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Vision Quest 2016: Joy of Surviving

Monday, June 6th, 2016: Mojave Desert, Trips, Vision Quest 2016.

I was fresh and motivated and made it to the top in good time

Drinking the Plateau

I loaded the old Swiss Army surplus rucksack with the minimum gear I’d need for an overnight without cooking, including only enough water for a day hike, since I expected to find water up there after the recent rains. Then I set out across the basin for the plateau.

I walked over humped fingers of bajada under a clearing sky, through breezy air that was pleasantly cool, avoiding dark patches of cryptobiotic soil, until I reached the big wash I could follow all the way to the base of the dry waterfall. It was all good walking with the sand of the wash firm under my boots.

As I reached the point in the wash where the banks were lower and I could see the ridges completely surrounding the basin, my mind was still on water, and it occurred to me that this exposed landscape of stone and sediment is a hard country to find water in, because it seems to break the rules people make elsewhere. Here, surface water may be found in high places with no vegetative indicators, for example in a deep tinaja or pothole in a rock outcrop. Water may pool on the surface in the bottom of a gully, simply because it hits a contact with impermeable stone, while above and below, the gully is bone dry. Trees and thickets may show livid green while the water table beneath them remains inaccessibly deep, because their taproots reach fifty or a hundred feet down.

Walking up jackrabbits, cottontails, and coveys of quail along my way, I reached the base of the cliffs. Without a trail, this would be my first real test of hiking since my hip surgery. And I made it even harder by going light on my left leg, to relieve the past year’s chronic tendonitis, and overloading the recovering right side. The overloaded right leg felt weaker, which made the already brutal climb feel super hard. But I was fresh and motivated and made it to the top in good time. There, I found a thin ribbon of water strung over the rounded, polished granite ledges of the dry waterfall, fed by tea-colored pools in the cavities of the rock.

I’ve known this plateau intimately, alone and with friends, for almost 25 years, and traversing it brings me, again and again, to favorite places, like the sacred sites of a pilgrimage. Today I was heading for the old Indian campsite I discovered near the head of the plateau, and I was reminded that it was Grey Fox who’d led me to discover it long ago, as she tried to divert me from her den.

Midway, I found a narrow place in the rock where water drained from a small cavity over a tiny waterfall into a large pool. The running water seemed clearer than the tea-colored pools, and I refilled my water bottle and used the SteriPEN on it. In the bottle, the water showed the pale green of single-celled algae.

I drank the mountain water eagerly as I continued up to the campsite. Reaching the top of the roughly terraced bank below camp, I saw a golden eagle hunting in the cliff wall at the head of the plateau.

When I reached the boulder alcove where the Indian girls had mixed their face paint, my body felt thrashed by the climb. I unrolled my sleeping bag in the boulder shade and lay there thinking I was insane to be doing hikes like this without more rehab, especially at the very beginning of my trip. This hike had seemed harder than ones I’d made in the year before surgery. As a friend had pointed out before I left home, these solo trips into the wilderness, without a plan or schedule, and without any means of communicating with the outside world, were very dangerous for me and saddled my friends and family with anxiety over where I was and whether I was safe. I realized I’d failed to check my backpacking checklist before starting out, although I didn’t seem to have forgotten anything important.

I rested in the shade as the beautiful waterfall song of canyon wrens tumbled from the cliffs above. Occasionally I’d get up and look around for Indian artifacts, colorful rock flakes and dull potsherds. My belly started to swell and cramp, and I began to wonder if the mountain water I’d drank contained giardia that had survived the SteriPEN. The sun sank in the west, my stomach didn’t get better, and I started to envision being really sick up here, alone and without drinkable water. I decided I’d rather be sick walking back to the truck than lying up here, five rugged miles away. It was 6 pm, I should have just enough daylight to finish the dangerous downclimb, and if I survived that, there would be plenty of moonlight to follow the big dry wash, with its reflective white granite sand, back to Cowboy Camp.

So I packed up and retraced my steps, back down the cliff, across the plateau through the narrow, meandering gully with its dozens of obstacles. Struggling through willow thickets, over boulder piles and pouroffs, mostly in shade now, to the top of the dry waterfall, 500 feet above the basin, with a half hour of sunlight left. And climbing carefully down the steep wall of loose rock, lowering myself from narrow ledge to narrow ledge, where a slip could impale me on yucca blades or bounce me hundreds of feet to my death. The sun set beyond the western ridges just as I reached the bottom, and realized my stomach cramps were gone.

