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Day of the Cosmos

Monday, November 28th, 2022: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Sapillo, Southwest New Mexico.

Last Sunday’s knee problem meant that this Sunday’s hike wasn’t guaranteed. I’d had to ice several times a day for three days just to get rid of the pain, and I assumed that the steep, hard-packed downhill stretches of last Sunday’s hike – over 4,000 vertical feet – were to blame. Previous knee problems had taken up to three months to resolve, so I was heartsick thinking I’d have to give up my beloved high-elevation hikes for the near future, and lose even more of the lung capacity I’d tried so hard to regain.

But I’d rested that knee for a solid week, and I wanted to try an all-day hike on fairly level terrain to see how it would hold up. The problem was, around here, whereas most of the mountains are public land, all the level ground is private – fenced cattle range. And the only level trails in the mountains are canyon-bottom trails, which either involve dozens of river crossings or have been severely damaged by monsoon floods.

Well into my second day of poring over maps trying to find a level hike, I remembered the hike I’d done over on the east side last winter, which started up the broad floodplain of a long but fairly shallow canyon. The average grade of the foothills there is only about 6 percent, with the canyon bottoms gaining even less. The Continental Divide Trail goes a couple miles up one of those canyons before climbing into the hills, and I saw a tributary canyon that extended an additional 4 miles without much elevation gain. Based on what I’d seen in that area, I should be able to bushwhack up its floodplain pretty easily, yielding up to 12 miles out-and-back of fairly level hiking. On new ground, inside the wilderness area, with no company and hopefully no livestock!

Another day of clear skies and freezing air. I was aware that the eastbound trails in this valley cross the big creekbed, but near enough to its head that it should be dry by now. What I didn’t expect was to find – within a few yards of the trailhead – a flood 12 feet wide and 6 inches deep, clear water flowing over grass. Probably runoff from irrigation upstream.

I thrashed my way downstream, through shoulder-high brush, looking for a place to cross, finally spotting a fallen log that felt solid. But to cross it I’d need a stick, which I found farther downstream – a dead lower branch of a small juniper.

Once across, I beat my way back to the trail, and could see an earthen dam across the mouth of the big canyon I was headed for, dimly remembering some kind of small reservoir on the map. The CDT led up the forested slope to the right of that dam, emerging behind it for a view of its mostly dry basin, filled with mud, gravel, and rocks from post-wildfire floods – a depressingly post-apocalyptic landscape.

That would be my route for most of the next two miles. The CDT did provide a few detours off the coarse debris flows and the uneven, hard-frozen mud of the brush-choked floodplain, but I used up a lot of time scouting for a path.

I’d brought a map, but it wasn’t detailed enough to clearly identify the side canyon I was targeting for my knee-friendly bushwhack. I passed one tributary, but didn’t think it was big enough so I kept going. After the first mile, the main floodplain narrowed and began winding back and forth between low cliffs of coarse volcanic conglomerate.

I’d used up so much time finding my way up that nasty debris flow, I was now an hour and a half into my hike and I still hadn’t found that side canyon. As the main canyon had narrowed, large cairns had appeared linking surviving segments of the CDT that shortcutted the bends of the canyon, in the shade of the canopy up on the banks above the streambed. The stream itself was intermittant, but flowed vigorously when aboveground.

The problem now was that the intact segments of trail were overgrown by the armpit-high stalks of my old nemesis, Cosmos parviflorus. As a genus, Cosmos is both a wildflower and a popular garden flower, but all species produce burrs – seed capsules – that stick to clothing and animal fur, which is how they’re spread. Cosmos provides a great learning experience about invasive plants! Although a few species are declared invasive by state governments, ornamental cosmos are still widely planted – my new neighbor has them all over her yard – and wild, native cosmos are spread by humans, livestock, and wild animals alike, to dominate large areas of disturbed habitat, such as trails, where they quickly become an irritant to the very animals that spread them.

I knew I’d spend the rest of my day accumulating and laboriously picking them off my clothing, but there was nothing I could do but forge ahead, trying to anticipate stands of cosmos and keep my arms raised.

