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Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

The Lost World

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015: 2015 Trips, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips.

So Many If’s

The mountain range in the Mojave desert that I consider my spiritual home provides subsistence habitat for two large wild mammals: the mountain lion and the mountain sheep. Soon after buying land out there, I befriended the scientist who has become the senior authority on desert bighorn, and 23 years ago, he took me in a Fish & Game helicopter on a sheep survey of the range.

We flew over the highest part of the range; we flew over my land; and we flew across the rugged mountains of stone to a distant canyon where we rose stealthily from behind a ridge to surprise a small group of sheep grazing on the other side. A few years later I summited the central crest of the range and looked out across a vast internal basin toward that same canyon. The map showed no roads going in there, and the Desert Protection Act, which went into effect at that time, enclosed the entire area in federally protected wilderness, with no vehicle access.

For some reason I couldn’t explain, it looked to me like the Promised Land.

This year, two decades later, my birthday was approaching, and I still hadn’t tried to go there. So many things had gotten in the way, and my body was showing its age. I was plagued with back pain from a ruptured disc, and I was walking on a hip with no cartilage that gave me chronic pain, often prevented me from hiking, and had been scheduled to be replaced until my surgeon was hit by a car a few weeks earlier. Currently, it was aching from all the trips I’d made up and down a ladder while working on the roof of my house. But I still dreamed about visiting that hidden valley.

The week before my birthday, I consulted my scientist friend, who remembered the area well, decades after visiting it himself. His voice brightened and he recalled that place as really interesting.

He also told me that bighorn were dying all over the desert from pneumonia spread by livestock; populations had crashed as much as 75% in a few months. A recent survey was unable to find a single sheep in my mountains. So anything I could observe might be helpful.

There were many obstacles protecting that hidden valley. My friend warned me that there was almost certainly no water available there now. He had mapped three surface water sources there after a wet winter three decades ago, but none of them had been significant, and we had not had a wet winter for many years.

I checked the weather forecast and found there was a heat wave approaching: every day was supposed to be hotter than the day before. I was already getting a late start; afternoon temperatures would be reaching 90 degrees by the time I reached the mountains, meaning I would need to carry lots of water. Hiking all day in that weather, and/or climbing thousands of feet, all with no shade, I would need to drink more than a gallon per day, probably more than I could carry in my condition. But if I didn’t go now, I’d have to wait all summer for cooler weather in the fall, or even longer if I went ahead with surgery.

With no vehicle access, the only way in would be by climbing over one of the surrounding ridges. But those ridges themselves were hard to reach now, because the closed wilderness boundary began miles away from the base of the mountains. There was only one place where an open road penetrated the wilderness to the foot of a slope, and that’s where I hoped to start – if I could even drive any of those roads.

None of the “roads” reaching this mountain range are maintained; they’re all rough tracks over packed dirt, rocks, gravel, and loose sand, temporarily graded by miners in the 19th century and abandoned to erosion ever since, used sporadically today by desert rats and by the rancher who runs cattle around one corner of the mountains. All of these roads cross long stretches of deep sand at some point. A friend had been out recently and said the sand was very dry due to drought. Dry sand offers no traction, and my 2wd truck is front-heavy and bogs down easily.

None of my friends was available to join me at such short notice, so if I was going to do it, I was going to do it alone.

So many if’s: if I could reach the mountains by road without getting stuck in the sand; if my bad hip and ruptured disc would let me carry enough water in a heavy backpack up some of the most rugged mountains on earth, where there are no trails, you have to carefully pick your own way in advance to avoid insurmountable obstacles, and where bouldering skills are often needed, potentially climbing up and down thousands of feet in two days; if I didn’t get bitten by one of the rattlesnakes I was sure to encounter at this time of year; if I didn’t lose my balance or slip on one of the thousands of loose rocks and sprain an ankle or break a leg or fall into the razor-sharp two-foot-long spines of a yucca or the thousands of needles of a cholla cactus; if I didn’t run out of water and electrolytes and get dehydrated and lose my mind, as I almost had 18 years ago, with a friend, in our “death march” over some of the same ridges.

But would I rather grow old and die in some hospital bed without ever trying?

So I spent two days loading my truck with water and ice chests and everything I could think of to help me get there and back, plus supplies for alternative destinations in case my dream didn’t pan out.

The Ancient Road Warrior

It’s a two-day drive from home, and when I arrived at the halfway point late at night, I was surprised to find the cheap motel almost full. I was given the last upstairs room at the far end. The next to last space in the partially flooded dirt parking lot was occupied by what seemed an abandoned station wagon from the 1970s, completely filled with trash.

