Lost World, and rounded an outlying shoulder of ridge to get my first view to the north and the extent of the big valley. Both sides of the valley are scalloped by cross-ridges and tributary canyons, many of them sizable basins in themselves, but I intended to march north past as many of these as I could, to see how far up the main valley I could get in the time I had.

Of course, the most thrilling aspect of visiting a place like this is the fact that you’ll be the only human in a huge area, perhaps the only human visitor in decades, and you will see no buildings or vehicles or ruins or any other sign of human life other than the prehistoric petroglyphs and tiny artifacts I found in 2015. I hoped to find more rock art, so I did stop and explore any prominent outcrops or boulder piles along my way that exhibited desert varnish, the black bacterial weathering that provided a canvas for the Old Ones.

In the end, I found no rock art – not surprising, since according to my biologist friend there are no springs on the western side of the valley – but I did penetrate to the northern half of the valley, where I had a view of the entire northern ridge line, including all the points where I’d looked down into the valley since 1994.

What a glorious day! I found no shade on my route, but the weather was cool enough that I didn’t need any for a change. There were so many birds out, everywhere, following me, curious about what I was doing, making noise if they thought I was threatening a nesting area. By the time I had rounded that last shoulder of ridge and taken my pictures to the north, it was time to quickly grab a snack and immediately head back. My left foot and right hip were hurting pretty bad, so I downed a couple of painkillers as well. As glorious as the day was, and as beautiful as the valley and pass were, it was a fairly painful trek back. I figured my round-trip hike to have been about thirteen miles, the longest hike I’d done in seven or eight years, since my hip condition began to deteriorate, and I had surgery.

By the time I returned to my campsite, the sun was going down, and I was exhausted, sore, and thirsty. But as I approached the back of my pickup truck, I heard a loud buzzing, and discovered that hundreds of bees were swarming the bed of my truck. I suddenly realized they’d been attracted to water that had pooled in the pickup bed from last night’s rain, since the truck was parked downhill on a slight incline. All my stuff was locked in that truck. What was I going to do?

I knew they could be Africanized “killer” bees, which have been known in this mountain range for decades. But I was desperate. I thought if I could get into the truck somehow, I could drive up the wash so that the water would drain out, and maybe the bees would lose interest. I skirted the edge of the swarm to see if bees were moving around the doors. They were, but they seemed to come and go on the passenger side, so that I might be just able to race over, unlock the door, jump in, and slam it closed without any bees following me. I didn’t give myself time to think, I just set down my pack, took the field glasses from around my neck and set them on the sand, and pulled the camera out of my hip pocket and also set it down on the sand. My folding chair was leaning against the pickup bed, so I grabbed it and moved it away, careful to move slowly so I wouldn’t anger the bees. Then I watched the bees moving past the passenger door, and made my move when I saw a short break in their traffic.

I made it, and got the door closed without letting any bees in! But before leaving that morning, I’d packed the truck willy-nilly with all my unrolled bedding and everything else I didn’t want to leave outside, so now I had to pack everything into the narrow space behind the seats, and awkwardly maneuver over the brake and shift lever into the driver’s seat. Finally, I drove a hundred feet away, up the main wash, left the truck, and cautiously walked back over to the campsite to get a drink of water from my pack.

But now, a second group of bees had separated from the main group and were swarming all over my pack, my camera, and my field glasses! My heart sank. I was so tired, so thirsty, so sore. How was this going to end?

I walked away up the wash, a hundred feet from the swarm, and sat down on a rock ledge. But soon, a bee followed and found me, so I moved another hundred yards out into the desert. I was alone in the middle of nowhere without water, food, or shelter, all of which the bees now controlled.

And even way out there, another bee tracked me and started harrassing me, so I had to get up and keep moving. I made a great circle out into the desert, thinking I’d come up on the truck from the opposite direction and see if they were still swarming the bed. On the way, I remembered that beekeepers use smoke to control hives, and I remembered I had a lighter in my pocket. I knew that dead yucca blades generate a lot of smoke, and although there were few yucca in this basin, I’d seen one up the wash, so I detoured over there, pulled off some dead blades, and scrounged some dead grass for tinder. Soon I had a smoking torch.

