Face the Dawn

Matt is walking home from San Francisco

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Cross-country traffic: the windy way to Nipton

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Nipton in the distanceDays 60-63, Mojave Desert
Excelsior Mine Road to Nipton, 19.5+16.4+10+0 miles
total miles traveled: 735.7

Mike and I had one more glorious half day before he had to get on with his life. We ate a breakfast of quesadillas (thanks to Lori for fresh avocados!) and walked a couple of stretches. Mike videolated a tarantula and a wily jackrabbit and we enjoyed the Mojave together. Mike has never been much of a desert person — he doesn’t deal that well with heat, he has a serious aversion to scorpions, and he has a true talent for finding tarantulas. But I think this bit of desert evangelism on my part plus some luck in hitting the Mojave at this point in his life changed his mind at least a little. It’s hard to argue with the Mojave in October — the weather is perfect and the Joshua tree forest is endlessly entertaining. While M!ke probably will not see the desert as a destination to scheme for, perhaps I will get him back out here if he’s in the Southwest.

M!ke driving awayHe left me where Kingston Road cuts off northeast towards Sandy Valley and on to Las Vegas, and I watched his dust trail recede up the road, then turned towards my next cache up the powerline road under the high peaks of the Clark Range. I got impatient with the direction the road was golng and took off cross-country in order to minimize the amount of time I actually spent under the lines. Meeting the road below the cache, I paused to listen to the menacing crackle of the wires and look at the How LA gets its powerglint of the sun on them as they lope off towards Los Angeles. I found the cache and took a brief break before heading uphill to Yates Well Road, which would take me through the Clark Range and across I-15. But after a few miles, the powerline road started to roll most unnecessarily, and I followed a fenceline cross-country looking for a more direct route that TAMI told me about. I found it just before sunset and camped in the Joshua tree forest with only 900ft to climb the next day and my harmonica to keep me occupied.

I spent most of the next day in one wash or another, slogging uphill through the sand or half-sliding down through it. At the top of the day’s climb was a large and nasty-looking mine site with a plastic-lined pond undoubtedly containing what Mike would call “bad pookie”. Some navigational confusion led me cross-country again until I hit a promising-looking wash and started down into the valley of I-15, following the cows and avoiding their inevitable by-product. About halfway down, I finally saw Mr. Rattlesnake, after so much care to avoid surprising him all the way from Panamint Springs. Actually, I heard him first:

Mr. Rattlesnake1) I hear a sound seemingly located above my head and to the right and think it’s a very loud cicada
2 ) Something about this sound makes me want to move away from its source
3) I jump-step a foot to my left, trying to be careful not to land on anything venomous
4) I realize it must be a rattlesnake and finally see it about 5 feet away to my right. It is not coiled to strike, but it is considering it

All this happens in the course of a second and a half, and I take another step away from the fat healthy snake and it begins to crawl up some rocks away from me, rattling as it goes. I was two miles down the canyon before I thought that should have recorded it …

Haven't seen one of these in a while ...As I came out of the canyon, I was running out of water and still miles from the next cache. TAMI told me there was a spring nearby, which I found guarded by a lone cow. The spring itself was heavily trampled and looked pretty contaminated, but I found a tank a little further downstream and then I had a liter of iodine-tasting water to get me down the hill. The wind picked up and it blew hard all the way down into the valley and across I-15 onto the shores of the Ivanpah Dry Lake.

I found a spot still protected by a bit of vegetation and made camp with the sound of the interstate and the blinking lights of nearby Primm, NV to color my dreams. The little creosote bush I was hiding behind proved key, since the wind died down at sunset but came back mad as hell at first light and I had it just abaft the port beam as I started directly across the playa towards the trees of Nipton. I went by the Mesquite Holes, home of some 4-foot anthills and began to break through the earth into small tunnels. I was thinking that it takes real guts to live underground, hearing the bigger creatures coming closer, never knowing when one will come crashing into your living room. Only when I arrived in Nipton (“Capital of Desert Tortoise Country”) did I realize that the walk across the playa was probably my best chance to see a desert tortoise. Well, I want to go back to the Mojave anyway …
Finally, I hit the dune country on the other side of the lake, crawled under a fence, crossed the tracks and walked into town on Nipton Desert Road.

Castle Peaks from NiptonI stayed in a comfortable tent cabin which contained both a swamp cooler and a woodstove. I used both. Nipton is less of a town than a modern caravanserai, with a cafe, store, small hotel, and campground. They have a very pleasant pond on the grounds and a house which seems to be available for use by artists working on local projects. I’m not sure whose genius is behind it, but they’ve made a real effort to create a great base from which to explore the Mojave in spite of the challenges of being situated precisely in the middle of nowhere.

Outside my cabin were some tall cottonwoods and I saw a hawk sitting on a high branch staring at a pair of ravens in a nearby tree, who were watching a smaller bird lying dead or wounded on the ground. A quail, I think. One of the ravens flew down and poked at it, and it screamed and thrashed around a little, then lay still. The raven flew back to its perch and I watched the smaller bird, wondering if that was the end of it. Presently it sat up and looked around, then flew straight towards me and the hawk came out of its tree in a perfect unhesitating attack and grabbed it in its talons just over my head. There was a single squawk and a hissing of large wings and then they were gone. I’d never seen the endgame of a raptor hunt before — it was impressive and sobering.

