“There is a book about Death Valley’s victims and surprisingly in most cases they turned out not to be the greenhorns that made some fatal mistake, instead it was often some old-timer that had forgotten to have enough respect for the harsh desert landscape.” - Emmett C. Harder
Well, I’m sure you know how it is. You’ve been too long away from nature and when finally released from your urban confines, you shoot like an arrow to the big wild. Unfortunately, your normal preparations go out the window in your rush to put boots in sand. You break your own rules and go into the desert undergeared.
We’ve all been there, right? No? Then let this be your cautionary tale.
I compounded the foolishness by heading out in the middle of May, having never hiked significant distances in the Mojave that late in the year. The forecast said temperatures would be no higher than the mid-80s - something I told myself I could easily handle. I wasn’t one of those damn fools who set out in 120 degree Death Valley and turned up as dried husks in some sun-blasted wash.
Never believe the myth of your own experience. Or at the very least, give it a wink and say “Sure, pal”, then prepare some more. There will always be factors you cannot predict, but operating at razor thin margins is asking for something to go wrong no matter how experienced you are.
The sun doesn’t give a spit how tough you are. In fact, it’ll steal that from you along with the rest of your water.
Pulling off the highway and parking in a sandy wash, I glanced at my gps. It was zoomed out quite a bit which meant the waypoints I’d added looked relatively close to where I’d parked. In my impatience, I didn’t stop to calculate the distance.
Throwing some snacks in a pack, I made sure my hydration reservoir was full and set off in high spirits to find the “Hidden Canyon Mine”. Immediately my gps app started acting sluggish. When I’d check it, it would indicate I was on the wrong heading. I knew I wasn’t but it was frustrating and I zigzagged for about a mile before getting so fed up with it, I decided to brute force hike in as straight a line I could toward the destination.
I should say now that at no point was I in danger of getting lost. The one thing the desert has in spades is landmarks and I know this country better than any I’ve spent time in. The difficulty comes when looking for a single thing in all that space. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve walked right past sites I’d been to before. Finding something for the first time can be difficult - if you’re off by even a hundred yards, you could miss it. The desert has a way of swallowing things, even familiar ones.
It was hard to be disgruntled with equipment for too long when in such magnificent country, however. And spring is a marvel in the Mojave. Hillsides are aglow in yellow blankets of desert dandelions, by far the most abundant flower. These were punctuated by the white blooms of desert pincushion - from a distance these look a little like heads of clover, but closer inspection will reveal clusters of delicate flowers.
On the rocky slopes clustered amidst dark volcanic stone, the lovely desert five spot raised vivid pink heads and the five scarlet spots that give it its name. Accompanying them were purple asters.
This is only a smattering of the desert in spring. There were also the deep, bright yellow of Wallace’s Woolly Daisies (love that name!), white Desert Chicory, starlike and cheerful, Desert Pepperweed, Narrow-leaved Cryptantha and Bristly Fiddleneck. And, of course, the omnipresent shrub of the Mojave, the creosote bush, was spackled in tiny golden flowers.
This particular hike was down in the drainages of the wilderness area - elevation ranged between 4300 and 4700 feet above sea level. This is pretty low for me. Normally I hang in the high high desert, sometimes approaching 8000 feet, which allows for some relatively cooler temperatures and ofttimes a good breeze. So not only was I hiking later than usual, I was hiking lower than usual. It also meant there wouldn’t be even the scanty shade provided by Joshua Trees, junipers and pinyons that are common at elevation in some parts. The only potential shade in land like this would be the rare overhang on a wash’s edge, and these are not usually high enough to provide anything resembling comfort.
So, from the outset, there were factors arrayed against my body’s 60% water content. But the mine beckoned. I had discovered its existence while researching quite by chance. It didn’t show up in the usual sources I use to find sites, and that in itself was exciting. I had a suspicion the headframe was still standing and, given my increasing conviction that this was a “lost” site, I was more excited than normal.
A headframe - for those of you not familiar - is the tower or frame that stands over a vertical mine shaft whereon the pulley is affixed. Headframes are emblematic of the golden age of mining in the western US. To find one intact and unvandalized is a rare treat.
This is the explorer’s equivalent of gold fever and likely accounts for some of my rashness. When the frenzy is on you, it’s difficult to keep your head. And the prospect of turning back before reaching it becomes infinitesimal even if it’s the most prudent thing to do.