By the time I returned to the truck, there were only a few, sad-looking bees crawling along the bed. The sun had dropped behind the western ridge and it was noticeably cooler. When I walked over to camp, I saw only a few bees, so I started a fire in last night’s fire ring. The wind was blowing north, so smoke from the fire would keep any remaining bees away from my pack. And soon, the remaining bees were gone, and I was able to get a drink of water out of the pack, and to drive my truck back over.

I figured that with the area in shadow, it had probably gotten too cool for the bees, and they’d headed back to their hive, which was probably up Mesquite Canyon, or even over the high ridge in the next drainage. I could probably have just kept walking circles out in the desert and waited for them to leave. But the experience had really spooked me, and turned me off camping in this area. So I packed up and drove outside the mountains onto the vast western alluvial fan, where I camped that night at lower elevation on desert pavement, among very sparse scrub, with a sunset view of bright sand dunes and distant, dark ranges.

In the morning, there were just a few bees left crawling feebly around the bed of my truck. I planned to spend the day and night in town resting my foot and hip and restocking for my next attempt to reach the Lost World via an eastern approach.

2017: The East

I had so much business in town, I didn’t get back to the mountains until mid-afternoon the next day. On the way down the long dirt road past the eastern side of the range, I saw trucks blocking the way ahead, and came upon a young woman urging a tortoise across the road. She turned out to be a recent biology grad consulting for the gas company, doing tortoise training for their pipeline maintenance personnel, big guys who hovered awkwardly in the background.

I encountered two more tortoises on that road – probably a record – because the tortoises know when rain is coming, and emerge from their burrows to drink. Eventually I reached my destination and scouted a place to leave the truck opposite the canyon I was hoping to use as a route to the Lost World. Then I loaded my pack and headed up this basin I’d never explored, toward a spring I’d long heard about but never visited.

It turned out to be a mostly overgrazed bajada of soft sand undermined with animal burrows, a slow and uncertain walk uphill, but it was a cool day and rain clouds were gathering all across the desert. I was carrying a rain shell and a plastic tarp to throw over my pack, and as always was actually hoping for rain. I’d started at 2 and wanted to be back by 6 to look for a campsite, so I could theoretically cover as much as eight miles round-trip.

At the head of this basin is a giant formation of granite that looks like the Dark Tower of Barad-Dur in the Lord of the Rings, abode of the Evil Lord Sauron, so I came to think of this area as the Canyons of Mordor.

The ungrazed lower part of this basin was rich in biological soil crusts, and as I got farther in, I came upon some of the biggest silver cholla I’d ever seen. Then I encountered more birds, who teamed up and challenged me in groups, flying straight up and flapping their wings at me, showing off their dramatic black-and-white banding.

Finally I reached the head of the basin and dropped down into the main wash, which curves out of sight below the towering ridge line, which is dauntingly stony. I’d seen lots of old cowpies out in the basin, and now I came upon some abandoned plastic piping, indicating that ranchers had fed the spring water down for their cattle at some point.

Then I came around a bend of the wash, saw a big boulder covered with desert varnish, and realized some of the patterns on the rock had been made by the Old Ones. I was surprised, since friends who knew of my interest had visited this spring and hadn’t said anything about the art.

I continued up the wash, and found lots more abandoned piping, and thickets of invasive tamarisk I had to fight my way through. The canyon became steep, narrow, and winding, and there were many pouroffs and blockages of house-sized boulders that had rolled down from above, in addition to thickets of catclaw and tamarisk. The surrounding slopes, of dark, ancient granite, are topped by many strange pinnacles that our imagination can easily make into recognizable forms. But it’s a world of stone, even more so than other parts of the range.

This is supposed to be an important spring, but the higher I climbed, the more I despaired of finding water. And the ridge above wasn’t getting any closer, it was just getting steeper and more forbidding. This would not be a good route into the Lost World. Then clouds began pouring over the peaks, and I knew it was time to turn back. A few drops of rain were beginning to fall and I was getting cold.

By the time I got back to the truck, it was raining lightly. I was anxious to get to my favorite campsite – in fact the only campsite – on this side of the mountains, but it was a long stressful drive at low speed over deeply eroded dirt and rocks and uphill through deep sand. It began to rain harder, and when I finally reached the site, someone else had claimed it with a big truck and loads of gear. I wasted some more time looking in vain for another site, then I gave up, turned around and drove back down to the main gravel road out of the mountains.

