One Hell of a Weekend in the Desert

How the hell did I get myself into this scrape? I wondered as I sat under the one Joshua Tree that provided some shade but did little to shield me from the gusts of wind whipping up from the flat below. My skin felt like fine-grit sandpaper, my lips were chapped and I was in my third hour of sitting across the road from the red Chevy Tahoe I had spotted down the mountain - waiting for the driver to appear and bail me out of my predicament. Of course I had no idea where he was or how long he’d be but he was my one hope of getting out of this before the search party was formed when I didn’t show up as scheduled.

I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Let’s start at the beginning. 

Driving north on the 395 from Los Angeles felt like coming home. The route had become so familiar I anticipated certain landmarks. The collapsing cabin just before Jawbone Flat, the turn off for Kennedy Meadows, the dark jumbled basalt of Fossil Falls, the weird phenomenon of the Eastern Sierra ramparts to my west and the Coso Wilderness’ volcanic domes eastward. Then, of course, the tiny town of Olancha just before the Death Valley turnoff where everyone who knows anything tops off their tank before heading into the hinterlands.

I had an ambitious itinerary. It included pushing into an area I hadn’t ventured into before, there to park at a spot I’d mapped out and the cross country trip to find a world class petroglyph site. After that it was back out to the truck and up to a cabin a thousand feet higher and much deeper into the backcountry to stay the night.

The next day I’d head up to get a much closer look at Conglomerate Mesa which I had fallen in love with on an earlier trip but only from a distance. I had left the third day open for whimsy and exploration - perhaps back to the Cosos to see if the mustangs were at the spring again. But in the words of Robert Burns, “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men / Gan aft a-gley”…

The first day proceeded like clockwork. The drive into the area was a marvel of hills and endless yuccas. The truck kicked up a plume of dust like a dragon’s tail. I arrived at my jumping off point, parked, loaded up with water, food and camera gear and set off for the 2.5 mile hike up into the site.

The route in was peppered with pocket gopher and desert tortoise burrows (I think) and the omnipresent signs of horses and donkeys - poop and prints. It was an easy walk - the ground rose gradually and I drifted into a meditative state. I always keep my eyes on the ground especially when trekking off trail. It’s easy to step into a hole or brush up against a cactus or put a foot wrong on a rock. I fell into a leisurely scan of the ground and then back up to my surrounding in a ceaseless rhythm. I was closing in on the destination, pulse quickening at the prospect of the petroglyphs but when I glanced up I saw eight guys with full packs coming down from the area. It was a little surreal. There were no other vehicles on the road and I’d encountered exactly no one on the drive in. One of them broke away from the group and approached me.

“Well, good morning to you!” he cried from a distance.

“Hello! You’re about the last thing I expected to see out here,” I replied.

“Same! You going to check out the petroglyphs?”

“Yeah, I’ve known about them for a while now. Figured it was time I came out and had a look.”

He extended a hand. “I’m Matt.”

I shook it. “Josh. You guys out doing a multi-day thing?”

“Yep. We’re halfway through. Seven days in. Badwater to Whitney.”

“Wow, you’ve done it before?”

“Many times. I’ve taken a few groups through here.”

“You’re a guide?”

“I am indeed. You have enough water on you?”

“About a gallon and some snacks,” I said.

Matt nodded. “Well, I need to catch up with the group. We’ll have a video up on Youtube in the next few months. Feel free to check it out or check in with our Facebook group.” He started away.

“What’s the name of the group?” I called after him.

L2H Adventures,” he replied. “Just drop down into that wash there and you’ll start seeing the petroglyphs.”

And off they went down across the flat, vanishing from view, and I dropped into the wash intent on my own adventure.

Not 150 feet into the wash I spotted the first etched rock but it was the work of a comparatively modern hand. JF 1916. It was nestled among several ancient petroglyphs. I wandered further in and very shortly was surrounded by the symbols of the ancient Coso peoples. A wonderland of rakes and sheep, hunting scenes and shamanic figures. It seemed they carved on every conceivable flat surface in some places. It was magical. Further in, near the easternmost glyphs, I found the famous Ubehebe Bunch carving, signed by miners on July 4, 1907. After climbing around and exploring for about an hour I ate lunch in the scanty shade of an overhang, watching red ants go about their business.

Afterward,  I ambled up the slope, hoping to find more but it didn’t take long to leave the site behind. Oddly, though, I found the remains of two birds of prey. One east of the site - I believe it was an owl - with fringes of feathers right down to its talons, and another one - a hawk - close to where I’d come in. One dead bird on each end of the petroglyph site. It felt a little weird, but many things seem weird when you’re out in the big silence alone.

I hiked back to the truck and headed northeast toward the cabin I’d be staying at for the night. The road branched three ways; my route was the middle one, and soon I left the sand  behind as the road climbed into the mountains. The drive began to get gnarly and I took it slow, the truck rocking from side to side as I pushed over large rocks and lurched through washouts. Eventually the cabin came into view in the distance, tiny against the vast tawny wilderness it was built in. Things have a different scale out there. From my perspective the cabin was smaller than a thumbnail and as fragile. The Mojave dwarfed it in its immensity.