The canyon bottom had been heavily trafficked by horses, and the frozen mud was deeply postholed, but whenever I crossed a sandy stretch of streambed I found the footprints of a couple of hikers who’d been up here in the past week or so.

Finally, about 2-1/2 miles up the narrowing, winding canyon, with the now-picturesque stream running aboveground and dark cliffs towering above, a cairn beckoned up the left slope and I realized I was at a crucial decision point. This was where the trail left the canyon and climbed to the ridge. If I wanted to protect my knee from a downclimb, I should just turn back and find that side canyon. But I didn’t want to turn back when I had a trail to follow and the hike was just getting interesting. Maybe it wouldn’t turn out to be a long, steep incline, and I could take it easy enough on the descent so as not to trigger my knee.

Unfortunately, the initial trail up the spur of this outlying ridge was the steepest part, with almost a 30 percent grade. But as a spur of the ridge, I knew it would become gradually gentler until it virtually leveled out at the top.

Most of the ground was covered with the hated volcanic cobbles, but these are easier to ascend on, so I continued in denial of how hard the descent would be. The biggest problem was that the farther I climbed, the more the trail was overgrown by armpit-high dead grasses and annuals, which hid the treacherous rocks underfoot and included copious amounts of cosmos. On some stretches, I could see a suggestion of trail ahead where someone or some animal had faintly trampled the dry vegetation, but these stretches were intermittant, and I often had to stop and scout for a route. The few cairns were thoroughly buried in vegetation and only appeared when you were right above them. I eventually concluded that nobody had been up this trail since the peak of the growing season, late in the monsoon. Local hikers largely avoid these famous national trails, so their use tends to be minimal except in spring when through hikers start their journey north.

Although the grade did gradually become gentler and gentler, the uphill trudge through dense overgrowth, over hidden rocks that continually tripped me, through an open woodland of pinyon, juniper, and oak that blocked my view over the surrounding landscape, felt interminable, even Sisyphean. At least I was in sunlight all the way – the ground was uniformly frozen and a dusting of snow remained under the low trees.

Suddenly, through a gap between trees to the east, I glimpsed the peaks of the range, white with snow! We hadn’t had a storm in town since September – how had this one missed us? It had to have been really recent – we’d had some clouds late in the past week – and I realized the peaks, reaching over 10,000′, were showing the snow more because their forest had been cleared by successive wildfires.

On a brief steeper section of trail I looked back for a view west, and glimpsed a big redtail hawk wheeling out of sight behind the forested ridgetop at my left. Then, a half hour farther up the ridge, I stopped and glanced back again, and saw the hawk perched at the top of a low snag, watching me from about 80 feet away, looking huge. By the time I got my camera out it had disappeared.

Finally the ground virtually leveled out, the dry vegetation transitioned to mostly low grasses, and the trail became even harder to follow – but as if in compensation, more cairns appeared, some tall enough to be visible above the grass.

Despite the general lack of views, the occasional stands of cosmos, and the treacherous rocky ground, the endless golden meadows dotted with low trees provided harmonious surroundings, and the sunlight kept me warm, so I was coming to enjoy this unplanned hike anyway. I knew the trail would eventually descend into more canyons and basins, but that was 8 miles in and I didn’t have enough time left in the day to do the whole thing. I figured I’d end with 6 or 7 miles one-way.

I could see a taller ridge looming ahead to my right, and what eventually happened was that I seemed to lose the trail as my ridge approached the base of the higher one. The forest became denser, and my faint trail branched into several even fainter possibilities, one of them leading downhill. I pursued each of them for a few dozen yards, only to reach obstacles where even the faint disturbances in the grass disappeared, and had obviously been created by game. So I tried the downhill option. In short stretches it almost looked like there was an old trail underneath the dry grass, but these traces faded so I finally stopped to call it a day, logging my position with my GPS unit.

These national trails seem to be cleared annually, and next year’s crew have their work cut out for them! But amazingly, when I checked the position at home that night, I found that against all odds I’d still been on the CDT, and had turned back at exactly the right spot, before the trail gets really steep again as it descends into a side canyon.