But when I looked closer, I saw the tires were all inflated, but bald, and the next morning as I was leaving my smelly room, I saw a man come out of the room below mine and open the driver’s door of this derelict: a big, hunched-over old guy in shapeless, worn-out clothes, with a thick shock of grey hair pointing outward in all directions. And I realized that he’d kept the driver’s seat clear.

Nighthawks Over Camp

Unless you use them regularly, you never know where a road is going to turn to sand. After more than an hour off the paved road, on the long, bone-rattling approach to the mountains, I suddenly found myself driving uphill in deep sand. At such a point, there’s nothing to do but keep going, because if you stop, you’re definitely stuck.

So I kept driving, with the solace that I was prepared to get unstuck, and the drive out would be downhill. Still, it’s nerve-wracking when you’re doing this alone, dozens of miles away from a cell phone signal.

But my success was short-lived. When I reached the spur road to my planned starting point, I found it closed off with a secure cable gate, despite being shown as open on the BLM access maps.

So I climbed to the nearby shade of the sacred cave that, for me, is the center of the universe, North America’s answer to Australia’s Uluru, and pondered what to do next.

It was mid-afternoon. In any event, I’d need to find a place to camp before starting out in the morning. I scrambled out of the cave and looked up at the mountain wall looming behind it at the head of an enclosed valley. A shallow dip in the ridge, perhaps 1400′ up, would give me access to the hidden basin behind. I decided to try it the next morning.

That night, I camped among boulders a few miles away, where I’d last camped on the winter solstice more than 6 years ago, with friends, in a very rare 6 inches of snow. We’d made a snowman – hard to believe now.

I uncapped and started on a bottle of the new Stone Ruination 2.0 that I’d picked up on the way, and sat in the shade of a boulder, watching the light change color on distant peaks. After a while I climbed down into the big wash and spent some time gathering and hauling back dead catclaw branches for firewood. After starting a fire, I laid out my bedroll in some level sand: plastic tarp, heavy foam mat, cheap sleeping bag, and pillow, with a partial mosquito screen rolled up nearby, just in case. As usual, I wondered about my dad, who taught me to camp in tents, and some of my current friends, who persist in using tents to shut out the stars at night. I feel lucky to have broken free of that.

As the sun started to set and I prepared dinner over gas stove and wood fire, I was treated to a rare exhibition by two or three nighthawks chasing insects in the upper air, swooping, flapping and twirling like big slender bats. And then the bats themselves began shooting through camp.

After dinner, I walked up the road a mile or so in the bright light of the half moon, listening to crickets at various distances off in the desert.

I slept well, only waking briefly a couple of times, to track the progress of the forked galaxy, after the moon set behind the mountains in the west and left the night to the stars.

Over the Wall

The last time I’d tried backpacking, several years ago, it was on a maintained trail, and I’d had to turn back after two miles because my feet, my back, and my hip were hurting too much. I had been wearing the cheaper hiking boots with less support, and my heavy old Swiss Army rucksack with no waist belt.

This time, I had better boots, but the same pack. I’d shopped again and again, but I just couldn’t abide any of these new neon-colored high-tech packs, and none of them were designed for desert conditions anyway. Just walking past a catclaw bush would rip that thin nylon to shreds, and most of those fancy suspensions would leave your back soaking wet with sweat in no time. I’d actually designed my own desert pack using natural materials, but hadn’t been able to source the materials yet.

I did update my stash with two collapsible 96-ounce plastic canteens, so that my total fluid load ended up including 8 liters of water and one liter of electrolyte drink. Plus that big sleeping bag, warm clothes for the cool night, jerky, cajun sesame sticks, energy nuggets from the Co-op back home for morning, and miscellaneous survival odds and ends, including maps, folding knife, lighters and my water zapper just in case I got lucky and found water. If that happened, I could stay a day or two longer!

I figure the total weighed about 30 pounds, almost a quarter of my body weight.

Incidentally, for the first time in my life, I had a walking stick. My mom had left it behind after one of her visits, and I’d put it in the basement never expecting to see it again. But with my bad hip, I knew I’d need all the help I could get. And it really did help. It was often in the way when climbing over boulders, but even more often, it took the weight off my bad hip, so that stick, more than anything else besides water and food, enabled me to get there and back, so thanks Mom!

The walk up to the base of the ridge, across many crisscrossing spines of rock and deep ravines, was challenging as usual. A beautiful specked rattler stretched across a small gully in front of me just as I started out.

