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Tuesday, June 21st, 2016

Vision Quest 2016: Joy of Surviving

Monday, June 6th, 2016: 2016 Trips, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips.

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: 2016 Trips, Mojave Desert, Nature, Regions, Road Trips, Rocks.

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.

Shelter

Tools & Signage

Mining

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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Vision Quest 2016: Growing Up in the Desert

Friday, June 10th, 2016: 2016 Trips, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips.

On Sunday morning the boys climbed the steep rock face above camp

Desert Wind

I spent four days on our wilderness land before the fathers and sons arrived, hiking aggressively at first, then resting for a couple of days up in the shade house high in the side canyon, swinging in my old Yucatan hammock as the winds began to build. Our desert wind often arrives in cycles, tickling gently at first, then hitting you with sudden overpowering gusts that threaten to sweep your campsite away, followed by waves that diminish to intervals of stillness. If you pay attention to your surroundings, you can often hear the wind traversing or approaching across the landscape like distant surf, a sensation I seldom get tired of.

As night fell in camp on Friday, I’d made and finished dinner, started a modest fire, and was sitting by the fireplace, a beer in hand, wondering if they would show up at all. If they did, it would be very late, since they’d have to wait until school was out, pick up the boys, and pack, before heading out from Los Angeles.

My partner in the land had warned me that a pack of teenage boys was about to destroy my peace and quiet. He’d been so apologetic that I spent days worrying if there’d been an unspoken message behind his warnings. Were they bringing something that would really disturb and offend me?

Suddenly I spotted a flickering light way out in the lower wash, and a vehicle emerged, bouncing along between the moon shadows of desert willows. Within minutes, my peaceful world changed into excited greetings, hugs and introductions, and the urban energy of male bodies rushing around unloading and setting up gear. It turned out the boys had had only a half-day of school, so they’d been able to leave early.

I knew most of them from past trips, but one father was new, as were his son and his son’s friend. All five of the boys were long-time school friends, age 12 going on 13, on the cusp of teenage life. The group would spend two precious nights here in the wilderness and head back to the megalopolis midday Sunday, joining hordes of other weekend warriors funneled inexorably back into the concrete and steel maw of the Los Angeles freeway system.

Rock in the Water

I really like these fathers and sons, and the new additions turned out to be just as welcome. The dads are all involved in entertainment industry culture, but they also yearn for a life that’s more authentic, and the desert allows them to be more like what they want to be. As busy as they were attending to their kids, I was able to spend quality time, one on one, with each of them, and with each of their kids, before they left, learning about their projects, their dreams and frustrations.

On Saturday morning, I led them all on a group hike up to the seep on our land, where I’d found water from the heavy rain at the beginning of the week. It’s the only reliable water source for wildlife for miles around, as well as being the most geologically spectacular place in our canyon system. We hiked up the big side canyon and across into the narrow gulch below the seep, along the old pipeline the miners had laid after damming up the dry waterfall below the seep, forming a murky pool the size of an old-fashioned bathtub. There’s a beehive in a crack of the sheer wall above the seep – bees commonly colonize desert springs – and the narrow defile between cliffs of brilliant metamorphic rock is usually alive with their buzzing.

My partner and I had climbed high above the dark pool, but most of the men and boys were sitting or standing on a ledge directly over the water. Suddenly one of them casually tossed a fist-sized rock into the pool, and I gasped. My partner chastised them sharply, and I added, “That’s the only source of water for wildlife here. You just made it smaller. Water is sacred in the desert – please try to understand and respect it.”