Nipton is not only the middle of nowhere, it’s actually the junction where the road to nowhere crosses the Great Nowhere Railroad. There are maybe 3-4 or up to ten trains a day through there and I had a lot of fun trying to get the definitive sound recording of an approaching, deafening, then receding train.

Since I arrived in the early afternoon, I actually got a rest day and a half in Nipton and I enjoyed it thoroughly. especially since the pause was spiced with anticipation of an imminent rendezvous with Lori.

Written by walkingman

February 6th, 2009 at 12:07 am

Posted in Desert

The Kingstons and the Jolly Biker

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Joshua TreeDays 58-59, South of Death Valley
Tecopa Springs into the Mojave 12.1+20.5 miles
total miles traveled: 689.8

Having made 60 miles in the three days from Death Valley to Tecopa, I needed a break but I also needed to take maximum advantage of M!ke’s support. We resolved this conflict with a hang at the fundraiser in Tecopa, a late start, and a short day. Leaving Tecopa around noon, M!ke went ahead to see about the road over the Kingstons. Lori and I had tried to drive it from the Mojave into Tecopa on a caching expedition, but ended up on a very rough patch of road and turned back. We needed to know if Lori and I were off-route or just plain wimpy or what, and we needed to know if the Patriot could get over the mountains.

I went over a hill and around a couple of curves and soon Tecopa had vanished and I was out in desert on good dirt roads with the mountains growing taller by the minute. M!ke came back with a positive report on the road ahead and we walked together for a few miles. I got a good sound recording of feet on road — first me, then me with walking stick, then me and M!ke together.

We separated again a bit later as M!ke went off in search of the China Ranch Date Farm. When he came back, he had goodies (date-chocolate chip cookies!) and video of the intense road down to the ranch — very steep and winding with the date farm at the bottom looking like a classic Arabian oasis.

Walking the final stretch into our camp on Smith Talc Road, I was passed by a convoy of vans followed by a truck pulling a trailer. There was official lettering on the vans but I only found out what it was when I got to camp. M!ke said it had the look of a geology field trip and he would know. He had a hilarious imitation of the whining students (“no cell reception! no beer!”) and the crotchety prof (“3 hours behind already and we missed the last road-cut”).

This is the WestOur camp was right on the road, but it wasn’t heavily traveled and we planned on an early start the next day. I wanted to get as deep into the Mojave as I could. There were some old mine remnants nearby and people prowling around and shooting, but they packed it in as the sunset flared up and we had the place to ourselves as the colors stretched across the sky and the quiet settled on the land. That sunset wasn’t nearly done with us yet — it only got more intense as it faded and it seemed to last for hours.

We sat up and tried to record the coyotes, then finally turned in.

Winding up towards the pass the next day, I was overtaken by the geology prof, a fair-skinned sunburned guy with a reddish beard. He was retired and not at all crotchety — he approved of my project and we talked for a bit about the Kingstons. Neither of us had been to the top of Kingston Peak, but he knew of a route the Sierra Club had mapped out and mused about trying it one day. The vans full of students came up behind and stopped our conversation.

Clouds over the Kingstons 1An unusual sky was developing over the mountains as I neared the pass. M!ike came down from the summit and reported that there was a spring up there with a thriving bird colony. The geology prof had told him that he had never seen it flowing so strongly. M!ke showed me where Lori and I had driven part way down a washed-out part of the road, which explained why it looked so hairy. Turning back had been a good idea — we could easily have gotten stuck there and getting out would have been a saga. The hunters near the spring watched us come through, then recommenced blazing away at the birds after we passed. Then we were at the top with the Mojave spread out below us and we paused on the doorstep of a new part of the trip for quesadillas. M!ke is a firm believer in a hot lunch, and although so far on the trip I had been a snack-on-the-move-and-a-fast-cold-dinner type, I have to admit that those quesadillas were a powerful argument and I began to come around to M!ke’s point of view.

We explored the mining ruins on the pass, then started down the slow switchbacks into a new desert. The ecosystem changed almost immediately. Fifty feet below the pass the first Joshua trees appeared, and I would have them with me for the next 200 miles. We saw more hunters staged near a water tank and passed a sweet-looking but rundown little homestead under some cottonwoods near another flowing spring. A few miles later we wound out of the mountains and entered the classic rolling terrain of the northern Mojave, thick Joshua tree forest on both sides of the road now.

M!ke went ahead to scout a campsite, and I was cruising along just happy to be in this beautiful place with the temperature fallen into the “perfect” range and the light slanting across the distant mountains setting up for a gorgeous desert sunset.

Then the pickup trucks rolled up behind me, crunching on the gravel road. The lead one stopped next to me, a big white pickup truck with another one like it just behind. The driver was a big man with a big gut and a big smile, shirtless and sporting a feed cap, though I didn’t see what it said. Probably “Harley-Davidson”. Later M!ke said he thought these were the same guys who had been shooting near the water tank and I could easily believe their afternoon fun involved cordite and ethanol. Only the driver spoke to me. I’ll call him the Jolly Biker. The conversation went something like this:

JB: Man, you’re way out in the middle of nowhere
Me (looking around, a little snottily, I’m sorry to say): Yeah, I guess I am
JB: Where you headed?
Me: Actually, I’m walking to Arizona
JB (with the intonation some use to say “Right On” mixed with the tones of “Get out of town” meant as disbelief): Get down
Me (with a sly note of “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet”): I walked here from San Francisco
JB: Get down. You must have a lot of stuff in that pack
Me: Nah, it’s mostly with my cousin up ahead
JB: You good on water?
Me: Yeah, should be fine
JB: Hop in the back, we’ll give you a lift down the road
Me: Thanks, but I’m kinda honor bound to walk the whole way
JB (pause): You’re a bad dude, man

Then he drove away.