The climb up the steep headwall, pacing myself in the heat, zigzagging back and forth to avoid sheer cliffs, took a couple of hours. The wonderful Mojave sage was finishing its bloom, but I enjoyed patches of its fragrance all the way up. Three-quarters of the way up, I came upon fairly recent scat from a group of 7 or 8 bighorn.

I reached the saddle at the top of the ridge with little pain in my hip, and for some reason I hardly felt the weight of the pack, unlike last time. And like most ridgetop saddles, this one was swept by wind, so that although it was midday and the sun beat down with no shade anywhere, it actually felt cool up there.

I knew the down climb would be the most dangerous part, but this turned out to be a complicated saddle, with successive shelves that dipped down gradually to the west, so that I couldn’t even see my destination, the hidden basin, until I’d worked my way around and down the sheer palisades of these rock shelves.

When I finally reached a viewpoint over the hidden basin, I saw that it was lower than my starting point, and my climb down would be even longer than my climb up.

Again and again, even with the stick, I stumbled and regained my balance, on a steep slope that wouldn’t have caught me in time if I’d fallen. It was a horrendous, fearsome down climb, worse than anything I’d done before.

Finally, two-thirds of the way down, I came upon a big granite outcrop eroded into caves and tunnels, and found shade in a shallow cave. After drinking and resting, I scouted the remainder of my route. I was getting tired, but it was not yet 3pm, with the hottest time of day still to come.

Six hours after starting, I reached the bottom, at the edge of a deep gully where my friend had found water 30 years ago. Everything was gone dry now, but in the distance was a boulder pile that offered shade, and I cut across the bajada toward it, through stands of cholla denser than I’d seen anywhere else in the range.

Sunset in the Lost World

The shade of the boulders wasn’t extensive, and cholla balls were scattered over the ground. I brushed some sand as clean as I could and laid out my sleeping bag to lie on. Tired but restless, I kept getting up and looking out from my tiny patch of shade. My water was more than half gone already, so I needed to stay put. I was totally alone in a very inaccessible place.

I found a small shard of the simple, disposable low-fired pottery that the People used out here. So they were over here! I thought of the 4-dimensionality of this place for those of us who’ve visited it for decades. All the different sites and elevations of the mountains are populated in memory with the family, friends, and girlfriends who’ve been with me here at different times. The People are just an added layer, still here with me in the eternal present, living the way I was taught to live at the school in Utah, at the other end of their territory.

Hours later, the sun started down and I shouldered my pack and got moving again. In the lowering light, the grandeur and mystery of this landscape, hidden for decades, grew before my eyes. Completely surrounded by high rock walls and boulder-strewn slopes, powerfully isolated from the outside world. The sunset light picked out towering cliffs and pinnacles as rugged as those in any other part of the mountains. Huge dry washes converged in the lower distance toward the central drainage of the basin, miles away. By some magic of topography, the big eastern canyon I’d wanted to explore caught the last light of the sun, turning brilliant gold behind foreground ridges that were already dark.

I worked my way down into the big washes, looking for a camp site, and found no evidence that anyone had ever driven in here. It was the first drainage I’d seen in these mountains without tire tracks or footprints. And there was no sign that cattle had ever been in here, confirming my friend’s 1985 report. This was probably the most pristine habitat in the entire range.

I walked down to the convergence of drainages. It was a huge wash, hundreds of yards across, thick with healthy stands of baccharis and other riparian shrubs. It was getting dark and I wanted a more enclosed camp, so I walked back up the northernmost drainage, the one I’d use in the morning to find my way out of the valley.

There, I found some outlying junipers with deep layers of duff underneath that I could use for padding on the hard sand of the wash. The light was falling fast, and I had no lantern nor anything to do after dark other than sleep. I made my primitive bed like the People, ate as much jerky and sesame sticks as I could, drank a little more water, and went to bed in the heart of the Lost World. The night was perfectly still, and a thin layer of clouds had been forming during sunset, so that I hoped for cooler weather in the morning.

Sunrise: The Old Ones

I slept well, but the sky cleared during the night. Hoping to make as much of the hike out as possible in the shade of the eastern mountain wall, I woke well before dawn, ate a bunch of energy nuggets and drank a half liter of my precious water, and was packed and on the way by 5:30am.

Coming down, I had vowed not to go back the same way. I would walk miles to the north, skirting the base of the eastern wall, to try the shorter climb to the pass I’d originally selected, the one with the closed road. Once I reached that road, it would be only two or three miles back to my truck, with its 15 gallons of drinking water, under the full sun of a hotter day.

