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Vision Quest 2016: Bones of the Living Earth

Thursday, June 9th, 2016: 2016 Trips, Mojave Desert, Nature, Regions, Road Trips, Rocks.

My mountain range is known for its granite pinnacles which provide distinctive landmarks on the ridgetops

Two of the three reasons why I first fell in love with the desert had to do with rocks. One: I spent my early childhood in the foothills of the Appalachians, playing around cliffs and caves and outcrops, and I love that in the desert, the bones of the earth are exposed, dominating the landscape, instead of buried under forest and foliage. And two: the boulder piles I first encountered in the desert offered natural shelter.

Mountains Alive: Landscape, Weather & Orientation

Peaceful peoples around the world hold mountains sacred, unlike dominant societies that disfigure them with prominent castles, industrial mines, watch towers and antennas.

Mountains are part of the living skin of the earth, rising, tilting, eroding, shaking, or erupting. They shape climate and weather, channeling wind and forming clouds, storing their water and making it available for humans and wildlife, and providing habitat and shelter for level upon level of diverse ecosystems.

Those who live, work or play in mountains rely on their peaks, pinnacles and canyons as landmarks for orientation and wayfinding. This is even more true in the desert, where the lack of uniform forest cover makes unique landforms visible.

Joints, Contacts & Basins: Storing & Releasing Water

People talking about mountains and water often refer to the rock’s permeability or impermeability, but mountains rarely consist of a single solid mass of rock. Granite is a plutonic rock, formed as a great mass of molten material rises through the earth’s crust, cooling and crystallizing into bulbous shapes that continue to settle and deform as they cool, resulting in a three-dimensional network of internal fractures or joints.

Rainwater or snowmelt trickles into these fracture networks, which become storage reservoirs as they slowly fill with water. When the water encounters a solid, impermeable surface below it, it will look for a way out: a seep or spring.

Channeling Water: Erosion & Sediment

In granitic mountains, the shape taken by the cooling surface of the pluton provides the original framework for the landscape. Once the living rock is exposed to the air, wind, rain and snowmelt follow hollows and joints on the surface, polishing and eroding for eons, sculpting canyons and valleys, carrying sediment down and away from the mountains, spreading nutrients and creating habitat for diverse communities of life.

Alluvial Fans & Basins

Sediment carried down the mountains by streams and floods is deposited outside, building up for eons to form alluvial fans which gradually bury the living mountains up to their shoulders, separating mountain range from mountain range by broad alluvial basins.

In the bottom of each basin, the alluvial fans of opposing ranges may meet in a big arroyo, or they may drain into a playa, a dry lake with no outlet, sometimes accompanied by a salt marsh and/or wind-formed sand dunes. Alternately flooding and drying out, dry lakes collect, concentrate, and expose mineral salts which become another valuable resource for humans and wildlife.

Volcanic Rock

The southwestern Mojave is crossed by a belt of recent cinder cones and the extensive lava fields they produced. Volcanoes are both destroyers, in the short term, and creators, in the long term: creators of mountain habitat, and conduits elevating mineral nutrients to the surface from deep inside the earth.

Plutonic Rock

We desert dwellers know that the best drinking water comes from granite.

Metamorphic Rock

Sedimentary Rock

Interface With Life

Biological soil crusts, which have been around much longer than humans, were one of my major discoveries on this trip.


Tools & Signage


Mining by dominant societies has been terribly destructive to both human communities and natural ecosystems, but ironically, my friends and I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the desert for all these years if these mountains hadn’t been full of valuable minerals, and if we hadn’t had access to the roads built and long abandoned by miners and prospectors. I actually bought my land from an old prospector who just loved being out there and used prospecting as an excuse for camping in the mountains.

As likely applies to the other sciences, many if not most geologists work for private industry, prospecting for minerals to be exploited. Compartmentalization in science, as in the larger society, undercuts accountability, since a specialist has little or no knowledge of the larger system his work will impact.

Landscape Engineering

The engineering of natural habitats for sole human use appears to be the critical error leading to the downfall of dominant societies across time and space, from ancient city-states in the jungles of Southeast Asia, to the modern United States. You can see examples of this all over the desert.

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Far From Home

Sunday, November 8th, 2020: Bear, Hikes, Nature, Pinalenos, Plants, Rocks, Southeast Arizona.

The days were getting cooler. About time – it was the second week of November! Last night we had a high wind advisory, so before leaving for my Sunday hike, I drove into town to check my burned house for fallen limbs. Sure enough, the small elm that leaned over the burned back corner had dropped a limb on my patio.

It had rained a little last night, but the sky had mostly cleared as I drove west. I’d decided to try a new trail, over across the state line, that I’d avoided in the past. I wasn’t sure why. The range was supposed to have the densest black bear population in the country, and this trail went up Bear Canyon. But black bears are shy – I was actually hoping to see one.

It’s hunting season and that area, although far from any town, is popular, so I was also expecting to run into hunters.

The two hour drive passes through some of the loneliest country in the West.

The approach is up a beautiful valley strewn with boulders, between two mountain ranges – the tall one I was hoping to climb, and a lower, drier range that reminds me of my favorite mountains in the Mojave. Golden granite boulders, cliffs, and pinnacles. Balancing rocks. Lots of them.

I wasn’t sure about finding the trailhead, but finding the turnoff was easy. And sure enough, the road to the trailhead was almost completely blocked by a group of hunters with several big trucks and a tent already set up. I waved and carefully passed them onto a badly eroded 4wd track that I pursued for another hundred yards before pulling off and parking.

It took me a while to find the trail – there was no marker, but after one false start, I backtracked and discovered a crude cairn. The trail turned out to be used and maintained primarily by cattle, until it started climbing out of the canyon onto the ridge, where it became a narrow footpath, sometimes hard to follow. I was the first person to use it in a long while.

Aside from the granite, I like the trails on this side of the mountain because they take you from high-desert Sonoran habitat up into mixed conifer forest – and the two ecosystems intermingle in a broad elevational band, in a really interesting way. This side of the mountains shows no evidence of having burned, but the habitat is really complex. I wonder if this is the way all our Southwestern mountains were before wildfire suppression?

It was a big climb – over 4,000′ in 6 miles – and it exposed me to a cold west wind most of the way. Once I reached the crest it was freezing cold, but still mostly sunny. I took a side trip up the little peak which is known for ladybugs in warmer weather, but today was far too cold for them.

The trail continues past the ladybug peak to connect with the scary road that climbs these mountains from the north side. On the way, I got a view north – to Safford, the “city of the plain” – and west, to the highest peaks of the range.

On the way down, I lost my footing in soft dirt trying to bypass a fallen log, and had a bad fall. The wind was brutal and I was starting to get a chill, so I put on all my warm clothing. Then I passed a young guy who was wearing shorts – but unlike me, he was still climbing and generating body heat.

I’d been impressed by the trail going up, but coming back down it seemed a lot rockier and more difficult. Once again, I was fooled by the time change. The sun was setting earlier than I expected.

Near the bottom, I heard footsteps behind me. It was the young guy from the crest. I asked him about his hike, and where he was from – he was from Indiana, like me! He said he’d gone stir crazy, trapped in Indianapolis by COVID, and had decided to take a solo three-week road trip around the west. He was working remotely and hiking as much as possible. He said he just can’t get enough of the West. I sensed that his days in the flatlands of Indiana are numbered. I don’t know how people can stand living in a place with no mountains…

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