Dispatches
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Sunday, November 10th, 2019

Fall Trip 2019: Part 1

Sunday, November 10th, 2019: Fall Trip 2019, Mojave Desert, Trips.

Blinded by the Light

I started this fall’s road and camping trip in a conflicted state of excitement and anxiety. On the one hand, I was proud of the past year’s hard work and the accomplishment of recovering from five years of multiple disabilities and surgery, to regain strength, mobility, and the stamina to hike farther and higher than before all this started. I was eager to test my new abilities alongside those of my younger friends, who provided a benchmark for what I hoped to do in my favorite stomping grounds of the Mojave Desert, Great Basin, and Colorado Plateau.

On the other hand, three months earlier, while treating sciatica in my right foot, I’d experienced a sharp pain in my left knee that had plagued me two or three times in the past decade. I’d always assumed it was patellar tendinitis, treated it by hiking with a knee band or sleeve, stuck to my mindful stretching and strength training, and it’d always gone away within 2 or 3 months. But within the past couple of weeks I’d become worried that the knee pain would get in the way of my hiking on the fall trip, and I started practicing some additional, commonly recommended treatments for patellar tendinitis.

But those treatments made the pain significantly worse, to the point where on the eve of my trip I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to hike much at all. Driving with a manual transmission, working the clutch with that knee hour after hour, is especially hard, and it seemed like my aging body was out to sabotage my dreams again.

Following the pattern I’d developed during recent years, I hoped to explore southeast Utah, southeast Nevada, and the east Mojave over a period of up to 3 weeks. But last minute plans involved joining a younger friend in the desert at the beginning, where we would discuss a joint itinerary to occupy the first week and a half. The weather forecast for the desert was calm with mild temperatures before I left home, so we were expecting some easy camping and good hiking.

Planning to leave home on Monday with a 6-hour drive to Flagstaff, I put off most of my packing until Monday morning, figuring my long experience would make packing straightforward – and it was. I’d acquired a 1995 Suzuki Sidekick 4-door 4wd last winter and tested it a bit in a short desert camping trip in May, but this would be the first significant test, since I planned to explore some serious back roads that wouldn’t have been accessible for my 2wd truck. With the back seat removed, cargo space was so ample that all my gear barely showed above the windowsills, and the only thing I had to carry on the roof rack would be gas cans. Which was good, since with apparent rotator cuff tears in both shoulders, I couldn’t lift heavy weights that high anyway.

Unfortunately, the final drive to Flagstaff occurred as the sun was setting directly in front of me in a cloudless sky, and with the high profile of the Sidekick and the small sun visors, it meant I spent the better part of two hours driving with one hand raised to block the sun. Why didn’t I stop somewhere and wait for the sun to set? At times, I had zero visibility on the Interstate with its heavy truck traffic, steep grades, and 75 mph speed limit. It was so nerve-wracking I was a mess by the time I reached my motel.

I’d researched and located a Cajun restaurant near the motel, and walked over there in the dark after checking into my room. The food was great but it turned out to be a much longer walk than expected, through a semi-industrial neighborhood with heavy traffic and few sidewalks or street lights, where massage parlors were the only open businesses. I felt like I was in a slum in a big city, not a historic railroad town high in the mountains.

Smelling of Mildew

Flagstaff is my routine shopping stop for camp food and any needed gear. I needed a few items that turned out to be hard to find, so it took me most of Tuesday in a town that is one of my least favorite. For example, I went to 5 different places in different parts of town before settling on plastic gas cans and a new plastic water jug – cheap but important items that are mostly poorly designed and built.

In the meantime, I’d heard from another friend that he might be able to meet me the next morning to show off his native community in the desert. So I was planning to spend this night in the dying river town and drive to his place Wednesday morning, after doing laundry that would give me enough clean clothes to last a week of camping.

So again, I ended up driving due west toward the setting sun in another cloudless sky, on the high-speed Interstate with even steeper grades, reaching town again a nervous wreck from holding up my hand and squinting for poor visibility, to check into a dilapidated motel room that smelled strongly of mildew – normal for a dying town that pins all its current hopes on the cannabis industry.

Then I drove a half hour north past the big reservation farms for dinner at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants – since the dying town lacks a good dinner place.

Pleistocene Lake

Wednesday morning I did laundry at the motel, bought block ice to fill my two coolers, and headed down to my friend’s native community.

There, I entered the small resort area, parked, and walked to the restaurant on the lake shore. A wall of glass overlooked a choppy sea that extended for 2 miles to a steep alluvial fan at the foot of distant mountains. Completely blanketing the fan was a vast, unexpected city. Not that the lake was expected – it was all as surreal as a Star Trek set. So much water in the desert, all of it draining from mountains up to a thousand miles away! So much hubris, the unsustainable engineering of habitat for humans by our industrial civilization. While waiting for my friend, I watched private fishing boats venturing out from the harbor of the small resort, and a small ferry shuttling passengers between this and the much larger resort on the opposite bank.

My friend arrived, we had lunch, then I drove us around the area as he gave me a tour and told me the story of his people and their land. First we went to a spring that featured in ancient legends I’d read about decades ago. The preservation of this spring on public land was my friend’s first achievement as a custodian of his people’s traditions, and he was understandably very proud of it. As a precious water source in what used to be undeveloped desert, it featured a rock outcrop which used to be covered with petroglyphs, but most of them had been chipped off by whites – including government agents – to use as yard decorations. My friend pointed out how the one panel that remained represented an ancient map showing the Pleistocene shoreline of a lake that was similar to the present lake, indicating that the river had been dammed naturally at one point thousands of years ago. The map even showed village boundaries on an island which is now a peninsula.

We talked about LaVan Martineau, a white man taught by Southern Paiutes in Utah, who published interpretations of rock writing which are generally dismissed by archaeologists and other white experts. We agreed that Martineau probably offered a better perspective than most of the so-called experts.

He told me the story of a historical conflict with another community at this place, a raid and massacre, and retaliation of the survivors, which included one of his wife’s relatives. The spring had since been used as a stagecoach stop, and a stock watering hole for a native rancher. My friend pointed the way to the actual spring, which I found silted up, with just a damp spot at the base of a shrubby hillock. When I returned to the vehicle, my friend was talking to his nephew, who was out there hunting rabbits with a friend.

In the space of a few decades, the community has overcome huge obstacles to win back a small fraction of their traditional lands from our rapacious and unsustainable imperial society. They freely admit to making mistakes during their long, lonely learning experience. Even gaining control over the private resort within their boundary required a long struggle, but it now represents their main source of income and jobs that gradually attract more far-flung, disenfranchised community members to this developing haven.

With that income and a few hard-won grants and loans, they’ve developed basic infrastructure – government, public works, a health clinic, fitness center and small cultural center – all recent and well-maintained. My friend proudly showed me around their large organic farm, a work in progress where native plants have been tended as cultural and nutritional resources. Then he showed me the head of the lake, where silt from upriver was constantly settling and posing a danger to recreation. He shook his head at the folly of our dominant European society, and recounted a story from one of his elders.

As the downstream dam was being completed by our government and the ancestral farms of his people were being flooded, the lake extended upstream, drowning a vast riparian forest. His elder, who was then a young girl, said she watched as coveys of quail gathered for refuge in the branches of drowned trees, far from the spreading shore, and as the water rose and drove them from the branches, they tried to fly to shore, and fell one by one to drown as their short wings failed them.

Continuing the theme he’d introduced at the desert spring with its petroglyph map, my friend kept musing about deep time, and how different this landscape would’ve looked in much wetter periods of the earth’s history. He freely admitted that his people are recent immigrants from farther north, an archaeological consensus I’d come to doubt.

Leaving him in midafternoon, I drove back through town for gas and headed west toward my mountains and the rendezvous with my camping partner. He was still far away, and expected to arrive after 9pm, long after dark. We agreed to meet in the ghost town just off the stretch of highway which had been closed for years, as the state gradually replaces bridges washed out by flash floods.