Returning to an open gate I passed through a half mile back, I noticed a huge bootprint in the frozen mud. Some big guy had been here at the end of the rainy season, probably right after the last storm in late September.

It was here that I became truly lost, and lost my cool for a while. After passing through the gate, the trail seemed really clear for a few dozen feet, then got really sketchy, especially since the woodland was denser here and much of the ground was in shade. I spent nearly a half hour pursuing several alternatives that gradually petered out after a few hundred yards. Each time, I retraced my steps to the gate, finally remembering how a sharp turn had immediately preceeded the gate itself. I finally relocated that sharp turn, and there was my trail – a faintly trodden path no more than 8 inches wide, barely visible in the shade of a juniper.

As expected, the descent over volcanic cobbles was really hard and really slow, but I’d given myself plenty of time and remained in a good mood. In fact, I realized that since returning from the desert, I wasn’t pressuring myself to accomplish marathons of distance and elevation, and hiking had become a pleasure again, instead of a trial.

Plus, the low angle light of late afternoon was highlighting the grasses, which were, if anything, more beautiful dead than alive.

I did get lost once more, and lost another 15 minutes pursuing alternatives, but as usual, eventually found a route that was confirmed by a hidden cairn.

By the time I reached the canyon bottom, it was mostly in shade. I was dreading the final stretch of debris flow where the trail disappeared, but the winding part, where the trail was largely intact, seemed to go on forever, with the canyon getting darker and colder all the way.

Interestingly, I found the bootprint of a hiker who’d come up the canyon today, after me, only going as far as the base of the trail to the ridge. He’d been wearing Merrill Moabs, the favorite lightweight hiking boot around here and the boot that had eventually triggered my chronic foot pain.

Eventually I did reach the debris flow, and lost the trail in the center of the floodplain, so I ended up fighting my way for hundreds of yards through dense, dry riparian brush, on uneven, partly thawed muddy ground. I missed the place where the trail past the earthen dam drops into the debris, and ended up having to climb over an abandoned fence past deep pools of standing flood water before reconnecting with the last of the trail out of the canyon.

At home, after checking alternate views on my online mapping platform, I found that this one is ironically named Rocky Canyon. And it hosted such a big debris flow because it meanders 17 or 18 miles from the northern crest of the range, descending 2,500′ on the way.

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Four Eagle Hike

Monday, November 21st, 2022: Hikes, Holt, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

It was time for my first hike in three weeks – after the hiatus of visiting family in the flatlands of a Midwestern city. Before that, I’d blissed out on the exposed rock and forever views of my beloved desert, so now that I was back home in southwestern New Mexico, I wasn’t anxious to bury myself in the forests and thickets of our local mountains.

The views being better on the west side, I decided to head over there and choose a trail while driving.

The temperature was in the low 20s and I had to scrape heavy frost off the windows before starting. A low haze hugged the landscape ahead – probably some effect of the cold. At the end of September, I’d discovered that most of the west side trails had been wiped out by flash floods, and the access road to another had been cut off by the same floods. Now, two months later, I hoped that road would’ve been fixed, so I took a chance and detoured about 16 miles up the dirt mesa road – only to find “Road Closed” and “Impassible” signs at the turnoff.

By the time I got back to the highway, the false start had delayed my day’s hike by an hour. Without much hope of success, I decided to do a “reconnaissance” hike on my old favorite trail, which leads up a canyon to a high saddle with views over the wilderness. I assumed the canyon part of the trail had been damaged by the floods, but at least I would find out how bad it was.

Entering the foothills on the highway, I suddenly saw a half dozen geese wheeling low overhead, on their way south. They looked really big – I’m used to seeing them much higher.

Starting the hike on the traverse into the canyon, I scanned the ridge above, on my left, as a possible alternative if I found the canyon too choked with flood debris. I figured I could return up the traverse and bushwhack up the ridge and see how far I got.