It’s hard for city kids to absorb lessons they only get for a few days out of the year, on rare camping trips. In traditional societies, there’s a balance between constant observation and imitation of adults working outdoors, and learning by trial and error as kids explore nature on their own. Kids make mistakes, usually causing minor damage to themselves as much as to wildlife and habitats. I thought of a much worse incident, years earlier, when I’d been hiking up a switchback trail through steep, dense forest with a mother and her 7-year-old daughter. Near the bottom, we’d passed two other hikers coming down. At the top, we stopped for a moment, and the girl leaned over, pried up a 20-pound rock from the side of the trail, and pitched it over the edge, where it bounded and crashed down through the trees. She wasn’t an angry or violent kid, just a kid with so little experience in nature that she wasn’t aware her playful action could seriously injure or even kill someone below us. I ran down to the bottom of the trail, shouting, but the other hikers were thankfully long gone.

The afternoon after our hike, I sat in camp getting to know the new father, while the boys used an air rifle to shoot at cans in the background. He mentioned how, as adolescents, we’re prepared and subtly pressured by our parents and teachers to attend college, which inevitably leads to a professional career of some kind. After college, we’re drawn by the jobs and stimulation in cities, where we eventually end up with partners, to raise kids in an increasingly expensive and stressful lifestyle, overworked and overwhelmed by responsibilities, while yearning for a simpler, more authentic life, somewhere less congested, constrained, and over-engineered. The father shook his head wearily, admitting that his son was being groomed to follow him into the rat race, repeating the same pattern over and over from generation to generation.

Allahu Akbar

My partner had brought the biggest steaks I’d ever seen, enough for all of us, which he grilled that night. After a delicious dinner, we gathered our chairs close together around a roaring fire, and the kids asked one of the dads to share some limericks. The boys were at the age where they relished rudeness of all kinds, and while we men were drinking beer and getting politely loose, the kids soon became hysterical. One of them started to recite a limerick and interrupted it with a shout of “Allahu Akbar”, and the other kids howled, echoing it, until it felt like I’d stumbled into a Young ISIS rally. For the rest of the evening, until bedtime, anything anyone said resulted in an instant chorus of boys screaming “Allahu Akbar”, with one or two of the fathers joining in for solidarity.

It surprised and disturbed me and I had no idea where it came from – I felt like my friends had suddenly turned into Islamophobic strangers. Now I thought I understood what my partner had been warning me about before their arrival. When I was finally able to ask, one of the dads said it was a meme that had appeared on YouTube at some point and gone viral.

Adolescence has always been a time for acting out, breaking rules, exploring your boundaries in society, and I remembered from my own youth how easily kids merge into a mob. I realized I wasn’t used to being around teenagers, but could expect more of this as my friends’ kids got older. I also missed female energy. Whereas women had joined us during the first few years of powwows I’d organized out here, they’d gradually dropped out, and I’d been told that at least one mother avoided these desert trips because they were a much-needed opportunity for fathers to bond with sons.

Contrary to popular misconception, the desert is also a woman’s place. I’ve often had better times out here with women than with men. Among desert Indians, men were the hunters and toolmakers, women the gatherers and basketmakers. Hard versus soft, but all equally at home. We men need women out here to keep us out of trouble.

Teenage Zen

On Sunday morning the boys climbed the steep rock face above camp while the dads took their time getting ready to leave, and I was able to do more catching up with them, as well as with their sons as they flitted restlessly in and out of camp.

One of the dads, a photographer and aspiring filmmaker, was looking forward to the start of shooting on his first feature film. He’d been a teenage football hero, and his film would expose the dark side of high school sports in Texas. The new dad revealed that he sometimes experimented with electronic music, having released an album that sold fairly well several years ago.

His son and friend joined us and I asked them if they were into music at all. It turned out that all the boys had played together in bands at one time or another. The filmmaker’s son appeared and admitted he’d sung in one of the groups. I had no idea of any of this and was duly impressed. I like all my friends’ kids, and would like to be a part of their lives, but I get so little time with them.

Different kids impress me the most on different trips. This time it was one who’d avoided all eye contact on previous trips and was hostile when I tried to approach or interact with him. It seemed like he had some deep, lifelong issues that nobody had been comfortable talking about.

