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Sunday, December 25th, 2016

Miracle in Indy: When Art Transcends Intention

Sunday, January 24th, 2016: Arts, Visual Art.


For many years, when visiting family in Indianapolis, I’ve escaped the confines of the cramped family home to spend a few hours at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), which, unlike many urban museums, occupies a bucolic site in the midst of park land on a bluff above the forested floodplain of the White River. The museum grounds are surrounded by an even larger forested cemetery, so there’s literally nothing in sight to remind one of the city, and the architect took advantage of this by providing large windows in all the outer galleries, for an indoor/outdoor feel and expansiveness that’s missing from most urban museums.

As I identified favorite works in the collection, my sporadic visits became more like pilgrimages, and as I fell in love with the Japanese gallery, which most often features scroll paintings, I came to think of my visits as a form of meditation, ritually beginning with the Japanese gallery.

But at some point, every visit continued to the back of the 4th floor, the contemporary floor, where a sound installation by Julianne Swartz had been more or less permanently relocated.

The Swartz installation, “Terrain”, had originally opened in the museum foyer, the highest-traffic site in the museum. It consists of a broad network of audio speakers suspended overhead, playing continuous, spatially distributed loops of people breathing, whispering and humming, a soundscape which comes and goes in gentle waves. Swartz asked her recording volunteers to think of someone that he or she felt tenderness for, and to say what he or she would whisper in that person’s ear. According to Swartz, “the piece is negotiated by the movement of your body – it’s all happening overhead and you negotiate it by the path you walk.” What the listener hears, if they hear anything, is unintelligible, seemingly random, and can often be interpreted as nature sounds. All good so far, except that the unfortunate “negotiate” should be replaced by navigate.

I had sampled this installation since its opening in the foyer, and had always found it underwhelming, visually distracting, and somewhat pretentious. The foyer installation just couldn’t work, with the high ambient noise level and high traffic. I can’t imagine what the museum and the artist were thinking, opening it there. And even in the upstairs location, the artist and museum provided no effective guidance on how to experience the work; the strong overhead visual network of cables and speakers overwhelmed the gentle audio component, and visitors tended to enter talking with each other, walk around talking inside, and leave without ever really experiencing the work.

But after my recent hip surgery, I arrived at the IMA to find the Japanese paintings replaced by ceramics, and when I reached the Swartz installation, my hip was aching, the room was empty for a change, and I laid down on one of the two padded benches and closed my eyes. Finally, in its aerie high above the river and the winter landscape, “Terrain” began to work on and for me, teasing my ears and freeing my mind. My thoughts slowed to a standstill and my hearing expanded, at least until a group of talkers came in, circled cluelessly, and left. Contrary to Swartz’s stated intention, the audience needs to be still, not in motion, in order to apprehend how the sound is changing across the space of the installation.

Hence, in yesterday’s return visit, I took the elevator straight up to 4. “Terrain” was occupied, but this time, amazingly, by other silent, motionless kindred spirits: 3 on the benches and one on the floor in lotus position. I tried standing at the wall of windows for a while, gazing out over the stark winter forest and river to the dull western plains, but full attention required full relaxation. So I went elsewhere and returned later, when I found a young man sprawling on one bench and the other bench empty.

I laid down again, and we two strangers shared the ever-changing soundscape for a blissful 20 minutes or so. Whispers from one direction, tickling my ears, fading away. Tuneful humming from another direction, building, fading. A sustained silence, emptiness outside and in. Eventually, my body felt like moving again.

The least distracting way out is thru a narrow lightless corridor, past a James Turrell installation, and through a small video projection room. As I emerged into the bright central atrium of the museum, I heard someone behind me saying “Excuse me, sir.” It was the young guy from “Terrain.”

“Do you visit often?” he asked.

“Yes – I don’t live here, but I visit every chance I get, just to meditate,” I replied.

“Have you tried the Turrell?”

“No, not really. What’s up with that?”

He led me back into the darkness. From the narrow corridor, the Turrell room is so dark the room itself is indistinct. “Hold your hands out in front of you and walk to the wall,” he said. Together, we slowly advanced into the darkness. As your eyes adjust, you begin to recognize an even darker rectangle centered in the opposite wall, like a large black painting. Then when you reach the wall, your hands go right through – it’s actually an opening, but the inside is not just black, it’s a colorless void – you can’t see an end to it. It could be infinite.

