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2016 Trips

Vision Quest 2016: Surprised & Blessed

Monday, May 23rd, 2016: 2016 Trips, Road Trips.


I smiled and laughed

By early April of this year, I was a nervous wreck, embarrassing myself by overreacting to problems and suffering lapses of judgement. Just too much stress, pain and trauma in the past year. I’d had hip surgery in the hope that I’d be recovered enough by now to explore the backcountry of my desert mountains, relying on surface water from El Niño to roam freely and camp wherever I pleased. This had been a dream for so long, it had turned to desperation.

Recovery had been slow and frustrating. I hadn’t been able to resume my pre-surgery hiking routine until the past week. And although there’s no way of telling how much rain my mountains get without actually visiting, El Niño had disappointed in nearby parts of the desert, as in most of the Southwest. My dream might never become a reality, but I had to get away, I had to take what most people would call a vacation.

The problem was that my spiritual home is also the ultimate land of mystery, an outdoor classroom and teacher of lessons about living in nature. I’d spent years accumulating questions and projects I wanted to pursue out there. It would be a working vacation.

First, I wanted to research and brainstorm ideas and resources for a program of group wilderness adventures that I dreamed of leading, in collaboration with my friends. Related to this would be the search for a base somewhere along the highway near my mountains, a home, studio, gallery and event space that might catch the eye of passing travelers.

One component of the program would be aboriginal living skills, and I wanted to recover and practice the techniques I’d learned 25 years earlier, so I packed my fire drill, deadfall trap, flintknapping materials, and notes.

The fragility of my family requires me to be on call for emergencies at all times, so I had to pack for a possible mid-trip diversion to an airport, and a flight across the country to the big city. With that in mind, I had no idea how long I’d be gone. I was thinking two months at the outside, but I didn’t really know how long I’d last.

As usual, I’d be camping, and making dangerous hikes, alone, in areas with no cell service. I’d be out of touch for up to a week, but would get back in touch when I left the mountains for supplies and my phone regained a signal.

With an optional agenda but no real plan or schedule, I set out, contacting some desert friends along the way, and remembering and reaching out to others, the farther I got. The trip just unfolded, I discovered new places, learned new things and met new people, and my goals both changed and expanded as I relaxed into new rhythms and a new sense of time.

My hip hadn’t fully recovered – there was residual stiffness that would take months to break up – but the new hip didn’t hold me back at all. What held me back was the opposite knee, which had developed chronic tendinitis. It’s treatable, but I couldn’t treat it while hiking in the most rugged country on earth, so I scaled back my ambitions instead, went slower and rested for days between longer hikes.

Friends gave me a lot of feedback and advice about the group adventures, some of it discouraging, but all of it useful, though nothing concrete or definite materialized. I didn’t find a base along the highway, but that’s because I was having too much fun doing other things. And although I kept having to move them out of the way to get to other gear, I never used my primitive implements, partly because I didn’t get a chance to camp in the backcountry, and partly because I heard things that challenged my picture of prehistoric life in the desert and urged me toward further research.

In the end, I spent nearly a month out there, hiking, camping, working with scientists, visiting friends, sharing good conversation, learning and being inspired. I was blessed with amazing weather, the hospitality and generosity of friends, the opportunity to spend quality time with kids – which only seems to happen with my desert friends – and a handful of challenging, revealing new themes or topics for research that expanded my horizons of ecology and anthropology: biological soil crusts, ecological facilitation, wildlife tracking, controversies over Native American conflict and migration, and the myriad ways in which our society trashes the desert and uses it to hide the things we don’t want to see, know about, or deal with.

The details will be revealed in installments. I hope you enjoy them and find something to think about and comment on!

Reading the Ground

Mesquite Canyon

Science in the Storm

Indian Wars

Challenging the Patriarchy

Hiding Our Failures

Hidden Diversity

Joy of Surviving

Bones of the Living Earth

Growing Up in the Desert

The Sheltering Desert


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Vision Quest 2016: Reading the Ground

Monday, May 23rd, 2016: 2016 Trips, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips.

I tested myself by following my own tracks back to camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vision Quest 2016: Mesquite Canyon

Monday, May 23rd, 2016: 2016 Trips, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vision Quest 2016: Science in the Storm

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016: 2016 Trips, Animals, Mojave Desert, Nature, Regions, Road Trips.

