Across Joshua Tree, I have been following game track----deer, jack rabbit, coyote, fox, rodents, bighorns. I stumble upon skulls and sun-baked bones, even a tortoise shell here or there probably dropped from a raptor high above lies empty within. Near the calcified tortoise shell, sometimes square, opaque shell tiles and bone fragments are scattered near the main shell body. Across the vast distances, through huge boulder mounds of granite stained with a pinkish-brown desert patina, long expanses of gradual alluvial fans, erosion on an ancient scale, amidst large creosote and the occasional tall ocotillo, I amble. In a random drainage between a low pass, the rock has a blue tint, some of the sheen in the wash sprinkled even a bit druzy, even looser in stability too. Once the desert patina is washed and scrubbed and rinsed away a beautiful gneiss and blue rock is left behind. Along the gradual slopes, flat and compacted gravelly strips line and groove the desert floor make walking pleasant. Other times I find old fire pits, probably from miners and surveyors, partially buried in the sand, wind-piled. Old, rusted tin cans will litter the adjacent area of the rings, of times past where people sat and entertained themselves the old-fashioned way.
The sky is enormous, both day and night. My views show range upon range that resemble an undersea spectacle of lonely islands. The constellations and stars twinkle on a magnificent scale, as light pollution is scarce. A highway signifies the northern boundary of Joshua Tree. The route weaves through volcanic cones that have filtered out the blowing sand, a pediment impediment, creating blowsand dunes. Chilly nights, big and clear, black, let me sleep comfortably and restful under the great wide open. Broad high points start a new basin. Some of the terrain is like pavement, then the ripples of the sand within tiny ribbons of washes showing show that the wind is alive resembling finger-dragged marks, ephemeral and delicate, create an artistic wave, the hand of water in an invisible air. Then, the holes and burrows lie in wait from underworld dens. The dens show a swollen desert where activity from rabbits and rodents show their toil. Brushes and dried stalks chollas sprout up as the root system has been eaten and scraped from below. I punch through, sometimes buckling the knee, hyper-extending the joint.
I am purposefully ignorant on this route. Just a tad. I've researched as much as I can, walked with the visuality of the route, of the desert, but knowing too much prohibits the flexibility I need to employ on the fly. Trying to hike the Desert Trail in a 'thru-hiking' fashion has its challenges, especially if only one other person has hiked it (Buck Nelson, '12). Information can be hard to find these days on a forgotten route. Time has passed, the land is managed differently now, some springs have run dry or the towns have different or abandoned amenities. With that in mind, flexibility is crucial, as I don't have the freedom and availability of having water and food readily available. So, what route has been 'created' usually I see what is most scenic and most full of highlights as not being most achievable and practical without having these crucial cache points, especially without natural and reliable water sources. I have already seen my resupply strategy change due to the long waterless stretches and the carry of the appropriate water needed for safety. Here's a quick recent breakdown and example:
Facing a 60m waterless stretch through Joshua Tree I trimmed up the route with a 'reasonable yet still scenic' 40m waterless stretch. I did this with the section after that in mind----another 60m waterless stretch, which at the highway crossing I was able to cache 2 gallons of water. Based off my needs due to weather, food weight and length of section, and knowing how much water I need to replenish for my body. So, my plan by trimming the Joshua Tree route and waterless stretch would hopefully leave me with at least 2L, leaving me with 2.5 gallons to do the next 60m. Unfortunately, I showed up at the highway with half a liter, for the incessant wind had dried me out.
I decided then to hitch into 29 Palms to replenish and rest up a bit, which was totally unexpected. So, to make this route achievable as a thru-hike I need to adjust the route a bit, trim up some of the old maps where the termini are located for the sections which were mainly used as parking or shuttle areas, as well as adjust the resupply and water strategy. The trick is tip-toeing that fine line between what is safe and scenic versus what is unreasonable and scenic for an achievable thru-hike.
On the way into 29 Palms, I hitched in with a couple, the dude from Ireland and the chick from Britain, both of whom moved from LA to live in J-Tree. We had a great conversation about the impact traveling has on one's life. We spoke of India and her experiences there, even Southeast Asia. I spoke abut hiking, of course and the good-natured folk associated with hiking and how if you're in the dumps about the world going for a walk is a good refresher on how good humanity is. As I was climbing out of the car, Dave threw me a fist bump and in his Irish accent said, 'Hey, do us a favor.' Not a question, not asking, but an assertion, a true sentiment.
