Thursday, June 7, 2018

Desert Trail: High Desert

The High Rock Canyon corridor I followed the Lassen-Applegate Historic Trail. Following in the wagon ruts and footprints of pioneers is pretty damn cool. This form of migration, the movement I love to do, to me, all ties is together, even a vagabond 150 years later with a family trying to find a new life, a new hope. The walls abruptly rose and looked graffitied with green lichen. I passed ancient caves etched with settler carvings or passers-by petroglyphs. Old homesteads, rather remnants of homesteads, spread out through the canyon evenly. Settlers laid crop, grazed cattle, and tried to earn sustenance out here in this harsh high desert environment. Even older relics and signs of even older people remained. Obsidian flakes and glassy volcanic shavings littered High Rock Canyon and atop the sagebrush high plateaus. 

How have we let it go? Why have we forgotten it? This Desert Trail, I have a hard time gathering an understanding as to why the route has slipped through public knowledge. Almost like the occasional memory lapse of what the pioneers did. We get wrapped up in the easy stuff, the popular stuff. Some history needs care. I think the Desert Trail needs walking. But with old pioneer routes only the ruts remain as the resources are filed away. I aim to bring those back, the historical information for this route to honor a legacy as a long distance hiker, to pay it forward, to honor those that walked before me.

After a last town stop in Nevada at the small town of Denio I hiked into Oregon with a new shelter. Immediately I felt more secure. Once in Oregon, the DT then coincides with the Oregon Desert Trail. In fact, the Pueblo Mountains, well, just read this snippet from a 1980 folded map from the Desert Trail Association: 

‘The Pueblo Mountains section of the Desert Trail is the first officially recognized and authorized portion of a proposed Canada to Mexico National Desert Scenic Trail.’

The Corridor Concept: ‘The Desert Trail, by its very nature, is not a clearly defined path or constructed trail such as the PCT or the AT. Instead, it is perceived as a corridor without specific borders, through which the hiker may pass choosing his own route. The purpose is to avoid a beaten path...The hiker is not expected to walk directly from cairn to cairn, but to wander and investigate things of interest as his or her fancy and time dictate.’

The Pueblos are marked with tall stacked cairns strategically placed at visible points and spurs. I marveled at some of these because they were just as old as me. Totems that provided heritage, communicated the past with the present and the future. But can a totem communicate if nobody walks from one to another, it the totem doesn’t signal any route direction? That’s what gets me: this route is as old as other trails, even began with just as much exuberance as others. Maybe is the dominant trait of the desert itself. The desert forgets things, forgets as in a verb sense, as in evaporating things, decaying things into remnants. But as I hiked through the dramatic beauty of the Pueblos I put these sentiments out of my head. I was right here and right now, right where it mattered. Besides the smell of mahogany in the spring, how potently sweet the air is, alluringly better than a donut shop, or granny’s pie...that’s what matters. Simple shit.

I was reminded of a big bear of a man, retired from the forest service, I met last Fall in the Pueblos while on the ODT. He hunts in the Fall and whittles little thing-a-majigs out of mahogany. He showed me a beautiful, smoothed fish hook out of mahogany around his neck. I admired that bloke. When will I ever do something creative, or take the time to create, or find a small and focused passion that I can whistle to? Something small, yet creative, something with a scented wood, a small carving knife, something that passes the time with glorious insouciance; what ever I create I create.

After a windy night, the morning had a calming about it, still. The air felt empty yet up high in the Steens low hanging clouds plummeted off the craggy eastern rim. Pockets of freshly dropped snow speckled shaded seams and ledges. I started the climb. I admit I had been ultra-cognizant of Wildhorse Canyon, of how overgrown and brushy the way was that made for difficult travel. I had a plan, to learn from the landscape when I was here last Fall. A faint jeep track climbed steeply up towards Hat Pass and the craggy and ominous ridgecrest. Suddenly, on a small and steep descent, like a rattlesnake bite, my ankle went out on me again. It happened so fast and I could hardly catch myself as I was moving too swiftly down hill. I braved myself with my poles and leaned to my falling side, my go-to left side. Usually I can roll out of it but with the rocky terrain my knee and elbow took the brunt of the fall. I sat in the tall and green grass, leaning on my backpack, my back angled down the leaning of the jeep track. I cursed at the air, yelling at my ankle. My first thought was that I dislocated it because it seemingly just collapsed under itself along with a very loud pop. That, and with the previous two injuries on this trip, something just didn’t feel right. I became lightheaded, my blood rushing to the ankle, the knee and elbow. Before I had the gall to reach for my ankle, the tingly and dizziness of the head proceeded to flood my vision. While I was definitely conscious of fighting the pain, of trying to curse the pain away, eventually I succumbed to it. My vision, with each blink, slowly turned to pixelated cubes. Purple and blues, to a dark pink and a gloomy violet, I heard a ringing in my ears until I was sitting at a bar, slunk down in the corner, dark red and dank, I was flung back to LA when I drank a lot and wallowed in a coupled madness and sadness. I finished a pint and said, ‘Another.’ The scene woozily changed, morphed to a time in a Coloradan Winter when I was severely depressed. I felt the agonizing pain of waiting for something to be over, abhorrently defiant to what was infecting me. The welling up of a fighting spirit took hold. I clawed my way back out, scratching my way to consciousness. And everything went dark. Space and blackness consumed me and I wasn’t there. Time erased. The pixelating of cubes creeped back into my brain room. Purples and blues and dark pink cubes melting together in a stacked screen slowly like I had started to blink. I felt almost nauseous but I remember wanting to fight, to keep at it. Then, I kept blinking and trying to piece what was in front of me as the thought 'why am I here?' kept going over and over in my head, and I felt like I was a giant in the grass, I didn't know where I was at and I would shake my head to gain some clarity and vision back. ‘Why here?’ I felt like I was on a psychedelic trip with the colors and the consciousness thoughts. I saw my knees, my left cinched upright and leaning left, my right buckled and splayed out behind me. The grass was really tall, like tiny yet tall trees. I shook the fuzziness loose. ‘Why am I going through this,’ I spoke out loud in my head. A refusal of acknowledgement, the fight for life, like those visions of the past knowing I would get out of there someday, that black out space...yea, I’ll get out of it. 