Well lift my spirits straight to the heavens and set them free to float gracefully back to earth! No encounter on the whole trip put a smile on my face like that one did. You know, I didn’t do this to become badass or to look badass. I didn’t do it to prove anything at all. It was simply a crazy idea that wouldn’t let go of me and I wanted carry it out while I was still young enough to do it without extreme physical misery. But if the baddest-looking dude in the Mojave wants to tell me I’m a bad dude in front of all his buddies, I’ll take it and use it like a tailwind and turbojets to power me across the last few miles to camp. And I did.

Mojave M!keAnother gourmet camp dinner with M!ke and we settled in right at the turnoff to a popular 4-wheel road that goes through the Kingston Wilderness and meets CA127 to the west. I stayed up reading for a bit and began to hear a largish animal sort of circling our camp. I shined a headlamp around and didn’t see anything, but I kept hearing it. Finally I got up and looked all around. Nothing. Got back in my sleeping bag and heard nothing, slept like a bad dude after a 20+ mile day. We talked about it the next morning over breakfast quesadillas — maybe javelina, but I know what they sound like. Maybe deer, but it sounded too big, if it was a mountain lion I never would have heard it and I don’t know if there are enough deer in the Mojave to support them anyway. It could have been a cow, but then why didn’t I see it?

Written by walkingman

February 3rd, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Posted in Desert

Rally in the Valley

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Rally in the ValleyDays 52-57, Death Valley National Park
Furnace Creek to Tecopa Springs, 3*0+20+21.7+19.1 miles
total miles traveled: 657.2

Lori arrived in Death Valley the day after I did and we had two enjoyable days at Furnace Creek. She’d never been to Death Valley before, so we did some touristy stuff, driving the Artist Drive Loop and down to Badwater Basin, taking a moonlit walk in the sand dunes, and just being together. Around this time I decided to think very carefully about any project that involved me being away from her for more than 16 days — I had not seen her in almost a month. We had a fine dinner at the Furnace Creek Inn and soaked in the hot springs pool. Then cousin M!ke arrived.

M!ke was taking time from work to be my support team for the trip through the Greenwater Valley and over the Kingston Range into the Mojave Desert. M!ke and I have climbed three 14ers together starting in 1998 with an trip to Mt. Shasta that spawned some stories that are still fun to tell. We both love getting outside and we have a great amount of fun together. M!ke is more than a decade younger and several acre-feet more daring and fit than I am, so he is a great guy to have around if you’re going outside — he is also a whizbang chef (outdoors gourmet meals a speciality), so I was lucky to have almost six days with him. It would have been more fun if Lori and Chandra (M!ke’s wife) had been there, but they were busy earning money for the next adventure … For an account of M!ke and Chandra’s 3000-miles bike trip from San Francisco to Madison, WI, see the older entries on their blog — the newer ones detail M!ke’s trip to New Zealand, where he is doing some mountain biking and will be joined by Chandra in a few days.

JC Penney poseWe started off with a car shuttle and a short hike up to Zabriskie Point, where Lori left for Prescott and I continued up CA190 headed for the road to Dante’s View. M!ke’s strategy was to drive ahead 3-5 miles and walk back to meet me. That way I could walk with a light pack and still change footwear every so often and he would get some walking in. We camped down Furnace Creek Wash Road that night after catching the Sunset at Dante's View 1sunset at Dante’s View — a high point that looks almost straight down onto Badwater Basin. After dinner M!ke took me back to where I stopped and I had a magical and spooky walk in the full moon light to the pavement’s end, where the tourist traffic branches off towards Dante’s View.

In the morning, M!ke made me my first dose of the “Belly Pleaser” — a mango/coconut/rice concoction that is just about the perfect breakfast for a 20-mile day, then took me back a few miles to the head of Furnace Creek Wash Road, and we began our journey down the Greenwater Valley, me walking steadily and gratefully with a light pack, and M!ke doing his stop-and-go drive-and-walk pattern.

Moon over Greenwater ValleyThe Greenwater Valley is just east of the floor of Death Valley proper and some 2000-ft higher. It is classic high desert — there is very little out there but barren mountains to the east and west and miles and miles of creosote bush. It is also one of the quietest places I have ever been. In our forty mile, two-day trip down the valley, we saw three cars, and mostly traveled through a monumental stillness.

I saw the first car close to the start of the day. Seeing a white SUV coming towards me, I assumed it was M!ke coming back earlier than expected and crossed the road to be on the driver’s side of the car as it approached. It turned out to be a French couple who were going to Bakersfield of all places. They offered me some water, which I accepted, and we talked for a while before moving off in opposite directions.

Chandra had just given M!ke a video camera, and there are many short videos of this part of the walk, which I hope to get on the web soon. Some of them are landscape shots intended to show just how small Matt is, a tiny speck moving through the valley. Some are downright goofy dialogs and pictures of me doing unusual things with my walking stick.

