Sunday, May 20, 2018

Desert Trail: Basin and Range Part 2

Up Sphinx Canyon I found the sculpted rock that the canyon was named after, on a slope dappled with sage, only I thought the sphinxed rock resembled more a defiant fist cursing some sky god. Further up splintered and flaky rock shingled from steep slopes. Cones highlighted the ridge lines around the deep and narrow canyon. No shortage of colors either. Hoodoos and pinnacles poked up on crumbly cliffs. The narrow channel had a trickle of water slowly flowing down the drainage. The canyon meandered in close corridors and chutes between flatter surfaces where the walls would be barricaded by a large old juniper trunk, which at some point careened down this canyon and got pinned in awkward bends. The sand and grit and flaky rock piled up behind the choked trunk. Lichen shimmered in what little light shone, orange and green fuzzy bumps on sheer cliffs that accentuated the walls. This was entertaining, negotiating the tricky falls and chutes and bends in the narrows, climbing over loose cliffs and benches. Toward the top the land leveled out and the howling wind subdued. It was cold and I had already been layered up. I took a gander back and saw fast moving stratus clouds floating like a blob across the sky. I sauntered on and found a solitary boot print , molded in mud, rather smallish. I wondered who had been here before. A hunter, a hiker, either way, I hadn’t seen a footprint in some time.

The evening of hiking became fun while moving along in the Gabbs Valley Range. Up a drainage to a pine laden pass, down a canyon, and so forth just following horse track which used the most efficient way through the wash and the sagebrush by using the contours of low benches that curved the wash. I was grooving. I walked to damn near dark and finally up my shelter and braced myself for a cold night. I was expecting a cold morning.

And it was. Temps were in the mid-30s and I put on extra layers to stay comfortable. The horse trail fun continued through the Gabbs. I walked bundled up until I reached the turn off to Painted Rock Spring, which was off trail about a mile and a half. The spring flowed strongly and the large willows showed the reliability of this water source. However, the small creek smelled like a port-a-potty and seemed to be a favorite of the cattle and horse in the area. As with the day before, I walked under low clouds all day with sprinklings peppering me throughout. The wind was incessant and cold. I looked around and the tinges of green on the hillsides and the vast emptiness, nary a sign of human influence and I thought, ‘Yea, this is all mine.'

Across Gabbs Flat, I stepped on gravelly, compacted terraces of rock splinters and volcanic shavings uniquely placed, moved, and eroded over time. Quite simply a mosaic of petrography. A long sandy crossing of Gabbs Valley ensued. Big and wide, lonesome, an enormous empty, an iconic Great Basin scene, picaresque in grandness, all the while traipsing beneath Fissure Ridge and the Monte Cristo Range, two small and abrupt hogbacks signifying fault lines and fissures in the basin floor: the middle of no where, I found it.

I woke up to the sweet fragrant smell of sagebrush after the night of rain. Such solitude in the Sinkavata Hills——peaceful, remote, isolated...wonderful. The desolate hills had not been grazed by cows in a while, for the grass grew wild and tall. No sign of human existence or influence, only the animal trace of antelope and jackrabbit with tiny pellet poop, scrape marks on the floor, and tiny paths maneuvering through the brush. 

My specificity: isolation, remoteness, lonesomeness. Because that’s what I know. This is entertaining to me. This isolation is empowering me to be self-indulgent, even reflective. Being this remote has a thirsty madness associated with it. That idea of not conforming to what I am capable of, the good-head-on-his-shoulder thing, money, or exerting my intelligence and leadership. Fuck that. My potential is in the invisible, not industry, or social structure, but in the forgotten, the ignorance of being; I just want to understand my experience, the knowledge of my steps, my own path, and not the laid out cookie cutter version of what is popular culture or even what is cool-underground. I live in the basins, everywhere, every range around the depressions, the sinkholes. I thrive in not knowing what I have scholastically learned and how I have not applied that. There has been nothing that has been laid out in front of me that I have followed. I forge my own way, I go by instinct, by gut, wandering with intent. 

I come back to that notion. I am aware I am the antihero. Bah, it’s all shit. Too deep, too much of an equation with no constant and no answer, nothing steady, just all shit, fart and your mom jokes. I just keep finding remnants, scars that show what once was. But I want that equation and answer, what will be. The augury of my own mortality and the next phase of my life, it is what is provoking me. But I must be honest with myself: the desert is my evocator.

The Stillwater Range may be the highlight of the whole Desert Trail. I can’t describe that day with heavy detail, like I am wont to do. Too much feeling and exhilarations. But I’ll make a feeble attempt. 