Showering Onstage

The ghost town is on a main railroad line, and when I arrived, trains were passing in opposite directions every 5 minutes, each blowing their horns loudly as they approached the rarely used crossing. I pulled into the abandoned tungsten millsite, an industrial ruin from the 1950s, sparsely surrounded by sprawling, decrepit tamarisk trees and the mostly collapsed ruins of bungalows and post office from a town that had finally died in the 1970s. It was a junky place but would be nicer in the dark. As the sun set, I gradually felt myself shifting my gaze upward to the emerging stars as the stress of preparing and driving was removed from my shoulders. The moon had set in early afternoon, and falling stars were sporadically streaking the cloudless night sky. I realized again how our culture, with its tech obsession and downward focus on screens, deprives us of an accurate worldview and gives us spinal problems and neck pain. And I was grateful for the desert’s liberation from our unhealthy habits.

It had been a long, hot day, and my first desire was to get clean. Among the ruins of the millsite I found a raised wooden platform with an H-frame of pipe overhead and an adjacent lower structure that provided a handy shelf. I’d bought a cheap solar shower bag in Flagstaff, filled and hung it from the frame, and set my hurricane lamp on the shelf along with soap and towel. The engineers of passing trains had a dramatic view of my “sleek, powerful body,” all lit up on stage, but it was total bliss to get clean outdoors in mild weather under the arching canopy of stars.

Still worried about hiking with knee pain, I cracked a beer, ate some snacks, and waited for my younger friend, who eventually arrived around 10pm. Meanwhile, train traffic had decreased to one every 20 minutes or so, but a strong wind had come up. A recently updated forecast suggested we were in for fierce winds during the next 48 hours. This is a typical challenge of desert camping. I’ve had very capable friends who were literally driven out of the desert, in both day and night, by unbearable winds. We quickly agreed to lay out our sleeping bags in the partially ruined assay shed, a sheet metal building with 3 standing walls and a roof, all riddled with bullet holes but adequate as a windbreak.

Miraculous Oasis

Unfortunately the sheet metal walls and roof rattled and creaked loudly all night, and the trains continued to blow their horns and shake the ground underneath us, making for sporadic sleep. But we were in our beloved desert, so we woke on Thursday, another cloudless day, with good expectations.

Our first impromptu decision was to visit the major spring in the area, which we’d both heard about but had somehow avoided for decades. It was a straight shot up the alluvial fan from the ghost town, but the road to it turned out to be the most challenging of my entire trip. My vehicle was perfectly adequate, but going was very slow over boulders and washouts. Like most backcountry roads, this is an example of a road that was never built and is never maintained by the authorities – it consists of tracks and tread laid down by “users” – private individuals who drive it, reroute it, and repair it as needed for their own access.

The spring, a true desert oasis in the midst of barren foothills, was a revelation to both of us. A golden eagle soared overhead as we got out and began exploring. The vegetation, from cottonwood and willow trees to thick, incredibly tall cattail thickets and a lot of riparian vegetation I didn’t recognize, was rampant for a long distance up the canyon, and at its head was a true spring, a short overhanging bank out of which water flowed continuously. Miraculous!

Night of Brutal Wind

We had lunch at our vehicles below the oasis, then headed back south, toward a campsite from which we hoped to hike into the southern end of our mountains, which I’d never explored before. The temperature was mild, probably in the low 70s, but I drive with my windows closed to keep out the dust, and my new vehicle’s high profile means that the big windows let in more solar radiation, turning the entire vehicle into a sweltering hothouse regardless of outside temperatures. I avoided using the air conditioner because my shop had said it was on its last legs and needed major repairs, so before we were halfway to our destination I was drenched with sweat, frustrated and angry. Eventually I stopped, and my friend pointed out that all I had to do was find a way of covering the windows facing the sun. Why hadn’t I figured that out for myself? I used a towel and a dirty t-shirt, and from then on I was okay, but it pointed out a major flaw of my new vehicle.

On the drive up the side road to the basin where we planned to camp, I flushed a mature, classically-colored redtail hawk out of the roadside brush. The wind was really fierce when we arrived in camp, in a broad wash at the foot of a cliff. There was a big stone fire ring, and an incongruous dead, rust-colored Christmas tree and two store-bought wreaths leaning up against the cliff, near where I’d previously found boxes of clay pigeons. Two months till Christmas, and everything dead already – how inconsiderate!

As we began to unpack our gear in the howling wind, the first thing that happened was that a small, colorful bird, which looked to me like a warbler, flew up erratically and landed on my friend’s hand. The poor thing was fluttering and staggering in the wind, and next, as I set up my folding chair and changed into my hiking boots, it zigzagged laboriously over and perched on the back of my chair, behind my left shoulder. Neither of us had ever seen a bird behave like this. My friend was enchanted. I was too, but I also wondered if it were simply disoriented by the wind.

There was enough daylight for a short hike, so after the bird left, we headed north toward a low saddle in a west-trending ridge. There, we discovered a stand of tall milkweed-like plants we’d never seen before on the slopes of these mountains. And at the top, we looked down into a lush, hidden canyon that confused me for a while, until my friend explained that the opposite slope was the main divide between us and the next watershed, where we’d both hiked in the past. The canyon below us was actually a hidden part of the complex basin we were camping in.

Back in camp, I started a fire, using the dead wreaths as kindling, while my friend made salad. I’d brought a couple of whole chicken legs, but with the solar heating in the vehicle, the ice chest hadn’t functioned adequately and I was afraid the meat had spoiled. We both smelled it and it seemed okay, so I started it grilling over my friend’s charcoal, the wind whipping through everything we did.

The salad was excellent, but at my second bite I discovered the chicken was rancid, so it became a meatless dinner. Fortunately I’d also made pilaf, so it wasn’t all fiber!

How to sleep became a real challenge, and I recalled that I’d had wind problems the last time I’d camped here. It was at the end of a long flat space, and the wind was traveling down that corridor unimpeded toward our only sleeping spot. We both made our beds independently, struggling against the gale. Since it wasn’t that chilly, I was optimistic and crawled into my warm-weather bag wearing only underwear and a t-shirt. But I was soon cold enough to pull on thermal top and bottom. And even that wasn’t enough. I sat up and put on my fleece jacket.

And got even colder with the wind rushing over me, drawing away my body heat despite the layers of insulation. So I decided to resort to the tactic I’d learned in survival school, which had worked many times in the past. I got up, raced downwind to the vehicle, and dug out my heavy, military surplus rubberized poncho. I laboriously wrapped that around my sleeping bag and snapped it shut from the inside – it should provide a solid windbreak.

But within minutes, I realized that even that wasn’t enough. The wind was so strong it was actually using the heavy poncho as a sail, to push against me and threaten to turn me over in bed. Now I was really angry! What kind of a camper was I, after decades of camping in this desert, that I couldn’t figure out how to sleep in the wind!

Well, I’d slept in a vehicle’s passenger seat before, as uncomfortable as I knew it would be. I laid some weights on my bed to keep it from blowing away, and went to transfer cargo inside my vehicle so I could recline the passenger seat. Then I unsnapped the poncho, bundled up the sleeping bag, and laid it out inside the Sidekick. At this point I was so pissed off I was ready to give up on the whole trip.

Determined to sleep, I even took a sleeping pill. And it worked.

Southern Passage

I ended up getting more than 5 hours of sleep, and in the morning, the wind had begun dying down. When I got out of the vehicle, I saw that my friend had built a low wall of gear boxes around his head, to effectively keep the wind away, and he’d had a good night’s sleep outside as a result. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

We had a long hike planned for this Friday, but we both agreed to move camp first. We would try the abandoned mine, the only other likely campsite in this basin. And by the time we got there, the day was proving to be calm, and completely cloudless yet again.