I headed north, through increasing darkness and intermittent heavy and light rain. Night was falling and the storm was spreading, and the road had high banks with no place to pull out. I reached a high area of desert pavement beside a smaller mountain range and was finally able to pull off under a transmission tower. Someone had camped here and left their fire circle, but it was under a damn powerline and transmission tower, and after seriously considering it, I realized I wasn’t set up to cook dinner or lay out my bedding in the rain, a situation I’d never had to provide for in the past. This was a new experience and nothing to really complain about – being driven out of the desert by rain!

I still had to stop somewhere and re-inflate my tires. I did that in the dark, in heavy rain, beside the road. It takes a half hour. I reached town, and a motel, by 9 pm, under continuing heavy rain in the desert.


What’s next? Well, it would be cool to explore all those side basins and canyons. But that would take multiple days, and too much water to carry. If only we’d get several wet years in a row, to recharge the fracture zones in the granite and get the springs going again. Then maybe there’d be water on the east side, and I could actually live in the Lost World for a few days. It can’t hurt to dream!

No Comments

The Original Organic Abstraction

Saturday, May 13th, 2017: 2017 Trips, Indigenous Cultures, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips, Society.

In my earliest childhood, I was surrounded by the organic abstraction of midcentury textile patterns:

When I started experimenting with Sumi ink on paper in 2011, organic abstraction flowed spontaneously from my brush:

Then, a few days ago, I visited perhaps the most interesting rock art in the Mojave desert, in a lush canyon oasis on the sacred mountain of the Colorado River tribes, where their creator god began his journey down the river. During my visit, I encountered the kitsch of white peoples’ religion, I picked up their abandoned plastic trash, and I convinced an Anglo family to stop desecrating the site with their loud pop music.

No Comments

The People Who Adapted

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017: 2017 Trips, Colorado Plateau, Indigenous Cultures, Regions, Road Trips, Society.

Art on the Rimrock

From the Mojave Desert, I traveled northeast to the Colorado Plateau, where I camped among pinyon and juniper near the rim of a sandstone canyon. My campsite faced the setting sun across a broad, shallow basin blanketed with sagebrush.

In the morning, I drove farther into the back country, passing prairie dog colonies with their popup lookouts, and followed a trail down from the top of a mesa to a rimrock escarpment. Hundreds of feet below, a creek opaque with grey-green sediment raged, carrying water down from snow on distant peaks.

Near the end of the escarpment, ancient people had made pictures in the sandstone. These pictures are attributed to farmers from a thousand or more years ago who lived in earth houses, whose remains are found all across Utah, often under modern towns and cities.

Village in the Canyon

During completion of an interstate highway, a boy who lived in a canyon in its path told his father about ruins he’d seen on a hill that was being attacked by bulldozers. Eventually, the bulldozers were temporarily halted and a team of archaeologists surveyed and excavated the hill, finding the largest known village site of the mysterious farmers who are believed to have created much of the prehistoric rock art in Utah.

After the village site and its house ruins were excavated and artifacts removed, construction of the interstate highway resumed, almost completely destroying the hill and its ancient village. In partial compensation, the state opened a museum to store and display artifacts and educate the public about the vanished community.

The Canyon

The Art

Anglo settlers have always known this canyon to be rich in rock art.

The People

Apart from the rock art attributed to them, the ancient farmers are known for their earth houses, which archaeologists misleadingly call “pit houses.” This term reflects the Anglo-European bias in favor of technologically advanced societies that attempt to “rise above” nature and dominate the earth. Anglo archaeologists considered the ancient farmers more “primitive” than their Anasazi neighbors who built cliff dwellings far above the ground; in comparison, these primitive farmers seemed to be living underground in pits like animals.

But as I noted last fall in Closing the Circles, these “pit houses” were actually mostly above-ground, and both spacious and comfortable. Unlike the “pueblos” of the Anasazi and modern Indians of the Southwest, these earth houses were not defensive, indicating that their populations had achieved a peaceful existence. The boxy, densely populated “pueblos” with their dark, cramped rooms would more accurately be termed “fortified apartment blocks,” built and inhabited by a society that was out-of-balance, and fearful, like ours.

