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Vision Quest 2016: Reading the Ground

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

I tested myself by following my own tracks back to camp

Driving across northwestern Arizona the previous afternoon, I’d encountered heavy rains, and crossing the river before nightfall I’d seen a low ceiling of dark clouds ahead, hanging over the rugged mountains of the Mojave. But this afternoon, the sky had cleared, with only scattered clouds, as I parked my truck at Cowboy Camp. I started walking up the sandy wash past the big bend, and soon crossed animal tracks from the north, cut through the dry surface into wetter sand.

They were tracks of adult bighorn, and they’d been forcefully pounded, forming a ragged circular pattern in two places a few yards apart. Last summer in the mountains of eastern Arizona, I’d been lucky to see, for the first time, wild sheep jumping up and down in place, which John says is “play” behavior, so these tracks spoke to me in a way they couldn’t have before. Assuming it had rained yesterday or last night, these sheep had been here since, perhaps only hours before me. Scanning the area, I guessed there had been two sheep, perhaps yearling males. Backtracking down the wash, I crossed another set of tracks, including those of a lamb – probably a lamb and its mother. The adult tracks appeared again, high above the Gulch, in sand leading to the water hole fed by the seep in the narrow side canyon.

The recent rain gave me an unexpected opportunity to sharpen my tracking skills, since animals were more active now, and there was a clear contrast between fresh tracks and old, eroded tracks. I’d been encouraged in the weeks before the trip, when back home in New Mexico, I’d encountered my first mountain lion, then identified his tracks shortly afterward, near where I’d seen him last, associated with the prints of a group of javalina. The day after my arrival in the Mojave, I set out across the central basin into the main wash, and came upon a mountain bike track – illegal in the wilderness – and eroded footprints which I assumed were my friends who had visited only a week earlier. Near them were the tracks of a large dog, and farther up the wash, a large cat track, maybe a lion, and fox prints.

After the difficult climb to the Plateau, one of the toughest climbs in these mountains, I encountered one set of old footprints in the occasional sandy patches of the narrow gully. I’ve found solitary footprints there on some earlier visits, but not often. Here there was water, standing, the color of Lipton Tea, in hollows lined with patches of dead algae, sometimes wearing a thin scum, or sluggishly flowing over the lips of rock barriers. Later, talking this over with scientist friends, I concluded that there had been some good rain early in the winter, followed by gradual drying, through unseasonably warm weather that supported the kind of algal growth we usually see in late spring. This week’s rain had stirred up that dead algal mat. The old, eroded footprints had probably been made during the past two months. A single adult male hiking across this remote, hidden, hard-to-reach plateau, maybe familiar from previous visits, but possibly just drawn by the landmark pinnacle at its head. And there were recent sheep tracks, but only from one or two adults. I was reading a detailed story and drawing a picture from evidence on the ground that might’ve been mute before.

From then on, I was always looking for tracks, and reading more from them. In every wash and every drainage, I found the fresh tracks of one or two adult sheep, showing that individual sheep were responding to this week’s rain by ranging widely in search of fresh forage. I frequently walked jackrabbits or cottontails up from the big washes of the bajada, and their tracks were everywhere, along with those of ground squirrels.

During the Fish & Game survey of bighorn sheep, when I was doing my shorter hikes as the others were converging over peaks and ridges into a central drainage, I’d occasionally come upon the small knobby prints of the young women’s hiking boots and puzzle out where they’d come from and where they were going. And later, walking down the basin to the southern ridge, I followed vehicle tracks showing how the local rancher had driven his big contractor’s truck deep into the wilderness area and far up three tributary drainages in succession, places that hadn’t been driven in decades, insteading of walking like me. Holding the grazing allotment, he claims a legal right to violate the federal roadless area prohibition, but there are actually no cattle and no range improvements to check over here. He’s a younger man than me, in good shape, and isn’t recovering from hip surgery. Like so many, he just can’t be bothered to walk when driving is possible, and it broadcasts a message of disrespect to the public.

More than a hundred miles to the north, exploring a long, winding drainage between low foothills into a hidden basin, I came upon fresh sign of cattle a mile before I spotted them, way ahead of me, spooking and stampeding up a steep slope. Then I came upon a burn area – clear of living shrubs but dotted with the charred stumps of creosote and the fallen husks of Mojave yucca, broad evidence of a wildfire – but knowing that burned stumps can last for decades or even centuries, and perennial vegetation can’t easily regenerate in soil trampled by cattle, I had no way of judging its age.

Whereas the evidence of surface water may evaporate quickly after a rain, desert life that’s invisible most of the time will appear miraculously and persist longer.

Finally, returning from the last hike of my trip, I looked for the tracks I’d left on my way out, improbably found them in the midst of miles of open space, and tested myself by following them back, despite temporarily losing them over and over again as they vanished across stretches of bedrock. The desert was teaching me a form of literacy far more profound and essential than we learn in school, because it transcends our species and bonds us with our partners in the ecosystem.

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