The Amargosa toad

The suburban sprawl of Las Vegas became less finished, less dense and more expansive, and more under construction, as we drove north in a tunnel of freeway, surrounded by noise-barrier walls, with the newly snow-covered peaks of the Spring Mountains and Sheep Range closing in at west and east. The Paiute reservation went by in a flash, then the military and prison complexes began, first the artillery and bombing range with its mock Mideastern villages, then the drone base and the prisons for women and juveniles.

After the long drive to Beatty, we checked into our motel and stopped for an early dinner of Mexican food at an outdoor table by the highway, next to a group of retiree Harley hogsters and their wives. In the dusk, Jef drove us up the road to the Spicer Ranch, which the current patriarch is developing into a private mountain bike resort. Wonderful news for me, because I’d love to see these adrenaline-fueled machines outlawed from public lands.

Jef had raved about this new-age rancher who rode bikes everywhere, but Dave Spicer turned out to be a mellow, friendly guy. His ranch compound stretched all around, consisting of the usual meandering dirt roads, abandoned equipment, vacant houses and ruined sheds, and half-finished dams, ponds, and corrals. The ranch was sited here by his ancestors because massive springs drain from the slopes back of the compound, out of an area of colorful badlands, to vivid reedy marshes along the highway. As darkness fell, we tried to follow his directions to where we might find endangered Amargosa toads around irrigated meadows and ponds.

Jef parked in a grove of trees and we fanned out, quickly spotting toads. I helped gather them, and we added each to a ziploc bag which was marked, either “out of water” or with the temperature of the water where it was found, taken on the spot with a digital probe. We each accumulated toad-filled bags in our left hands, until we had a dozen or so. When Jef occasionally encountered a big invasive bullfrog, he’d grab it and sling it hard against a rock; bullfrogs prey on smaller native frogs and toads. Wind was blowing hard when we started, with lightning and thunder over the mountains, and the low, heavy clouds began to spit rain.

When we returned to the vehicle, wind and rain were lashing the little SUV, which Jef and Anthony began efficiently turning into a field lab. I sat in the back holding the metal clipboard of data sheets. As Jef and Anthony sterilized a forceps and scissors and Anthony prepared the individual glass culture plates, Jef handed me paper packs of wooden-stemmed sterile cotton swabs, numbering the plastic caps of glass sample vials and returning them to their rack which he likewise passed back to me. Then they both sterilized their hands and put on sterile rubber gloves.

For each bagged toad, Jef would remove it from its bag, announce its number, measure its length in millimeters, determine the sex and read off the bag data, all of which I would quickly note on the data form. Then I would rush to tear open the end of a swab package, handing it to Jef tip forward, and he would begin to swab the toad. Meanwhile I’d pull a vial out of the rack and struggle to twist the cap open, holding it up for Jef to insert the swab, then carefully return it to the rack. Then Jef would hold the toad legs-first toward Anthony, who would clip off a tiny bit of webbing between the toes as a DNA sample, dropping it onto a culture plate. In the process, Anthony would sometimes recognize toads he’d caught before, on previous trips.

Back in the lab on campus, Anthony would test all the samples for the spreading chytrid fungus, which is considered “the most significant threat to the world’s montane amphibian populations”, allegedly contributing to mass extinction. But field research generally raises more questions than it answers. Jef, Anthony, and other scientists haven’t even been able to figure out the mortality rate – how many animals infected by the fungus actually die.

After Jef restored the specimen to its bag and set the bag outside the vehicle, he and Anthony would remove their gloves, sterilize their hands and equipment, put on fresh gloves, and start with the next bagged toad, all in the confined space of the front seat, with everything they needed stashed precariously on the sloping dashboard or between their feet on the floor, the doors propped open for extra maneuverability, and weather gusting in from outside.

When all the toads were sampled and all the data were entered, Jef and Anthony would clean up and pack up, while in the back seat, I donned sterile gloves and lifted each vial out of its rack, snapping the wooden swab off so its tip remained inside and screwing the caps back on, changing gloves after each vial. Then we moved to a different location, collected more toads, and resumed the lab work, with the wind and rain hitting harder each time, and the night falling colder.