My other senses kicked in besides the nausea. My hearing sprang back as a loud, tapering whir developed in until everything came together, a synergy of senses. Everything became clear, like that, just as quick as the snap that had happened. I looked at my legs and the tall grass and then remembered my ankle and felt for it. I looked at it glaringly and felt no deformity and yelled ‘C’mon!’ as if I had been cut off in mid sentence and had abruptly rejoined my cursing. I felt mad at myself and whatever it is out there to let that happen again. And, I wanted to fight, to regain focus and stare it in the eye and say ‘C’mon! Is that all you got?’ 

It's been the whole trail though: the need to adapt and grow into a new phase, to abolish what has been fighting me, to let go. The ankle is just the catalyst, a long lived weakness I cannot shake. Funnily enough, that ankle, over all these years, through 2 breaks and countless severe sprains, is on my strong leg, the one that supports my weak left foot and leg. Without the right ankle, I wouldn't be able to do all this shit that I live to do. My right ankle is my totem, my connection to the past that imparts and guides my present. Each step a new present, a new moment, no matter how painful.  I could just as easily let whatever it is swallow me up, but I need to fight. To suffer, to endure, then fight.

I pulled up, checked my self and my immediate surroundings, then tipped my cap to the area in thanks. I turned and walked away with a focus, a grit to get through the nasty bushwhack, the next moment. Only this time, I would do it better.

Up at Wildhorse Lake I soaked my ankle in the clear waters. Snow filled the basins and slopes above while cornices hung off the rim and crags high above. Funny, in the blazing desert of the Mojave I thought about this lake, fantasizing about diving into the cold waters. But like everything, everything is fleeting. I would forget about the lake and the waters the second the wind stopped or after every warm water swill and the oppressive heat would bring me back to the moment. With my ankle soaking I chuckled as my toes got so cold they began to sting. Such a temporary and simple sensation that makes you feel so alive.

In Frenchglen, at the historic hotel, I sat at a family style dinner with friendly strangers. They were so much more friendlier than me, as I sat with a butt cheek hanging off the edge of the bench. Why do I struggle with these things at times, the strength I need to muster just to say hello? Luckily, they had more guts than me. Once opened up, I marveled at the story of the older gentleman who was an ex-police chief telling the scene of a murder, the stoicism and emotional charge, at the same time both crippling, the whites of the victim’s eyes as she was covered in blood, still alive, gasping for air, because the killer put the victim in the trunk of a car that had the monthly purchase of frozen foods the victim had just bought. 

‘You just had to. It was my job,’ the fire in his eyes, the grit in his fingertips as he clenched his fists, as he was asked from the inquisitive gal, ‘How can you deal with it?’

From Frenchglen to the end of the original finished, scouted and conceptually mapped Desert Trail route at Highway 78 back in the 70’s and 80’s, roughly 60m is what remained before I would embark on what Buck Nelson pioneered in ‘12 on his way to Canada to make the Desert Trail ‘complete.’ High sagebrush mesas peppered with juniper and pockmarked with the occasional volcanic crater, I strode over indiscernible jeep tracks. The high desert steppes were green with Spring, a blue tint blending in with the fecundity of an arid realm. The cows ranged and grazed over the sprouted grasses, most waving in unison in the bullying wind. Most cows would scatter as I cruised on through. But I found a calf laid down sunkenly in the grass. I whistled as I neared, hoping the calf was asleep, as goofy as they can be. Within 10 feet, he jumped up and looked at me unalarmingly. I knew instantly something was wrong. His right front ankle, mid foreleg, was swollen like a softball. Snakebite or gopher hole, either way, his moment would last too long, cemented in certain death in a vast emptiness. He hobbled away and stopped within 20 feet of me, the pain obviously preventing him from going any further. 

Because I have to. Except mine seem to be moments of self-centeredness. Could I care enough to have a will of duty, of compassion, whether hero or calf? Or am I always on the brink of moments thinking everything will end and I will forget immediately and sense an illusory and sensate instinct each step at a time? 

I think I’m better than that, but I don’t believe that. Because I always sense the brink of things.

And I wonder: if a trail isn’t walked does it exist? Is this route real as I walk it? I perceive that it is real. No path, no footprints, except for the ancient past frozen in clay and mud. Will this always be here or is it a fleeting footpath? To me, when I look down at the brink I see an endless abyss, a wisp of wind meandering down a ghostly path, an elongated totem pole filled with pain, with struggle, with endurance, and most importantly with love.


  1. Wonderful entry. Loving all the photos & following along. Absolutely breathtaking landscape.

  2. Nice to meet you & learn of your quest. Thank you for this blog. I enjoy reading your thoughts, inspiring you are.

    1. Thx so much. Enjoyed meeting you all. Thx for the conversations (:

  3. Anything, and everything is better with love. So happy you crossed my path, what an inspiration you are.

  4. Where can I get the maps of this trail ?

    1. I’m hoping to do something with a map set soon

  5. Thank you for this blog. I relay enjoy reading your thoughts.