I promised my girlfriend that we would go on a camping trip to the desert in my own vehicle the first weekend of March. I thought it might help me "get on with it" in terms of that "simple" American decision of car ownership. When it was clear that I was not going to have a vehicle in time, I panicked a little. Why can't these decisions be easier? I tried to remind myself that I was sticking up for my opportunity to be a leader in the energy infrastructure reformation, and that to do so would require a longer period of due diligence than even I could perhaps predict. Thus, the services of the charming but plucky Mini were requested. It is a lovely 5-spd. that would be lots of fun in the desert, but hey I guess that's why I'm not driving it. Concerned the Cooper's clutch might not survive the steep cutbacks of the S22 (the park's western entrance), we opted to head up the S2 instead, outta Ocotillo in the south.
With others in the desert, I feel an anxiety that is blissfully absent when I go alone. This is because I worry they will drag too much from the anthroposphere along, instead of taking the opportunity to embrace their kinship with non-human Earth. It is wrong indeed to split 'wilderness' away legislatively... What bio-gerrymandering! But to be in a place where the inspiration remains, or the rawest area of destruction, is to be awake. I want to share as much of that animalness, that geographic belonging, that Earthiness as I can - and thus often prepare for ambitious overnight plans, plans that must be tailored when there are others joining you. As a former dive guide, I will always inescapably be thinking about the maximum safety and enjoyment of my guests. There is always a felt apprehension to see how the non-self human(s) along will experience nature's wavelengths. Sometimes it is a litmus.
Ceding (the illusion of) control over the expedition to the brave Mini, and this non-self human loved one along, it took my ego some time to accept that I wasn't there to summit Whale Peak or bike coyote canyon smelling wildflowers, but to share such sensations with another.
The following 20 photos are from our trip out there (the wild, wild EAST, to a San Diegan?) on the first weekend of March. We arrived around 9:00 PM Friday after an already forgotten blue-collar workday to shockingly strong winds - around 30 miles per hour. Having stopped at a Chevron for forgotten sporks, we chatted with its burly cashier, who smiled politely upon hearing our camping plans. A quintessential green sign of the American highway system could be heard creaking perilously, hundreds of feet away. Wind like that blew over water bottles, mandated shouting when only an arm's length apart, and sent tumbleweeds rocketing past as if fired from cannons. We were not deterred, and continued into the park, beginning our hike down a sandy unpaved road through the "Canyon sin Nombre." A new moon, the stars were our only audience, peeping down at our mortal souls with thoughtless gaze. Tired. Dark canyon walls rose around us with each footall, squelching the windy bellows of the open plain into whines and whistles and squeezing shut the eyes in the sky. We hiked for a mile or so, until the canyon began to open into the Carrizo Valley and our exhaustion set in. We made camp, although I couldn't resist the odd scorpion hunt. We found two small ones quite easily. I most certainly did not pick them up...
Saturday found us doing a little park driving, hemming, and hawing over our second camp site. We had originally timed the trip to coincide with the spring wildflower bloom, but after finding various cactus and wildflowers around us in season decided not to venture further north where the internet said more stunning arrays could be found. We thus headed to nearby Indian Gorge, as Torote Canyon was supposed to be a pretty hike - and short enough to not put too much of a strain on my lady's cabeza, which had recently suffered from a soccer ball to the face. Careful, bee bee. Concerned at burning out a clutch in the soft sand, we parked near the road and hiked the first mile across sandy plain towards the mountains, then into the gorge. Opting not to hike the last 2 miles up Torote Canyon with limited sunlight, we set up camp across from the trailhead. The wind continued, abated only slightly from the night before, as clouds whipped across the starry sky. The metal container I brought along to contain our fire - a park regulation in the dry, dry desert - provided our only light as we sat on the orange Mexican blanket I'd salvaged from the streets of Ocean Beach. To my delight, we were attended by a great host of different spiders, scuttling past our fire as if pushed by the wind. (In fact, the very first arthropod my we saw on our first night was a small Solifugid, or camel spider; a very good omen given its single sighting on each of my desert camping trips.) Of course, my girlfriend and I share opposing views on these creatures, and each eight-legged ambassador that made itself known in the firelight required her to perform the ritual 'spider dance' whereby her headlight was turned on and an odd prancing begun. I tried to console her by politely reminding her that she would only find more spiders if she went looking for them with more light and would be better served by the "out of sight, out of mind" aphorism... but you can imagine the response yourselves. We shared a large can of chili with added tomatoes and green beans reheated over a palm-sized alcohol stove. (250mL of Everclear made four meals and two coffees!)