And thus I plunged on, intent, fixated, obsessed. The sun beat down as I paused at the numerous mine claim markers to look for paperwork.
The land undulated, alternating between pale rock and pale green. As far as I could reckon, there remained one ridge between my destination and me but I wasn’t holding my breath. My gps app had misdirected me more than once this trip and I was in full skeptic mode.
As I climbed, a coyote burst from under a creosote bush. He lit out across the desert at a gallop, loping effortlessly up the uneven ground.
“Hey, coyote!” I yelled after it. Startled, it skidded to a halt and looked back over its shoulder for a moment. Then, seeing that its eyes had not deceived it and there was still a human where no humans had been as long as it had been alive, it resumed its retreat southwest and vanished over a rise. Had I known what was coming, however, I would have yelled ‘thank you!’ instead of ‘hey!’
Just before the final climb, I came across a claim marker flanked by two cairns. A horny toad, skittered out from it to hide under an overhang and an old, now clear, bottle lay on the slope below, unbroken. I puttered about but there was no paperwork there. I continued on with my main quest.
Then I crested the ridge and all frustration at my gps vanished. There, rising behind a grey mound crowned with a formation of glorious golden stone, was the unmistakable shape of a headframe. I’d found the mine.
Picking my way down the slope, my heart beat faster in anticipation. It’s always so when first encountering a place that - in all likelihood - had remained almost untouched since it was abandoned decades ago. Clambering over the grey hill, the full headframe came into view. Next to it, a jumble of jutting boards - some collapsed building.
Fissured and eroded, the earth around the mineshaft was clearly unstable. Red chunks of rusty metal and fallen beams clogged it like the nest of some weird desert bird, immense and xeric.
The ruin of a bunkhouse lay a little removed from the main shaft, flattened as though by some giant hand. Springs from three beds lay scattered about the ground - rusted earthworms in petrified coils. Chunks of security glass lay at intervals, their chicken wire innards preserving them from shattering into oblivion.
The wheel wells of an ancient truck lay in humps down the wash, dark against the pale ground. Only a few bullet holes punctured the metal - a sure sign the place had seen few weekend warriors over the years. One sure way to judge the obscurity of a site is by counting bullet holes.
A closer inspection of the headframe itself, towering some twenty feet above me revealed that many of the metal bits and springs that formed the apparatus itself and much prized by souvenir hunters had escaped the few who had been here before me.
One of the fascinating features of the site was not the mine itself but evidence of water. Near the shaft was a broad muddy swath fringed with clusters of willow, pale green against the dun. Deep coyote tracks crossed it and, at the farthest edge, there was a slight skim of standing water. Maps do not indicate a spring anywhere in the area - perhaps it is a pluvial thing, a seasonal upswell of rainwater draining to the lake, I can’t say for sure, but the presence of willows do hint at something more regular than the miserly annual precipitation in these parts. I would find out just how close water is to the surface in short order.
A look down canyon revealed a geological marvel. Eroded upthrusts of ancient rock, an entire slope of ochre alluvia pooled around massive boulders of the same hue, there were reds and vivid yellows, all taking their turn in solid massive ancient blocks of color winding down the drainage to the valley. As I left the mine and wandered down the canyon in wonder, a prairie falcon launched herself from an orange crest, circling less than 50 feet over my head, calling a warning. It was nesting season and I had intruded once more in a place unaccustomed to the presence of homo sapiens.
The mine, the canyon, the falcon had consumed my attention and time. The last thing on my mind in the midst of exploring this wonder was my water situation. But as I walked down the canyon, it dawned on me that I’d traveled quite a bit further than I’d initially expected beneath the glaring Mojave sun. One of the things I had not anticipated was how much the sun reflected off the hard-packed sand of the washes - a double whammy of exposure. Even though it wasn’t scorching hot, the constant beating from all sides served to deplete my water faster than I’d anticipated. It essentially canceled out the shade my hat usually provides. This was the latest in the year I’d done distance in the desert and it was fast teaching me lessons. I had forgotten, but the desert hadn’t forgotten me.
The only drawback to using a Camelbak or other hydration system is you can’t see your water levels like you can with bottles. It’s easy to sip without thinking and, even though I’m sparing with my consumption, it’s easy to forget to check how much is left. But I checked now. There were only a few ounces left and I had some miles to cover - completely exposed desert miles. It was time to get back.
