Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Desert Trail: Basin and Range Part 3

I started up Guzzler Canyon. Wide views of plains of sagebrush and basalt pillars that cliffed out an abrupt edge on high mesas. Soon, the storms rolled in. I sheltered under a small rocky alcove, crammed beneath a ledge using my backpack frame to keep my legs dry. I could see the curtains of rain imminently approaching and splattering the hillsides around me until the cell hit me. Then, a large cove under a big cliff with piles of wild horse shit. A hawk, maybe a falcon or a goshawk, squawked above me and swooped around me telling me the nest was nearby. I napped for a while under the weather seemed tame. Soon, up on the crest, another cell hit. This time a cave up high on a spur ridge would suffice. I sat crouched and huddled in the middle of the cave and had a Zen moment. A calm meditation absorbed me and I breathed. I felt the drips running down the lichen covered and gritty walls. I watched the tops of the crest as curtains of rain oozed across the curves. Slowly, the scene went by.

Small game traps, deer or coyote or bobcat, were spaced out up the drainage I ascended to towards the crest of the Sahwave Range. This day seemed different, clearer, still abundant storms but negotiable. I meandered on knobs with granite outcrops. The granite channelled drainages seamed up the steep range, horse trails ran gloriously up and down and across the range, and expansive views of all the playas and ranges around held me in no short of a gleeful fervor.

At the steppes of the Blue Wing Mountains, a horse at the bottom of a drainage, white speckled with a black-striped on face, ran away from me after some curious huffs and puffs. After the ensuing climb I crested the small range, a mirrored reflection in the playa a few thousand feet below brightly reflected the sun and sky on top of freshly dropped rainwater. I felt the cool wind hit my sweaty body. Flaky and angled rock covered in orange lichen angled out of the ground. The Blue Wing outcrops were like finned backs of dinosaurs or ruffled feathers of a bird on alert. Such a stark contrast to the Sahwave Range that was composed of granite and rocky outcrops. Then, I noticed the same horse from down below. We had a stare down, then he snorted and again ran away. I side-hilled a peak to regain the crest and to start a steep descent. I found him again, this time on the slopes. Being upwind as I was, I watched him roll in the dirt and take off on a short sprint, then trot on the rounded ridge in front of me, descend and disappear. Like that, a powerful interaction, then gone forever. Just how I like it. 

I felt pretty lucky I hadn’t got hit by a storm most of the day as I could see consistently roving cells move throughout the basins and ranges. At a spring I found water and in the narrow canyon watched a big cell dump water on the playa and the basin below. Lightning flashed and I could see the crooked electric shaft hit the playa. I watched the cell slowly creep and spill, floating and morphing with the wind. I figured to set up camp early after a big mileage day. I slowly hiked down the drainage taking my time so as to not walk into any stragglers of rain drops. I turned my ankle on a small rock. I was so mad, cursing at the sky or no where in particular. Just got whatever curses I needed to get out. I cannot describe the frustration I had at that moment. So, I found a sheltered spot and laid out my bedroll. Then, I looked for my tarp, the next thing to do before bed under a stormy sky. I rifled through my gear. My tarp wasn’t there. I must’ve left it at my lunch spot at Big Bank Spring. I retraced my memory and I couldn’t place it exactly. But at Big Bank Spring I had been in a hurry to pack up to avoid a storm and I must’ve not packed it. My routine has been broken because the tarp wasn’t in its usual place because of how wet it was. With the ankle providing me with fresh pain and light-headedness I became really confused, utterly befuddled by such an action and feeling. I have not done this before on trail, especially with such a crucial piece of gear. I spent the next half hour finding some sort of sheltered camp to no avail, for I was on the edge of a playa. Very low shrubs laid about before an expanse of caked dirt. I watched burros and wild horses, coyotes, and antelope all cross the playa as the huge storm floated west. The playa after the storm brought out the wildlife, as the horses and burros bucked and snorted, with the antelope sprinting and suddenly screeching to a halt, and the coyote, the interloper, surreptitiously sneaking across with hunched shoulders. An incredible sunset was on display with the tendrils of the storm brilliantly aglow in pink and orange. And I was so embarrassed, mad, frustrated, and confused. I laid down astride a low scraggly brush in a small sandy depression and rigged up my plastic ground sheet and slid my quilt into my trash compactor bag as another cell neared. Thunder grumbled and I felt so vulnerable and uncovered under the approaching ominous cloud. I could hear the rain coming. I felt a bit unnerved, even scared. 

I didn’t feel disencumbered by my ineptitude, rather I felt at a loss, an unexplainable action of losing an absolute need by an action unfathomable before. Fuck, maybe I’m getting old. But the whole thing made me think of ‘home.’ I don’t know how to put it. I’m from Los Angeles, live in Colorado, but I dwell in the wilds wherever I set my shelter up. That’s ‘home.’ And I left it by accident, abandoned my home without thinking, rushing and not taking care. Even though I’m only with my ‘home’ 5-7 months out of the year, it is all I got.