Sunday found us leisurely hiking up Torote Canyon, with its gnarly alien Cholla sprouting from the hillsides, meditating on our trip. Thinking we'd one last chance for romance, I kissed her on the top of a small hill in the middle of the wide wash at the canyon's origin... Only to erupt into a gurgle of laughter. My proclivity for teasing her long since adopted as her standard operating procedure, she glanced at the source of my giggles. You see, knowing that the deserts of southern California are home to a very particular charismatic arachnid, I had been searching for one all weekend. And even though my research told me they very rarely left their burrows, it began to dawn on my girlfriend that this hilltop was indeed a ritzy high-rise for tarantulas. Luckily for the both of us the brown fuzzy ball I'd spotted three feet behind us was dead - for her, to retain her dignity with a walking retreat; for me, to photograph. Was it a coincidence that this was the zenith of our explorations before the long trek back to San Diego? I wonder.
With a few beers under us at my favorite desert watering hole, sharing the knee slappers of just how venomous my photographed scorpions were, e.g., another desert trip came to a close - and another parishioner in my church of nature had heard Earth's sermon.
Saturday, December 12, 2015
The following post is about a solitary desert adventure made in lieu of holiday merriment with friends or family. Enjoy the prose and occasional photographs and figures. Occasionally coordinates are mentioned; I encourage you to copy and paste them into your GIS of choice (e.g., the free online Google Maps) so you can follow along, so to speak.
Trying to make a living in the U.S.A. again has had its weirdnesses. For instance, I've spent years ignoring U.S. holidays - "American" holidays - due to the dearth of countrymen at hand for reminiscence. Yet last Thanksgiving weekend I found myself cloistered within a California beach apartment as my friends, family, and even roommate were off somewhere else for their own feasts. San Diego felt dead - is that even possible? - and I had a whole four day weekend to spend alone.
Palpable depression crept in. I sweated out most of the Day itself through gritted teeth and repeatedly chittered a tried-and-true "s'alright - just another day" mantra in between the requisite calls to absentee loved ones. (Why doesn't everyone just live here?! Oh, earthquakes, drought, and cost of living, you say? Hmm.) After I'd had enough anxiety and longing and regret, I planned an escape from that mental hell hole.
|Well, you COULD take the 15 to 67 to 78 to S2 to S22 to Borrego Springs...|
Back in 2013, I borrowed a friend's tent and sleeping bag for a night alone on one of the desert's mountains. I had been browsing around satellite pictures of SoCal looking for an adventure when I found it - and when I found out that it is one of the few parks in the U.S. where camping is permitted everywhere, I was hooked. At 2500' on the eastern slope of San Ysidro, I set up my tent for a balmy 50 degree Fahrenheit evening. Flash forward to Thanksgiving weekend 2015, much later in the year than my last trip, and with a large coast-to-desert rainstorm to start the weekend. Flash floods, anyone?