We parked the vehicles on a ledge high above the basin, not far from a gaping vertical shaft, simply a pit in the ground, that appeared bottomless until your vision adjusted to its shadowy depths. As we packed for our hike and I prepared my foot protection and knee strap, my friend noticed a coyote crossing the foothills below us and checking us out from time to time.

This was a hike I’d dreamed about for years: exploring a “southern passage” between tall outlying ridges, a 5-mile north-south corridor of seemingly level bajada between this basin and the mouth of a southern canyon which held the only known perennial water source in the southern part of the range. It was such a natural walking route that I wondered if we’d find any prehistoric remains.

As it turned out, the first remains we found were more recent – colorful plastic balloons, formerly helium-filled but long deflated, stuck in thorny shrubs, blown from thoughtless and unaccountable family celebrations hundreds of miles away, which my friend gathered into his pack to carry to some urban landfill. These deflated balloons appear more and more in the wild lands of the west, a form of litter that’s mostly out of sight, out of mind as more young people are raised to be strictly urban dwellers, isolated from the consequences of their lifestyle.

We crossed the straight tracks of rodents between hiding and feeding places, encountered the bleached belly plates and shell scales of dead desert tortoises, and the bleached skull fragments of bighorn rams. As we walked gradually uphill to what turned out to be a watershed divide early in the passage, we noticed that while the steep eastern ridge consisted of pale, finely fractured rock, the equally steep western ridge was dark and composed of big, wind-rounded granite boulders and pinnacles, which made it look far more rugged. High among the boulders we saw more of the tall milkweed-like plant we’d discovered the day before.

We were drawn to a section of western slope with boulders hollowed by wind into domed caves, and inside one I found mountain lion scat surrounded by bighorn scat.

We explored a short, winding side canyon which featured spectacular geology and a small “window” rock, unusual in these mountains.

Shortly after that we approached a dramatic, house-sized free-standing boulder, and sure enough, I found a faint petroglyph at its base.

Then we reached the mouth of a big canyon on our right, the head of which was a natural pass between the northern and southern parts of the western ridge. I saw that timewise, we’d reached the halfway point of our hike if we wanted to get back before dark. And getting back before dark had become an obsession with me. I’d ended up hiking and camping in the dark many times in my youth, but I believed that avoiding that was a mark of hard-earned wisdom, and the very idea of finding my way back to camp after dark, over ground that was dangerous to my vulnerable body, made me angry. I told my friend I would start heading back, but as usual he wanted to keep going.

We had only just parted when I heard him yelling, and turned to see him waving me over.

He was standing near the edge of a deep wash, pointing to prehistoric potsherds littering the desert pavement, shards of ceramic with such a glossy red finish that they seemed to have been recently dropped there and broken up. I’d found lots of potsherds in the desert, over a 35-year period, but had never seen such fresh-looking examples. They covered an area of several dozen yards, and all seemed to be from the same pot.

My friend still wanted to hike farther, so I headed back north toward the low divide. Along the way I found faint vehicle tracks and large, glowing patches of golden shortgrass which seemed to be unique to this southern habitat. Passing a bouldery outcrop I encountered a busy flock of small birds, and after trying to photograph them realized they were a mixture of species.

My friend caught up with me about halfway, and we both enjoyed the colors the setting sun painted on the surrounding peaks as we arrived back in camp. My left knee survived the hike pretty well, but I had somehow developed a weird cramp in that thigh – and the long trudges up the loose gravel of the bajada had really fatigued my leg muscles.

I’ve been so proud of my hard-won recovery from disabilities, and my regained capacity for hiking, but part of my recovery has involved retraining myself to protect my chronic foot injury by taking shorter steps. Of course this increases my handicap compared to my much taller – not to mention younger – friend. But in all it was an exhilarating day.

We both showered and started making dinner. I had some fresh sausages to grill and hoped they wouldn’t turn out bad like last night’s chicken. This campsite was much better situated, with a fantastic view in the moonless starlight. The night was totally calm, the sausages we fine, and my friend made delicious salad as usual, while we both enjoyed the frequent flares of meteorites. Finally, an easy night camping!

Something happened midway through the evening that neither of us could explain. While preparing dinner I noticed, out of the corner of my vision, a sharp burst of white light on the western silhouette of the ridge above us. All my friend noticed was a flash of light from somewhere above. All I can imagine is that it was an exploding meteorite, something you hear about but rarely see.

Journey Underground

I started Saturday with the unexplained thigh cramp that would hamper me for the next few days, especially while driving and working the clutch. We planned to move camp again to the base of the canyon that featured the perennial spring, beyond the south end of the passage we’d walked Friday. But first I wanted to get some photos inside the mine, which we’d taken a brief look at after dinner the night before. It looked amazing!

This was the first true desert mine system I’d ever been able to explore. Others I’d come across were either vertical shafts with rickety dry-rot ladders, flooded tunnels, low unbraced burrows half-blocked with debris, or dangerous-looking diagonal bores. This began with a solidly-braced tunnel, mostly tall enough for me to walk upright, passing below ventilation shafts that eventually led to a T-intersection. The left side continued to a right turn, where it eventually led to a small chamber that had a bricked-up doorway – some kind of lockable storage room. Inside was a broken folding lounge chair.

The right tunnel led to a vertical shaft going down about 40 feet, with a well-preserved ladder. There appeared to be another tunnel leading off from the bottom. Beyond the shaft our tunnel continued a ways to a cave-in, where there had apparently been another shaft leading to the surface.

It was a clean mine – virtually no trash, nor was there much in the way of artifacts. The floor of the tunnel was cracked from having been flooded by rain draining through the air vents. There was rodent scat everywhere, and I found some weird tiny wings on the floor which my friend identified as grasshopper wings – food for rodents. Then he found two bird nests, deep into the transverse shaft, in an area that received virtually no light. Swallows?

Since I have little interest in mining history or the Anglo exploitation of the West in general, I was surprised that this mine turned out to be one of the most impressive things I experienced on my trip. The fact is, I just love going underground!

Canyon of Death

We packed up and drove out of the mountains, to another ghost town by a railroad side line where we lunched in an old concrete bunker, one of the few standing structures. From there, around the south end of the mountains past the small, remote salt mining camp, which was inactive that day. Then east and north to our turnoff for the road to the spring. That minimal road, where I’d destroyed one of my truck tires 3 years ago, turned out to be an easy drive to the big wash downstream from the spring, where we decided to set up camp. By then it was mid-afternoon and we both needed shade, so using bungee cords we strung my big new tarp between our roof racks for an impromptu canopy.

We hung out a couple hours, drinking light beer, until we felt like hiking again. The sun was going down and I figured, from my previous map studies, that we had less than a mile to go to the spring. But I was way wrong!

After a mile of walking we were just getting to the mouth of a steep canyon. On the way, our hike had taken a spooky turn when my friend found the severed head of a lizard impaled on the thorn of a bush. I knew it had to be the remains of a meal by a loggerhead shrike, a small but very aggressive bird. I also found parasitic mistletoe growing on a creosote bush, something I’d never noticed before – I’d gone so far as to proclaim to all my desert friends that it only parasitized catclaw acacia in this habitat.

After we entered the canyon things got more apocalyptic. There was some kind of apparently parasitic vine over many of the shrubs – I remembered seeing it in a canyon at similar latitude on the east side of the range. The multicolored, striated and jumbled rock was beautiful, but early on, we came upon the recent skull and skeletal torso of an old bighorn ram, and after that, we encountered a trail of bighorn bones, most of them from lambs, leading all the way up to the spring. And fairly recent bighorn scat everywhere, scattered among the bones. I figured all the mortality was probably from the respiratory epidemic, but had no way of knowing how recent it was. And then there was that lion scat I’d found the previous day, not far from here.