But on Sunday morning, he came over, sat facing me, and talked about his embrace of Zen meditation. He’d started attending a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles, initially with his dad, but now it was clearly part of his identity. The change was like night and day. I congratulated him, and we parted with warmth and affection – as we all did – when the fathers and sons finally had to head back.

Each of the boys’ faces lit up as they told me how much they love being out here and look forward to coming back. I think the main thing they respond to is the freedom, in contrast with their overwhelmingly constrained, totally man-made urban environments. The desert can definitely function as a playground for adults as well as children – hence the Rad Dudes, the extended family from Orange County that has plagued our land in the past, with their heavy metal music, case after case of beer, and illegal automatic weapons they use to shoot up everything in the environment. But these boys were learning lessons in the midst of all the noise and fun – maybe even some lessons they’re not getting in school.

Inside Out

As I prepared to visit the ecological field station, my friend, the manager, tried to set my expectations about their busy schedule and limited availability. After I arrived on Friday evening, he said I was welcome to join them for a movie, but added, apologetically, that it would be a kid thing. In the event, everyone on the preserve showed up for a viewing of Pixar’s animated feature, Inside Out: in addition to the manager’s family, there was me, the young female grad students, and the visiting plant illustrator, all crammed into a tiny loft around a modest-sized flat screen TV.

As the movie played on, the kids moved restlessly back and forth between their friends “the girls” and their parents’ laps, napping and waking for spells – they’d seen it before. I’m always surprised at how Hollywood screenwriters take the in-progress scientific hypothesis of the day and turn it into established fact, and this movie was no exception. Apparently Descartes was right, the brain is a fairly simple machine, fully understood by science, and human personality and behavior are uniformly predictable, the result of a mechanistic formula that could be summarized glibly in a TED Talk. Even the “personality islands” that made up the heroine’s character were pictured as Rube Goldberg contraptions. The dominance of reductive science couldn’t have been clearer.

But it was only a movie, and for an evening, I felt like part of an extended family circle, sheltered here by the desert we all love.

Railroad to Childhood

The last day of my visit, in late afternoon, with heavy clouds massing over the Cove, I played with the kids at their swing set in the sand of the side yard, at the foot of a big granite boulder. These kids are growing up in the wild desert, among scientists who are studying it, the first kids I’ve known that have had that precious opportunity. They were full of family questions that cut to my heart: did I have kids, where was my wife, did I have brothers and sisters, what about my mother and father, and so on. They begged me to push them in the swings. The girl, older, wanted to go higher and faster, but the boy didn’t want to go too fast or too high. I pushed them the way they wanted, my battered, hopeless heart beginning to glow. I need to find a way to be around kids more often.

At our early dinner, the overworked field station manager finally seemed to relax, we adults had a good talk, and the little girl covered a page of green construction paper with love notes to me. Then the kids and I climbed into the Suburu for the ride over to the group camp. Dusk was falling as we rumbled down the narrow dirt road toward the low house nearly hidden at the foot of the white granite cliffs. I got out to unlock and open the gate, leaving it chained but unlocked for our departure.

The large class of college students, too big for the bunkhouse, had set up colorful tents far out in the rolling juniper-, yucca- and cholla-covered bajada to both sides of the house, and with night falling, they were bustling back and forth between there and the rows of big vans parked in front. While the kids’ mom prepared to deliver the standard briefing, I followed the kids into the boulders behind the house.

They went straight to the two rustic wooden shower enclosures, which they explained were their railroad. The rope hanging from above the enclosure, normally used to hoist a water bag, was used to call the train. The corner bench in the enclosure was a seat, and the wooden shower platform was the sleeping bunk. We called a train and took our places for the ride. The kids curled up side by side on the platform; later, we changed places, and I lay there trying to pretend, feeling my distant childhood through a mist of time. But they soon tired of this and ran outside, jumping from boulder to boulder to a ridge of granite where they could watch the students walking to and from their distant tents. Night was falling quickly, and the juniper-dotted bajada, the distant granite ridges, and the sky above had all turned shades of indigo. We perched there side by side, watching the lights of cars pass on the highway, two miles away across the bajada, speculating about them and the students passing closer at hand. The girl climbed down into a cavity between boulders and picked a flower, holding it up for me to smell.