|Friday's Yaqui Pass campsite, with the Mescal Bajada to S.|
ridge at 1700' overlooking the Mescal Bajada and the North Pinyon Mountains to the south. Just coming to terms with that sentence is incredible. It is not that these named places are uniquely stunning, though they are, but that they are just so observable. Let me explain. As an ocean scientist by training, I have much more familiarity with the seascape. And bathymetric maps, the subsea equivalent of a topographic map, while useful, depict an area that changes quite regularly. The force of currents and tides and storms is more frequent than rain over a desert. Thus in the sea, the benthos (bottom habitats) are always changing; fifty-foot high kelp forests grow and disappear, cliffs tumble apart into sandy slopes, slopes collapse into canyons. Yet seawater conceals the ocean's breadth to human eyes, absorbing light quickly. In a desert, there are no forests to obscure the view of the bare rock of our planet, whose rubbly crust responds to gravity only when sporadically shaken or washed loose, wending its way down into piles of sand. It is the desert that smacks us with Earth's vastness and openness, where its presence can be acknowledged, questioned, and explored less mysteriously and more invitingly to our terrestrial souls.
Temperatures were forecast to drop to 39 F, so I stayed close to the road (a half mile) in case I misjudged the thermal capabilities of my body or this year's borrowed sleeping bag. The storm clouds that had covered the sky all that day unleashed heavy rain west of the mountains and the park's basin; continuing their drift eastward thinned them out over the barrier peaks, reducing their impact to a chill wind that rattled my un-staked tent all night and wheezed ice crystals across the landscape, through my tent's vents, and over my sleeping face. Overzealous hydration during the day (and a self-congratulatory libation in Borrego Springs before hitting the trail) found me frequently waking to urinate. Given the cold, this task would have been much less enjoyable had the dense clouds not blown away and exposed a brazenly full moon.
The midnight sun lit the landscape as artfully as a movie set; colors were easily discernible, tinted with blue and gold and black. I cursed myself for cutting my nicer camera out of my gear bag to save on weight - a slow-shutter would have given you 1,000 words, shortly. I basked in that eery glow, transfixed, while competing with coyotes to claim the land the old-fashioned way. My chest was heaving as I was drawn into my primal being. I silently scanned for the creeping shadows of mountain lions, chupacabra, or Gollum - snarling to myself, as "red in tooth and claw" as my surroundings. I howled. I howled again. I wanted to run, to hunt down the frail, but I knew I couldn't leave behind my water and warmth for a spiny cobble field to which I was no native. Instead I left my useless tent flap completely open to the moon above, inviting its power and any of the creatures it might embolden to come visit. Surely I've experienced far colder temperatures, but never so long relying on my own body heat as my sole source of warmth.
|My stagecoach. I'm eternally grateful for the friend that lent me her manual Mini; it shrewdly thwarted the spiny terrain.|
Empowered by the successes of the first night, I decided to carry out my more ambitious plan for the second night. Of course there were a bunch of adventures earlier in that Saturday as I, like the eroding sand, wended my own way around the park; for fun I stumbled down Yaqui Ridge when I woke up just to see how long it would take me to reach the sights I was seeing (25 leisurely minutes to the bajada road, SR-78, 0.5 miles and 400 feet of elevation gain). I also had to return to Borrego Springs to fill up with gas, cursing the lazy "city boy" disease I'd begun to contract that led to that oversight Still, it gave me a chance to tell the park staff I had indeed not died in the night, and to visit some of the sculptures littered throughout the Borrego Basin around the town. By late morning I was off, down the S3 out of Borrego Springs to the 78 to the S2 to Blair Valley, at which point I turned off road and drove seven miles to reach Smuggler's Canyon for my second night. For me the real event was the camping and the big Sunday hike out of the Blair Valley, so I've glazed over the human communities to return to that second night's campsite (33.014774 N, 116.344490 W).
|Saturday's camp in Smuggler's Canyon, between Blair Valley to W and Vallecito Mountains to NE.|
Some people might think these conditions sound like a lot of work, or inhospitable. Yet I find the solitude solemnly engulfing; the desolation is an enticing challenge, a temptation to stay away from all our human failings forever, and the solitude is a means to focus on the non-self and non-society. I pondered these things for two more hours as I burned the last of my wood, hands too cold to play the scribe. I had a long day planned for Sunday.