“Amazing!” I said quietly. “Thank you!”

We stood side by side staring into the void, alone in the silent room, for 10 minutes or so. It was another form of meditation, that would’ve been spoiled by others passing in the corridor or entering the room.

Then I turned and thanked him again, slowly returning to the outer world.

I don’t know of any other museum where an experience like this is possible – and at the IMA, it seems to be an unintended and well-kept secret. We artists are painfully aware of the gulf between our intentions and our achievements, but we are much less aware of the broader potential of our work to come alive and transcend our intentions in different environments and with different audiences. Swartz’s original idea that “it’s all happening overhead and you negotiate it by the path you walk” turns out to be a very limited way of experiencing her piece. You really need relaxation, stillness and silence for something like this. But going beyond the artist’s intention is a success, not a failure.

Even now, years after their openings, I think the Swartz and Turrell installations have the potential to be the most powerful works at the IMA, but largely accidentally. I’m dreading the day when the museum will retire them.

Julianne Swartz’s “Terrain”

James Turrell’s “Acton”

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Late to the Snow

Thursday, February 4th, 2016: Outdoor Life, Stories.

At Park City in 1995, fresh from his first ski lessons and devoid of any fashionable ski wear, Max sets out with veteran skier Ken

I started life surrounded by hills that were covered with snow in the winter, in the western Appalachians. I’m 5 years old when I first show up sledding down the hill behind our house in a photograph. A few years later, we moved to the flatlands of central Indiana, where our folks had to drive us out to the golf course to find even a tiny hill. There, the local river had eroded some modest slopes we could sled down and trudge back up again. We’d heard about this exotic sport called skiing, far away in Colorado, but that was strictly for jet setting celebrities and a few local hoi polloi, doctors and lawyers and their families. And anyway, I was small and frail, perennially shut out of athletics by bullying.

In grad school in the Bay Area, after losing a long-term girlfriend, I became a temporary jock to rebuild my self esteem, and spent a couple of winters learning Nordic skiing and ski touring with friends and family. That gave me a small taste of the magic and majesty of immersion in the alpine landscape, but it all ended when I sampled art school and transformed myself into an urban bohemian. For the next 15 years, I rejected all things athletic and viewed skiing as an abhorred symbol of yuppie decadence.

Women, never underestimate your power to change men’s lives! In my early 40s, I was dumped by my latest sweetheart, a former high school athlete and skier, in favor of a younger guy who was a jock. My self-esteem was again in eclipse, and I accepted a friend’s invitation to take ski lessons. I figured it was time to throw out my old prejudices and hope that an adventurous attitude would eventually land me another fit young babe. In a way, this was the beginning of my years-long experiment with the yuppie lifestyle as I developed a new career in the tech industry, started hanging out with other overpaid professionals, and was able to take more expensive vacations.

And now, two decades later and recovering from hip surgery, with my last ski trip 6 years behind me, I’m looking back nostalgically at a magical period in my life when I had the opportunity to experience spectacular beauty, life-changing thrills, and a new feeling that my body, which I had always considered weak, had unlimited athletic potential, even this late in life.

For my first lesson, in 1995, I joined a friend from art school, at the tiny Mountain High resort in the San Gabriel mountains outside Los Angeles, on thin snow broken by rocks and clumps of grass. There, I mastered the snowplow and not much else, but I got a feel for the common resort layout of a lift to the head of a gentle valley between forested slopes, with the valley floor providing the easy way down, and the ridgetops leading to slopes clear-cut into steeper “runs” for more experienced skiers and snowboarders.

Snowboarding was the commonest topic of conversation for skiers at that point. My friend and I had unquestioningly decided to learn to ski because we assumed snowboarding was for kids. And other skiers spoke contemptuously of snowboarders as rude, inconsiderate, or overly aggressive obstacles on the slopes.