Before we got to our destination, I realized we had gone a mile and a half, the sun had set, and even if we turned back now, we’d probably end up walking over rough, unfamiliar terrain in the dark, struggling to find the right way back on ground that was dangerous for my chronic foot injury. I got angry and began complaining to my friend, who was already far ahead of me, around a bend in the canyon.

When I began to catch up with him he urged me to keep going, and suddenly yelled “There it is!” I looked up and saw a couple of huge camouflage-painted fiberglass tanks, the usual setup installed by the Bighorn Society to maintain game populations for hunting. The canyon was very steep and rocky – it would’ve been beautiful in its natural state – and despite their camouflage, the tanks looked totally out of place.

There was a small metal drinking basin below them, fed via some kind of float valve, and a piping system higher above that fed groundwater from the original spring by gravity down to the tanks. Directly behind the tanks was a stash of equipment used by the Bighorn Society crews. The whole thing was repugnant.

We climbed up and found the original spring had been dammed and was completely silted up, so to get to its water you’d have to dig deep. Now the only water source was artificial.

We began the long hike back to camp, with me complaining angrily along the way, and pushing myself to walk too fast with my short steps. Fortunately we came across an old roadway that we’d missed on the way up, and it gave us a much easier path to camp that turned my attitude around. There was still a bit of light left in the sky when we finally arrived, and I raced to take a shower, with my water bag perched atop the spare tire mounted on the Sidekick’s dusty tailgate, before starting dinner.

My friend made and shared salad as usual, and I simply warmed up a can of chili that I’d picked up on a previous trip. Another calm, cloudless night, but this time I lay in my sleeping bag listening to coyotes calling, a short distance out on the bajada below our camp, while overhead the meteorites continued to streak their brief trajectories.

Messages From the Past

By Sunday morning we’d been camping out for 3 nights and 2 days. We’d done two fairly short hikes and one longer one, through the passage. But we’d also spent a lot of time driving. I had indicated up front that I was anxious to get to Utah and didn’t want to spend much time in the desert, so we decided to head northeast into Nevada, where we both wanted to explore some wild country that we’d only recently learned about. On the way I could shop for food and other supplies.

It would take more than half a day of driving to get there, and we convoyed and arranged to make frequent stops to reconnoiter. Before we left California I thought of a stop that might be interesting for my friend – a famous petroglyph site in a canyon near the Colorado River – so we detoured over there. It’s an amazing site and we both appreciated the stop, but it left us facing a different route north as the day was coming to an end. My friend had mentioned an interest in the mountains on the Arizona side of the river, so I suggested we spend the night in a campground I’d discovered on top of one of those ranges.

Temperature Drops

As we’d been driving, the temperature had been dropping and wind had been rising. I hadn’t seen a weather forecast for nearly a week so I had no idea what was happening. It was just our luck.

I did think to buy firewood in Arizona before we reached the mountains. That would turn out to be a true blessing.

As we approached the mountains, I could see a long cloud mass hanging over it, reaching toward the river in the west. It was the first cloud cover I’d seen since leaving home, and would be the only clouds I saw until the last day of my trip, a week and a half later.

The sun was setting as we drove the steep, twisting road to the crest. We found the campground, at aptly named Windy Point, only occupied by one other party, a young couple traveling in a rented RV. The wind and cold were already brutal up there. We quickly set up camp in the most protected site we could find, surrounded by pinyon and juniper, and I started a fire with our new wood. It turned out to be some kind of well-seasoned juniper, cedar, or cypress, smelled great and gave off plenty of heat.

My friend made us a hearty stir-fry with sausage, cabbage, and kale. We enjoyed the fire for a while, then went to bed, where I had a “bedgasm” crawling into my down bag for the first time this year. Seldom have I so appreciated this overstuffed bag, which is normally too hot. But the wind and cold were getting worse, and after a short while I got up to move my cooking basket over, as a windbreak. After that I slept really well.

Driving Vs. Camping

On Monday I woke to find my one-liter water bottle frozen – only about 2/3 frozen, not frozen solid like I’ve had happen a few times before. The 5-gallon jug still had enough liquid water for making coffee and washing last night’s dishes. I was actually energized by the cold weather and was really glad we’d gone up there. But we were continuing a pattern of long drives, no base camps, and less time for hiking. Today we still had another long drive and shopping to do.

We convoyed off the mountain and drove north to Boulder City, where I planned to shop at Albertson’s. Separating, we came up with different plans for lunch. My friend bought supermarket chicken pieces before I could suggest stopping at a good local taqueria. He ate his chicken bits in his truck while I waited an excessively long time for my fresh tacos. It was another indication of different trip styles. My family and lifelong friends have always approached long camping trips as “road trips” in which spells of camping are interspersed with stops at museums, motels and restaurants along the way. Opportunities to do laundry, restock supplies, and process the experiences in nature. By contrast, my younger friend gets in the mindset that once you start, you should be camping out every night and eating only from your vehicle’s stockpile of groceries.

From Boulder City we paid the exorbitant fee to drive through the federal recreation area and bypass Vegas traffic. It’s an endlessly beautiful drive but a long one, ending back at the Interstate, where we gassed up for our venture into the unknown.

We had both been into these national monuments on the Nevada/Arizona border before, and each visit had whetted our appetites for more. This Monday, we only had time to drive in and quickly find a campsite as the sun was setting again. The site we found was spectacular, but the weather had gotten even colder so there was no opportunity to clean up after the long day. I’d bought decent steaks and grilled them, to accompany more of my friend’s salad. And I felt, more than on previous nights, the hassle of the extra chores I have to do to care for my aging body while camping, and how much harder it seems to be to do everything with my cheap, elderly camping gear. All the doors of my vehicle creaked loudly on their dust-filled hinges and everything was plastered with dust from the back roads. I continued bitching and moaning while we were getting ready for bed.

This site was a few thousand feet lower than last night’s, and despite the increasing cold I was unable to sleep in my over-insulated down bag, going to bed feeling dirty and getting even sweatier, tossing and turning in the confined space. I ended up resorting to another sleeping pill just to salvage a few hours of rest before dawn.

Suffering Oasis

By Tuesday, my friend had gotten a weather forecast on his smart phone. We were at the beginning of a serious cold wave. Everyplace in Utah was heading toward the teens at night. My friend really needed to stop driving and start hiking, and he suggested we head east to find a base camp at lower elevation – hence warmer – in the adjacent national monument, which was terra incognita for me. We could camp there for days and hike off in different directions. He seemed to know exactly where to go and sang its praises, so I packed up and followed his vehicle into new territory.

The first part was driving over a pass that I’d long wanted to see. I was actually more interested in the mountains above the pass, but on our low-elevation agenda we dropped down the other side into a vast basin rimmed by low cliffs in the far distance. Those cliffs were apparently our camping destination.

First, he led me to a sprawling oasis, one of the biggest I’d ever seen in the desert, reaching down a shallow valley surrounded by low, stark volcanic hills. It was incredibly lush with tons of unfamiliar vegetation, including screwbean mesquite, but it was also overrun by burros, and there were tiny tropical fish in the water, probably introduced mosquitofish. Someone had started to build a steel fence to keep out the burros, but they’d abandoned their supplies with the job unfinished and the damage continued.

I also found several examples of honey mesquite burdened with mistletoe, again negating my former belief that it stuck to catclaw acacia, and supporting another friend’s observations in his community by the river.

We hiked through much of the oasis and had lunch there, before continuing deeper into the national monument. Like the canyon with the bighorn drinker, this desert spring was a once-magical place that both impressed me and made me sad.

Max Bails

The next road took us up onto a volcanic plateau, and that’s where things turned really bad for me. As if I hadn’t been having problems all along!

Like me, my younger friend had recently bought an off-road vehicle – in fact, just before the trip, so this was literally his first chance to put it to the test. His was used like mine, but much newer, larger, more expensive, and more capable in some ways. The differences really came into high contrast on these backcountry roads (see video in Part 2).

