Monday, April 23, 2018

Desert Trail: Borrego and Sonora Deserts

My trick in all this, I'm not letting you know what's real. And it's because I don't know what is real. it's not you, really. I slip into my own reality. Then, I step foot out on trail.

The border feels uneasy, mostly because of our political state. It's probably hyped up more in my head, or it's because I can't fathom a wall being any bigger without it symbolizing tyranny or racism. So, I shoo my mom away quickly, telling her to scurry back to the highway. 'This is no place to fuck around,' I tell her. I spot a border patrol jeep hidden under a canopy of an oak tree. We both see it. She abides my shooing and I try to get her to crack a smile. She does, then she leaves. I start northward walking through a small, dusty border town of Jacumba Hot Springs. At the railroad crossing I decide to take a foot path paralleling the rails. Abandoned, I encounter old rail cars. I knew of this place and I had a keen interest in seeing this place. Graffiti painted on the side of the rail cars, quite beautiful and colorful, yet I see the empty red cushioned seats, the shattered windows, the pried off doors, and the long echoing and hollow corridors and I cannot help but envision what once was. Maybe that's why I'm so enthralled by the desert, the ability to take things and people all away. Machines, towns, mines, communities, homesteads, water, all gone in the wind and the fiery sun. Bodies were once in those seats. A conductor pushes the train across precarious trestles above the deep Carrizo Gorge. People were smiling; the scene is exceptionally apocalyptic now. The wind whistles a seepage of moans, the ululations of ghostly gasps eerily through the rail cars and I leave. I cross trestles still heartily in tact, hovering above steep and incised gullies. I even slip through a tunnel or two.

This easy walking and I cannot help but start on a random thought. Lately, some close friends have or are going through some sort of mental disease or some other and I stop and look around and wonder what has me here and not there. I don't know. Maybe I'll never know. Maybe I don't give myself time to think. 'Just keep going,' I tell myself, 'keep the mind busy.' Then my heart will take care of the good stuff. Yea, that's my notion. But, I feel so much empathy out here in the emptiness of the Carrizo Gorge. Like, this is the only place I could feel empathy. I get it: balance. And I only feel it when my life is on the line where the next second in the moment matters.

I step on a large boulder and it is loose. My shin slips off and the rock scrapes off some skin. I catch myself amid a tangled mess of mesquite. I'm okay. I'll take better care of each step. I notice a couple gashes on my right hand, bleeding and smeared with dirt. I am part of this whole thing already; the desert. The ruggedness in this gorge is crazy. It is a real fight in here. I climb and push through tamarisk that choke the channel. A few pools linger while the slowly evaporate under the desert sun, sludge-filled with gunked up algae. The thicker of impenetrable tamarisk is flanked and guarded by hordes of low and brushy mesquite and rip-tearing catclaw. Slow progress ensues and I show no teeth. I plod and swipe and push. Everything else pokes or jabs and it's not long before I'm part of the trail. Blood smears and runs down my shin. No matter, I need it.

I find a ramshackle camp underneath two very large boulders. The hollowed out camp has a colorful hand woven bag, green with a strap and some serape--type designs used for sitting on and carrying provisions. Lying next to the satchel is a couple burnt out ravioli cans and a wad of toilet paper with shit caked on it that lies next to a covered up and stamped out fire pit. Adjacent to all of this is a burrowed out fat stem of a barrel cactus and a mangled deer carcass. This migrant knew what he was doing. No wall big enough will stop the tenacity of a people trying to find a 'good' life, no deserts or mountains will evaporate the deaths of people; they'll never stop. If you want something bad enough, your back against the wall, you will go to extreme measure to attain it.

I camped stealthily on an island above two creek channels behind a large boulder buried in the compacted sand. The wind howled for most of the night as I laid on the top of my quilt feeling the cool desert air. I hardly slept, but I was tantalized by the stars above.

A rivulet of a pink ray peered over the jagged ridge line. I startled up as I felt the morning light grow behind my closed eyelids. I set off early and before I knew I was at Box Willow campground, which had a water spigot. But not before I startled a coyote family of three, the little one unawares of my arrival, so he darted off with his tail between his legs yelping a low chirp. I packed out 2.5 gallons of water for the 35m stretch, not knowing if that would be enough, for the temps around 830am seemed to dictate a hotter day ahead of me. 

And Arroyo del Diablo proved no less. Within the eroded time-froze mud walls the sun bore down like a beast's breath over the neck of a prey. The hot wind blew off mud caked flakes from the walls. Temps soared and I couldn't stop drinking my warm water. With a swollen tongue I muttered a word. Only a raspy and gravelly voice sounded, although I do not know what I muttered. I just remember muttering. The balls of my feet burned and salt crystallized around my neckline. My eyes burned. My umbrella, useless. While keenly aware of my condition I paced out my steps conserving energy and enduring the sweltering heat. My water ran scarily low, so  went down Fish Creek Canyon towards a quicker route towards water, rather than up canyon towards the eventual Hapaha Flat and Harper Canyon. I was aware what was going on, of my state and staggering. I kept wobbling down the wash but the heat was overwhelming, confounding. My water kept hot, shade laid scarce. Finally the cool of the evening came as I sinewed down the tall narrows of the canyon. The geology of the canyon took my mind off things, yet I was reminded of time, or the age of things. Then, I looked up and saw that night was encroaching like any last light of day, the end. The wind picked up, quite gusty at times, as I kept on until I found a spot with cover. I nearly collapsed from exhaustion but I urinated first. A brown, murky piss came stiffly flowing out. I knew what that meant. I slugged a half liter and I flopped down. I fell right to sleep on my pad and woke about an hour later in pitch blackness. Beautiful out, with the twinkling stars and the eerie yet luminous layered shadows of the high walls and ridges above me, a bat flitted across my night line and I plowed into some beans and chips. I laid back down, my kidneys cramping in my lower back. I forced a snore.