At our final location, along the Amargosa River south of Beatty, I caught a chill in my legs – I hadn’t dressed for the wind – and my body temperature dropped so I had to quit and return to the vehicle, where I sat hunched and shivering for about an hour, feeling sick, as they finished processing the last sample set with the doors cracked open and the rain and wind intruding. It was 1:30 am when we got back to the motel, and I fell asleep instantly.

We returned in the morning, and Jef pointed out that the entire riparian area had been bulldozed free of invasive tamarisk. There was no tamarisk to be seen anywhere now in this sea of green at the base of multi-colored badlands. The tiny river flowed clear through a wetland of cattail, riparian grasses and coyote willows, shaded by young cottonwoods. I wondered why the ubiquitous seed stock of tamarisk hadn’t regenerated. Maybe they’d poisoned it chemically and replanted native vegetation. Quite an expensive, energy- and labor-intensive project, like all conservation, only possible in an affluent society.

After our rough night, we spread out in a leisurely, meandering search for chorus frogs, which Anthony would take back as samples for his broader study of the fungal infection. I was lucky to find the first specimen, a pretty green one. Admiring it through the ziploc bag, I wondered what its fate would be as a pawn of science, but my mind was too exhausted to dwell on it.

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Vision Quest 2016: Indian Wars

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016: 2016 Trips, Indigenous Cultures, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips, Society.

And a beautiful translucent one

Long before I moved to New Mexico, during a period when my love affair with the desert was being tested, I was introduced to Dave, the archaeologist. He invited me along on a site survey, a search for sites or artifacts near a mountain spring in the Mojave National Preserve, we got to know each other a bit, and he gave me a copy of his master’s thesis. I told him about the Indian campsite I’d found in my mountains, and he said it was likely a girl’s puberty ritual site, a remote place that adolescent girls would visit with a female chaperone. The site included a flat-topped boulder with hand-carved hollows called “cupules”, in which the girls would mix paint for their faces, a part of the ritual.

In the years since, we’d fallen out of touch, but I knew he’d bought and moved into the former home of mutual friends, and I wanted to reconnect and get caught up on recent developments in desert archaeology.

Dave was on his way to a historic mining camp in the Preserve, where he was supervising restoration of cabins by volunteers. He invited me to join them, so I drove over in the morning to meet him at a crossroads, and followed him from there on a dirt road that climbed up into a steep area of granite peaks and slopes lush with perennial shrubs blooming red, yellow and blue, with cabins perched on ledges at different levels. It was an area I’d never visited, hidden from outside.

I’m not a fan of mining history or miner’s cabins, but I was quickly sucked into the volunteer spirit, and found myself brushing stain onto the frame of a cabin door while others bustled around me. Then Dave came up and suggested that I join him in a drive across the Preserve for some equipment. In his truck, we had our chance to talk.

My first question was a general one. Since first discovering traces of the Old Ones in this desert, 30 years ago, I’d developed a seemingly complete picture of its native inhabitants, the Chemehuevis, a branch of the Southern Paiute tribe that occupied southern Nevada and Utah. I knew archaeologists theorized that the Chemehuevi were recent migrants within the past 400 years, part of the so-called “Numic Expansion” from the northwest. But I took that theory with a grain of salt. I’d met Southern Paiutes who laughed at archaeologists and confidently asserted that their people had been here forever. I felt it was preposterous, and presumptuous, of Anglo scientists to rewrite the history of native people. Yet the other day, I’d seen a Park Service kiosk that claimed the Mojave Indians as prehistoric natives of the Preserve, omitting the Chemehuevis completely. I wanted to know which Indians I should talk to about the Native sites and artifacts I’d been finding, both here and in my mountains farther south.

Dave’s answer stirred up my settled local worldview. “Well, the Mojaves were here first. The Chemehuevi are newcomers to this desert. They came out of the north and kicked the Mojaves’ asses. You know about the Numic Expansion?”

“Yeah, I know about that theory. But the Southern Paiute had no history of a warrior culture. The Anglos just rolled over them with little resistance, everywhere they met. They avoided violence.”