But most importantly, the earth houses of the ancient farmers were supremely adapted to their environment. These people did not try to engineer their habitat on an industrial scale like the Anasazi – or like our own society.

Of course, the best evidence of this society’s success would be seen not in their houses and other artifacts, but in themselves, their gardens, and the health of the natural ecosystems they inhabited, all of which seem to be lost to us now. But maybe not completely lost – modern tribes may be directly descended from the ancient villagers, and recent excavations in other parts of this area are showing that some of the ancient farmers’ fields and irrigation networks were used continuously into historic times, when they were appropriated by early Anglo settlers.

As the museum exhibit asks, “What can these ancient people teach us?” Unlike us, they put the well-being of the community above that of the individual. They lived in harmony with nature. And instead of trying to control nature, they adapted their way of life to changing conditions in a challenging environment.

As a result, they thrived for a thousand years in this place, sustaining a larger population than we do there, even with our advanced technology and vast wealth. But, also unlike us, they sustained their traditions of hunting and gathering, so that when conditions changed dramatically, instead of fighting nature, they could temporarily set aside their village farming way of life and became nomadic foragers and hunters.

The Girl

For me, the centerpiece of the museum was the multi-media story of a farmer girl who had died at the age of seventeen. From her damaged skeleton, forensic scientists had reconstructed the girl’s appearance and her likely life history, archaeologists had added cultural and societal context, a sculptor had created a life-size likeness of the girl, and a girl from a nearby modern tribe had voiced her long-forgotten story.

I’ve taken the liberty of creating this abridged version of the girl’s story, omitting some technical details and modern perspectives that can be found in the full museum version:


The Modern Nation

Anglo homesteaders came in advance of the modern nation, but within a century the nation had caught up. Its bulldozers razed the hill of the village, and its freeway paved the floodplain where the villages kept their farms, so that now the valley and its once-bustling community is merely a passing glimpse from the closed windows of the racing metal boxes rushing urban Americans from city to distant city.

I was told in the museum that Native Americans in the surrounding areas were outraged, and a native elder placed a curse on the Department of Transportation, leading to a series of mishaps and tragedies, and pleas from the government that the curse be removed. And later, laws were passed to prevent this sort of cultural destruction. But laws can be overturned, and arrogant, domineering nations seldom last as long as this community of People Who Adapted.

Homeward Bound

On my way home, I stopped in one of my favorite mountain ranges, at the far eastern edge of the territory of my favorite Indians, the heirs of the ancient farmers. I pushed my little truck dangerously through a raging stream to a clearing under tall green cottonwoods, below a cliff of layered sandstone.

When I got out of the truck, I discovered the ground was covered with shelled pine nuts. The modern Indians had used this very spot to process their harvest, a harvest they’ve sustained for thousands of years!

Crossing the last range of mountains toward home, I drove through a sleet storm at 8,500′:


Limping Across the West

Thursday, September 14th, 2017: 2017 Trips, Road Trips.

The Legendary Ordeals

I put a lot of miles on my aging body while exploring the wild places I report on in these Dispatches, and in the past three years, I’ve started to discover that my body isn’t really built for this kind of abuse. I started life as a relatively weak, undersize boy who was often sick and didn’t qualify for sports. Instead, I came to rely on my head and heart, developing into an artist and scholar. It wasn’t until I was almost 40 that I started strengthening my body, developed a fitness regimen, and entered the physically active phase of life I’ve come to treasure.

With this gain has come an increasing level and frequency of pain, and accumulating damage to my joints. In 1990 a poorly-advised strength training regimen resulted in a stress fracture to a sesamoid bone in my left foot. Pieces of the bone were surgically removed, but the pain has recurred periodically. In 1999 I developed acute lower back pain, due to damaged lumbar discs, and this has become chronic. When I started rock climbing in 2000 I noticed limited range of motion in my right hip, and in 2007 I developed acute pain there, which was eventually diagnosed as a minor congenital deformity, requiring surgery. Beginning in 2009, I had recurring episodes of plantar fasciitis in the right heel, and after recovering from the latest bout early this year, I had a recurrence of the sesamoid problem in the left foot, which become acute and brought my activity to a halt for the fourth time in two years. Finally, in the meantime, I suddenly developed tennis elbow in my right arm, which involved sharp pain that was pretty much constant.