Near the end of the day, I came to the fourth cache since Furnace Creek and found the Newman-Os I had been hoping for — M!ke is a huge fan of Newman-Os. I decided that opening a cache is a little like throwing the I Ching and made up my own hexagram:

Cookies under the earth
The image of hidden riches.
Good fortune, no blame.
The superior man checks his caches
and makes good use of what he finds there.

That night, after a dinner of pesto Lori made from basil from our garden, M!ke suggested we repair to the rooftop bar with our new friend Jack, so we climbed on top of the car and tried out the new souvenir shot glasses M!ke had bought us at the Furnace Creek store. Jack had quite a bit to say, it turned out, and we three had a jolly time talking and watching the moon come up over the mountains and tracking the movements of the kangaroo rats below as they scuttled around the car looking for a treat. Jack was looking quite low in the morning — pretty close to finished, actually …

The next day as we approached CA178 at the bottom of the valley, M!ke went off towards Shoshone in search of internet access, gasoline, and the beverage whose true name is “cold beer” (pronounced “COL’beer”). I took a short cross-country shortcut, crossed CA178 and caught the road again as it headed east and south towards Tecopa Springs, where we intended to spend the night.

The Dublin HillsApproaching CA127 and the turnoff to Tecopa Springs, we took a rest stop and admired the colorful but badly named Dublin Hills (no shamrocks around here …) and watched a pair of AT-10 Warthog tank-killer planes drift through the valley at low speed. Then M!ke drove into Tecopa to nail down our lodgings and I crossed CA127 and walked toward Tecopa after pausing to read a historical plaque about the now-abandoned railroad stop that was the gateway to the then-booming town of Greenwater up in the valley we had just come from.

A few miles out of Tecopa, an ambulance stopped and the driver, staring intently at me, asked if I was OK. They had gotten a report of someone lying by the side of the road. I told them I was fine and that I hadn’t seen anyone in trouble and they drove off. A mile later, a sheriff’s deputy pulled off the road in front of me and after politely relieving me of my walking stick, began to question me. He had gotten the same report of someone in trouble, and tried hard to make me that person. He asked me the same questions several times. He tried to get me to admit that I had been hitchhiking (while walking against the traffic? Give me a break), which I suppose is illegal. Giving truthful answers to his questions about what I was doing out there did not seem to help my case. He called my information in and then claimed that neither Arizona nor California had any record of me holding a driver’s license in the last ten years. I getting a little exasperated by this time and told him he was welcome to come by our lodgings later in the evening and inspect my ID, which was in the car with M!ke and my gear. He finally gave my stick back and released me, but the whole thing was pretty unpleasant. He seemed to think that I had something to hide or was being perverse in refusing aid when I clearly had been lying by the side of the road earlier in the day. Or something. And that, friends, is the only time on the whole trip that I had a close encounter with the Law. None of the other numerous Highway Patrol, sheriffs, or local police I saw had the slightest interest in me. Busy, I guess.

Passing Grimshaw Lake, I tried and failed to get a good recording of the frogs in the rushes, then walked uphill into town in the twilight and found M!ke and the room that the seriously New Age proprietor had given us cheap. Just as I got there, a fellow came by on a bright red scooter, pulled a U-turn and greeted me with “You look like you’re on a journey”. I agreed and we talked a little He had started on a cross-country walking trip when he was younger, but had given up in the middle of Kansas.

Arriving at our lodgings, we went for a soak in the hot springs baths where someone provided the soundtrack on didgeridoo, then went for a very good dinner at the bistro next door.

There was a fundraiser for the local Fire Department scheduled for the next day with a flea market and barbecue and live music, and we decided to hang around for that and take it easy on the way to the Kingstons.

We were up early enough to get a soak in and do some laundry and get some breakfast before the wingding really got going. We filled up on barbecue — M!ke dug in too, though he’s a pretty strict pescatarian, got some cookies and such, checked out the band and the scene. I saw the same sheriff’s deputy who had grilled me the day before and he didn’t seem to recognize me. No walking stick or bandanna, maybe. The man with the bright red scooter cruised around the parking lot in lazy circles, greeting everyone. The town had never had a fundraiser like this before and there was a real show of support for the firefighters — everyone was there, all the town characters and operators and even the people who usually just want to be left alone.

In the early afternoon we left the sociable hubbub behind and struck out for the Kingstons and the Mojave beyond.

Written by walkingman

December 17th, 2008 at 1:48 am

Posted in Desert

Into the Valley of Death, part 2: down, down, down, then up and down and up and down …

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Badwater Basin at sunsetDays 50-51, Death Valley National Park
Aguerreberry Point Road to Furnace Creek, 11.5+16.2 miles
total miles traveled: 596.4

The central challenge of this day was how to get close enough to Furnace Creek with enough water to get me a good day’s walk down one of the lowest and hottest valleys in the country. I had four gallons of water at the supercache near my camp and enough containers to carry seven liters with me. I had 27-some miles to go and more than 6000 vertical feet to descend, and I had two days to do it in.

The road into Trail CanyonI loaded up on water and walked the washed-out jeep road into Trail Canyon, and then down and out of the canyon towards Badwater Basin. I intended to descend about 5000 ft to the 1000 ft level.