Night fell as I followed the moonlit trail of the big, sandy wash. It was full dark as I reached the lower stretch of the wash, exhausted, so I couldn’t spot the shortcut over the bajada that would’ve saved me a half hour or so. By the time I reached camp going the long way around, I had walked ten miles round trip with my overnight pack, by far the most work that hip had been asked to do since surgery.

Maybe algal wastes in the mountain water had upset my stomach, rather than living parasites. I had a cold supper of leftovers, and drank two beers, twice my usual, before turning in under the bright half moon. I was asleep long before it set behind the peak above camp.

The Longest Nights

On the following Monday night, the moon was near full and still rising in the east when I crawled into my sleeping bag after my long talk with John. The dozen or so members of the wild sheep survey were already sleeping on the other side of our circle of pickup trucks. I love to sleep on desert pavement like this, exposed in all directions.

We’d had a great talk, and I was a little buzzed, but it was late. I watched the moon and the stars, I turned on my side, I turned on my belly, I tried the other side. I wasn’t sleepy in any position. The hours went by and the heavens swiveled painfully slowly toward the west. I had sleeping aids packed away, but didn’t think to use them. Eventually the moon set and more stars emerged. I turned over. I turned over again. I was waiting for the Milky Way to rise in the east. Finally it appeared, and then the dark began to fade way over there as the sun prepared to rise on a new day.

My mind wasn’t racing, I wasn’t worried about anything. I just watched, resting my eyes occasionally, never falling asleep until dawn, when our camp came alive again, and I crawled out of bed, exhausted. I ended up hiking six miles up an unfamiliar canyon that day.

The Monday after that, I was high up on a mountain, a hundred miles to the north. I’d been up late again, talking with Dave the archaeologist, the cabin brothers, the girls from Santa Fe and a Navajo carpenter. My sleeping bag lay under a juniper, wrapped in a plastic tarp against the expected cold. As always when camping out, I was super comfortable. Really even better than at home on my expensive mattress. But again, I couldn’t fall asleep. There didn’t seem to be any reason for it this time, either. I tossed and turned. The temperature dropped into the 30s and I was too comfortable to get up and take a pill. I watched the sky, and it finally began to brighten in the east.

After that second sleepless Monday, I drove 50 miles to the north and did an eight mile round trip hike into an unfamiliar canyon.

The third Monday night of my trip, I was camping on my land again, and the pattern held, even after a long hike. When I’d laid there for two hours with no sign of sleepiness, I gave up and took an Ambien. During the remaining half hour before I finally fell off, I happened to be facing east when a meteorite caught fire there, leaving an incandescent trail to the horizon.

Bush 1, Tire 0

My little old low-clearance rear-wheel-drive pickup truck was meeting its match on this trip. To gain traction in sandy washes, I’d lowered the tire pressure to 16 psi all around, so the clearance was even lower than usual, and again and again, on the long-abandoned mining tracks that we call “roads” in these mountains, the undercarriage had been slammed and dragged across bedrock.

The evening after the solo hike on which I’d discovered Mesquite Canyon, I drove and drove, farther and farther south, deeper into the desert and farther from paved roads and towns, looking for the wild sheep survey group. At the south end of the range, 50 miles from the highway, I found that the graded road to the salt-mining settlement of Milligan had been washed out by flash floods. The tire tracks ahead of me detoured through the deep sand of big arroyos.

The sun was setting, so I just kept pushing my little truck, making it through low-lying Milligan and still farther down the alluvial fan toward the salt marshes. Driving downhill in sand is not so hard, but once I found the northbound powerline road, I’d be driving uphill in sand for a dozen miles or so.

There I was on a road I hadn’t driven in 25 years, racing the night and looking for the turnoff I expected the sheep group to take in the morning, a road I’d never used myself. Comparing the odometer with the map and glancing west in the growing darkness, where the hundred-foot-tall skeletons of transmission towers accompanied the road north one after the other like the Martians in War of the Worlds, I’d gone farther than expected when I suddenly noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a faint vehicle track, back in the creosote scrub, and I braked slowly to a stop just past the tower access pullout.

It was a trick turning around in the narrow road with its high banks, and then getting up enough speed to bump over the bank onto the access road, but when I drove past the base of the tower, I found a vehicle track leading back into the desert toward the now-black shadow of the mountains, which were silhouetted against the last light.

