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Fall Trip 2019: Part 2

Sunday, November 10th, 2019: 2019 Trips, Colorado Plateau, Regions, Road 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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