Then, on the final approach to the canyon bottom, a big black bird emerged from the bend below me. A friend has often been skeptical of my bird sightings, correcting me when I’ve misidentified eagles, so I’ve become insecure about bird identification, and reluctant to take pictures of what might be some more humdrum species. This bird wasn’t flying like a vulture, and its coloration wasn’t right for a raven, but I was still slow on the draw and failed to get a pic as it gracefully flapped its way past me.

I continued, and three minutes later another one emerged. This time I knew it had to be a golden eagle, and I was a little quicker with the camera. Two eagles! They must be migrating and had temporarily joined up here.

But after another three minutes, yet another eagle. Three! It was like scheduled flights leaving an airport. I was almost at the creek crossing in the canyon bottom when the fourth eagle emerged from the riparian canopy, following the first three. This one passed within 60′ of me, but wasn’t visible long enough for a photo. This was the third time I’d encountered a convocation of migrating eagles – it’d been at least a decade since the last.

And to my surprise, the canyon bottom, and its creek, showed no evidence of flooding. I wouldn’t need a bushwhacking alternative, but after the false start, I didn’t have enough time to go my usual distance on this trail. I would just hike 5 miles up to the viewpoint on the shoulder of the 9,700′ peak, but that was okay – it would be a “soft” resumption of my broken hiking routine.

Unusually, there had been two other vehicles – pickups – parked at the trailhead. And about 3 miles up the trail in the canyon bottom, I spotted a dog ahead, and then its owner appeared – a backpacker, probably in his 40s. We stopped to talk, and unlike many “outsiders” I’ve met on these trails, he seemed glad to meet me and reluctant to continue his descent. As he revealed his familiarity with the area, I assumed he was local.

He’d spent two nights up on the crest trail, but he wasn’t returning happy. He’d only made it as far as I’ve gotten on a day hike, and was surprised to find I’d gone that far, as he complained about the overgrowth and deadfall he had to fight his way through. He said it was just too much work to be worth it. He said the trail was much worse now than 2 years ago, when he’d gone almost twice as far.

We agreed that in the current wildfire regime, most wilderness trails are simply unmaintainable, and he wasn’t adapting well to the new normal. He said the only way to keep trails open now is with mechanized equipment. Local trail crews had applied for a permit to bring chain saws in the wilderness, but they’d been denied, which he seemed to think was a shame.

I didn’t think it was appropriate to touch on the issue with a frustrated stranger, but afterward I revisited the question of whether human access to wilderness is good or bad. It sits within the larger problem of wilderness itself – an artifical Western concept that denies the cultural nature of pre-conquest habitats. We only preserve wilderness areas because our unsustainable society has degraded or destroyed all other habitats.

What does this mean for trails? Pundits and policymakers claim that access to natural areas encourages people to care about them, and this is lost when trails are abandoned. But the effort and cost of maintaining trails in this new regime are more than we’re willing to invest.

Talking to the backpacker slowed me even more, so I embraced this as a more leisurely hike than usual. The low haze was starting to clear as I reached the crest, but it was still chilly up there, with patches of snow in shady spots. Knowing this trail well, I continued past the crest for another half mile so I could log more mileage and elevation while still ending the hike at a reasonable time.

Unfortunately, on the downhill stretch beyond the saddle, my right knee started hurting, and I remembered the same thing had happened on my last local hike, a month ago in late October. Strangely, I’d had no trouble in the 30 miles of hikes I’d done in our rugged desert mountains. Why did my knee hurt in New Mexico and not in California?

Maybe it was the cold – it is colder here this time of year. But the more I pondered, I thought it might also be the activity itself. Here, I hike on trails that are mostly hard-packed, where I end up pounding my way downhill, which creates repetitive impact on the knees. While in the desert, with no trail, I tend to pick my way cautiously downhill, in random directions dictated by obstacles, and the ground is often loose, absorbing impact.

In any event, I’m going to be even more frustrated now since I’ll need to rest that knee for weeks!

In the meantime, even with knee brace and a pain pill, it was a really painful return to the vehicle.

At least the pain pill put me in a good mood while driving home. And as dusk turned to night, I saw a bright falling star leaving a long trail, directly ahead over the highway.