The little boy got anxious about his mom and tore off to find her. The house windows glowed yellow in the blue dusk and we could hear a murmur from inside. I was supposed to keep the kids away from her while she briefed the class, but it was clearly impossible. I went and peaked inside; a female grad student assistant who had been here before was sitting on the kitchen counter with the boy.

The talk dragged on and on, in response to the large group. Enfolded by the close darkness of the cloudy night, the kids and I and the grad student kicked a soccer ball back and forth across the gravel in the small pool of yellow light outside the kitchen windows. It was late and the kids were hyper, yelling and screaming. But later that night, in my bunk in the residence hall I’d helped build long ago, I lay awake replaying that day in my mind’s eye like a priceless gift.

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Vision Quest 2016: The Sheltering Desert

Monday, June 13th, 2016: 2016 Trips, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips.

Siesta in my Yucatan hammock

The Friendliest Place to Camp

The Sheltering Desert is the astonishing memoir, long out of print, of two German geologists who escaped internment during World War II, living off the land for two years in the remote desert of South Africa. It also hints at one of the main reasons why I fell in love with the California desert: despite its reputation as a harsh land of extremes, it’s the most comfortable natural environment I know of for living outdoors.

Luxury With Less

My dad introduced me and my brother to camping in the bourgeois tradition, as a gear-dominated activity beginning at the sporting goods store, followed by lengthy rituals of packing, unpacking, assembling and disassembling expensive equipment that he believed was essential for our comfort and safety, and had to be laboriously maintained. He loved nature, but warned that it was a potentially dangerous place that you had to prepare for and protect yourself from, and we only camped in official campgrounds with restrooms and showers and lots of neighbors.

I was burdened by his legacy of habits, fears, and inhibitions for decades. But by the time I finished grad school, in my mid-20s, I’d started to break free, as one of a tribe of hippie bohemians who were as much at home outdoors as in. I explored the country as a hobo for a couple of years, sleeping rolled up in a wool blanket in boxcars, or on the ground, in jungles near a railroad yard. My friends and I slept in bedrolls under bushes in small-town parks, in hammocks strung between cottonwoods in the bottom of canyons, and in rockshelters in the open desert. I discovered less stress, and paradoxically more comfort, with less gear and less effort, and I gained a more intimate and complete experience of nature. Finally, I attended a Paiute skills class and learned how to make everything you need by hand, from local materials, and got a taste of total liberation from Western technology.

I’ve camped without a tent now for almost 40 years, both alone and with friends and girlfriends, in cloud forest, on the beach, in deep snow, and on top of a volcano in Guatemala. When bothered by mosquitoes, I set up one of my sleep screens, domes of netting that can accommodate one or two people without blocking our view of the sky.

Exploring Without Trails or Compass

Apart from a few small areas within national parks, there are no trails in the desert. But because the rock-dominated landscape has plenty of landmarks and unimpeded vistas, it’s virtually impossible to get lost. By requiring you to read the landscape, the desert teaches you better orienteering skills.

Hiking off-trail in a landscape of stone, particularly jointed granite or metamorphic rock, isn’t just walking – it often requires all four limbs and bouldering technique as you scale or lower yourself down small cliffs, or look for ways over, under, or around house-size boulders that obstruct slopes hundreds of feet tall. You need to climb or cross broad slopes of loose rock, including boulders that look solid but begin to slide or tumble when you step on them. It requires you to understand the landscape far more intimately, to observe more closely and pick your route carefully in order to reduce risk and effort and avoid fragile soil scrusts, obstacles, and backtracking. It’s hugely more challenging than trail hiking, it engages more of your body, senses, and mind, and requires you to be totally present, at risk of serious injury or death. In other words, it’s one of the healthiest things we can do as human animals.

