Monday, April 23, 2018

Desert Trail: Mojave Desert Part 1

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.

'Never stop.'

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.


  1. Funny how good adventures start. I love your heightened awareness of everything and your descriptions of the desert. Very nice! That rock though... darn it! But hey. You have TIME.
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