As intimidating as the road was from the top, it proved to be easy to follow and a pleasant walk, with a couple of the washed-out spots being just the tiniest bit scary for a step or two. About halfway down, the road took a sharp curve, dove into a wash, and disappeared, so I followed the wash down to the Trail Canyon Road, passing through a short but interesting section of narrows.

Trail Canyon Road is very rocky in the upper reaches. It often follows washes, so the rocks are nice and round and a very awkward size for walking on, but it was gratifying to see Badwater Basin come closer and feel the terrain flatten out very gradually. In the afternoon, the wind picked up just as it had the day before, but I didn’t begin to be concerned about it until I came out of the canyon and found that it was blowing much harder closer to the valley floor. Many places in the West, a change in the weather is accompanied by unsettled air. I was glad to think that the temperatures were going to drop into the sane range, but quite unhappy to think about walking through a 3-day blow.

Reaching the area where I wanted to camp, I chose a sheltered site in a wash because I just didn’t believe it would rain in Death Valley in October. My tent pole assembly failed while setting up camp, in spite of my repair attempt using Dell’s tools. The little spoke sticking out of the hub didn’t just come loose this time, it flew out of my hand with a THWONG and a PING and landed out of sight. I thought for a bit, then found a suitable size metal rod in my stove repair kit, which served pretty well — at least the tent wasn’t going to collapse on me.

The weather broke with a sharp snap just as it was getting dark. I expected the clouds to keep breaking up over the valley but instead they began to come from the south and to mass up and thicken. Then they began to blot out the stars and the wind picked up even more. I reasoned that I would smell the rain before it reached me but all I could detect was a cooling in the air, and I only smelled it just as it hit. This time when the drops began to explode against the mesh top of the tent, I didn’t just get up and put on the rain fly. It wasn’t raining very hard, but looking up at the black sky over the mountains above the canyon I had come through that day, it was easy to imagine a right downpour up there. I didn’t want my first-ever view of a flash flood to be from quite such an intimate angle, so I was packed and ready to move out in record time. Blasting down the trail towards West Side Road, scared and furious and exhausted, I was determined to walk into Furnace Creek that night.

Luckily, it only took a half mile or so for me to see the insanity of that idea and I began to look for a reasonably flat spot where I could set up my tent with its back to the howling wind. I finally saw one and found it was easier than I thought to set up my tent in those conditions. Maybe it was the big rock I put inside before trying to put the poles up …

Although it had already stopped raining, I put up the rainfly to shed the wind and settled down for what I expected to be a noisy and sleepless night. I had been in a Death Valley windstorm many years before, and hearing the rainfly snap and flutter took me right back to that time. Back to when I came to Death Valley from my San Jose home to celebrate the spring equinox by walking all day and returned up Trail Canyon Road (the same road as now!) to find that a nice couple had weighed my tent down with big rocks so that it wouldn’t blow away entirely in the raging wind. On that occasion, I lay awake listening to the tent and getting more and more agitated thinking about my ex-wife and who had done what to who and whose fault was which atrocity until in the very center of the black screaming night I gave up and drove home, arriving at dawn and wasting a whole day in a long suburban sleep. When I woke I began to seriously work on healing up from that disastrous marriage.

But apparently there is sometimes progress in a life, because this time instead of finding some sore spot to clamp my jaws on and shake, I fell deep asleep and woke hours later to find that the wind had died and the stars were back.

In the chill of the morning I prepared for the long day’s walk into Furnace Creek, grateful that I had been able to rewrite history, that this Death Valley windstorm was finally so different from the last one. I was also glad that the weather had changed and I could expect a relatively cool trip down the valley, meaning that I didn’t have to carry so much water.

Rain on the Funeral MountainsI struck camp, geared up, took a long drink of water, and started down the slope towards West Side Road. The clouds had crossed the valley and were being pierced and tattered by the mountains to the west, and wisps and veils of rain were floating through the canyons and the storm was on its way out.

It was a windy and raw and exhilarating walk down to West Side Road and then across the valley and up to meet Badwater Road. The storm was really putting on a show on its way out, and I was getting a closeup view of some of the starkest scenery anywhere. I passed by the Devil’s Golf Course (“only the Devil could play on such rough links as these ..”) and a river of alkaline soil heading right down into the lowest point in the hemisphere.

Reaching Badwater Road, I crept over the long rolling hills towards Furnace Creek, back in sight of humanity in numbers, the tour buses and the rental cars and packs of motorcycles. On the entire trip into Death Valley from Lone Pine, the only people to stop and talk or offer me a ride were on the road into Darwin. My theory is that on a fast and busy road people figure that they can’t stop in time to be much use and that someone else will stop in any case. People have been kindest and most attentive when they are close to home and traveling slowly. Maybe people feel more responsible for what happens in their back yard or at least are more in their comfort zone dealing with a stranger.

Jamming down a slight slope I saw a bicyclist coming towards me and had a moment of startled hope. What I saw was a woman of slight and fit build on a bike, dressed in full “gear-queer” regalia. Biking clothing being pretty impersonal, I almost succeeded in believing that Lori had somehow known that I was getting to Furnace Creek a day before our rendezvous and was riding out to meet me. As she passed me, I gave her a hearty “Lookin’ strong!“, a line I got from a guy standing in the middle of the throng of runners halfway up the most punishing hill in the Bolder Boulder 10K run, and got a laugh in return. A mile later she came flying back and slowing as she came past, called out something about me looking like I’d come a long way. I replied that I’d walked there from San Francisco and was rewarded with one of the best responses of the whole trip. “You did not!” she said, in a perfect playground intonation, then dismounted and talked with me for a while. She was a seasonal employee of the park and was just out for a fun ride. Like all the more personal encounters I had on the trip, this little interaction lifted my spirits and made the last miles into Furnace Creek a little happier.

