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Vision Quest 2016: Mesquite Canyon

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

From this pass, the basin I’d entered from the beautiful canyon looked even nicer

The second day of the bighorn sheep survey focused on a drainage midway down the west side of the mountains. As on the first day, hikers would be dropped off at points to the north and south and gradually converge. The days were getting warmer, and the older, more experienced hunters maintained that sheep would rest during the day, so the group got up at 5 am and left before 6, leaving me alone in camp. I’d checked with them the night before, and they said they’d drive south at the end of the day, toward the final day’s destination, stopping somewhere to camp for the night. There was only one road south, and if I followed that, I’d eventually run into them.

So I slept in that morning, had a leisurely breakfast, and drove to the drainage they were converging on. It was an internal basin almost completely encircled by ridges, and I hadn’t been back there in over 20 years. Since the previous year, my curiosity had been focused on what I called the “Lost World”, the big southeastern basin, closed to vehicle traffic, and I believed that if I climbed a short canyon out of this place, to a low pass at its head, I’d get a view over into the Lost World. That was my modest goal for the day.

I drove the long sandy road into the encircled valley, passing one of the big white Fish & Game trucks and glassing in vain for the hunters, who were supposed to be somewhere nearby looking for sheep. I followed the old abandoned mine road up a narrowing wash toward the canyon I’d selected, until I reached some rocks my little truck couldn’t safely get over.

The day was warm, but I didn’t have far to go, and could expect shade from boulders or junipers once I got into the canyon. I loaded my pack and set off into new country I’d never hiked before.

This was a special place because it represented a gap in the range. The southernmost part of the mountains, a long and complex landscape in itself, was here neatly divided from the rest of the range by a fairly broad gap that became visible as I hiked into it. As before, I spooked both jackrabbits and cottontails as I followed the wash. Then I cut east across the gently rising bajada toward the mouth of my canyon.

No one on earth had the slightest idea where I was, or where I was going, but I felt that my plans were modest enough that I wasn’t taking much of a risk. And if the sheep group got worried, they could follow my tracks.

I dropped from the bajada into the wash coming out of the canyon, and came upon a grove of big desert willows, in the middle of which was a shaded hollow. Although the air temperature was mild, my body was overheating in the desert sunlight, and I stopped for a drink and some rest, still needing to catch up on the sleep I’d missed two nights ago.

As I got closer to the mouth of the eastern canyon, the main wash veered north. Suddenly I came upon a broad mesquite thicket, the biggest I’d ever seen in these mountains. Back home in New Mexico, mesquite grows like a weed, but here, it’s a rarity. The seed pods were prized by native people, and the wood made good tools. I’ve always looked upon it as a lucky find.

The wash continued to lead me northward, away from my destination, until I arrived at the mouth of a new canyon leading up into the north. Awesome but inviting, this canyon climbed between monumental walls of looming dark granite. At ground level, big, rounded and weirdly sculpted granite boulders lay half-buried in level, walkable white sand. I was faced with a moment of decision; looking up into this new canyon, I quickly abandoned my original plan.

The first thing I discovered here was sheep tracks, fresh since last week’s rain. It began to feel like the same sheep were preceding me everywhere I went. Then I came upon invasive tamarisk, but not the new growth we had in the northernmost drainages, which have been repeatedly cleared. These were old, long-established trees, with root stock a foot in diameter. Yet they were patchy in this canyon, instead of forming monoculture thickets, replacing native shrubs and trees, like they had on our land.

The tamarisk didn’t dismay me because this new canyon continued to unfold other surprises. During the lowest stretch, it was an easy walk, but every hundred yards or so there was a dogleg, revealing a new, higher stretch. Suddenly a patch of livid green appeared high up the eastern slope – another mesquite thicket, indicating water squeezing through a contact in the rock. I climbed up and examined it, but couldn’t find any surface water. Yet this must be a well-watered drainage, to support both mesquite and tamarisk.