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Desert Trip 2022: Day 7

Monday, November 7th, 2022: 2022 Trips, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips.

Previous: Day 6

On Tuesday, I actually got up at dawn, long before the sun crested the rim of the basin and warmed the campsite.

I really felt like I was just getting started here, and hated to leave. But I was running out of food and water. I’d brought 15 gallons of water and only had about 3 gallons left – I still can’t explain why. And after breakfast, my food supply was down to cheese, jerky, half a cabbage, a couple days worth of granola, a can of beans, and miscellaneous snacks.

My new rotomolded cooler, one of the highest-rated on the market, still had ice after almost a week. But I’d started with three 5-pound blocks of block ice, occupying about 60% of the interior volume, and had kept it in shade for all but a couple hours on the first day, in temps that never got above 70 and probably averaged less than 55. I was hoping for slower melting – it would presumably be much faster in hot weather, when my old cheap coolers would last up to 4 days.

Long-time readers may have noticed I took fewer pictures than usual. I carry a spare battery and SD card, but was trying to conserve both space and energy by avoiding things I already had good photos of from previous trips. And this is not the most colorful time of year anyway! Still, I ended up with space on the original card, and time to spare on the original battery, after 6 days of shooting.

I apologize to my desert friends that I didn’t see on this trip. You were often in my thoughts, especially as I visited places or experienced things that might interest you! Unfortunately, the only plan I was able to make in advance was my flight to Indiana to visit family. I wasn’t sure until the last minute when I would actually head out to the desert, and then car trouble stranded me in Flagstaff, so even if I had made plans to visit desert friends, I would’ve had to change or cancel enroute.

But to be honest, the main reason I didn’t plan to visit friends in the desert is that I needed to reconnect with my land, and I didn’t know what that would be like. I didn’t want to plan an itinerary because I wanted to be able to follow my heart once I got there. I hadn’t gone camping or backpacking in years, most of my old familiar gear had been replaced, and I was frankly a little apprehensive about the whole experience.

And of course once I got out there, I wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone – except by climbing to the peak I described on Day 6.

The drive out of the mountains and over to Kingman for lunch was uneventful and unenlightening. One bright spot was not having to stop in Needles – seems like I’ve always been forced to stop there in the past.

The drive went to Hell when I turned south toward Phoenix. I’ve always had problems with Arizona drivers, and that highway, which alternates between 2 and 4 lanes, was a race course for big rigs, monster trucks, and strangely, Tesla Model 3’s. The speed limit was 65, Arizonans wanted to go at least 85, and everyone stuck behind me became enraged.

Ironically, the landscape is beautiful, but I could rarely enjoy it. Excepting the one-hour stop in Kingman, what I’d expected to be, at most, a 7-hour drive turned into 9 hours of stress. Then I had to sort through my gear and pack for the flight, but thanks to Ambien I did get a good night’s sleep!

Thanks for reading. I hope you and your families are all enjoying peace and good health, and I hope we can meet up soon, ideally in our beloved desert mountains!

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Desert Trip 2022: Day 6

Monday, November 7th, 2022: 2022 Trips, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips.

Previous: Day 5

I woke up on Monday not knowing how or when my trip would end. I only knew I had to reach a hotel at the Phoenix airport by Tuesday night, to catch my flight to Indiana (and family) early Wednesday morning.

The last time I’d talked to my mom, last Wednesday morning, she’d sounded upset that I might be out of touch for almost a week while camping in the desert. Like me, she’s prone to anxiety attacks, and throughout the trip I’d been increasingly worried about her.

I’d been sending pre-recorded text messages from my GPS unit, every day, to reassure her I was okay, but hadn’t briefed her to watch for those, and wasn’t sure she’d even notice the GPS emails among the dozens of junk messages she gets each day.

In addition, during each hike so far, whenever I crested a ridge and had a line of sight for dozens of miles out of the mountains and across the open desert, I turned on my cell phone and searched for a signal to call her, but could never connect with a tower.