Arriving at Furnace Creek, I found that all accomodations were full except for the campground. I met Ranger Charlie and gave him my report on the road into Trail Canyon, and his colleague gave me the lowdown on which campsites were going to have the best shelter in the windy night it was shaping up to be.

Death Valley storm 2I really dislike established campgrounds because you get all the disadvantages of camping and of apartment living simultaneously. Having all the discomforts of being outdoors plus very little privacy while being almost totally exposed to the bad behavior of your fellow humans can add up to a uniquely miserable experience. But I didn’t mind too much for this one night, surrounded by some sizeable sheltering trees and having pretty good access to some civilized comforts in the form of a well-stocked store nearby and the prospect of a cafe breakfast the next day and then hanging out with Lori for a few days.

I didn’t mind too much, even when the male half of the couple in the next campsite began telling a very dramatic story very loudly in a language I didn’t understand — Serbo-Croatian? Italian? Armenian? and continued his harangue for (I am not exaggerating) at least two hours. Maybe three. I really felt for the woman, who said maybe five or six words in all that time.

Written by walkingman

December 8th, 2008 at 4:18 pm

Posted in Desert

Into the Valley of Death, part 1: Up and down and up

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Panamint Valley sunriseDays 48-49, Panamint Valley
Panamint Springs to Aguerreberry Point Road, 22.8+17.3 miles
total miles traveled: 568.7

My alarm went off and it was still dark. I made a last few preparations, drank the cold coffee I’d snagged the night before and started down the road to Death Valley.

I had spoken to Ranger Charlie about my route; it involved a trail clearly marked on my old Death Valley map but which had vanished from newer vintages. Charlie told me this road had been washed out by winter storms sometime in the 80s but that it was still hikeable. He also told me he expected the weather to break soon and then highs would be in the mid-80s or low 90s.

This had not happened yet, so for my climb over 4950 ft Towne Pass I was looking at highs near 100 at the lower elevations, so I needed climb quickly and get off the west-facing slope before the sun could focus on it.

The road from Panamint Springs dips 400 ft to cross the playa of Panamint Lake, then climbs 3400 ft to Towne Pass, where a cache of water and food was waiting for me. My plan was to cross the pass, descend into the next valley, and camp close to a cache near Wildrose Road, which winds up towards 11000 ft Telescope Peak, the high point of Death Valley National Park.

Panamint Dry LakeI walked down the easy slope and across the dry lake as the sunrise painted the mountains behind with shadows and color. The sun came over the mountains ahead as I reached the far shore of the lake and started up the road toward the pass, and now my walk was a race — would I climb fast enough to stay cool, or would the sun bake me into a heatstroke cake first?

At 9:30am the temperature at 2000 ft felt like the mid-90s, and I was sweltering in the hot breath of the diesels crawling up the slope. Seeing the National Park ambulance come down to the boundary and transfer a patient to the Ridgecrest ambulance was a reminder of what happened to the losers in this race …

Looking back at Panamint SpringsThe temperature broke at 3000 ft — suddenly it was not getting hotter, and then it began to cool just a bit. When I reached my cache in the heat of the day, it felt like the low 90s and I had plenty of water and a long descent in front of me. The cache also had some favorite foods in it and I was still celebrating when I decided to take a last look and found the Newman-Os. That disturbance you felt in The Force? That was me yodeling — inwardly, of course.


Elated but tired, I slumped down the backside of the pass and started cross-country toward my next cache to cut off a 3-mile wedge of road. I watched carefully for rattlesnakes as I negotiated the rough rocky ground and the many wash crossings. I reached the area I was looking for and made camp behind a little hill where I was hidden from the road. TAMI helped me find the cache, which I approached from the back, and I settled in for a quiet night, knocking on the gates of Death Valley.

The next day was another race against time and heat, but easier since I started higher. Passing Emigrant Spring I debated with me:

Me: “I want to go look at the spring”
Me: “Climbing all the way up there will take too much time”
Me: “But I want to go look at the spring”
Me: “You’ve got 15 miles and 2000 ft left to go today — better keep moving”
Me: “But I want to go look at the spring”

This last argument proved persuasive, and I put my pack down and made the short climb up past the locked-tight spring house to where water drips steadily under a rock shelf. It was a beautiful magical place, and then I saw the creature.

On one of our first trips together, Lori found a piece of desert driftwood in the shape of a friendly Lizard King. It lived in her car for a while, and took up residence in the garden when she moved to Prescott. We hadn’t seen it in a while, and Lori seemed to miss having the king around, so I was determined to find a creature for her in my travels. And here it was, waiting patiently at Emigrant Spring. It was in the form of a snake coiled to strike and didn’t look too friendly to me. I hesitated: could I, should I give this to my beloved? Then I realized that snakes have been associated with wise women and especially with healers for thousands of years, and Lori is both. So the snake rode with me for the next three days to Furnace Creek, where it could meet Lori and begin its life as her familiar.