The moon, nearly full, had risen in the east. I camped there near the transmission tower, in the midst of creosote flats that stretched all the way to the next mountain range, warming up some leftovers for dinner. In the morning I was enjoying coffee and granola when the last of the sheep group showed up in their big Fish & Game truck: Paige, John and Amy. It turned out I’d found the right road, and they invited me to join them. I didn’t want to hold them up, so I said I’d follow at my own pace and explore the area, to join them at their truck at the end of the day.

Instead, a half hour after they left, I blew a tire, for the first time in over 20 years. It happened the silliest way, only a mile from my camp. The road there was smooth and level through firm gravel, but it was seldom used, and the low crown had been colonized by creosote and other shrubs. The sidewall of my left rear tire had been punctured by the projecting, broken-off branch of a miniscule shrub.

I was 60 miles from the highway and 100 miles from the nearest auto service, which was in Needles. I’d already passed through Needles once and sure didn’t want to see that dying town again until absolutely necessary, but this appeared to be the time, if I could make it there, over 60 miles of rough sand, gravel, and rocks, on a temporary spare.

The days had been getting hotter, and this was the lowest elevation I’d reached since arriving in the desert, so it was even hotter here, and my mind wasn’t in top form. First, I set the jack under the frame instead of under my leaf-sprung rear axle, and wondered why I had to raise the jack to its limit. It wasn’t until I’d got the tire off that I realized I couldn’t get the jack high enough to put the spare on. So I had to go off looking for a big enough rock to prop the brake drum up while moving the jack. Not many rocks in this part of the desert.

But I eventually found one, and then spent another half hour trying to figure out how to get the spare out from under the truck bed, since I’d never used it before. Then, once I’d moved the jack, raised the axle higher, and mounted the spare, I realized I’d be much better off with a real tire on the rear driving wheel, so I removed the spare, propped the brake drum on a rock again, moved the jack to the front and replaced my right front tire with the tiny temporary spare.

In all, it took me two hours to do all this, and I did not feel particularly deserving of the dominion of the earth promised me in Genesis. I wrote a note telling the sheep group what had happened, found a piece of scrap wood under the tower, and used a rock to pound my duct-taped sign into the middle of the road facing the mountains.

But whereas the big tire had been brought down by a shrub, the little tire held up over 60 miles of rocky road and 40 miles of Interstate Highway. In Needles, I spent almost an hour getting to know an old black dude as he laboriously searched online for a replacement tire, until at the end I felt like the tire shop was my family. I spent another low-grade night in sad old Needles, missing my sleeping bag under the stars, and my new tire arrived the next morning, when I enjoyed a further hour of family drama as the shop owner harshly abused his son-in-law, who was trying to mount my tire in the midst of constant interruptions by his young wife, visiting from a block away to complain about the kids. I wished I could have helped them all.

Running for Life

I may not have had a plan when I came to this desert, but I seem to have had a strategy: “Hey, I survived that! Let’s see if I can survive this!

After leaving my archaeologist friend and his cabin restoration project way up in the mountains, I was on my way to meet up with Jef, the herpetologist, in Las Vegas. But that would be hours away, in the evening, so I decided to head up to a mountain range Jef had introduced to me long ago when we were surveying wild sheep together. On a long, difficult hike he’d taken me into a spectacular canyon that was unlike anything I’d seen in the desert. I didn’t have a topo map for that area, and too much time had passed for me to recognize the terrain, but I figured it was worth a try. Also, the storm of the night before had dumped snow on all the mountains to the north, and I was anxious to see it closer, and find water.

It was a long drive down into a basin and up the other side on a well-graded road I could drive fast, at least until I spotted a snake asleep in the road ahead. This was the road where Jef had been forced to kill a dozen or more jack rabbits because they were literally streaming across the road at night. I got the snake out of the way, but when I reached the turnoff for the south side of the mountains, instead of the lonely wilderness I remembered, I found a parking area full of new SUVs and a BLM information kiosk. And in the creosote scrub beyond the kiosk, three young women wandering around, staring at the ground. I went over to meet them; they turned out to be biologists from the Needles office looking for rare plant seeds. I told them I’d been shown a lot of rare plants last weekend by the most experienced botanist in the desert, but they were neither impressed nor interested. And this was their first visit here, so they couldn’t help me find my canyon.

The surrounding landscape seemed vaguely familiar but still mysterious. The Spring Mountains, just visible to the northeast, wore a heavy coat of dazzling snow that almost made me feel like I was in the high desert of central Asia glimpsing the Hindu Kush. I drove the side road back over a pass onto the high end of the alluvial fan south of the range, looking north trying to spot my canyon amidst the confusion of ridges and peaks. I passed a big group of tourists camping right next to the road. This place, once remote and wild, now seemed to be competing with Yellowstone or Yosemite.