I came to a pour-off, a jumble of house-sized boulders blocking the canyon, and had to climb around it, backtracking and struggling up and across a steep slope of loose rock and gravel. I ended up hundreds of feet above the canyon floor and decided to keep climbing, until I reached a place where I could look down into the next stretch of canyon. There I saw more groves of mesquite, sharing the canyon floor with patches of old-growth tamarisk. Could tamarisk reach an equilibrium state, sharing the drainage with native vegetation instead of crowding it out? This was truly a place of mystery, with its dark, looming walls and white, sandy floor.

The ridge above me, where I’d hoped to get a view into the Lost World, seemed to be getting higher and farther away, so I climbed back down to the canyon floor, where I encountered another, deeper, dogleg, with a north-facing cliff overhang that provided a large area of daylong shade. Here, I stopped for lunch, comfortable in the sand. What an amazing place! I’d found many beautiful places in these mountains, but this was surely one of the best.

Continuing north, I finally came upon surface water – a half-pint seeping into a rock hollow, it would soon dry up, but for now it supported wildlife. I climbed over or around more steep pour-offs or boulder blockages, discovering more thickets of mesquite, but leaving the tamarisk behind, until suddenly I topped out at the head of the canyon, emerging into a bowl-like basin in the sky, encircled by rugged ridges, with the wash splitting in front of me into two tributaries, each with a level white-sand floor beckoning in opposite directions, like a T-intersection.

Taking the right-hand tributary, I soon came upon another big thicket of mesquite. Ahead of me, I could see a low pass at the head of this wash, so I clambered eagerly up it, thinking it would give me a view into the Lost World to the east.

But after a quarter mile or more of climbing, I found myself looking down into another canyon system that curved away to the right. And in the far distance, over a shoulder of ridge, I could see the dry lakes to the south of the mountain range. South! How could I be looking south? This new right-curving canyon seemed to be dropping to the west, when I should be looking east! I was totally disoriented. Then I turned around and noticed a government survey benchmark, at the foot of a shrub, at the side of the low pass. What a coincidence – just as I found myself confused about directions, a team of surveyors from 90 or more years ago had left me a sign that I could check against my map, later, to figure out where I’d been.

From this pass, the basin I’d entered from the beautiful canyon looked even nicer. In addition to the wash opposite this one, there was another long drainage that came down between them. You could stay up here all day, in this secret, hidden world, just exploring. Both perennial shrubs and annual forbs were blooming here, and were bigger than elsewhere in the mountains – salazaria, Mojave sage, encelia. I returned and walked up the opposite wash, passing the biggest creosote bushes I’d seen anywhere around, and all the big shrubs were in bloom.

I’d come farther than planned, and I needed to allow time to look for the sheep survey group after returning to my truck. There was hours of potentially bad road to search before dark. So I had to start back, wondering when I’d get a chance to return and enjoy this new place more deeply.

The walk back was fairly easy. At the truck, I checked my topo maps and found that at that low pass, up in the sky, where I found the benchmark, I’d actually come full circle, looking back into the head of the canyon I’d originally planned to hike. It actually originated out of the north, so that my impression of the dry lake had been correct. To get an eastern view into the Lost World, I’d need to climb much higher over the wall encircling the high basin to the north. What a complicated topography – it even looked confusing on the map!

That evening, I drove and drove, farther and farther south, deeper into the desert and farther from paved roads and towns, with no sign of the group. The sun was going down as I drove past the southern tip of the mountain range, risking my truck in the deep sand of big arroyos where the road had been washed out by flash floods. Looking anxiously for the road I expected the group to take on the following morning, a road I’d never used or seen myself, I drove farther and farther up the low basin on the opposite side of the range, the mountains far away to my north. As night fell, I glimpsed a faint track out of the corner of my eye, behind one of the tall power transmission towers that lined the side of this utility road. I got my truck turned around, bounced it over a low bank of sand, and pulled off between the regular ranks of creosote bush in this otherwise desolate alluvial basin. The moon hung, nearly full, above the mountains to the east, as I warmed up leftovers for dinner, then went to bed, alone.

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