Needless to say, I am thoroughly enjoying this challenge, especially without much up-to-date resource information. I am happy to be purposefully ignorant.
I hit a high wash. The plant life more fecund, the desert appeared shagged with a thick green carpet from afar. Large willows straddled the wide wash at curvy bends, large and robust, full of birds and jackrabbits, aromatic with the drying-out white blossoms delicate as a flake of a skin cell. Ephedra, or Mormon tea, became more prominent. Rotund shrubs with a sweet smell. The sand is of a different sort. Decomposing granite from the high points above peltered from downpours, careening down gullies until settling in the beds for who knows how long. Dusk is different too. A different type of blue rather than a deep purple associated with the blanket of a usual oncoming night. The dusky blue is the most beautiful color I have ever seen. Spring flowers stood in a newness. Pinks, yellows, purples, and whites, all popped up in disturbed soil, loose for growth.
I am so fascinated by this planet we inhabit. Every ridge line, every vista, the countless contours, the serrated horizon shapes, the infinite spectrum of shades and colors, whatever it is, an unending curiosity, beyond the innate exploratory nature, the ceaseless wonder, I just need to see it all. With vision I learn as I walk experientially. It all ties in to my understanding of the world, of my self, and defines me as a wanderer, a traveler. And, right now, the Mojave Desert is the epitome of my sentiments. Startling scenery coupled with an intense lonesomeness is stirring the spirit. It's times like these where I wish I could look into a fishbowl, or gaze from a distance and see the dark silhouette of a wanderer roaming the vast and empty land. No footprints but my own.
That night I laid my bed down along an old dirt road. Around 2am I somehow woke up out of a deep sleep to headlights staring me down. Befuddled, I looked around blankly for what I do not know. After a few seconds I shook out of my slumber. A man walked towards me. A grizzled beard and dressed like a desert traveler, turns out Dave is a student of rock, a geologist. Out here in the middle of no where where he field researched his dissertation on a pyroplastic event some thousands of years ago, he comes back every year to keep verifying and validating his research and others. We connected in that sense. I related in that I am validating Buck's route and research. At 2am in the morning, we talked of the age of rocks, the earth, the lonesomeness of the desert, the animals of the desert, and management of public lands. The stars glittered above us and I felt a mutual connection with this scientist in the middle of the desert, of no where.
I spent the next morning walking to a rendezvous with my grandparents at an Interstate 40 exit. My family has made this desolate stretch much more doable in the scope of things. After a day of eating, getting gear situated, and just relaxing and hanging around with my grandparents they dropped me back off the next morning. The Granite Mountains and a 3000ft ascension and cross country scramble stood in the way. This blockade proved to be more than a challenge. Massive granite piles, remnants of spillage from the higher reaches, lay around like a pile of marbles made for giants, all patina stained with a spackled rust. Budweiser Spring, first on trail water source dripped slowly from a pipe into a very shallow mud puddle. The cattails around and in the corral and cement tank were dry and tinder-like. I gathered 4 drops in a cupped palm and tasted the sweet water. Birds chirped within the cubbies of the shaded, sun-drenched boulders. Up the drainage I went solving the maze of willows choking the canyon floor. Within the cattails a game trail showed the way. A cliffed out amphitheater, smoothed and enormous slabs of precarious granite loomed over me and made travel difficult. Once on a long ridge line the real climb began. I negotiated my through some of the bushiest terrain I've experienced. The jaunt through the Granites showed the typical rugged burliness and overgrown nature of a high desert range, except only heightened on so many levels. Down water-worn chutes and craggy pour-offs, weaving foot paths amid catclaw, cholla, and Spanish bayonets, and slurping pothole water sludge; this route is getting better and better.
In the evening, after finally getting out of the tangle of Bull Canyon, I strode towards camp. Evening slunk down with coolness and a beautiful deep purple hugging the western horizon, I stepped on a rock jammed in the dirt. No twisting or spraining motion occurred, but I flipped the rock up with my footstep. With a quick strike like a rattlesnake, the rock smacked right on the tip of my ankle bone. I felt that nauseous light-headedness associated with quick blood movement traveling through the body and yelped out. I limped into camp. A few hours later, I awoke suddenly writhing in pain. The ankle ballooned up and I forced down some meds to alleviate the pain and help me sleep. The next morning I hobbled through the Kelso Dunes to the Mojave Preserve Visitor. Once I assessed my situation I knew what I needed to do. Begrudgingly I put out my thumb and hitched to Baker, CA.
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.