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).|