“Well, that’s not completely true. They were guerrilla fighters. That’s how they beat the Mojave. The Mojave fought with clubs and tried to engage their enemy in hand-to-hand combat, while the Chemehuevis hid behind cover and shot them with arrows, from their powerful sinew-backed bows. They just kicked their asses, and the Mojaves gave up the desert and retreated to the River.”

“But how could the Paiutes have this overwhelmingly warlike, expansive culture of conquest for hundreds of years, then suddenly settle down and become peaceful once they’d migrated?”

“Well, they really didn’t. They fought back against the whites in the 19th century.”

“My impression was that they didn’t. Look at Carleton’s Campaign of terror, beheading them and mounting their heads on poles. We were the warlike ones, and we scared the shit out of the Chemehuevis.”

“Well, that’s true, but there are also accounts of Chemehuevis attacking whites. Dave Kessler, the rancher, was killed by Chemehuevis, along with a few other early settlers. And a war party of Chemehuevis trounced our military in a long, pitched battle at Zzyzx. You can read about that.”

“I will. I’ll read anything you can point me to. But I’m really having a hard time visualizing the Mojaves living out here. The Mojave are sedentary farmers. The Southern Paiutes are the ones who follow the old ways, nomadic hunter-gatherers perfectly adapted to the desert. How could some of the Mojaves live out here as nomadic hunter-gatherers, then just give it up and rejoin the main body of their tribe as settled farmers on the River?”

“That’s true. The Colorado River is the center of Mojave life and apparently always has been. But all the evidence shows this desert was dominated for millenia by what we call the Patayan culture, the ancient culture the Mojaves have inherited. I was on an excavation recently in the Woods Mountains, an amazing site with cultural materials in layers up to my neck, and it’s all Patayan, all Mojave.”

I felt like the rug had been pulled out from under my desert.

“The archaeologist David Earl has written about a big battle between the Chemehuevis and the Mojaves down in your mountains. The Chemehuevis just slaughtered them. They were not a peaceful people.”

It was a long drive across the Preserve to pick up the equipment at a historic ranch. On the way, we passed the stone cabin where my artist friend, Carl, had lived as a hermit for many years, perfecting his style of painting the desert. It was a high plateau lush with blooming shrubs in rainbow colors. The prehistoric cultures of the desert were Dave’s specialty – his passion – as an archaeologist. He was clearly sincere and conscientious. He gave me lots of references to papers and sources, and I needed to track them down and follow up. But I felt there were things in the prevailing view that didn’t make sense, that didn’t add up, and later, as I began to locate Dave’s references, I saw that the Numic Expansion remains controversial even among mainstream archaeologists. I kept seeing Calvin Meyers, the Paiute environmental activist, standing beside me on a desert mountainside, smiling out over the beautiful valley that our culture has since despoiled with a giant solar power plant. “We have our own stories. Why would someone else try to tell us where we come from?”

Dave mentioned rock art studies and theories alongside more conventional archaeology, which surprised me. In my experience, conventional archaeologists take a dim view of rock art studies, viewing them as pseudoscience, partly because rock art generally lacks a proven connection with dateable deposits and ethnographic accounts. But the desert is somewhat unique in that here, rock art is the most widespread, numerous, and visible artifact of prehistoric culture, so it can’t just be ignored. The last time I’d read about Mojave Desert rock art was when Whitley published his manifesto linking rock art with male shamans using psychedelics – I found that preposterous, citing all the petroglyph sites in exposed locations with clear functions of signage and wayfinding. Dave agreed that much of Whitley’s thesis had been rejected, but his identification of prehistoric motifs with “phosphenes”, the shapes we hallucinate or see under pressure to our eyeballs, is hard to dispute.

I asked him about treatment of the dead in prehistoric societies – did he think cremation or abandonment was more common, or were Native people just opportunistic and pragmatic? He felt treatment of the dead was a serious matter, following prescribed ritual. He mentioned cremation burials he’d found at Paiute Springs – rock cairns containing burnt bones and topped with upside-down metates, once again associated with Patayan or Mojave culture.