The goal was to meet the road to Aguerreberry Point and go out through the narrows of a canyon until I reached the supercache (much more food and water than usual) at the junction of the defunct road that would take me down into Trail Canyon, which leads out into the main valley and Badwater Basin. It was a long steady climb along a good road, and rangers stopped twice to check on me. Mostly they wanted to know if I had enough water and some clue about where I was going. They all confirmed what Ranger Charlie had told me about the road I planned to take, raising my confidence level even higher.

The tourist traffic fell off as I turned onto Aguerreberry Point Road, named for a Basque miner who worked claims in the area. According to legend, he built the road just so he could show his friends his favorite view over the valley. I went out to the point on a caching expedition and it certainly is impressive at sunset — you can see the whole sweep of the valley from Badwater Basin to the lights of Furnace Creek, then turn around and see Stovepipe Wells and over to Towne Pass. In good light you can probably see the Sierras, 70 miles away.

Sunset near Aguerreberry PointCampsite near Agurreberry Point
I stopped short of the point, picked up my cache, and camped just beyond a gate which closed the jeep road into Trail Canyon. The wind had picked up during the afternoon, but now it was calm, and at 6000 ft, it was quite chilly. Not what I’d expected to feel in Death Valley, but fine for a clear quiet night looking forward to a long day into Trail Canyon on an impressively steep and wild road.

Written by walkingman

December 1st, 2008 at 11:59 am

Posted in Desert

Panamint Springs

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Darwin CanyonDays 46-47, West of Death Valley
Darwin to Panamint Springs, 15.4+0 miles
total miles traveled: 528.6

Dell and Kathy had to leave early the next day, and they offered me the
use of their place for breakfast and phone calls and such. I called Lori,
talked to the folks at Big Agnes about a new tent pole assembly, had a
good breakfast, played the piano a little, and left them a note urging
them to come to Prescott so I could return the hospitality. I sure hope
they do!

I got a comfortably late start, but figured I could afford it since it was
only 14 miles to Panamint Springs through Darwin Canyon. I found my next
cache, filled up on water and began the beautiful and relaxing walk
through the canyon. There is lots of old mining stuff down there and some
really interesting geology. There was also a group of motorcyclists that
came up behind me, some of them on street bikes that I didn’t expect to
see on that rough and sandy road. I later learned that one of them was
riding an old Indian that had been on a famous Death Valley ride in the

Dell and Kathy had given me some directions about a sharp right and it was
a good thing too, because following TAMI would have taken me another,
probably longer, way. But going up the side canyon that I supposed they
meant, I was relieved to meet a guy on a 4-wheeler coming down who
confirmed I was going the right way and asked me about any stray
motocyclists. Turns out that John works at the Panamint Springs Resort
where I was headed.

I met John again near the end of the day’s walk as I sat deciding whether
or not to walk the mile down to Darwin Falls. He hadn’t found the biker
yet, and I went on to the resort, figuring that a walk to the falls with
Lori would be a good break on a future trip to pick up my caches.

Panamint Springs Resort is an oasis on the way to Death Valley. They have
a gas station, a store, a small motel and a campground, and best of all, a
decent restaurant with the best beer selection for hundreds of miles
around. I doubt the Furnace Creek Inn could match it, and I know no place
in Lone Pine could.

I was hoping for cell reception and counting on wi-fi, but when my cell
said “no service”, I opened the wireless PDA and behold! it was dead ….
I had experienced this before, but forgot that if you leave it alone for a
week the battery discharges by itself.

Now I was in trouble, since I needed to contact Lori to coordinate our
meeting in Death Valley in about a week’s time and I knew I wouldn’t
have cell service until I got there. I also needed to pull the coordinates
of my caches off the web so I could tell TAMI about them — missing
another one could be a disaster.

John hooked me up, though. I explained the situation to him and soon had
enough email sent and docs printed that I was in good shape. Thanks,

I sat on the porch and drank good beer as the sun set on my rest day, and
I went to bed not long after so I could get a wicked early start on my trip into Death

Written by walkingman

November 14th, 2008 at 10:58 am

Posted in Desert


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Day 45, East side of the Sierra Nevada
CA 190 to Darwin CA,17.6 miles
total miles traveled: 513.2

.. We last left our hero thirsty and nearly out of water camped by the side of highway 190 on the way to Death Valley …

I was up at first light the next day, knowing that I needed every advantage if I was going to get through the day without begging for water by the side of the road, which was my backup plan if I ran out before getting to the next cache.

Getting shaken up like that early on in the desert phase of the trip “focused the mind wonderfully” (did Mark Twain say that?). Filtering water in the Sierras was slow and caused a few digressions in route but it was always available. The contrast with the desert was bold and brash. I saw clearly how tenuous life is here — everything is about the water within and without, the water that is, that is not, that was, that will be … or won’t. After the green soundscape of the mountains, I found myself unnerved by the spare silence of the desert and by the thought that if enough things went wrong I could die out here. Which of course had been true the whole trip, but missing that first desert cache made survival an immediate concern for the first time.

So in the cool of the day with the sun low in the east I walked rapidly south and east, taking a small drink every half mile, knowing I would recognize the place of the next cache, hoping it was intact. I went up through a gap in the mountains, leaving US 395 behind and moving into the quiet desert where the rocks tell a story in a language we can only partly translate,

The cache was in a place where the land sloped off to the right into a valley, then rose to some bare mountains. Two Forest Service roads came together there and I had marked the cache with a old rusty gas can, which I hoped had not been removed by some well-meaning trash collection team.