By Monday, I could easily imagine her having a panic attack and calling on my friends to come out and find me. So I was worried about staying another day without being able to reassure her. But I was so happy to be here, and felt like I was only just settling in and getting started – I couldn’t remember any time in the past decade when I’d felt so at home on my land. I would really hate to leave a day early.

From our campsite on the ledge above the big wash, I gazed up at the peak looming to the north, where an ambitious but failed mine perches on a dizzying precipice just below the summit. The hike to that mine, which I’ve done many times both solo and with friends, is one of the most challenging hikes in the range, but the peak above it is the only place where I was sure I could get a signal on my phone to call and reassure my mom.

My imagined need to justify staying out here another day led me to completely ignore the difficulty and danger of that climb. When I decided to do it, packed and started off on the hike, I was only thinking of a quick out-and-back that would leave my afternoon free. I was in complete denial that it would be the scariest, hardest, and longest hike of the entire trip, with the sole purpose of making a phone call that turned out to be unnecessary.

The peak stands almost 2,000′ above camp, but you can’t see it or the mine from below, since massive rock outcrops rise between. The peak itself is only a mile and a half away in horizontal distance, making for a 25% average grade – which is pretty extreme in itself, far steeper than any of the hikes I do back home.

However, the lower half of the climb is misleadingly straightforward, on a gentler grade traversing bare ground between shrubs and smaller outcrops. Back in the early 90s when I was romping all over these mountains like a bighorn sheep, I would look at a distant peak and say “It’ll take me only an hour to get there”, and I was usually correct. Now, I couldn’t remember my estimate for this peak – fanciful numbers between 45 and 90 minutes were bouncing around in my head.

One ascent with friends, about 25 years ago, had gone bad because my partner’s girlfriend, who was in good shape but was afraid of heights, was having a major meltdown by the time we reached the mine. She had to be coached all the way down, step by step, in abject terror and hating us both for taking her up there. And on one of my more recent ascents, I’d tried a different route that turned out to be even harder, and fell and cut myself pretty bad on a rock coming down.

Today, it was at that halfway point that I realized my mistake. This was going to be a long, tough one. But there was no turning back, and at least I wouldn’t be taking the same route on the way down – I planned to cross the ridge below the mine and drop into the next drainage east, to check the seep above the shade house where I’d lived back in 1992.

The upper half of the climb to the mine involves finding your way around and over ramparts of granite that block the way forward, using bouldering moves that were made more dangerous by my heavy old pack, which has no waist strap and swings back and forth, threatening to throw me off balance – another example of my bullheaded commitment to old-fashioned, low-tech gear.

Getting past those stone ramparts gets harder and harder the higher you get, until the last one, which forces you to climb to the top of the outcrop overlooking the mine works, and then downclimb the north face, using more bouldering moves. On each of those successive ramparts I’d found scat from groups of bighorn sheep – mostly rams, I’m assuming, because that’s what I’ve seen up here before – but it was all months old, at least. In fact, I’d seen lots of old sheep scat on every slope, ridge, or saddle I’d been to so far, here around the rim of our interior basin on the west side of the range.

Well below the main works of the mine I came upon a graded ledge containing bed frames and springs for 5 people – a feature I’d completely forgotten. That, in addition to the collapsed hexagonal cabin above, would’ve hosted up to 9 workers at a time, on a knife-edge ridge exposed to the most brutal winds in the range – but also with the most spectacular views.

Taking a quick look around the mine works – nothing had changed since my last visit, in 2011 – I was reminded of some recent comments by a friend who knows these mountains much better than I do. He also knows and respects my interest in native cultures and prehistoric sites, and questioned why we’d bought this property in the first place, since it’s been so torn up and abused by Anglo mine works, ruins, and trash.

My co-owner, on the other hand, has long been interested in Western (colonial) history, including mining, and views this place as an open-air museum.