To me, the most important, most sacred, site in the desert is a cave that for me is associated with fertility and conception. It’s lined with colorful paintings with differing degrees of wear, suggesting that it was used and maintained for a long time, and I’d always assumed it was a Chemehuevi site. I thought I could remember young Chemehuevis visiting the site years ago, and it had later been purchased by members of the tribe and turned into a preserve.

But when I asked Dave for contrasting examples of Mojave and Chemehuevi rock art, what he showed me associated the oldest, most prevalent, and most coherent art – all the art I was used to, including the fertility paintings – with the Mojaves, the sedentary floodplain farmers, rather than the nomadic hunter-gatherers who were perfectly adapted to the desert. Apparently the association had been made by rock art specialists on the basis of comparision with patterns on Patayan pottery. Dave repeated his assertion that the campsite I’d found was a girl’s puberty site, and that based on my description of potsherds found there, it had to be a Mojave site, more than 400 years old. Anything old and lasting in the desert was from the Mojaves, not the Chemehuevis.

It was tough news for me to chew on, especially as I recalled the oral culture of the Chemehuevis, recorded by ethnographers, which included myths and legends describing the creation of this desert landscape. How could newcomers enter and conquer a strange land and then establish detailed and elaborate songlines – all-night song cycles including a place-based mythology – within a few generations, a process that the Aborigines of Australia had 45,000 years to develop? Is it likely that the Chemehuevis would have borrowed these songs and stories from the Mojaves, the people they conquered? That certainly isn’t what we Anglo-Europeans did when we conquered and imposed Christianity on the natives of North and South America.

Later, back at one of the miner’s cabins which had been “stabilized” with a new roof, windows and a furnished kitchen, Dave finished working on a contract for his latest project, a study of black homesteaders in the Mojave. Whereas the local historian, Dennis Casebier, had labored for decades to record and publish the stories of white homesteaders in the Lanfair Valley, nobody, including me, had heard the story of Lanfair’s counterpart, the adjoining black community of Dunbar. Dave had stumbled upon it accidentally, won a sizable grant for research, and was really excited to see it unfold.

The restoration group gathered around us that night: the serious “cabin brotherhood” from suburban California, the female nonprofit staff from Santa Fe, and their young Navajo carpenters from Gallup. The Santa Fe staff complained about “anti-cabin” forces in the Park Service, while the brotherhood spoke of their admiration for the old prospector who’d built this place, and their intimate relationship with his descendants. They’d set up a shrine of sorts to him and his family, along one side of the kitchen. So many obscure hobbies and subcultures in our huge, affluent society, consuming resources from all over the world!

Dave entertained us with the story of a Park Service ranger who, unwilling to appear ignorant, lectured European tourists on how the local name “Ivanpah” came from an early Russian prospector – whereas it’s actually derived from the Paiute term for “clear water”. One of the cabin brothers described a group of visiting Russians he’d encountered on a previous trip, high up on the rocky ridge above the cabins. They were all burly guys with long black beards, and they claimed to have walked almost 40 miles without food or water, but they refused any help or supplies, and they wouldn’t say where they were going.

The cabin brothers had unrolled their bedrolls in the back room, and most of the rest of us had set up camp outside, spread out across the upper slopes. But the young women from Santa Fe had pitched their tent inside a side room of the already weatherproof cabin, as if they weren’t sure whether they wanted to be indoors or out. They’d found a cell signal and sat inside the tent, inside the cabin, texting or Instagramming, to the amusement of the rest of us.

I laid out my bedroll in the duff under a juniper and wrapped the tarp around the sleeping bag for extra insulation. The temperature dropped into the 30s overnight, but I was snug as a bug in a rug.

A week later, I returned to my mountains for the last time before heading home to New Mexico. On one of the first hikes of this trip, looking down from the edge of the plateau, I’d noticed the house-sized rock outcrops standing out on the bajada, and I remembered that my friends had talked about hanging out there once, around the time they’d found artifacts in the area. Some old hippies I’d met camping in the gulch also mentioned finding artifacts around one of these rock piles, so it suddenly hit me that there were probably prehistoric sites nearby that I’d been walking past and missing for years. It occurred to me that this might be an outlier of the girl’s puberty site above on the plateau, a staging area where the girls might camp out after their long walk from home, before making the strenuous climb to the plateau. I couldn’t go home without taking a closer look.

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