As the drainage ascended to the bajada I began to find my first “modern” artifacts: a plastic shotgun shell casing oxidized into tatters, and an old rusted can with a wire threaded through it as a handle, just the way the People would do it, according to the way I was taught. You could prop it over a fire with a stick and cook a meal in that tiny pot adapted from a can the white man would toss aside as trash.

In the wash last night, and across the bajada this morning, I found many husks of skinny mushrooms and compact puffballs, always a surprise in the open desert. The decomposers seem to find something to work on in any habitat.

My first destination was the base of a spur of the mountain that projected out into the valley. I would need to get around it to reach the low pass. The bajada went up and down, I threaded my way around and between stands of cholla and creosote bush, and the rising sun began to gild the peaks to the north.

Still walking in the cool morning shadow of the eastern wall, I finally approached the projecting spur. At its base was a pile of ancient granite boulders, blackened with desert patina. I always check these patinated outliers for rock art, and from the pottery shard I’d found the day before, I knew the People had been here.

I lifted my pack, set it down, and walked over. As I rounded from the south to the north side of the boulders, I saw them. High up on the rock face, faint, and damaged in spots by the white hunters’ shotgun blasts, the marks were strange but their style was familiar. The People had been here, perfectly adapted to this harsh environment, living sustainably with minimal impact, neither firing the grasses nor damming the drainages nor building the machines of destruction that we’re so good at. If that is romanticizing the noble savage, so be it. It’s what we know about them, and no defensive, guilt-ridden news bytes about the destructive practices of other indigenous peoples in other places can invalidate that.

In the short time between yesterday afternoon and this morning, I’d found more than what I’d come for: wild, timeless habitat, and the presence of the people who lived as an integral part of it, eating wild food, making everything they needed, by hand, with the natural resources available here. Peaceful people who avoided conflict. People our soldiers decapitated, mounting their heads on poles as a warning to those who would not be civilized. Tell me about our progress: how we outsource the behaviors we no longer want to see, such as slavery, to distant lands that are destroyed to feed our hyperconsumption; how we learn to depend on money and machines to do everything for us, so that we become weak in body and spirit. Too weak and poor in spirit to live the way the Old Ones did.

There’s nothing shameful about admitting you’re wrong, you’re on the wrong path. There’s nothing shameful about admiring the people who came before you. That’s not romanticizing, that’s honesty. Your myth of progress: now that’s romanticizing.

The Climb Out

Recharged by my discoveries, I walked the final miles to the base of the pass. I believed I was going to make it, but I was still being careful. There were many challenges, routes to pick from a distance around cliffs and boulder-choked ravines. Loose rocks to avoid, some of them so big they appeared solid.

It wasn’t an easy approach; it never is, because the base of a steep drainage collects the biggest boulders, and erosion exposes the foundation rock which is too steep to climb with a pack. You have to aim for the alluvial parts of the slope, which lie between the exposures of solid rock. As I was following one of these slopes upward at an angle, I came upon a diamondback rattler asleep in the shade. Totally out. I admired it for a moment then looked for a way around that wasn’t blocked by yucca or catclaw.

In the same area, I found another shard of pottery which showed that the People used this pass as well.

Luckily, this slope got easier toward the top. I had climbed out of the shade; it was after 8am. When I got to the saddle, my water bottle was empty. I found shade behind a boulder and drained the remainder of my last big canteen into my drinking bottle. Then I walked east to scout the down slope.

It was totally gnarly. Walls of a different, dark red granite projected across from the south, probably impassible. The center of the drainage was choked with boulders as usual. The north side had some sediment but was in full sun.

I managed to find a way down between the central boulders and the red walls, stopping frequently to reconnoiter, weaving my way back and forth. The lower I got, the more I was forced into the boulders with their sheer drop-offs and impassible clots of vegetation. Still, it was a beautiful slope, dotted with pinyon pine and thick riparian shrubs. At one point a hummingbird dropped in front of my face to check me out. I could see the end of the road at the bottom, with a cleared turnaround. I just had to be smart and patient and keep going.

The walk back on the road was a walk in the park, but it reminded me again of how special the Lost World is, free of the roads we build for our machines, free of the giant trampling beasts we attempt to manage in our efficient but wasteful commodification of food.

I got back to the truck with a half liter of water. It was 10am, already fiercely hot, and there was no shade within 50 miles of driving for me to park in, wash up and rest for the remaining 10 hours until sunset. I needed a rest. I had pushed my deteriorated joints far beyond what they deserved. So, as a product and a lifelong victim of an advanced society, I headed for a motel with air conditioning.