I hardly slept that night, so worried about getting wet or being unprotected from a thunderstorm. I kept popping up and looking around. Throughout the night the constant braying of the burros laughed in the empty space. That’s what it felt like: space. Floating there in the bottom of an enormous sea, completely vulnerable to whatever rams into me, I, not an equal force. I could not provide any push back. I had to take it, come to grips with my pain and heart ache, my disappointment, my disbelief. And the burros braying through the night made me laugh. They sounded ridiculous and the brayings sounded like the burros were under the same insanity and pain as I, only funnier. I would laugh, then playfully tell them to shut up. Some would get near me unawares of my clandestine bedroll at the shoreline of the playa. Towards the wee part of the morning I heard a couple of them trotting on the playa floor not far from me, their clopping hoof prints thudding across caked mud, their brays quite loud. Wild and untamed, usually solitary, the burros still have a banded instinct. They playfully fought, tussled with each other. I, for the first time on this trail, felt lonely. I packed up under dark skies, the moon trying to make an appearance. My aim to get to town a bit early to situate myself with another shelter, the most important piece of gear. I couldn’t be at risk this vulnerably unsafe. I needed to solve my problem. I walked out into the dark playa, the extreme faint glow of dawn creeping up, and took a bearing and simply split apart the blackness.

The grueling 3500ft climb up to Kumiva Peak only fueled my anger. I needed this punishment and each step only expelled the anger and disbelief further out of me. My ankle felt a bit stiff, swollen, but it felt better with movement. I moved swiftly. I knew I needed to push to avoid any afternoon thunderstorms if I wanted to get to town at a reasonable hour. I sweated profusely amid incredibly humid monsoonal air. Salt lines caked my shirt, my face, and my hat. Through the weaving jeep track of the Selenites I pushed until I got to the small town of Empire in which I immediately hitched to Gerlach. I got a new home on order for the next stop, some 180m away. This left me 5 nights with nary a shelter.

What I’ve called shelter: an alcove, a cave, ledges of rock, washes, under the canopy of a guzzler. But HOME? The rock out on the edge of the playa, watching the giant thundercells explode with lightning, I could feel the whir of electricity, the darkness of nature. I tucked my bedding under the awning of the large rock , a small overhang actually. Although my feet breached the length of the awning, and despite my height, I am proficient at being small when I have to. I scoured for this type of rock, a huge boulder strewn from the slopes high above, residing in the flats near the playa shoreline, for 15 minutes. The weather was tumbling, the wind a bit violent, and the clouds too stout. I tucked all my gear under the awning and in the nook where the rock met the ground. I tried to close my eyes with some calming nerve but I could see roaming thunderheads creeping in from the southwest. Lightning flickered in the distance and thunder grumbled like a hungry stomach. Fortunately for me, the rock that was my home that night situated just perfectly against the oncoming whipping wind. I had some sort of quiet from the wind but my eyes could see the storms unless I turned to the inside of the rock. My heart raced as the storms neared. Lightning electrified the air and gave off an exhalation as a sound, like a mute person whispering. The thunder became deafening overhead and I dug my head deeper into my quilt while squinching up my body to get smaller and more compact. I watched the playa light up brilliantly. From pitch black to a bright purple light. Things were getting scary. Suddenly I heard another grumble, like the thunder kept continuing. A night train came steaming along, a bright light leading the way. What a brave soul with the violence in the air. I imagined him a ghostly figure, a skeletal face with a goofy conductor hat, riding the electric night rails. Rain pummeled me and I could here a drip drop drip drop in half seconds. The ground thwacked with huge pelterings of water. In the wake of these storms I rolled over and extended my legs. A few stars came out.

After some assessment I found myself pretty dry. The playa rock provided me with a good home. The morning of the playa crossing, the flats had stayed relatively dry from the night before. The playa had a bit of stick to the surface, more stick than give, so the walking was fairly easy. As the sun rose higher the mud baked harder and the walking became incredibly easy. Straight line bee line, the miles flew. Two cells off to the west moved threateningly and menacingly. I gulped a bit feeling so exposed and vulnerable, for the crossing was roughly 15m. But those two eluded the expanse of the Black Rock Playa. Then, an encroaching storm from miles away slowly took form. I could see the storm being slowed by Kumiva Peak and the rest of the Selenites. The range provided me with an obstruction. However, as soon as the storm hit the playa the sucker really began to move. I started to kick up the heels a bit and constantly checked over my shoulder the direction and closeness of the storm. The rate of speed was astonishing. My hiking really fast turned to a trot, and as the storm ferociously gobbled up the playa then the trot turned into running. I ran to the shoreline of the playa to find any type of cover, for nearly an hour. Out in the playa I was a sitting duck waiting to be potentially struck by lightening. Plus the surface would become terrible to walk on and I would get terribly drenched in the process. The wind howled from behind me kicking up dust devils in wind-throws weaving through tall desert shrubs. Low hanging clouds beneath the cap of the storm hung low as the forefront of the storm like tentacles reaching out to grab me. I kept running, jumping and striding over small gullies, burrowing through softer sand, and lunging around shrubs. I kept at it as the storm reached down. I made the shore as long phantoms of blowsand blurred my vision. The sky darkened and the ribbons of sand howled, whistled as they zoomed on by. Eventually I found a gully and put on my fleece and rain jacket. Rain began and I took off for the rocks under Black Rock Point. I found a large volcanic rock angled enough and leeward of the wind to tuck myself and my pack slightly under. I sat with uncomfortable pokey rocks stabbing my ass. I crouched and hugged my knees, my backpack sheltering my legs. Then, I napped. I fell asleep under the maddening sky.