So far, these conditions have all been treatable, but the frequent pain puts me under chronic stress, while often depriving me of the means to relieve it by doing what I love – hiking in wildlands. Less of my time is spent doing what I love, and more of my time is consumed by maintenance: physical therapy, icing, stretching, foam-rolling, etc. And my local, rural, small-town healthcare system has proved itself inadequate to address the problems of an aging athlete. I’ve had to take matters in my own hands, seek outside help, and sometimes develop my own diagnoses and treatments. Part of the problem is poverty – New Mexico is one of the poorest U.S. states – and practitioners are simply not used to seeing active older adults. Their experience is dominated by the health problems of poor Americans: drug abuse, malnutrition, obesity, diabetes, and lung cancer.

When the sesamoid problem recurred this spring, our local podiatrist was unable to help me, and I had to do a nationwide search for specialists in this rare condition. I eventually found Dr. Richard Blake in San Francisco, and arranged a road trip to the Bay Area, during which I’d also have the chance to visit old friends, both coming and going. I was in the midst of my epic book project, which was only one scene away from its first major milestone, but I’d have to put that on a frustrating hold for a few weeks. In the end, this trip became an adventure full of ordeals that tested me, my friends, and our relationships, in the midst of natural spectacles that spanned the continent: a solar eclipse, a record heat wave, and catastrophic storms. In the end, I found the proverbial rainbow in, of all places, Las Vegas, and realized that as hard as it’s become, my life in rural New Mexico is still much healthier than it would be if I lived in a big city.

Everybody Hurts

Over the past thirty years, my weekly fitness regimen evolved into six workouts per week: two peak hikes totaling ten miles with 3,000′ elevation gain, two one-hour strength-training workouts focusing on core, and two one-hour stretching sessions. After hip surgery and the recurrence of foot problems, icing, stretching and foam-rolling became a daily requirement, taking up to three hours per day, and my visit to San Francisco added another hour and a half of foot treatment. This all adds up to nearly forty hours per week on physical maintenance (not counting personal hygiene). The goal of all this maintenance is to keep me active as I age, but clearly, I wouldn’t be able to do it if I had a normal job or a family to take care of. So at this point, fitness is my full-time job, and pain is the new normal.

But as I’ve become mired in my physical limitations and the treatment of them, my friends face their own formidable challenges. In one home I visited, household clutter had grown until the only open space consisted of narrow pathways between dusty piles of accumulated debris. Some homeowners expressed admiration for the “tiny house” movement, while renters were forced by the astronomical cost of urban housing into cramped apartments that wouldn’t accommodate everything they needed. Like so many urbanites, they had to commute to a distant storage locker that housed the essentials they couldn’t fit in their apartment.

Back home, I’d already come to view pet ownership as an epidemic disease after failing to get neighbors to take responsibility for their barking dogs. But on my trip, I found that more people are coming to accept pet urine and feces on the floors of their homes, because they’ve taken on pets that are either non-house-trained or incontinent. One friend was recovering from a series of battles with pneumonia – no surprise since she inhabits a dusty, cluttered, cat-frequented house. I’m allergic to cats, but almost all of my friends have at least one feline in the house, so I always have to travel with antihistamines and steroid nasal sprays. Pet ownership is at an all-time high, increasing our ecological footprint, displacing wildlife, and harming society as owners fail to train or otherwise take responsibility for the impacts of their pets on others.

Friends in the city were suffering under increasing financial stress and abuse from their jobs, in addition to air pollution, noise pollution, light pollution, and the dangerous traffic they endure in their commutes. Many burden themselves daily with TV news about a world gone mad and the reckless antics of the rich and famous. Since I don’t watch TV at home, I felt bludgeoned by broadcast media, encountering the new head of state moving and talking onscreen for the first time, and it was not an edifying experience. Stressed-out white people come to feel threatened by immigrants, other races and ethnic groups, differently-gendered people, criminals, and the poor, blaming them for society’s problems as well as their own. Like my father in his declining years, some perceive the world around them as a seething mob of evil-doers barely held in check by our valiant police and military.