The road to his proposed campsite was a track over a plateau of embedded volcanic cobbles, and he immediately raced off ahead of me. Meanwhile, my vehicle – with all new shocks and struts and reduced tire pressure – was riding so rough that I had to slow to less than 5 mph to keep from getting shaken apart. Eventually he got so far ahead that he stopped and waited. When I caught up I was totally freaked out. I said it would take me until well after dark to reach camp at this rate, and we all knew how little I liked that.

So he suggested we turn around and re-enter the other monument, where there was a good campsite he knew about a ways to the south, on a good road.

But I misunderstood him, and first, he led me much deeper into the Arizona side, to cross back over to Nevada at a place far from where I expected. He was moving so fast up ahead there was no way I could signal him to stop, so I just followed, shaking my head in frustration. At least this particular road was much smoother than the previous.

When we finally emerged onto another high plateau, I saw his vehicle parked by the road while he explored a small pile of boulders. He said there were several possible camping areas here on the plateau, but they would all be really exposed to wind. The site he had in mind was farther south, off a side road that he claimed was well-graded for passenger vehicles like the vans and big RVs we’d seen yesterday on the way in. Then he raced off again.

Well, the side road turned out to be almost as bad for me as the volcanic cobbles. It ran over dikes of rock and sections of really coarse gravel that threatened to shake my vehicle to pieces, and I finally totally lost my temper. Ignoring my vehicle apocalypse, I sped up and raced after him, bouncing and banging over the rocks and gravel. I caught him just as he was disappearing down another side track toward a big wash, in an area of low, stark volcanic hills with no trees, boulders, or shade of any kind. I honked for him to stop, and we both got out and met halfway between our vehicles. I announced that I was leaving, would head back to town, and probably proceed onward to Utah from there. We hugged, and that was the end of our trip together.

I drove more carefully during the long slog out of the monument, and took the river road up to the nearest town, where there was a Best Western where I could earn points. Near the motel I found a car wash which would be my first stop the next day. I was sore all over and took a pain pill before warming up leftovers in my room and hitting the sack early.

Next: Part 2

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Fall Trip 2019: Part 2

Sunday, November 10th, 2019: Fall Trip 2019, Southeast Utah, Trips.

Previous: Part 1

Into the Snow

I felt bad about leaving my friend, although I figured he’d probably be glad to be free of my bitching and moaning. Without me, he’d also be free to both hike and drive much faster and hence go farther. I’d be doing a solo trip as usual and bemoaning having no one to share it with. Such is life.

I spent early Wednesday morning washing the outside, and more importantly, vacuuming and dusting the interior of the rough-riding Sidekick. Then I hit the road north again. It was still cloudless, and the weather meant that I could keep my windshield clean – it was too cold for bugs! I knew it was also going to be too cold for me to camp, but I figured if I got to the area I wanted to explore, I could just do day trips outside and spend my nights in motels until the weather turned warm again.

Passing St. George on the interstate, I drove by a really rare British car, a Bristol coupe with quad exhaust. An older couple were driving and looking very self-satisfied. I’d heard of these cars but it was the first I’d ever seen.

I stopped again at the wood-fired pizza place in Cedar City – already much higher elevation, and on my way to higher still. Past there, I began to see snow on the high mountains to the east, and when I turned onto I-70 there was snow on both sides of the highway.

From the Interstate I drove even farther north, to the small coal-mining and oil-and-gas-pumping town I discovered a few years ago, in the heart of prehistoric Fremont Indian territory, which has some of my favorite rock writing and painting. That whole area has super-low room rates for some reason, and I checked into one of my favorite motels, where I can get a very nice room for $53/night, and decided to stay a couple of nights so I could spend a day doing laundry and working through my photos. At check-in, the desk clerk mentioned that current temperatures, here at the end of October, would be a record low even for the depth of winter in January and February.

Pagan Holiday

Thursday was Halloween, everyone’s favorite holiday but me. I spent a busy day at the motel and drove out for dinner that night, only to find that all the restaurants were closed for the holiday. Funny that Mormons should take a pagan holiday so seriously! I warmed up leftovers on my propane stove, back in the room.

Majestic Hike

The forecast showed the weather getting slightly warmer, so I hoped to resume camping on Friday, after a long-dreamed-of hike. But when I got up, the temperature was only 7 degrees above zero.

I packed up and headed south for the canyons. The back road crossing the broad sagebrush-and-grass plateau is well-graded over fine gravel, so I was able to get up some speed until I came upon a rancher driving a long trailer full of beeves.

He was doing nearly 40 but I could go 10 mph faster, so I crept up on his left to pass, and he pulled right to let me by. At that moment my left tires hit the loose gravel of the shoulder and I began to fishtail all over the road at high speed, threatening to end up in the deep ditch at the sides. To make it worse, he started braking and I nearly hit the back of his trailer where big-eyed cattle were shuffling about nervously.

The moment required fast reactions, and fortunately my morning coffee was up to it. I regained control and continued my pass, carefully avoiding the loose gravel of the shoulder, and soon had the relieved rancher in my rearview. My alertness was much improved after that.

I entered the head of the first canyon and twisted deeper through it, past the sacred cliff paintings, into the really dark and ominous part before the mouth, where it opens suddenly into the valley of the San Rafael River. My plan was to find the trail upstream into the river’s majestic canyon, and with good maps and directions this time I found it easily. It was about 11 am when I set out, still cool but warming in the sun, so that I gradually shed layers while keeping my warmer clothes packed for the shade of late afternoon.

Getting into this canyon had been a dream, and it didn’t disappoint. What surprised me was the quality of the trail. It was mostly smooth, hard-packed dirt, virtually all on a level except for short stretches that climbed over steep clay bluffs. On the floodplain at the foot of clay slopes it became a tunnel through thick riparian vegetation, sometimes past small sinkholes. There was a single mountain bike track visible in places, but I suspected that this trail was actually maintained mostly by burros and only adopted by hikers after the fact.

There was supposed to be a pictograph site up the first side canyon I came to, but I couldn’t find it. I did find lots of sign of both cattle and burros, but never saw the animals themselves. Ice rimmed the river bank, the water flowing steadily but turbid, with only minor rapids.

I had no way of knowing exactly where I was – I had only looked down into this canyon from above, at about the midpoint, but from down below I couldn’t tell where that was. It started out and remained spectacular all the way, with big floodplain meadows golden in the autumn, and the constant rustling of dead leaves in the big cottonwoods. Except for the birds and the rustling of leaves, it was an almost spookily quiet and empty place, like an open-air museum with towering walls of sandstone. As usual, I timed myself so I could get back to the vehicle, and even to the paved highway, before full dark, but I kept going a little farther than planned, just to see what was around the next bend.

The biggest side canyon I reached featured old ATV/UTV tracks and campsites of drivers who had obviously come down the canyon from its head, many miles away.

When I checked my terminal location later, on a floodplain meadow that extended far upstream to the west, I realized it had been the right decision – I’d made it to a point below the overlook where I’d first glimpsed this place from above. Back then, I could’ve looked down on the place I reached today. That was cool.

I figured I’d covered about 13 miles by the time I got back to the vehicle, walking rapidly for almost 5 hours on a smooth, nearly level trail. The sun was setting and I was stoked to camp, although I knew it would drop below freezing that night. I drove back up into the pictograph canyon to my favorite campsite. But as soon as I got out and looked around, I remembered that in this canyon, the sun rose very late, especially at this time of year when it was low in the sky. This campsite would stay cold until midday. It was also carpeted with fine sandstone dust, and I’d have to find a way to unload all my gear without getting it saturated with dust again. Damn!

I drove south to the Interstate – a long lonely drive in fading light – and from there, east to the dying town on the Green River, where there was an affordable retro motel I figured would be okay. The manager was surly, but the rooms had been remodeled tastefully, and there was a taqueria only a block away. The problems resumed after dinner when I wanted to take a hot bath for my aching body. There was no hot water! The manager said a handyman was working on the situation. He showed no sympathy for my desire for a hot bath but said he would let me know when it was fixed. I was fast asleep long before then.