My own take is that – apart from these being the only large intact parcels of private land on this side of the mountains – it’s also the perfect base and point of access for nearly 50 square miles of wild habitat, for the prehistoric cultural sites that surround our basin, and for the plateau, the heart of the range. And although I could easily do without all the mining stuff, the broader history of our species shows that these ruins and this junk can provide valuable resources for a resourceful subsistence community, sometime in the unknown future after our own culturally bankrupt society fades away and the regional climate becomes salubrious again.

I’d only been past the mine to the actual peak once before, in March 1990, and I’d completely forgotten both the route and the configuration of the peak itself, which is a quarter mile beyond the mine and 300 vertical feet above. It’s a beautiful, completely wild, grassy little plateau, tilted westward, where you can completely ignore the mining junk below and revel in the 360 degree view, blocked only in the north, across another long canyon, by the north wall of the range.

There, I got my first cell phone signal in the past 5 days, and spoke to my mom, who, as it turned out, wasn’t worried at all.

I hated to leave that place, but the 1-1/2 mile climb had taken 3 hours, and I had to start back down – both to ensure a warm shower, and because I was dreading the descent. On the last climb to the mine, I was with a friend who knew of a partial trail down the eastern slope, past the mine tailings, into the drainage that led to our seep.

Holding onto an old water pipe, I made it past the tailings, to the upper stage of the old cable tramway they used to lower ore into the side canyon beyond, but could see no clear trail from there. There was only a faint suggestion that I began to follow, but it continued only as far as the next little saddle on the outlying ridge between this and the next drainage. Below that, there might’ve been a switchback, so I kept going, but any sign of a trail completely disappeared, and I couldn’t spot anything else on the surrounding slopes. So I began picking my way down this dangerous slope of loose rock, as carefully as I possibly could, aiming for what I thought was the outcrop of metamorphic rock surrounding the seep, far below.

As expected, it was a nerve-wracking descent. I remembered making it on acid, back in the early 90s, after dosing at the mine and having a total freakout when I contemplated this slope from above. The way I prepared myself then was by imagining I was a mountain sheep, clenching the ball of my foot with each step for better traction. Whether real or imagined, it worked back then, but the boots I wear now are far too stiff for that.

Crossing back and forth over the continuously steep and narrow drainage to the seep, to avoid sheer pouroffs and rock walls – sometimes on the surrounding slopes and sometimes in the boulder-choked dry streambed itself – I slowly and carefully made it past what I’d originally thought to be the seep, and finally to the cleft of the seep, whose dammed-up tank amazingly held water – the only standing water I’d seen yet within our watershed of almost 50 square miles. But the seep itself looked completely dry, and there were no bees using it.

The descent of less than a mile had taken almost three more hours, and I could forget that warm shower, but reaching this point, from which I had a clear and relatively easy route back to camp, was a huge relief.

Following the old water pipe to the shade house, I briefly checked it out. Someone had been here and left an empty pop bottle since my last visit, moving the old box springs under the roof, but everything was otherwise intact.

I found the old road to the shade house completely undriveable without major work – a boulder weighing several hundred pounds has fallen into the lower part, and all the steep sections have additional erosion.

My last night in the mountains was bittersweet. I built a tiny fire with the last of my catclaw, ate the last of my leftovers and drank the last of my beer, but I found myself compulsively walking away from both the fire and the lantern, to let my eyes adjust and experience the land in its natural state.

The strap from my sleep screen that secures it under my bedding had torn off the night before, so I tried to do without it at first, but the mosquitos were persistent again and I had to fit the screen around me as best I could. I really wished I could keep sleeping out there under the stars for the rest of my life.

Next: Day 7

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Desert Trip 2022: Day 5

Sunday, November 6th, 2022: 2022 Trips, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips.

Previous: Day 4

Again, I found myself lying in bed after dawn, waiting for the sun to rise above the eastern ridge and warm me up. Meanwhile, I watched the mosquitos desperately trying to reach me through the screen. I got to know them individually, and finally, the most active one suddenly appeared inside! It had apparently found a gap under the screen’s edge. Now I had to get up.