The next morning things were cool. That is until I neared the open desert. Huge clouds of whipping sand mushroomed up in the sky. The wind fiercely blew and drove the loose sand towards the Salton Sea. At one point, I hunkered down in a ditch beneath the sparse canopy of a greasewood to avoid the blowing sand. Gusts kicked up easily over 50mph. The dust storm passed and I heard a tiny beep. To my surprise, a truck stood nearby, the driver mouthing words that I could not hear. Larry asked if I was okay. I told him, 'Yea, but I won't turn down some water.' 'What about breakfast?' Turn down that?"


At his compound, high powered trucks lined under car canopies. Men were scrambling and preparing for what I knew not. Larry said this was a place that worked on souped up trucks. But I became suspicious when everyone called the charismatic Boston cat 'sir.' Even the blokes in sheriff's uniforms and and the military men in fatigues. Computers lined long rooms with manned stations. Radar looked present. I thought Larry was Hannibal of the A-Team. He totally charmed me over and helped me out of the brain dump. To be honest, he got my mind out of the sun-exhausted and wind-blasted muck from that morning and the previous day. Feeling full of food and motivated he dropped me back off. I figured later on that day that that operation must be there for drug running purposes. But what a shift in mentality Larry provided.

Across the Borrego Badlands through a wind and dust storm, I squinted my brow and forged ahead. My left ear filled with dirt, my nose became a bit caked with dirt boogers.Then, I applied my buff to replicate a turban. Cross country I went through the badlands, tip toeing on ice cream ridges, mounds of pink and orange mud baked well done every second of every day. The lion within roared. Under 5 Palmas a calming sensation occurred within me. I relished in the shade while the blowing fronds lulled me to a meditative sleep with my eyes open. After a highway crossing, I filled up with 2 gallons of water from a cache I stashed there. I battled the screaming wind on an exposed ridge, then played a fun game of climbing steeply up loose hillsides, scampering over broad mesas, then back down gravelly rims and slopes. The end of day three, in a tight wash, quiet save for the ringing in my ears, I laid down tiredly. The absence of wind made the ringing quite loud, like a shell shock, a mad lullaby, a chiming chaos, and I toyed with the volume in my head trying to control the cacophony.

Ah, the next morning was grand. A slot canyon entrance guarded by a large catclaw the size of a small tree had a mylar balloon saying HAPPY BIRTHDAY pried within the talons of the giant shrub. For all I wished the balloon said GO FUCK YERSELF. These are all too common in the desert east of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. Attaining a sky line after Wonderstone Wash I was afforded views of the Coachella Valley. After walking all day I got to my first town stop. People lined up at a Starbuck's drive thru, and I fund irony in the people of the desert, blazing hot, looking to get a hot cup of joe in broad daylight. I waited until dusk to walk out of town. The Friday streets of Mecca lined with Mexicans all said hello as I strolled by. I hoofed it out carrying a gallon of water in hand. Sleeping on the Coachella irrigation canal under a dazzling night sky I couldn't help but think of those buffoons at the famous music festival and here on this canal I had the whole valley and the lights of the sky to myself.

The Orocopa Wilderness had a maze of canyons and washed within tumbled mountain ridges pirouetting from the main axis of Orocopia Peak. The landscape showed utter erosion scraped clean from fast moving water, although rare spectacles as those floods may be. Transitioning from the Sonora to the Mojave Desert has been fascinating. From palo verde to ironwood, to ocotillo blending in between with red blooms around 2000ft; greasewood toe creosote, various chollas to yucca, the fan palms and oases disappearing while the jojoba and the occasional juniper appear. Even the rock is different, more volcanic and less-sea bed quality. Either way the wind howls and I am grateful for it. Water is non-existent, stretches between replenishing my bladders is 50m, over and over. I'm pushing it to say the least. But the mornings and the late afternoons are of dreamboat material. And I walk through puzzles of drainages, pour-offs to navigate keep me focused until I hit wide open country and let loose in singing, no, screaming out loud, letting it all free from what ever is diseased in me. Alive I feel, maybe that's how I keep my sanity.

The desert evokes a fear, deep inside of us, even me, a lover of the desert. You simply do not know what to expect. No cover, no shade, utterly exposed, only left to talk and think among the many selves of you. It can drive a man to insanity.Everything is so bare, so eroded, naked. It's the deepest crevasses of the human mind and spirit, all of it, like a desert. The desert shows us who we are, what we are afraid of. If we succumb to the fear, may the lion roar.

I don't know what lies ahead. Temps may get too hot and the water may be run dry. This sensibility thing, I know enough not to die no matter how hard I push myself. I've seen the brink, I know what I'm made of.

I'm the lone straggler waddling into the truck stop to eat food, wash  myself in the sink basin, and find a cubbyhole to hide my body to sleep within the desert fringe as the world moves slowly on. That thought, that empathy for what ails, the striving for balance, that thought has ended for now.


  1. Outstanding writing, based on an appreciation of the experience. Nothing beats that wild desert country