I don’t know, the wake of the storm left an aftermath on me mentally. My adrenaline had been so high. Now I ambled through leftover puddles of rain, wet sand outlined where the water moved, and I could still feel the huge storm as it moved away, yawning a wake of dizziness, a maelstrom of confusion. My legs stiffened up as I accumulated over 40m that day. I laid down ready for the next big day under more favorable skies.

The skies looked ominous in the morning. Low puffy clouds slammed into Big Pahute Peak. Shit, I thought. These storms had been giving me a fit for a few weeks now. Either the storms put pressure on me to push harder or faster, or exert stress on me in finding shelter or cover, or force me to look at a detour to avoid extreme conditions. What this does is put a bearing on how I feel about this whole thing. Am I doing the route justified? Am I playing this right? Making the right choice? I took a go for the low saddle on the crest to give the storm some time to move on. It didn’t, and I really felt a bit defeated. The conditions and the exposure made it insensible to go up that way. So, I backtracked and cut across the basin to Box Canyon. Since 530am I had been in my rain gear. By 1000am I found a guzzler in the canyon. I was hot and sweaty, while the cool humid air gave me a chill. The rain suddenly came down harder and I found cover under the guzzler. I put my feet up on the tank and cleared out the mice shit to curl up. I fell asleep and woke up about an hour and a half later shivering. The rain had stopped, so I pushed on. The canyon boxed up and narrowed with large basalt blocks choking the gorge. As tedious as the going was only made the rain more annoying. The boulders were slick and the moving was agonizingly slow. I stopped for a second to take a breath and look around, to get my mind and heart out of the defeated state. Up in an underhang perched in a cave an owl stood guard. A stalwart of the narrows, this raptor looked at me stoically, not even a single movement, so much so the owl seemed fake. I squinted to look closer, his eyes piercing my eyes. I wondered if the owl had ever seen a human before. Probably not. I acknowledged the sign and took time and caution the rest of the way up and over the canyon. 

Soon, I was in High Rock Canyon. The landscape didn’t feel basin and range anymore. The scenery felt like a very high desert. Change was happening. The lake with the same name quacked with ducks, coots and sandpipers. I slogged through the mud. It must have poured heavily up here. Murky puddles littered small depressions and filled up ruts in the jeep track. I was now following the Lassen-Applegate Trail, an old branch of the California Trail where pioneers and homesteaders made their way to central Oregon. These ruts were ancient. All from folks trying to find a home. Is this why I do this? To walk until I find that home? To find a place thousands of miles away on foot, to settle and homestead, to endure the hardships and gift of nature? Bah, I shooed the thought from my head. The air remained cold as I slipped and slogged my way through the mud. In the evening, the sun finally appeared. I gauged the sun to give me about 20 minutes of warmth. I cannot express how happy I was to see the sun. I stopped to let the sun blind me for a bit. I blinked and that psychedelic blur fell behind my eyelids. I became entranced and found myself grinning wide, from ear to ear. I simply consumed and enjoyed the absorption of the warmth. The sun fell behind the mesa. I crested a small rise in the muddy road. To my surprise, I saw an earthen hut replete with stone blocks and a mud and straw roof. I got closer and saw the hut was 3-sided. Turns out the hut was a garage, Fox’s garage, from a homestead in the 1910’s. The timing couldn’t have been better. I found shelter, another home for the night. I set up my bedroll and laid down and noticed the moon casted light through the windowless window frame. The angle of light bemused my curios brain. I enacted dumb finger puppets and giggled a bit to myself. I felt very grateful to have a home again. 

If only for a night. She asks, ‘Now, where do you call home?’


  1. Wonderful writing, really feeling it. Thank you

  2. It just wouldn't be a thru-hike without at least one random gear-related incident. You're crushing this trail, really enjoying the blog. Looking forward to seeing your take on the Blues!

    1. Thx Jason! Funny, gonna email you today! Haha

  3. Yes yes yes yes! I love this theme of "home". Something beautiful can always come from something that feels disastrous. Thanks for taking us through your pain, discomforts, and utter joy with such great descriptions!