Sacred Art

Saturday was still another cloudless and cold morning, but the hot water was back on at the motel. I loaded up the truck after breakfast and drove up the road toward a gas station. But once there, I found that my “check engine” light had come on, and my engine was surging at idle, between 1,000 and 2,500 rpm. It’s a spooky thing to have happen, like a demon has taken control of your car.

This had happened a week before my trip, and I’d paid my shop $300 to fix it by removing the valve cover and cleaning out the exhaust recirculation system. Needless to say I was pissed, here on the weekend in this declining podunk town, all set to go exploring but with a vehicle problem I’d already paid to solve.

The gas station clerk directed me to an auto shop miles away at the other end of town, but there was no one there. It was Saturday after all. I spotted another shop across the street, attached to a gas station. They were working on a big rig and said to wait a half hour or so. By then, the Sidekick was running fine. The shop said their computer was only good for later models, and suggested driving around a while to see if the problem returned. I spent another half hour driving aimlessly around the area, and it still drove okay, so I decided to just ignore it and go my merry way.

But somewhere in the midst of all that, my left arm went haywire on me with no apparent cause.

I’ve had recurring problems with my upper right arm for more than a decade, which I assumed had to do with poor form in my strength training regimen, until it was diagnosed last winter as a rotator cuff tear requiring surgery. The surgery is known for the longest and hardest recovery of any orthopedic procedure, and the initial period would’ve been impossible for someone living alone anyway, so I avoided it by devising my own improved training regimen, and gradually learned how to use that right arm and keep the shoulder strong without triggering the pain.

But along the way I realized my left arm – or shoulder – had the same problem, only less. And now, during my trip, somehow I had triggered the left shoulder, and that arm was hurting even more than the right had at its worst time. I figured I could get it working again eventually the same way I’d fixed the other shoulder, but for now, the pain was so bad it took hours to fade away, while I was trying to drive on really bad roads. This persisted for the rest of my trip, on top of increasing pain in my back and hip from other chronic conditions. But hey, at least that cramp in my thigh was gone, and I’d almost forgotten about the knee problem that had stressed me out so much at the start of the trip!

Temporarily ignoring my engine surging and warning light, I headed for a pictograph site I’d heard about but seen no pictures of. I knew it was very close to the Interstate but tricky to get to via intricate back roads that actually went through a culvert that often flooded.

The roads and the culvert drive turned out to be relatively easy, and the site, at the foot of cliffs visible from the freeway, turned out to be modest but exquisite.

There behind ancient junipers were two small painting panels, set up on the cliff well out of reach. The left one had been partially obscured by minerals draining down the cliff face, but that only made the quality of the right one more miraculous. I’d seen this style of cliff painting on and off for decades, but I was suddenly struck more than ever before how amazing it is that they’ve persisted in such good shape for more than a millenium. What of our graphical works can ever last that long? I suspect the answer is nothing.

This is a style of work on stone which can truly be called art, rather than writing. It also struck me, as an artist, that these paintings, confined to a geographical area that could easily be walked throughout the course of a year, could actually have been the work of a single artist. The style is so distinct, so meticulously and consistently executed. Others have speculated this, but most experts – none of them artists – believe stylistic differences indicate multiple creators.

In any event this modest site was a revelation that humbled me in many ways.

Devil’s Canyon

The day was still young and I was hoping to get in a good hike. I’d read about a nearby peak, the highest on this plateau, that seemed accessible via a road through something called Devil’s Canyon. I should’ve paid more attention to that name.

It was only one exit away on the Interstate, but this area is like a maze. Things look different from every vantage. The first road took me down into a broad meadow with a big encampment of huge RVs, the owners of which were all off riding their side-by-sides – except for one lady walking alone beside the dirt road, who frowned at me as I waved and smiled.

Then I got to the interesting part. These Utah back roads over sandstone feature actual rock ledges that you have to drive over – if you can – or perhaps build ramps over – again, if you can. This was exactly what I got my vehicle for, so I was totally stoked, until I reached a crest, spotted the peak miles away, and encountered the road into the canyon, which was clearly even ledgier. It was then that I recalled the name Devil’s Canyon.

I started down the road, easing the Sidekick over the ledges, carefully checking first for clearance. After I’d dropped several hundred feet I remembered there was a place in the bottom of the canyon that most vehicles could not pass over. I’d read that and assumed my Sidekick would be fine, but the way things were looking, I was losing confidence. I realized it was already too late to reach the peak, and if I continued, I would end up faced with another campsite deep in a canyon – Devil’s Canyon – that would be shaded and freezing well into the next day.

My only alternative was to drive much farther south and stay in still another motel, in a tiny half-dead settlement that I knew well, because it was the staging area for exploring one of my favorite mountain ranges. There I would surely find plenty of hikes, and if lucky even some pictographs, to satisfy me during the next few days.

I could only remember staying there once before. There were two motels, a no-frills but potentially more comfortable larger place, and an older, more funky smaller place where I had spent a night last year. I chose the newer place this time, and was grateful that I had. After checking in, I crossed the road to the Slickrock Grill, a sort of Hollywooded-up joint frequented by the few Eurotrash that make it this far off the beaten path of Utah tourism. There I had a very serviceable dinner featuring a massive filet of tender trout.

Ferrari Fails

On Sunday morning, my left arm was still aching and my neck had been stiff and sore on both sides for a couple of days now. But the mattress I’d slept on! It wasn’t particularly firm, but was topped with memory foam in such a way that it felt good no matter what position I was in.

My next destination was a pictograph panel I’d read about in the most remote part of the mountains. I’d also read that the road to that area had been washed out over the summer, so I wanted to check in at the local BLM office to ask about it. But today was Sunday, and I confirmed that the office was closed.

Today was also the day of the U.S. Grand Prix in Austin, where I was hoping my Ferrari heroes would break out of their slump and thrash Mercedes. Between the BLM office, the arm pain and miraculous bed, and wanting to follow the race, I decided to stay over another night, and spend the day chilling on pain meds.

Ferrari failed miserably, but there were impressive drives by good people on lesser teams. And that bed!

A Mesa Too Far

Come Monday morning, the guy at the BLM office was circumspect. He recommended I just follow their excellent route map, which I’d obtained a hard copy of in previous years. I headed south down the highway to the remote turnoff to the “backcountry byway,” a euphemism for “you takes your chances.”

Yikes! I love these mountains! They’re so vast, yet so visible, with so many unforested slopes and distinctive peaks, so you always know where you are and can identify the landscape all around you.

Of course much of that is due to the human-caused wildfire that stripped forest – both lower pinyon-juniper and tall alpine conifers – from two-thirds of the eastern flank 16 years ago. It’s another really tragic impact of our “civilization” to behold, but these mountains are so vast, and so much is still intact, that you can easily see beyond the damage.

The road turned out to be just as hard on Sidekick as anything in the Arizona monument. But I was determined to find that pictograph site. I knew I had a long way to go, and my attitude remained positive all the way over the snowy crest to the other side of the mountains, 20 miles and 2-1/2 hours from the highway. Along the way I passed many mule deer and a group camp of hunters, all of whom were out riding UTVs which I passed later down the road. The dust was so bad that they were all wearing dust masks, and I was breathing dust even with all the windows and vents closed.

I reached a near-mythical place I’d only read about, and that was only halfway to my destination. There, beside a spring that had been capped off, I had lunch and optimistically celebrated with a Coors. I was really in the back of beyond, and preparing to go farther.