It was kind of like getting a dog or having a kid – my friendships began realigning with other skiers. A friend of a friend gave me her old late-80s PRE 1200s, very hot skis for their day. I bought a cheap pair of beginner boots, and was invited to a week in Park City, one of the most prestigious resorts in the U.S., with the family of an ex-girlfriend. From rags to riches in a couple months’ time.

That trip was an amazing opportunity to immerse myself in both the sport and the lifestyle. The four siblings and their spouses/partners were expert skiers from childhood. We rented two massive adjoining condos in town. In the daytime, the good skiers went off to bomb powder bowls, while my beginner friend and I took lessons and explored the blue runs, long bare ridges with infinite Great Basin vistas and broad deep side runs slashing down to the high-speed lifts. It was an unexpected and unfamiliar turn-on to be playing in the midst of a vast landscape populated only by people who were healthy, fit, athletic and full of energy, moving gracefully on the beautiful snow.

With a solid week of some of the best skiing in the world, I acquired the sense of controlled speed, but I also got a taste of the edge of risk and danger that would motivate me to advance to greater skill. At the end of the day, the good skiers would excitedly relate their exploits, many of which sounded near-suicidal. One of the group spoke of learning to ski on ice in Scotland; he showed off for me, barreling down a steep in a straight line then shooting past me off a snowbank to sail out of sight through the air. My beginner friend took a fall on one of those big ridgeside slopes and cracked a rib on the camera he was wearing inside his parka. And one day, later in the week, we joined a couple other guys on a side trip to Alta, a legendary skiers-only resort for hard-core experts. That turned out to be the day of the big blizzard.

We took two lifts in a row to get up high, and at the top, it was blowing horizontally with total white-out conditions. We literally couldn’t see where the runs were or began, let alone whether they were blue or black. We immediately got separated. I started down, found myself flying blind off an invisible cornice, tumbled into deep power, dug myself out, and spent the next half hour plowing between trees that materialized out of the storm, falling dozens of times but miraculously never getting hurt.

Eventually I made it down to the lodge, where the others were waiting. They’d all had the same experience, skiing blind, tumbling into deep powder, slowly feeling their way down through a world of grey. We rested, then doggedly gave it another try. Before long, the storm got so bad the lifts were shut down, and we drove back with our war stories for the rest of the group, slackers who’d taken the day off.

Nights in the condo were epic, everyone shoveling down masses of food, sharing music on the powerful stereo, the athletes in the group getting raging drunk, people wandering out to the jacuzzi through a haze of pot smoke. That was where I acquired my addiction to the “cold plunge” – rolling from the hot jacuzzi into a snow drift, and back again, opening my pores and then slamming them closed, shocking my capillaries, creating a natural rush that amplified the thrill of being high in the mountains in the winter at night.

On the last day we prepared a picnic lunch for the entire group and arranged to meet at a remote glade below the top of one of the farthest lifts. It was an idyllic finish for a trip that had almost no downsides, and had given me the confidence to pursue the life on my own.

My next trip was a day at Mt. Baldy outside Los Angeles, where you can literally go from the beach to the mountain in the same day. A very strange mountain it is, at the end of a long, steep canyon of ominous boulder-debris slopes, with a long rickety dual chair lift taking you from the often snowless parking area up to the ski lodge in a high saddle. From there, you take fairly short lifts to the peaks. There was fresh powder, 6-8 inches, which was barely doable for my level of skill, but I gamely followed my more experienced friend and did okay. The views, mostly over the smoggy suburban sprawl of the Inland Empire, were hazy but vast and golden. Almost a post-apocalyptic ski experience.

There followed a couple of seasons when I tried to advance but was frustrated. I don’t know if this is true for others, but my main goal, every time I hit the slopes, was to be able to do harder stuff. I couldn’t just relax and enjoy where I was at. I ventured alone over to Mammoth, the giant ski area in the Eastern Sierra, and stupidly took the highest lift to the top of the mountain during an icy snowstorm. There was an older woman with us in the chair, and when another person complained about the weather, she said sternly in a Germanic accent, “Good skiers never complain about the weather!”

