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The Desert, November 2013

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

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

Thursday 11/14

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 11/15

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

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

Saturday 11/16

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

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

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

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

Sunday 11/17

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

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

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

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

Monday 11/18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 11/19

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

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

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