|Camping in Smuggler's Canyon; Vallecito Mountains rising in the NE.|
|Writing on a hill saddling Smuggler's Canyon (left) and the Carrizo Valley.|
|Crossing Smuggler's Canyon for Vallecito foothills|
|The face of readiness!|
|The note I left in the dirt outside my tent.|
|At 4,000' looking down on my tent in Smuggler's Canyon|
After some sips of water, I pressed on - noting that the steepness I had initially regarded as 'manageable' was becoming a bit trickier. As mountains weather, water and wind cause materials to flow down them, eroding little concave canyons/valleys into the slopes between convex areas the water diverts around. As the canyons converge near the first ridge here, at 4,400', there were multiple paths to select, although their height precluded a full assessment of the strenuousness of their full ascent. It was here that my mind began to doubt, to remind myself that this was foreign territory - mostly literally, but also a little figuratively. Why not just traverse the mountain at the same altitude a bit first until I found a gentler route? I told myself it looked tough, but not impossible. Might as well continue.
|At 4,300' looking SSE into the Carrizo Valley; the Sawtooth Mountains on the horizon are seven miles away.|
"DEFEAT implies that the only SUCCESS is the single stated goal, in this case the vertex of a summit [Whale Peak]. Because of how we speak, it is difficult to name this halting anything BUT a failure of that goal. But which stronger human passes me? I am alone. Which prize awaits me? Only my own. What utility does it have? Only a story in the past.
"...the reason that the true adventurer continues or stops is to address whether this is an acceptable final adventure."
I am an ocean man. Whale Peak, though piquing my ocean scientist curiosity - how many whales are up there, e.g.? - was not the adventure I'd remember to tell my kids - but rather sails and dives to occur sometime other thank Thanksgiving 2015. I grudgingly began the hike back to camp - but now with hours and hours of extra time, I was able to lay out on the warm afternoon rocks and just meditate on the nature around me. In my silence, various birds lost their fear and approached, stealing seeds or such from nearby agave. I made friends with soaring crows cawing down to me; in answering them, they came closer and perched on rocks to listen to my excited monkey giggles. I imagined them as the spirits of ancient tribespeople, ever curious about the visitors to their lands.
|Meditation site in a dry creek on my way back down the Vallecito foothills.|
|Libations @ the Lazy Lizard.|
|Exploring desert sculptures around Borrego Springs|
|Spinosaurus, the baddie from JP2, waits eternally for a herd of Borrego (bighorn sheep)...|
|Don't these petroglyphs in Smuggler's Canyon look like DNA strands? Wish I'd read more about their history...|
|Can you spot the Mini? I'm parked on a ridge overlooking the Carrizo Badlands (off picture, left).|
Monday, November 11, 2013
If you've read my posts in order, in the life-chronicling format I never intended for this site, you may have been wondering if I've gone the way of Lawrence... striding self-assuredly over hazy dunes, seeking secrets among the sands... For when I left you, nine months ago, I was on a train to a plane to fly back to that desert land, Saudi Arabia.
|Out to sea, off a tiny island north of the Farasan Banks that drops to 700m.|
|Processing Opisthobranchs collected from the Red Sea|
|Phidiana indica, from Farasan Banks|
|A fascinating stowaway for a boatful of biologists|
|Slug spp. six pack: Noalda, Odontoglaja, & asst. Sacoglossans|
|The beauty of KAUST at night|
|A larval Diodontid collected during my light trap sampling|
|Sunset at PetroRabigh|
|PetroRabigh's eery Martian landscape; with natural gas spire|
|PetroRabigh, a decades older compound, has a beautiful beach|
|July after Arabia, teaching teens how to guide in Florida|
Sad that I'll be curtailing my personal details in future posts? Click here for a photographic timeline of my journeys in America between my Saudi Arabian March and my move to the Philippines in November.