Pulling up the narrow final approach, the cabin beckoned. At a glance it was solidly built - a wood frame on a concrete pad. A bank of small windows looked southwest along the flats and the hills. The view was breathtaking - the vast Joshua Tree forest plunged down from the heights where they mingled with pinyons to spread for miles across the sandy expanse.

The interior reinforced my initial impression. Tiny, compact, clean and well-stocked - as many of these cabins are. Cans of food on the shelves, old pictures of some of the characters that haunted the region back in its heyday, a tiny stone fireplace, a couple of chairs, a folding cot and two stools made from squares of plywood and plastic buckets. A stone’s throw from the front door was an outhouse. It was warm and cozy and felt more so as the wind gusted about the eaves.

I clambered about the area, exploring the mine workings and poking my head into one of the adits. A resident bat was none too pleased at my arrival and darted about the tunnel. Reconnoiter complete, I returned to the cabin and began unloading, taking a break from cooking to stop and breathe and take it all in, with camera and without.

The sun began to sink, painting the vast region in delicate hues of amber and rose, deepening to red until it sank into blue and finally to black. Stars emerged and presently I could perceive the ribbon of our galaxy stretching nearly vertical from the southwest horizon. By then the sky was full - a dome of countless lights. The Big Dipper rose over the peak of the cabin to the north.

Finishing dinner, I went outside for some long exposures. The wind was warm on my skin, the night enveloped me like a blanket - it was a magnificent location and I was alone in it. I was the only person in the world beholding this place. Peace flooded in and a quiet joy burbled up from some place deep within me.

The next morning I rose before daybreak, fixed breakfast and emerged to watch the sun rise. The range is high enough that daybreak draws like a curtain down the opposite hills. Fire consumes morning blue like magma, rolling inexorably down the western hills.

My goal was to see if I could descend back down to the sand and find a route between the northern end of the hills and southern extent of the Inyo Mountains and thence down to Conglomerate Mesa, there to wander and photograph and perhaps spend the night.

I never got there.

A few hundred yards below the cabin there was a road that led onto a narrow spur to a mining prospect, its huge pipes visible on the mountainside from the road. On impulse, I turned onto it. Could make for some good photos. The road however was quite narrow and I stopped at a place with enough room to turn around and walked the rest of the way. There wasn’t much to see but I was glad I’d stopped where I had since there was very little space at the dead end.  The site was unimpressive. I took one picture and returned to the truck.

I started backing up to turn around. The truck started off well, but it was up a slight incline and I felt the back tires start to spin a little. They found enough purchase to get me oriented across the road, the cab now looking down the drop off. I went to back up once more to complete the three-point turn except this time I felt the rear tires spin and then sink. I tried again. And again. It wasn’t going anywhere.

I climbed out to evaluate the situation. The incline was ludicrously slight, so I grabbed my shovel and started digging out. I tried again. Nope. I chopped up some creosote branches and shoved them under the tires. Nothing. I used the air mattress that had sprung a leak the previous night. The tires fired it out like a cannon.

I sank to the ground, suppressing rising anxiety. Then I remembered there was some old aluminum sheeting at the prospect. I dragged one of them over, jacked up the truck and slid it under. Same result as the branches and the air mattress. Hang on. All the weight of the truck is at the front and I’m on a downhill slope. It could just be a weight distribution issue. I piled hundreds of pounds of rock into the bed, climbed into the cab and tried again.

Nothing. I was out of ideas. The nearest paved road was over 16 miles away.

I was stuck.

I needed to think. Grabbing my water bottle, I began walking back to the cabin on the off chance someone had driven up. It also provided more shelter than the truck and I didn’t fancy sitting in the cab staring off the edge of the drop.

No one was there and I began the mental calculus I assume everyone who finds themselves in similar straits does. How much water and food do I have? I always over prepare for trips and reckoned I was good for at least a week, more if I was frugal. Plus Stephanie not only had an itinerary, but gps coordinates for each stopping point on the trip. And it was Saturday - no one expected to hear from me until Monday. That meant I had two full days to figure a way out of this. There was no need to panic.

But a part of me wanted to panic, and a small part of me really wanted to panic, suggesting I try to pull forward - maybe the truck’s turning radius was smaller than I thought. Maybe I wasn’t really stuck, maybe I was just too risk averse. But if I misjudged it and the edge gave away, the truck and I would be rolling down the mountain and not on tires. And that would be catastrophic. Stupid. Take a breath. Settle down, think it through.

Two days to figure this out. But sitting there it began to sink in just how big this country was and how inhospitable it could be to a traveler marooned and ill-prepared. In that moment, I saw the desert in a completely different light. Of course, I knew it could be a perilous place in theory, but until you are sitting outside a remote mountain cabin with very few options do you realize just how precarious life can become.

I want to stress, here, that I was at no time in immediate danger or even long term peril. I’d done my research, people knew where I was and I had more than enough food and water to last until a search party arrived. That doesn’t change the way your mind works in a situation like this. And if I had panicked out of embarrassment or desperation, I could have put myself in real danger or suffered serious injuries. 