Off the lift, I found myself at the top of a thousand-foot-tall wall, with overhanging cornices as far as the eye could see. I had absolutely no idea what to do, trying to stave off panic. I skiied along the gently sloping ridgeline looking for a safe way over into the bowl. There was none, but I found a point where the drop-off was only a dozen feet or so, and pushed over. I fell headfirst into powder, dug myself out, was wet and miserable, with 900 plus feet of steep wall to go down before I got to a manageable slope. And that was the way I got down, by falling and digging out, falling and digging out, over and over again.

My next girlfriend raved about Kirkwood, an “insiders” resort south of Lake Tahoe, so I ventured over there next. Another storm was just finishing, having dumped 14 inches of powder, so I enrolled in a half-day, one-on-one powder lesson on gentle slopes. It didn’t seem to help much; I spent the afternoon wearing myself out, struggling in the deep snow. I couldn’t find anything to like about Kirkwood and never went back.

Finally, flush with money during the dotcom boom, I bought a pair of high-performance boots with custom orthotics, and joined a group of younger colleagues who were avid snowboarders, and that turned out to be my ticket to the next level. We swept across the north shore of Lake Tahoe, from Sugar Bowl to Squaw to Northstar and Alpine Meadows. One guy took me under his wing and introduced me to terrain parks, where I ended one day with 60 feet of air and was hooked on jumping. My god, I can fly!

My last trip with the snowboarders was to Mt. Rose on the Nevada side, and that became one of my favorite ski areas of all, partly because of the view over my beloved Great Basin desert. Victor had a sexy long carving board with a photo of Mrs. Peel of the Avengers on its underside. Riding with boarders, I began to notice how incredibly graceful and cute the female riders tend to be. I sort of wished I’d learned snowboarding instead of skiing, and wondered if I’d switch at some point. I’d learned that the most obnoxious and dangerous people on the slopes were not snowboarders, but older expert skiers who tended to be arrogant and cut other people off going way too fast in tight spots.

As Mt. Rose became my “home” resort, I began focusing on steep black runs, even the scary mogul runs that the older skiers always bombed in their serious knee-pounding way. My style, with my knees and ankles hip-width apart instead of locked together like the old school, felt both natural and fast, and I developed a routine of both opening and closing the lifts – being first in the morning and last in the afternoon – warming up from blues to the hardest blacks by noon, grabbing a quick lunch and a beer, smoking a couple of hits from a joint on the first lift of the afternoon, then exploring the whole mountain for the best scenery and the most delirious rush, taking side trips through the trees, grabbing air off the upswept sides of runs, wearing my quads out with speed until sunset and the last long glide home.

Hoping to rope my less athletic artist friends into these newfound adventures, I organized a trip to South Tahoe and Heavenly, another legendary resort. The skiing was okay, but I didn’t like the mandatory tourist-dominated gondola ride, and the resort felt more like a plateau than a mountain. And my drummer friend took a bad fall and got whiplash. Was I jinxing my friends?

Even Mt. Rose turned sour over the next two seasons as I invited other colleagues to join me and they both ruptured discs there, at separate times. But before her injury, Sydney and I stayed at a shoreline motel and I had the amazing experience of diving from the jacuzzi into the freezing cold lake at night and swimming a long distance under the frigid black water, one of the greatest sensations of my life.

Back in the city, I landed a design contract involving a zillionaire who owned half of Vail, Colorado. Two colleagues and I attended a meeting there and spent a day skiing at the giant, plush resort. The day was brilliantly sunny but there was 6 inches of fresh dry powder, ideal for me at that point, and I had a total speed day of bombing back-side runs, impressing even my more experienced companions who joked about me disappearing in a blur in front of them.

As the dotcom boom began to crash, I discovered Dodge Ridge, a nearer and cheaper family-oriented ski area on a back road between Tahoe and Yosemite. It had a good steep rolling run under the main lift, a challenging terrain park, and a small back bowl that tended to catch deep powder. I stayed with a friend at a motel farther down the mountain, and we found the outdoor jacuzzi mysteriously filled with thick white suds one night; clearing them away, we took turns soaking then diving straight into the cold pool.