I also encountered and was impacted by depression, alcoholism, and drug addiction throughout my journey – and who could blame these disorders on people living under such stressful conditions? As I navigated apocalyptic traffic across the city and its suburbs, I saw, over and over, grotesque affluence flaunted alongside nightmarish poverty. My friends are among those who’ve benefited from the gentrification that contributes to homelessness, but the homeless continue to haunt them like living dead.

The Unforgettable Super-Mega Eclipse of 2017

On the way to the Bay Area for my foot treatment, I stopped to visit one of my favorite families, a botanist and ecologist who are raising their kids in the wildfire-ravaged Sierra Nevada foothills. We enjoyed an idyllic three days hanging out in the Merced River, walking their country lanes, and witnessing the solar eclipse, before I left to face the trials of the city.

Into the Maelstrom

I knew nothing of heat waves or hurricanes when I planned my trip, but I was reluctant to return to the soul-numbing congestion, gross economic inequality, and oppressive man-made landscape of my old home, the San Francisco Bay Area. The only saving grace, beside the hope of medical treatment for my foot, was the hospitality, generosity, and good fellowship offered by my hosts. By the nature of this trip, I ended up missing most of my Bay Area friends this time around – hopefully they’ll be able to join me in New Mexico sometime soon.

The medical part of the trip quickly grew in proportions far beyond what I’d anticipated. I ended up having to drive to San Francisco’s Nob Hill from the suburbs on four separate days over a week-and-a-half period, for visits at a sports medicine clinic with a foot surgeon, a non-operating podiatrist (Dr. Blake), the radiology department, and a physical therapist. The surgeon and podiatrist ended up giving different opinions on my treatment and chances of recovery, but on my second visit with Dr. Blake, he gave me a new set of orthotics that enabled me to walk normally for the first time in months! I actually danced a jig in front of my friends that night.

I was in culinary heaven from the start, eating spectacular Ethiopian, Indian, and Thai food on successive nights. Friends took me to my old favorite museum, the Oakland Museum of California, and on shopping excursions in search of things I can’t get back home. One errand on my list was to visit an Alfa Romeo dealer to look at their new SUV, but in the end, all I had time for was a glimpse of the back of the vehicle through a dark showroom window.

My Berkeley hosts pointed out the unusual homeless encampment near their house, which they said had been established last winter and accepted by the city because the residents were self-governing, prohibiting panhandling in the vicinity and contracting for the removal of their waste. The neat, well-ordered camp included a manned information booth, and there was a free clinic nearby where residents could go for checkups.

I savored an evening with one of my old roommates from the Terra Incognita loft, and it turned out his sons, who grew up in Ireland, had arranged a viewing of the Mayweather-McGregor fight. While not a boxing fan, I enjoyed the well-played spectacle, a public ritual like something out of ancient Greece or the Roman Empire, in which the blond, tattooed Celtic challenger appeared as a Viking berserker while the African-American champion entered wearing a midnight bondage jacket and mask like a tribal fetish from the land of his ancestors. The patterns of dominant societies play out over and over again throughout history.

At the end of my stay in Berkeley, I was invited along on a sailing race in the Bay. I hadn’t sailed in over fifteen years, and I was really worried about risks to my foot, but the boat people assured me I could sit down somewhere out of the way, wouldn’t have to work, and this race would be “casual” anyway. As it turned out, all three were wrong. Anxious crew members shouted back and forth constantly and climbed over each other in the crowded boat to tack or avoid collision. I had to continually shift position in my heavy boots on a surface that leaned precipitously, as I twisted and stumbled trying to get out of someone’s way. I was suddenly put in charge of something I didn’t understand, and the stranger I partnered with yelled unfamiliar commands and freaked out when I didn’t understand. I had moments of exhilaration, but my injured foot was strained by all the desperate maneuvering, aching more than it had in months.

One secondary mission of my trip was to find a solution for my beloved wooden sunglasses. A hinge wore out months ago, and repeated attempts to get them repaired had failed. I spent hours roaming the cities in search of either repair or replacement, and on the verge of giving up hope, finally discovered a guy who fixed them while I waited, for $25. He even used a laser! Check it out: All-American Eyeglass Repair, in Hayward.