With all of this racing through my head, I looked up and caught a flash of light down the mountain. I jumped up and could just make out a vehicle. My heart leaped and I started waving. But then it occurred to me that if it were people heading to the cabin and they saw me there they might assume it was occupied and turn around out of politeness as is customary in these places. I couldn’t have that happen so I set off cross country as fast as I could to intercept them. At every wash and dip where I lost sight of the car, I prayed it would still be there when I came back up. Mercifully it was; with relief I burst onto the road.

The Tahoe was empty.

Ah,  but this was the road to the other cabin on the mountain. I could just glimpse its outhouse up the slope and made my way to it hopefully. The cabin was empty and no one was around. Maybe they were in the mine exploring. I wasn’t going to risk climbing up and be wrong and miss them. That Tahoe was my lifeline. I walked back down to it, planted myself under the Joshua Tree and waited.

And waited. And waited. The water in my bottle began to get low and the wind was gusting. I was parching. But I couldn’t afford to leave for fear of missing him. The log book in the second cabin! Each place has one. I went back up, ripped a page out of it, scribbled a note and placed it prominently under the windshield wiper. Then I hot-footed it back up the mountain and to the truck. Stuffing my day pack full of water and snacks, I grabbed a book (who knew how long it would be?) and hurried back down to the Tahoe.

More comfortable, I settled in. I tried to read but couldn’t resist craning my neck constantly to see if anyone was coming down the mountain. My mind was all over the place, careening between anxiety, hope, and restlessness. And after each bout, I’d quell it, walk back over all the reasons I needn’t feel that way.

Down on the road that led up to the turnoffs to the cabins a white pickup truck suddenly came into view. Maybe a quarter of a mile away. I threw the book and pelted down the road in the hot desert sun. The wind threatened to tear my hat off and I clutched at it wildly. As I neared the intersection I could see the truck was going to beat me to the turn. I was going to miss the intercept. I waved my hat and yelled at the top of my lungs. But the wind was blowing back toward me and the sound didn’t carry. I made it to the main road just as he rounded the corner. I yelled one more time but he was gone. I stood there, lungs burning as the dust of his passing peppered my face.

Defeated, I trudged up the way I had come and sank down under my tree. The pages of the book fluttered frantically in the wind. Screw you, Abraham Lincoln, I thought. I don’t care right now if you had it tough.

I waited for what felt like an eternity but finally on one of my looks up the mountain, I caught a flash of orange and a man appeared coming toward me. I leapt to my feet and went to greet him. He eyed me with a mix of wariness and friendliness.

“You’re the last thing I expected to see up here,” he said with a slight smile. “I’m Dan.”

“Oh, but I’ve been expecting you for some time.” I was laughing with relief. “I got myself stuck up near the **** Cabin. Was wondering if you could give me a hand.”

“Might be able to. Let’s go take a look.”

I heaved a sigh of relief and looked at the time. I’d been waiting for him for just over 5 hours.

“How are you even stuck there?” Dan asked when he saw my truck. “It doesn’t look bad at all.”

“I know. Maddening. Rear wheel drive couldn’t handle it. If I could’ve seen into the future to know I’d be doing these trips when I bought it, I would’ve gotten four wheel drive.”

In the end, it was as simple as a tow rope and one pull and I was free. The relief was overwhelming. I thanked him profusely and we parted ways.

Now that I had a second, exhaustion flooded in. I briefly considered staying a second night at the cabin but all I wanted to do was be out of the area. I desperately wanted to see a friendly face so I headed down to a mine just off the 190 in hopes that Deb and her dog Parker were staying there. But, no. It was a bunch of weekend warriors, drinking and flying a drone. The sun was starting to go down and I didn’t have a camping spot. Continuing up the road, I found a spot that gave some shelter from the wind.

I turned the truck off and sat stupefied behind the wheel. I needed to hear a voice. Any voice. I turned the satellite radio to a classical station and sat listening to the adagio from Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto De Aranjuez, clutching a mug of grocery store wine, staring down the dirt road as the world darkened and the Milky Way filled the sky with a cool, reassuring light. Slowly the stress of the day began to ebb.

Eventually, I crawled into the back seat and drifted off. Didn’t bother trying to set up camp - I had no energy left.

The next morning I felt somewhat better but was still drained mentally and physically. I decided I was going to head home early and briefly considered not even making breakfast and just making a dash straight south to Los Angeles but I forced myself to break out the stove and cook.

I sat down on a rock by the side of the road and ate slowly, gazing up at the outcrop some 100 yards away. I noticed a rock with what looked like geometric patterns on it. Chances were it was natural, but just in case I walked over to get a better look. Sure enough, it was natural fault lines in the rock itself. I took a couple more steps around the front of the outcrop and - I’ll be damned - right there in front of me was a trio of petroglyphs. I had to laugh. It was so completely ridiculous. I’d chosen the spot at random in total exhaustion the night before and in so doing had discovered an undocumented site. If I hadn’t gotten stuck up on that mountain I would never have stopped there. 

After taking some pictures and exploring the area a little more, I climbed back in the truck and headed home.

I can’t wait to go back out again.

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