Cheap lift tickets at Dodge Ridge sustained me during the lean years after the dotcom crash; I was barely able to afford one brief trip to Mammoth with a friend’s family, where I discovered the joy of swinging tight turns through a steep chute between rock walls. Since the late 90s, skiers had overwhelmingly switched from the old long, straight skis to the new, shorter, parabolic skis. Everywhere I went, I was the last holdout with my antiques from the 80s, and on the lifts, people often gave me an ironic thumbs up for using old school skis. Then as I started getting work again, a client called me north to Seattle, and on the way back I stopped at Mt. Bachelor, a legendary volcano which unfortunately turned out to be under whiteout conditions. I skied as long as I could, but it wasn’t fun.


After moving to New Mexico and commuting to California for work, I was able to save up a nest egg, and by winter of 2007, I decided to treat myself to a luxury vacation: solstice at Ojo Caliente hot springs outside Taos, skiing at Taos Ski Valley for Christmas, and lodging at La Fonda in the heart of town, with a final night at the ultra-luxe El Monte Sagrado resort.

Unfortunately, on my first morning hike at Ojo Caliente, I developed a sudden excruciating pain in my thigh. I soaked in the hot springs for a couple of days, stretched, had a massage, and my leg got a little better by the time I reached the ski area a few days later. But by mid-morning it was spasming again, so I gave up, returned to my hotel to change, and located an urgent care clinic on the edge of town. The medic briefly examined me, scratched his head, advised getting an x-ray back home, and prescribed painkillers for the duration.

The next morning, I suited up to head out, but was barely able to shuffle stiff-legged across the hotel parking lot to my truck, with spasms locking up my thigh. Fighting it, I drove up to the resort, parked all the way at the back of the lot, stepped into my boots, shouldered my skis, and waited for the shuttle to the lodge. The bumpy shuttle ride left me in tears. I rested at the lodge for a half hour, then returned to my hotel.

I spent Christmas Eve lying in bed, drugged, but felt better the next day, so I actually spent Christmas skiing at Taos. I ultimately decided I didn’t like the world famous resort, for the same reason most expert skiers seem to love it: it faces north, and most of the slopes are in shade most of the day, which keeps the snow good, but to me it just felt dark and depressing, and way too steep, considering my newfound vulnerability.

That trip was the onset of my hip condition, which I was eventually able to treat successfully with physical therapy, exercise, stretching, and various other tricks for another 8 years before finally having surgery.

On camping trips to California and Utah, I found myself regularly driving past the White Mountains of eastern Arizona, where the Apache Tribe maintains a family ski area called Sunrise Park, at 3 hours the nearest ski resort to my new home. After getting my hip condition under control, I tried Sunrise and fell in love with the views across the high volcanic plateau, over vast white meadows and low forested ridges to symmetrical cinder cones on the horizon. The resort is never crowded and the slopes are reasonably varied, and when there I stayed in nearby Greer, a tiny, rustic year-round resort community.

On my last trip, in 2010, I stayed at Greer Lodge, a reproduction of a 19th century mountain lodge, with in-room jacuzzi. It was wonderful, but it was destroyed by arson a couple years later. At this point I was skiing in constant internal conflict between pushing myself to take risks and protecting myself from injury; the result was that I wore myself out at the end of the day and started crashing. The last day, I wrenched my knee and didn’t fully recover for months.

In the past few years, my ancient skis had started to trigger chuckles and snide comments from both skiers and boarders, and I didn’t feel like shopping for an expensive new pair. But closer to my heart, I was increasingly aware of the gulf between my values and my addiction, between my dream of living a simpler, more responsible life and the resort lifestyle with its large-scale destruction of alpine habitat and unsustainable ecological cost. I admired friends who did low-impact backcountry skiing, but I had no desire to follow them. It seemed that I had taken this particular addiction as far as I was going to, and it was a bittersweet realization. Those exposed mountaintops with their endless views across the alpine West; the storms and that beautiful fresh powder; the tall, straight Ponderosa pines and the deep blue shadows; the speed, the slash of ski edge across a groomed slope, the flights through the air, the adrenaline rush, the satisfaction of a hard stop; the cute chicks and board betties with their rosy cheeks and tight asses; the communal energy on the lifts, on the slopeside decks and in the chalets and lodges, the beer, the music, the nighttime soaks and dips and plunges, and especially that swim under ice-cold Lake Tahoe. Unforgettable, all of it.

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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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