After lunch I resumed driving, and entered the new world of the western flank of the mountains. This was an area of sprawling mesas dissected by deep canyons. I was heading for the biggest mesa, which rose to 7,500′ and stretched for about 12 miles east-west and 8 miles north-south. I could see it off in the distance, and then I was below it in the canyons. I came across a large camp of equestrian hunters with luxury live-in trailers, and encountered more UTV-riders on the road, but still it was incredibly sparsely used compared to any other comparable place I’ve visited. In fact I really know of no comparable place, so wild and remote and little-known but with such high peaks and rich wildlife.

I’d read about this “hollow boulder” pictograph panel a few years ago, and although it appeared small, it especially intrigued me because it was at the southwest edge of their known range, and it was in one of my favorite mountain areas. Since I’d first seen it mentioned, the original information had dropped off the internet, and now the only available information was very vague. No one was saying exactly where it was – which is generally a good thing, to prevent vandalism – they just said it was “in the area” of this outlying mesa. There seemed to be only a handful of photos online, only one of which showed part of the boulder itself, with a tiny slice of background revealing a juniper. None of the people who were posting about it seemed to be hikers, so I assumed the boulder was visible from the road. I was hoping it would be easy to find.

Taking the turnoff for the mesa, I climbed a steep, rocky road over a low pass into a depression lined with white granite boulders, mostly screened by pinyon and juniper trees. I’d got it in my head that the hollow boulder was supposed to be on the mesa somewhere, so I kept going. Finally I emerged up on the mesa, and it was just a level plain of grass and sagebrush stretching off forever. The road wound back and forth through dust, the view vast but never changing. I went several miles before realizing that there were no boulders on this mesa. The pictograph boulder had to be back in that low place I’d traversed earlier.

So I returned to the depression with the boulders and pulled off into a campsite under some trees. Then I started exploring the boulders. I found bootprints and followed them into a cul-de-sac. I climbed up onto a high ledge and scanned all around me with field glasses. There were many hollows but none that resembled the pictograph rock.

I climbed down and explored some more. The problem was that the boulders were tucked away back in the trees – pinyon and juniper – and you could spend hours back in there just looking for another hollow boulder. And I needed to find a campsite, because the sun was going down again. This campsite was poor – the fire ring was on a slope and there was very little level ground – but I knew a place that was perfect, hours away in the foothills on the other side of the mountain. It was just possible that no one had taken it yet, and that I could get back there before dark.

It was another hell drive breathing thick dust, but enlivened by dozens of mule deer along the road, and the perfect campsite was still there waiting for me, beside its snowmelt creek with frozen edges. I started a fire and prepared a special dinner with fresh garlic, serrano chile, organic kale, black beans and sausages. And again I struggled to sleep in my too-warm, too narrow sleeping bag, with my painful arm, there under the beautiful stars in the freezing night.

Before finally falling asleep, I saw a satellite racing along a polar orbit from south to north. And I suddenly realized that my vision, which for years has doubled the celestial bodies, actually seems to have improved somehow – I was seeing single stars for the first time in many years, perhaps because I’m using stronger reading glasses for close work. As some things fail, others can improve – imagine that!

Peak of Danger

On Tuesday, after Monday’s failed search for pictographs, I really needed a success. Above all I needed a big hike, something I knew I was capable of but hadn’t done since Friday’s 13-miler. What I had in mind was climbing one of the 5 peaks of the range. I’d climbed the highest one, actually the easiest, twice already in previous years. I’d tried to climb the third-highest once but got bogged down in fire-succession thickets near the base. There were two lower peaks that were more like our desert peaks – rugged and bouldery all over – but when I checked my iPad I realized I hadn’t downloaded the actual route descriptions, and they sounded very tricky.

I had driven past the access road for the second-highest peak on that hellish byway the day before. I wasn’t going back there any time soon. So that left the third-highest peak to try today. It seemed to be a straightforward climb, up an old road to a saddle, and then up a single long ridge to the peak. The road there was worse than I remembered – I was realizing that my new Sidekick actually rides much rougher than my old leaf-sprung pickup truck – but I pulled off beside a corral along the way to pee, and discovered an abandoned axe with only a little bit of surface rust, lying in the dirt beside a fire ring. I’d never had an axe before – never actually needed one – but if I left it, it would only rust more, so I packed it in the Sidekick, to add to the amazing carving knife I’d found at a campsite 35 years earlier.

Despite the rough road, I made it over the pass in good time to start what I thought was going to be a straightforward hike of no more than 4 miles round-trip. Yeah, and 3,500′ of elevation gain, which I’ve done many times back home.

Well, first the old road turned out to be only a fantasy. What I encountered was a deep, rock-filled gully with only occasional clues that a road had once been there. It was much harder than just hiking overland, but hiking overland was impossible because of oak thickets.

Eventually I approached the saddle, and began wondering which ridge would be my access to the peak. A couple of incredibly steep ridges loomed above me, littered with a maze of fallen snags and interspersed with forbidding talus slopes. Before reaching the saddle I decided to try a shortcut straight up the side of the tallest ridge. From the top I should be able to orient myself, and maybe continue to the peak.

It was one of the hardest climbs of my life, because the fire had left deep ash on all the slopes and cleared the trees that held the loose rock in place, and it was now all just knee-high oak thickets and fallen logs and loose rock and soft dirt at almost a 45 degree angle. Before I’d gotten very far, trying to follow game trails that led straight up the slope, I suddenly heard rocks tumbling, somewhere high above. I stared for a long time until I spotted either a big mule deer buck or a bull elk, backlit by sunlight at least a half mile away, farther up the ridge toward the peak. It was working its way clumsily down a slope just as bad as mine, dislodging rocks along the way. Not a good sign.

But I kept going, until I was only a couple hundred feet below the ridgeline. Then I looked down. Woah! How the hell was I going to get back down! I’d been in situations like this before, having to downclimb on loose rock at the angle of repose, and it is not a happy situation. I suddenly realized that the descent was actually going to be dangerous. The sun was going down again, I still had two thousand vertical feet of long, steep ridge to ascend, and I was not going to reach the top of this peak today. In fact I’d be lucky if I wasn’t injured on the way down from here.

I fell twice, but my hard-won leg and hip strength saved me from injury both times, so that I was able to lower myself to the ground in a more or less controlled manner. That’s why I do those exercises every week back at home! I was very careful, and eventually arrived back in that deep rocky gully, along which I proceeded slowly back to the Sidekick. Another failed day, but at least I got a little workout.

This trip was turning into something of an expensive bust. I’d spent a lot on gas and motel rooms. I’d had some adventures and seen some cool stuff. I’d done a lot of hurting and complaining. I was in a lot of pain now – my back and hip were throbbing again, in addition to the sharper pain in my arm, and even my neck was stiff and sore all the way into my shoulders. It was time to head home. I got back in the Sidekick and drove like hell through the most exotic country on earth, the canyons and mesas of southeast Utah, to the dismal little mesa town where I usually start these trips.

There, I checked into a motel that was once special. Designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, it had featured beamed vaulted ceilings and clerestory windows you operated with a crank on a pole, and the rooms were furnished with custom-built midcentury furniture. All that was long ago replaced by cheap drop ceilings and cheap garish decor, and more recently it had been essentially vandalized by the owners, with sloppy wiring and ragged holes through the walls. It wasn’t even that cheap, but choices are poor in that town – I’ve stayed at all of them. At least they have a bizarre Mormon version of Chipotle on the same block, where I got a healthy burrito.

I was falling asleep at 10pm when a knock came on my door. “Who is it?” I called hoarsely.

“Your neighbor. We were making popcorn and blew the power.”

“What can I do about that?”

“Our power comes from your room. There must be a reset button somewhere.”

I opened the door and a heavyset young guy loomed. “Can I come in?”

I looked around my cheesy room, cluttered with all the unpacked gear I need for my mornings and evenings. “I’m not sure about this.” I went back to look at the various extension cords and outlets along the wall. I motioned him to come in.