I could see from the map that this road led farther and farther south, away from the mountains, so at some point I would just need to park and traverse on foot. The first opening I could see in the mountains to the north seemed like it might lead to the mouth of my canyon, so I pulled off at the first place I could find that commanded a view, loaded up my rucksack and started walking. Before long I came upon an abandoned mining road that led me around an outlying ridge, across a deep arroyo, and up a long valley between ridges. Ahead, I could see the valley turning west around another low ridge – maybe that would lead me in.

Miles later, completely cut off from the outside world, I walked into a big interior basin and came upon fresh cattle tracks. Not a good sign. And when the abandoned road I was following took a turn away from the mountains, I left it and hiked across country toward the head of the basin, and finally saw that this couldn’t be my canyon. But I was here, and I might as well explore it. I just had to keep an eye on the time and start back with plenty left for my rendezvous with Jef, who was still a long drive away in Vegas.

The basin was slightly domed and broken up by many low washes cutting diagonally across my path. Invasive, destructive bromus grass spread by the cattle covered the ground, and I suddenly realized that the red tint all over the surrounding hills was due to a carpet of invasive bromus. I came upon an old burn area, where bromus had encouraged the spread of a wildfire that had killed off all the larger shrubs, and cattle trampling had prevented their regeneration. This whole basin was in terrible shape.

Then I spotted the cattle, still a mile ahead of me but spooked and running uphill. I glassed them and saw they were a longhorn mix. Maybe some would break a leg running.

I came to a big, deep arroyo lined with desert willow, the only pretty spot I’d found so far. I had to skirt it to get to the head of the basin, where I hoped to get a view to the north up the canyon whose mouth I could see there. My available time was up, but I didn’t want to leave with only a half mile to go.

It was rough going from there, and when I got to the mouth of the canyon, I saw more cattle, a hundred yards in, just as they spotted me and began to run uphill. I stood there taking pictures of some cool rock outcrops to the south, thinking that was probably the way to get to my long-lost canyon. And when I turned to face north again, I saw another cow. Except this one wasn’t running away. I had my field glasses around my neck, and by the time I got them focused, I could see it wasn’t a cow, it was a bull, and it was charging me.

This was only my third encounter with a bull on the open range, in over 25 years. The first time was on my Paiute skills course, as part of a group of eight young people in peak condition, when we left a forest and began crossing a big meadow where cattle were grazing. Tom, our leader, spotted a bull watching us from the opposite side of the meadow. Tom was physically imposing and normally exuded total confidence and fearlessness, but he immediately ordered us back to the trees and led us on a long detour to avoid the bull. Even so, we could see it following us in parallel across the meadow, keeping an eye on us until we were no longer a threat.

The second encounter happened the very first time I explored my desert mountains, looking for land to buy. I’d gotten my car stuck in a very remote place, given up and started walking out, then figured out a solution, and ended up hiking away from my vehicle, a couple of miles up the bajada, to spend the night under a juniper.

In the morning, on the way back, I discovered that a huge Brahma bull was stalking me on the other side of the shallow arroyo, about 20 yards away. When I stopped, he stopped. When I walked forward, he walked forward. I did not think running would be a good idea, so I just kept walking and watching him out of the corner of my eye, trying to appear like Mr. Casual out for a Sunday promenade. As I got nearer the car, the wash got wider, leading us farther apart, and he lost interest and wandered off.

But today, I had no choice, I had to run. There was nothing to climb on, no escape terrain, and we were both on the same side of the deep gully I’d been skirting. My route back was like the ultimate obstacle course, up and down broken land and around small boulders and dead yuccas, and as I ran I was looking for a big stick, something to defend myself, but the fire had eliminated the larger shrubs and all the sticks I saw were rotten. The ground was too rough to safely look over my shoulder as I was running, but suddenly I saw a big stick and leaned to pick it up. It was also rotten and hard to hold onto. My heart was pounding so loud that if the bull were right behind me I probably couldn’t have heard him. Stick in hand, I stupidly tried to start running again at the same time as trying to look back, and my thigh rammed into an unseen boulder, the hip I’d had surgery on wrenched under me, and I started to tumble forward over the rock.

There was a split second of “Dude, this is it, you’re fucked” but my adrenaline ratcheted a little higher and I put my other hand on the rock, stayed upright, and managed to look back before checking whether my hip was damaged.