The troughs in East Lee Canyon spilled over with fresh water. The hills were alive with Spring, vibrant with green on the brush and a sheeny red on the long grass, after a week of soggy storms. At an innocuous saddle I attained the crest proper and began the huffing and puffing climb of Mt. Lincoln. Drenched in sweat I hiked into the cloud layer smothering the crest line. This was the theme all day: dodging storm cells at the jagged crest, sweating profusely and exerting tremendous effort, steep ups and steep downs on trail-less ridge lines, constantly weaving in thick forests of pine and juniper, with afforded wide, sweeping and endless views. Descending into Poco Canyon I found the creek flowing with spring water. I slurped the chilly water up. I then found the ruins of a cabin. Nearby was a grave under a large boulder. A picture frame laid upright leaning against the boulder with the glass broken and the picture crustily stuck to the backing of the frame from periods of rain, then the drying of pieces from the crazy sun. The picture showed a man and his wife, probably from the ‘60s, smiling big. I continue to find remnants everywhere out here. Later that day, after close to 30m up high on the crest, exhausted and stumbling along, what was left of the sunset gleamed in a brilliant reflection on the western edge of the Carson Sink thousands of feet below. A mirrored surface of freshly filled lake beds from the recent downpours showed 2 suns, the horizon in distinct from my vantage point. Amazed by this sight, I realized even further how indiscernible the horizon was to the west. I looked to the east. In the next basin, purple shadows of the Stillwater Range loomed long and jagged on the basin floor. In the alkali flat, miles away, I could see a perfect reflection of the clouds and sky above on the surface. Everything merely blended together. I was confused by this, and I don’t mean for that to sound confusing. This phenomenon, I’m not sure what it is, but I’m willing to bet there’s not very many places on Earth where it can happen. I could see all around me towering storm cells with curtains of rain reaching the basin floors seemingly walking along, floating and vacuuming up terrain, like giant jelly fish roaming the sea beds, the feeders of the bottom, blending in with the backdrop of the sky and smearing the cumulonimbus clouds almost resembling a soggy and over boiled cauliflower. This dreamy panorama, I could gaze at forever.

I laid down that night and instantly fell asleep only to nearly sleep through a storm that pummeled my tarp. In the morning, the rain still pitter-pattered my tarp and I laid in my quilt comfortably snug. I got ready about an hour later than usual. I looked forward to the last 12m or so on the crest before heading down to the basin floor. But I knew I had to move quickly with all the roving storms. I moved through thick forests as the rain streamed from the cell above. Thunder grumbled and the rain fell harder. Ironically enough, I was low on drinking water. The ground was completely saturated and left the hiking a bit more tougher than usual underfoot. So, I bailed down a canyon as the rain pelted me. I moved even quicker essentially trying to out run the storm or at least find some cover. I found water at the mouth of the canyon. A fouled and tainted pond stunk up the air. A sulphuric smell rang my nose as I filled a couple liters. I left on horse trails heading north to reconnect with the route. The storms were bigger this day, as I kept looking back up towards the crest. I missed it up there. Nevertheless, clouds sat on the shoulders as looming premonitions. 

I found another water source. This time water flowed out of a pipe from a well into a trough. The water looked clear and didn’t have a smell, so I dumped out one of my liters of the crappy water from the previous source. I tasted it. I couldn’t hack it as the water was undrinkable, too salty and alkaline, and I spit out the swill I attempted, my body violently reacting to it. I kept a liter full of it, just in case. I began the Carson Sink crossing beneath large sand dunes cloaked in thorny, green brush. The sky darkened around me as I walked into a strong headwind. I felt pretty protected because of the dunes, however, the dunes did block my view of any storms creeping in. Usually, those basin storms move fleetingly and move through an area at an astounding speed. They bring in wind and drop water quickly, then leave. Easy as that. You could even time or out-walk or wait out a storm as you can see then coming from miles away. But something felt off. Like the tides were being sucked in, the way the wind was blowing, as if a vacuum was sucking the air out of the basin. I kept looking over my shoulder keeping an eye on things. Utterly exposed in the depression I was in, I had to keep an eye on things. Something seemed bigger this day. I had noticed lightening flickering in the distance throughout the morning. And this concerned me. 