As forecast earlier in the week, clouds had appeared before dawn, but they cleared as I had breakfast and got ready for the next adventure. After hiking northeast on the first day, and east on the second and third, today I would go southeast. First, up to Blockhead – the monolith on the southeastern ridge – and hopefully, if I had time, past it to the head of the canyon with the spring. It’s an area that shows on the map as a jumbled plateau punctuated by a maze of boulders and outcrops, leading farther south to Mesquite Canyon, which I explored a few years ago.

The approach crosses the bajada of the basin and the combined wash that drains the plateau and the spring in the northeast corner. After a little over a mile of bajada, you join the wash that drains the high southern end of the bajada, and eventually hit the old road into the southern gulch, which climbs through a low pass and drops into the big wash that drains the southeastern ridge.

My first objective was the old mesquite tree and its spring. It’s tucked away back in a canyon that winds tortuously between cliffs and fanciful outcrops of ancient granite. I knew there was tamarisk in this canyon, but I was under no delusion of finding water in the spring, which usually has to be dug out of deep sand. And I wasn’t prepared for the state of the venerable tree.

At least it wasn’t completely dead. New growth had emerged from its lower trunk, and I figured it would take a lot more than the current drought to kill a tree with such deep roots. But it was still pretty sobering. The water sources in this range all seemed to be dry – where was the wildlife getting its water?

I realized it had been gradually getting warmer, day to day, throughout my stay. My shirt was unbuttoned all the way down and I had to add sunscreen to my chest.

I climbed up the ledges behind the dry spring and continued up the narrower canyon winding south across the basin below Blockhead, until I reached a bend where I thought I should leave the wash and traverse the slope above. This was a new approach for me – I’d come over from farther west in the past. And on the traverse, I began to be pursued bees. They never actually stung me, but I vowed to take the opposite side on the way back.

Cresting the ridge below Blockhead is another of those magic moments, because you’re suddenly above the Lost World. But since the days were so short now, and I always wanted to get back to camp to shower before the sun set behind the peak and plunged everything into shadow, I realized I didn’t have time to continue to the head of the next canyon. All I could do was gaze longingly at the route above me.

I did have time to climb past Blockhead and check out the continuation of the ridge westward, where again I found natural campsites, level protected places along the crest. And I got even more spectacular views.

I was bee-free on the descent down the opposite side of the drainage, and the hike back across the basin was beautiful in the low light of late afternoon. But I still didn’t make it to camp before shade descended, and had yet another chilly shower.

This was the first night when mosquitos joined me for dinner. The moon was up later, approaching half. And I began to notice more satellites, which really annoyed me. Yes – I’m using them for my GPS messenger, and the images you see on these route maps. But I’m not embracing them happily. They’re a scourge on our night skies.

I thought about the tamarisk I’d seen so far, in three widely separated drainages. Our gulch actually seems to be the worst place in the range – at least here on the west side. The plateau is also bad, but not so much. Here in the desert, after more than a century, tamarisk remains confined to short stretches of drainage, as opposed to along perennial streams elsewhere in the Southwest. And in the drainages where people haven’t tried to “eradicate” it, it seems to have established an equilibrium with native plants, which often thrive in proximity.

Because it’s a wild plant, it’s smarter than you – if you fight it, it comes back stronger. In a place like this, the lesson may be: Don’t fight it!

Since the moon was still up after dinner, I took one of my moonlight walks up the gulch. Moonlight walks have been such a big part of my desert experience! Coming back, I heard a piercing ringing from the north bank, then an answering sound from the south. Crickets? It was really loud.

I thought about the old mesquite, and my favorite willow up on the plateau. Trees here overgrow in wet periods, then die back almost to the ground in a long drought, finally resprouting from their lower trunks. That seems to be a pattern of the desert.

I’m naturally tense, but dinner, beer, and a walk finally relaxed me. Back at camp I continued to study the sky. I saw a red star above Orion and wondered if it could be Mars. Through the binoculars, the Pleiades were so beautiful, and a dense area of the Milky Way below Cassiopeia. In bed, bracing my elbows, I could finally see three moons of Jupiter. Two more meteorites before I fell asleep, and of course the damn satellites.

Next: Day 6

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