At first I couldn’t see anything, and then I saw him above me on the opposite bank of the deep gully. He was much closer to me but he wasn’t running any more. He was just following me in parallel, like the Brahma bull had. He had actually put a barrier between us but was signaling his dominance and vigilance by climbing and getting some elevation on me.

Still, he was closer now. My hip was sore but seemed to work okay, so I resumed moving away, walking as fast as I could rather than running. Every time I stopped to look back, the gully between us was getting wider, so he was getting farther away. But still watching.

Eventually I lost sight of him. My heart was still racing, but now, instead of terrified, I felt fantastic. I congratulated myself on saving time by running, so I had a better chance of making my rendezvous with Jef in Las Vegas.

Halo of Sunlight

In addition to the traditional Paiute gear that I’d packed for the trip but hadn’t used yet, there was one other thing I hadn’t used: a baggie of magic mushrooms. I hadn’t tripped in many years, and I would’ve planned to make these a highlight of my trip except for one circumstance: the friend who gave them to me, several years ago, said they’d made another person sick, so he didn’t know if they were good or not.

That’s an odd thing to say about mushrooms, since it’s common for people to vomit after swallowing them, often just because they taste bad. The gift put me in an awkward position, so I’d just stashed them away and forgotten about them until now. I was also unsure if I was emotionally or psychically ready to take a hallucinogen, after the trauma and stress of the past year. But they had to be pretty stale by now; even any potential bad effects should be mellowed out, right?

I wasn’t really thinking about them until I approached my mountains for the last time, with thunderstorms building all around, and drove into that rare experience, rain in the desert, which even some of my desert-loving friends haven’t had yet. I was intending to hike off into the rain-drenched wilderness looking for an Indian campsite. If this wasn’t a good time to try the shrooms, what was?

I started out with about a third of the bag, which, if fresh, would normally be enough to get me raving high. An hour later, I’d found the Indian camp site, but still didn’t feel anything special, so I took a little more, and kept exploring. I was going to walk in a big circle, about six miles total, across the most botanically diverse part of the mountains, easy ground to walk on, with only a few hundred feet of elevation gain. I had found pottery shards and stone tools, and halfway through my hike I found a spectacular multi-level cavity inside a tumble of house-sized granite boulders. I ate some more mushrooms, and eventually, as the sun lowered, backlighting the cactus with an iridescent halo, I felt it.

It was very mild, similar to what Katie and I had experienced when taking small doses of acid and looking for rock art in remote wonderlands of the Colorado Plateau. Sensations, especially vision, were heightened, and I smiled and laughed and spent way more time than usual inspecting plants and taking pictures. The Mojave bajada in springtime, after a rain, really is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but we civilized humans are usually too uptight, distracted, and stressed out to be present, to fully appreciate it. My timing was perfect.

Joy of Surviving

One important reason why I left my hometown in Indiana was that everyone there had me convinced I was a coward, a fundamentally weak person. That was because I was smaller than most people, and our local culture was a bullying culture, in which the strong were encouraged to dominate the weak. I was constantly being threatened, chased, or beat on by bigger kids, all through childhood.

My mostly absent dad unintentionally reinforced my timidity. He was huge, had a terrible temper, and compensated for his absence by intimidating the shit out of me. He took my brother and I camping every couple of years, but taught us that nature was dangerous. A camping trip required careful planning and loads of expensive gear that took lots of time to set up and maintain. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s, exploring the arid Southwest with Katie, that I began to overcome my fears. She was utterly fearless outdoors, and I began to learn from her, until at some point all my fears evaporated.

I’ve made that dangerous climb to the plateau and back as many as 20 times during the past two decades, and all but four of those trips were solo. I didn’t start out wanting or planning to visit the desert alone, and I always wish I had company, but I’ve seldom been able to find a companion who has the free time or is as motivated as I am.

So, unexpectedly, I’ve discovered that I really enjoy the feeling of putting myself out there and surviving some threat or danger, because that’s when you feel most alive, and most grateful for being alive. And although I’m not generally an addictive person, I’ve probably come to crave that feeling.

Of course, there are many ways to get it in our world. Most of them involve machines, like mountain bikes or cars or guns or jet fighter planes. The great thing about risking your life on foot in the desert is that if you fail, you’re in a beautiful place, and you become truly one with it. I’d sure hate to die in, or be killed by, a fucking machine.

That’s another opportunity I’m grateful to my desert for.

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