Just as Hurricane Harvey was flooding Houston, a record heat wave hit the Bay Area, and I ended up staying with friends in a house without air conditioning, sharing some great conversation in front of a fan, and taking my first lengthy walk in the new orthotics in 105-degree weather. It was so muggy that I actually spent two straight days sweating continually, an experience I’ve never faced back home in the mountains of the Southwest.

The primary goal of this trip, medical care for my injured foot, achieved mixed success. After reviewing the MRI, both doctors say I have arthritis in the metatarsal and an incompletely healed stress fracture of the remaining sesamoid. They both prescribed a bone stimulator, an ultrasound device which is supposed to encourage bone healing but remains somewhat controversial, although they disagreed on the long-term plan and chances of recovery. The surgeon said the likelihood of needing surgery was 50% and a decision should be made after three months of treatment, while Dr. Blake wants me to use the bone stimulator for nine months, with a follow-up MRI after one year. Only one such device is FDA-approved, making its manufacturer a monopoly, and it threatens to cost me thousands of dollars out of pocket – how much is still TBD.

The pain I had after sailing was relieved by a physical therapist during my last visit to the clinic, when he demonstrated a series of exercises and manipulations I could do at home. So now, in addition to the time-consuming physical maintenance I’ve been doing in the past year, I have another hour and a half of work to do on the foot, each day. Hopefully there’s a light at the end of this increasingly narrow tunnel.

Escape to the Countryside

On the third day of the record heat wave, as the heat began to subside, I left the Bay Area and headed across the Central Valley to visit an old friend at the base of the Sierra Foothills. I’d already walked more during the heat wave than in the previous three weeks of milder weather, and by the time I reached my friend’s place my left foot was sore in an unaccustomed place. We went for yet another walk, again in 100-plus temperatures, and by the time we reached our destination my foot was red, swollen, and in considerable pain. And we still had to walk back.

The foot throbbed all night, and in the morning I emailed Dr. Blake, who suggested it was gout. Great! I still had at least a week of planned visits before returning home, and now I could barely walk. I reluctantly left my friend, whose tiny apartment made it difficult for me to take care of the foot, and drove two hours up to Lake Tahoe in the mountains, where I found a motel, crawled into bed, and began applying ice.

The swelling and pain subsided a bit by the next morning, and I drove down the Eastern Sierra, under storm clouds and through scattered rain, to visit more old friends, the expert on bighorn sheep and his physician wife. As I continued to ice my foot, we had some great talks about wild sheep, prehistoric tribes, and a half-dozen other topics of mutual interest, as on the other side of the continent, Hurricane Irma approached Florida, leaving a wake of destruction in the Caribbean. I drove up on the nearby volcanic tablelands to revisit some prehistoric rock art. But my friends were busy and distracted, and I was too crippled to hike, so after a couple days I continued on to Las Vegas.

Rainbow Over Vegas

With hurricanes in the South and a heat wave on the West Coast, Las Vegas had its own extreme weather – in this case, thunderstorms and heavy rain, with unseasonably cool temperatures. I was actually greeted by a rainbow when I arrived at the UNLV campus to meet my friend, another wildlife biologist. My sore foot continued to improve, and in between thunderstorms, my host took advantage of the rare cool weather to show me some beautiful springs in the low desert around Lake Mead. Although we were mainly looking for the endangered relict leopard frog, I also got to see the mysterious, almost microscopic springsnails, also endangered, and poorly known to science. So now, in addition to the biological soil crusts that recently captured my attention, I have a new tiny, humble, easily-overlooked desert life form to admire. As paleontologist and natural historian Richard Fortey has observed, it’s often the humblest and least aggressive life forms that persist, while powerful species like ours quickly rise, briefly dominate, and collapse into ruin.

No Place Like Home

I’d planned one more stop after Vegas, but at this point, I really needed to get home and start treating my foot. The swelling and pain had subsided but were still there, and I didn’t know whether I had the dreaded gout or not.

I took a detour on the way back so I could traverse the White Mountains plateau in Arizona, and my foot was feeling good enough when I got there that I went for a short hike – two or three miles at 9,000′ elevation – through the lush post-monsoon meadows and cool, fresh alpine air. After all that time in cities, finishing my trip in nature was the perfect way to restore balance.

1 Comment