Then, a cell coming from the southeast suddenly grew in size. I kept gazing at the moving wavy curtains of rain falling from the heavens and drenching the terrain. From miles away I could see this. But the curtains kept getting bigger and bigger until  a mountain of a cloud, bigger than the whole Stillwater Range developed, billowing down from the thunderhead and bulging forth from the front. The mass wasn’t just up but everywhere and the mass became the entire sky from ground level to heavens. I thought it was the tendrils of a massive roving thunderstorm, but I was astonished at how fast it gobbled up the landscape, devouring everything in its way. Really, I hadn’t seen anything like this or this big. I became concerned because I didn’t have much coverage being out on the edges of an enormous dry lake bed, a depression where every channel funnels into. I thought I had a couple minutes when massive blob just about barreled right on top of me. I took cover in a wash that was more like a deep ditch, under a tall bank and a large sage that grew right above it. I braced for cover expecting to get drenched. The air went silent. I waited. Then...sand! Sand whipped all around me, swirling everywhere, the wind howled and raced through in vicious gusts, the volume and roar of the wind became deafening, the sky darkened. I put my head between my knees, cinched my hoodies tighter and lowered my bill of my cap lower to keep the sand out. Sand still pecked at my sunglasses blowing in from tiny crevices. I was ecstatic! I couldn’t believe what I had been observing from a distance that came up on me so fast, astonished by the enveloping darkness around me. I also knew the gravity of the situation. I knew that this sandstorm meant a vicious storm was next, the precursor to something wicked. About 10 minutes went by. Sand drifted up around my shoes and back. Then, things went quiet, dead quiet. I could see the billowing wave of sand move to the northwest away from me eerily silently. A big drop fell. Then another. Suddenly, the sky opened up and rain just fell. Thunder clapped insanely loudly directly above me. I kept my nerve, just focusing on breathing. I knew I had to endure this. After about 15 minutes into this lightning flashed. I hunkered down and dug my heels in the sand in the ditch. A half hour went by, and I tried to set up my shelter to no avail. The only option I had was to plant my shelter in the sandy wash but the wind prevented me from any such feeble feat. So, I wrapped my plastic ground sheet around me for an extra barrier and waited at least another hour, perhaps even more. I kneeled crouched down in my position focusing on my breathing and watching the horizon to see the darkened sky move west. Slowly, the silhouette of the next range over came into view. I got up and walked on.

The most damage from the storm was further from me. I had been luckily enough on the outer edge of the storm. I found milky mud puddles around small dry lake beds, the once caked mud tiles now soggy and sticky with clunky dirt, the remnants of a storm, the ashes of water, in the wake of wind. The air became redolent of salt, almost like a coast line, like everything had been pickled. I was cold so I moved without stopping feeling the dampness through my clothes. Eventually, I arrived at Wildhorse Spring. The spring situated under dunes tucked up in sage hillsides. The dunes looked saturated and a gloomy appearance marked the beauty and isolation of a desert spring. I found a gouged out pocket of water with tall grass chutes growing out. I wedged in close enough to get the clearest of water. Sulphur rang in the air as I disturbed the still water. I nearly gagged it was so strong. I still filled up 3L worth as I had nearly 25m to town. After two gnarly days I was happy to lay down early. 

On top of Wildhorse Peak I looked back at the Stillwater Ridge skylining the expansive Carson Sink. To the west and north the Desert Trail wended its way towards Oregon. I squeezed my nostrils and muscled down a swig of rotten egg water. The Carson Sink has the most wretched of water I’ve ever tasted, most vile. I had already dumped out 2L of the fart water. I kept one liter but as I looked down in the valley below and saw the potential for water I took the muscled sip, then dumped the bottle. Maybe a half liter was all I could tolerate or else I would vomit. The empty bottle still reeked of sulphur. I twisted the cap and went along the ridge until I dived off and scampered down Horsehead Canyon.

Halfway down the canyon I noticed the rock change. I was shocked to find granite narrows and chutes after not seeing this type of rock in a long while. Tiny crevices on large cleaved slabs of granite were filled with water. I slurped up some of the fresh rainwater, practically guzzled the puddles. Further down I even found a small rill within the narrow channel of normally dry falls. I even filled a liter. I felt happy. A few hours later, taking a piss off the side of the highway about to walk into Lovelock, Nevada, that familiar and retched fart smell wafted up. I was pissing out that rotten egg tainted water.

Guess the joke is on me.


  1. Dirt, thank you for sharing happenings from this desert walkabout. You remind those of us in the work-a-day world that beyond our screen distractions and to-do lists exists gritty, raw, and beautiful life! The misfortune for some the essential sustenance for others. Passing sand and rain cells - powerful and indicative of the basin and range ecosystem. Such processes that if we are lucky enough to experience, show us simultaneously how alive we are and how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of the desert. Wishing you starry nights and chickadee song each morning. Keep walking! -Marmot (a la Marmot and Gabriel PCT '11, you taught me to hear the cheeseburger call of the black-capped chickadee)

    1. Ha! So cool to hear from you! Thx for following along. Such good memories that year ‘11 on the PCT. cheers!