I saw the mountains first — was it that near range, or the next? And the land perversely continued to slope the wrong way. As I neared the upward curve that I knew was too far, I looked for a remembered rock/sand bench on the left, didn’t see it. And then I was there, the land fell away to the right and the roads came in just as they should, and I crossed a small wash and saw the gas can, and just away on the left was the cairn marking the cache.

I dug like a mole, like gopher, like a Jack Russell terrier. I was never so glad to see a glass jar in my life. I took a long righteous drink. I made coffee, I ate Tasty Bite for breakfast, I wasted at least a liter of water just doing dishes, and then brushed my teeth just because I could.

Continuing the walk much relaxed I could see that the desert is truth — the silence there is the opposite of lies, the antithesis of illusion. There can be no deception in this place where everything is laid out in plain sight ready to hand, and what is not seen or felt or heard, is not.

I intended to bypass a twisty, shoulder-less section of CA 190 by going through Darwin, CA and on through Darwin Canyon to Panamint Springs, where I would be knocking on the gates of Death Valley. As I walked down the hill towards town, I had visions of comfort and conversation. When she heard I was planning to go through Darwin, my friend Grace told me to look up her friends Dell and Kathy, and I was hoping for a welcome there. Darwn is small enogh that all I needed was one person to stop and offer me a ride, and I could ask them where Dell and Kathy lived. I figured when I showed up at their door things would fall into place. Or not. In fact, two people stopped, and from their descriptions I was able to walk right to Dell and Kathy’s door, where I read the sign informing me that I should tell them right away if I was wearing any scented products so that they would not invite me in. Grace had mentioned something about Kathy’s allergies, but it had been knocked right of my mind by visions of new friends.

Dell answered the door and I introduced myself as a friend of Grace’s and I told him about my project. Then I mentioned that I had heard he was a piano player and that I was one too. He mentioned Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, and I may have said something about James P Johnson, and suddenly we were colleagues. I told them I was wearing sunscreen and Kathy allowed as how if I didn’t mind taking a shower and wearing some clothes she’d find for me, I could probably come in. Don’t throw me in that briar patch!

So I got that extra shower and put on some of Kathy’s clothes (Dell said I looked cute) and got to know a couple of interesting and friendly people over pot roast and vegetables and salad and chocolate ice cream. Dell and I traded sets on the 7-ft grand piano they installed in their mobile home. Dell has spent a lot of time in the Sierras and I heard a lot of interesting stories from him. Kathy is a plant lover and was able to identify the gentian I saw on the banks of Whitney Creek. They put me up in a travel trailer out back and I slept deeply, happy for the comfort and very very grateful for the hospitality.

Written by walkingman

October 30th, 2008 at 9:12 am

Posted in Desert

Escape from the 395

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Day 44, East of Lone Pine, CA
Lone Pine to CA 190, 22.8 miles
total miles traveled: 495.6

Another day where the camping options call for a long walk. In this case, the goal was to get well past Keeler, CA and the mining area around it, and as far down CA 190 as possible. After CA 190 comes in from Olancha, the road rises through a gap, and becomes nearly a wilderness road except that it is the main route into Death Valley.

As soon as I got off 395, the road that runs right up the east side of the Sierras and defines the region enough that a website about the area is called www.395.com, I felt the walk change — it was no longer about groups of people and the effect they have on nature and on me. Now it was about nature and the effect it has on people, especially me.

I passed a marble boulder with a plaque calling attention to the dolomite marble mine nearby, and I found a small piece of stone as a gift for Lori. I passed Keeler, and low on water, drew near to the first cache past Lone Pine. I saw a family stopped by the side of the road picking up pieces of marble that had probably fallen from a truck, and I called out to them that there was another marble-littered section a few miles down the road. And at this point, I made one of the most serious mistakes of the trip and received swift punishment.

Before I left, I decided that I would accept absolutely anything offered to me in good faith by anyone along the way — except a ride. When I talked to these people by the road, they offered me some water and I declined, knowing that my cache was very close by. However, TAMI did not have the coordinates of the caches because I didn’t have the software to transfer them in Lone Pine and I didn’t think of the simple expedient of printing them out and entering them by hand. So I was relying on my memory to find the cache, which was up a side road — but which side road? I remembered the position relative to the big mining facility, I remembered the little pit at the end of the road, I remembered the orange stakes on the right side as you got up a little way … I chose a likely road and followed it — no joy. And now it was getting dark and my hopes of finding the cache were even dimmer.

I went to the mining facility and banged on the door trying to raise a night watchman or something, but got no response. Now I had one liter of water and about ten miles to the next cache, so I blasted down the road, trying to make as much distance as I could, figuring I would make a thirsty camp that night and try for the next cache the next day. I figured if I got in real trouble I could always hold up my empty water bottle by the side of the road and someone would take pity on me.

I reached the junction with CA 190 and got as far from the 395 corridor and the mining area as I could before darkness and exhaustion forced me to a dry camp too close to the side of the road. Setting up my camp in the wind, the pole assembly on my tent failed and my best attempt at a field repair succeeded in cutting the shock cord, but it worked well enough to give me shelter on that starry windy night, and I settled in to a thirsty sleep.

Written by walkingman

October 23rd, 2008 at 7:25 pm

Posted in Desert