We both looked and couldn’t figure it out. Then I thought of the power strip I’d connected my computer to. We got down on the floor to look under the surviving midcentury built-in bench, and sure enough, it led through a crude hole in the wall over to his room. All we needed to do was turn the power strip back on, and hopefully he and his girlfriend could finish their popcorn, and I could go back to sleep.

Under the Rainbow

Wednesday morning I checked the weather forecast. I was hoping to drive all the way home today. And lo and behold, although the sky was still cloudless up here, at home it was supposed to rain.

And as I drove south through the huge Navajo reservation, storm clouds began to form ahead. And eventually rain fell, sporadically at first, then more heavily. I was hurting all the way, but happy to be going home, and happy about the rain.

Finally, driving through my beloved White Mountains from eastern Arizona back into New Mexico, I saw the rainbow. I often see rainbows up there. I pulled over to enjoy it, all the other traffic racing past toward more important things. Then I drove home, through more rain, and arrived at sunset, to turn up the furnace and the water heater and warm up leftovers from my last camping meal.

Challenges and Changes

I encountered many challenges on this trip, some of which were new, some of which were repeated from previous trips:

  • The conflict between traveling styles of me and my friend
  • My stress level, which is typically high due to factors beyond my control
  • Multiple sources of pain and disability which come and go unpredictably
  • The itinerary of my multi-week spring and fall trips takes me to multiple, widely separated places with long drives in between, and it’s hard to drive all day then set up camp and cook, then break camp and drive again the next day, let alone spend a day hiking, so I spend more time in motels and less time hiking
  • Problems with my new vehicle: solar heating through the big windows, intolerably rough ride, heavy clutch hard on knee and foot, inadequate sun visors, poor door seals (doors flex in frame)
  • Unpredictable climate to adapt to, with unseasonable cold and winds
    • Sleeping out in strong wind
    • Camping in freezing weather
    • Camping in deep, shaded canyons in cold weather
  • Bathing while camping
  • Camping gear which is cheap, worn out, inefficient, inadequate, or high-maintenance
  • Those of us who sleep outside on the ground can’t really leave our base camp for the day to explore the area by vehicle, because our camp only consists of a sleeping bag on a tarp, which many intruders would interpret as abandoned. That’s one of many advantages enjoyed by RV, trailer, and tent campers.

It’s like I work really hard at home, and then go out and punish myself on what most people would expect to be a vacation. I know I need to make some changes, and I have a growing list of ideas. I know they won’t come cheap, so deciding is not easy. My friends have been generous with their advice, and sometimes quick to anger if I raise the slightest objection. Non-camping friends typically just wonder why I do it at all, recommending some sort of comfortable indoor retreat. After all, if I’m really an artist, why don’t I just focus on my creative work, which gets interrupted and delayed by these long trips? But my camper friends understand that it’s a lifelong part of me that I can’t abandon.

Speaking of art, two things that have always limited me are my aesthetic sense, and my resistance to consumer culture. I’ve always dreamed of camping with all-natural, handmade gear that are in harmony with my surroundings. I’ve come up with natural-material designs for essential things like shelters, sleeping bags, and backpacks, but much more pressing needs always get in the way of actually making them. And now my body seems to need more comfort and ease, which seem to mean more investment in the consumer culture I despise. Few people seem to understand or sympathize with this.

Failing Society

Most of my friends are aware that I’m a critic of our dominant, European-derived culture and society and its institutions. Most people seem to accept the story and interpretation of our society that they were taught in school: we live in a democracy, a nation governed by and for the people, which is the result of centuries of progress from the despotic monarchies of Europe, the oppressive feudalism of medieval city-states, and the desperate savagery of primitive tribes.

But by questioning the fundamental assumptions, values, institutions, and habits that underlie our society and culture, and by taking radically different societies and cultures seriously and observing them carefully, I’ve come to see our “democratic nation” as simply a direct evolution of the capitalistic, imperialistic European global empires that arose during the so-called “Renaissance” and flourished during the so-called “Enlightenment” by violently conquering native people in distant places and ruthlessly exploiting their resources.

As a society, we have a passionate, irrational belief in technological progress, in the ability of “innovation” – new materials, products, and machines – to solve all of our problems and make us happy.

On these trips, while trying to reach intact natural habitats and experience rich, diverse natural ecosystems, I witness again and again the failures of our society, its fundamental beliefs and values: the habitats and ecosystems destroyed by dams and reservoirs – like the silting-up lake and the Bighorn Society’s sheep drinkers – the massive solar plants and wind farms, the devastating wildfires caused by failed scientific management, the toxic industrial farms and ranches enabled by corporate science, the trash we spread – like helium-filled plastic balloons – and the ruins we leave – again, as a result of corporate science – and the destructive invasive plants and animals – like tamarisk and feral burros. I see more and more people wasting huge amounts of fuel and other raw materials and energy sources driving massive RVs, trucks and trailers, ATVs and UTVs, to camp and hunt luxuriously in places where native people used to travel on their own two feet and make everything they needed from local materials by hand.

I hear people condemning me for “romanticizing the noble savage” while they praise science for eventually rediscovering the insights that native people have effectively practiced for thousands of years, like controlled burning of forests and brush. Despite all the harping of liberals about diversity and tolerance and the empowerment of exotic gender identities, we live in a time of near-universal conformity to dysfunctional institutions and behavior patterns, for example: consumerism, imperialism (patriotism, globalism, space exploration), and the belief in technological progress. The old adage still stands, regarding our society and its supposed advances: the Emperor truly has no clothes, and people are afraid to admit it.

Rocks, Landforms, and Roads

My rough-riding vehicle gave me a new perspective on the familiar geology of the Southwest, from the plutonic and volcanic mountains of the Mojave to the red and white sandstone mesas and canyons of the Colorado Plateau. Back roads in the Mojave, with their soft sand, loose dirt, and loose boulders, present a different challenge than the sandstone ledges of Utah.

Hiking the soft sand and gravel of washes and bajadas in the Mojave is becoming harder for my chronically injured hip, knee, and foot. It’s also harder for me to hike slopes off-trail in the increasingly prevalent burn scars of wildfires, where fallen snags create a maze of obstacles, and loss of canopy shade, tree roots, and brush has loosened both rocks and soil and created debris flows that are dangerous to cross.

Little or no monsoon rain in the areas where we traveled has contributed to what seems to be severe drought conditions, with so much dust on the roads that we were constantly breathing dust and trying to clear it off our vehicles and gear. My vehicle, especially, seems to have poor seals around the doors, so even with windows and vents closed a lot of it gets in.

Petroglyphs and Pictographs

I didn’t get to see much prehistoric rock writing or rock art on this trip, but I did get more insights and raise more questions about it.

Conventional archaeology has long interpreted petroglyphs and pictographs as forms of “art,” whereas many native people view it as a form of writing. After working in the internet industry as an information architect and user experience architect, making and communicating with graphical models, I concluded that much so-called “rock art” was actually created as maps or diagrams for communicating complex information. And that was reinforced on this trip. But there are many kinds of markings or paintings on stone, and many potential functions, from writing all the way to what we normally think of as art. The spiritual paintings of the Colorado Plateau seem more like art than writing to me – not that there’s a clear boundary between any of these functions.

Desert Oases

My scientist friends have taken me to many natural water sources over the years. Unfortunately, many scientists also take for granted the water sources developed by ranchers and hunters for specific species, which become a perpetual maintenance problem and may limit access by other species. To an artist, most of these developed water sources are repugnant.

The big oases that my friend and I visited on this trip were impressive, but in most cases they’ve been trashed by our society, and are under continual threat by the by-products of our culture, such as feral plants and animals. As our society and its institutions collapse, these habitats will continue to evolve as invasive species reach new equilibria with natives.

Venturing Underground

Despite my criticisms of industrial society, one of my favorite experiences from this trip will remain our exploration of a desert mine. Many native people saw the underground realm as the abode of spirits. I gained ecological insights through our discovery of grasshopper wings and bird nests deep in the mine.

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