Hiking Under the Moon and Stars

While living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I once set out to hike off-trail alone through a dense redwood forest, up a steep mountainside, planning to build my own primitive shelter at the top from branches and bark, and spend the night. I didn’t have a compass, but there was a half moon and I thought I’d be fine.

Instead, it got colder up there than I expected, I hadn’t brought enough warm clothes, even a fire failed to warm up my little shelter of tree limbs, and sometime after midnight, unable to sleep, I decided to head back down.

That turned into the adventure of a lifetime, since the canopy and cloud cover mostly blocked my view of the moon and left the forest pitch-dark, so I had to go by feel, running into fallen tree trunks as big around as I was tall, and falling into the deep pits left when their trunks had been uprooted. I got hopelessly lost, but I hoped that if I just kept following gravity downhill, I’d hit a stream that I might be able to follow to the road.

Surviving that experience just made me want to explore more of the world after dark, and my desert turned out to be the perfect place to do it. Our granite mountains, and the gravel and sand that erode from them into canyon bottoms and arroyos, mostly consist of quartz crystals that reflect moonlight and even starlight, so that under a full moon in the middle of the night, you can imagine that you’re seeing colors.

Of course, the best place to hike is across fairly level ground: the alluvial fan, the bajada, big dry washes and canyon bottoms. I draw the line at scaling cliffs by starlight or in shadow, but I’ve done it under a full moon.

I’ve done several night hikes with friends in familiar locations, but my favorite was a solo exploration of an unfamiliar basin near the southeast end of my mountains, about ten years ago. There was a three-quarter moon rising, so there would be plenty of that cool, mysterious reflected light shining across the mountains and the vast openness to the east. Taking nothing but the clothes on my back, I walked from camp, a mile or so down an abandoned mine road, and around the foot of an outlying ridge, into the new basin on the other side. From there, I started up the first good-sized wash I came to, as it meandered down from the dark mountain wall in the west. As I got closer to the western wall, the moonlit sand led me around the foot of another ridge, south into a hidden valley. After I had gone about four miles, I came to the base of a pouroff or dry waterfall, a cliff that was only about fifteen feet tall and probably had plenty of good climbing holds. But it was in deep shadow, so I called it a night and headed back to camp.

Like the forest, the desert wilderness is a totally different place at night, and it has valuable lessons and skills to teach us, to make us more complete and functional as human animals.

Meteorites Every Night

During my month-long vision quest, I occasionally had to spend the night in town, in a motel room. And every time I visited friends, they were anxious to offer me a comfortable bed. But every night I spent inside, I missed sleeping out under the stars.

Our eyes need the desert. Endless vistas, with fascinating landforms a hundred miles or more away, help restore our vision from the abuse of constantly focusing at short range on screens. My first night out, lying on my back watching the moon and stars, I saw them all doubled as usual. But by the second night, only the moon and the brightest stars were faintly doubled – I was able to focus the myriad others into single points of light, without straining.

I see meteorites every cloudless night I spend sleeping out. Falling stars, every single night. Some before falling asleep, and some upon waking before dawn. Most of them brief, thin scratches like lighting a match, but sometimes miraculous living bodies of fire throwing off sparks and trailing an incandescent wake. Three days into this trip, I woke two hours before dawn to see the second biggest I’ve ever seen, streaking just above the western horizon, sputtering yellow, green and blue sparks.

Some nights I sleep straight through, but I prefer to wake briefly throughout the night to check the progress of the heavens, watching the moon set and the fainter stars emerging, until the constellations themselves, both familiar and forgotten, merge into an extravagance of heavenly lights. Watching Naugupoh, the dusty trail of spirits, finally rise in the east, a mysterious glowing cloud, forked and split in the middle, embracing the whole world, from the faraway north to the faraway south.

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Summer Solstice 2016

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016: Hikes.

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