Now the impulse in situations like this is to cover ground quickly, but exertion equals more sweat and more sweat means faster depletion. And if you’re low on water, it doesn’t take a genius to do the math on what ends first. Which means you must do the counterintuitive thing and take your time.
Taking the washes down and looping around was easier hiking than the cross country hike in, but there were no plants to break the sun’s reflection off the ground and it radiated up into my face with almost physical force. I was in a confluence of mortality and the inevitability of the sun.
Mental check in. Make the water last as long as possible, be as resourceful as possible with stride, but don’t hold off on drinking water to the point where heat stroke could set in. Limited resources - be smart, pick your moments.
I managed to do this for over a mile before I could feel confusion and anxiety starting to pull me away from the moment-to-moment concentration I needed. I knew this was likely the first symptom of heat stroke, though it could also have been my growing anxiety. Still, best to assume the worst and try to find a way to deal with it, if possible.
Problem is, I was in the desert with no shelter. There was nowhere to go.
I checked my gps app. Three miles to the truck, it said. Shit. You’ve got to be kidding me - I recognize this place. It can’t be THAT far. But if it is … I’m in trouble.
I forced myself to stop and think rather than try something stupid like climbing the hill to my left in a misguided attempt to cut the distance at the expense of massive energy expenditure and water loss, which was what my apprehension was telling me to do.
I’d really done it this time. The weekend I got stuck in the middle of nowhere was the most profound experience of helplessness I’d ever encountered but at least there I had shelter and it would have been only a matter of time until help had arrived.
This however. This was an order of magnitude worse. This was existential. I was the bug and the sun was the thumb.
I forced my racing mind to quiet and looked around to assess my surroundings. To my left was a tall bushy willow but the sun was too high for it to provide any shade. Damn. Wait - a willow? They don’t grow out here unless there’s … and then I saw it right in the middle of the wash. There was a hole and clear signs that something had been digging there. And I knew immediately what that meant.
It was a coyote hole and if I were really lucky, there would be water in it. Coyotes can smell water when it’s close to the surface and will dig until they hit the slow seep welling up from the sand.
I peered into it and, sure enough, there was a small pool of sandy water no wider than my fist. Hot damn. The great thing about this type of water is it’s not a permanent hole like a spring is. So the odds of animals fouling it would be very slim. Likely, the only thing that had drunk from the hole was the coyote who’d dug it. An additional plus is sand is a natural filter. This water was as clean or cleaner than what comes out of your tap.
I reached in and scooped out handfuls of wet sand to deepen it and refresh what little had been sitting there but now I had another problem. The hole was about a foot-and-a-half deep and too narrow for a bottle even if I had one. All I had was my water pouch from the hydration unit. That wasn’t going to work either.
But it did have a hose attached to it and the Osprey unit I use has a quick detach portion to help get it situated in the pack. Taking the tube apart, I thrust it into the hole and sucked up cool desert water.
Nothing has ever tasted so good.
Over a period of about a half hour, I slurped sandy, gritty water until sated. The hole would deplete, then take a minute or two to replenish, but I wasn’t in a rush now that I had no shortage of water. To get my core body temperature down, I sprayed my legs and shirt and scooped it over my head (was picking sand out of my hair for days afterward).
It’s a strange feeling being that depleted and finding water in an unlooked for spot. The strength returning to your body is a physical sensation. I suppose one of the only ways to experience it is to be that close to the edge - not something I’d recommend, obviously, but the experience was revelatory.
At that moment I understood what Joseph Campbell meant when he said, “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”
Once I’d had my fill I began the laborious task of transferring water into the hydration pack by filling the tube with water, stopping it with my tongue and spitting it into the bladder. When it was about half full, I judged I had enough to finish the hike without further imperiling myself. The water in the bladder was an unappetizing golden brown but to me it was pure gold.
The remainder of the hike proceeded without incident and it turned out to only have been another mile-and-a-half back to the truck. Either I had read it wrong in my confusion or the app was as good at math as I am. I’m fairly sure I would have been able to make that distance without having found the hole but it would have been fraught and miserable.
Back at the truck, I dug a cold beer out of the cooler and downed it gratefully. Lesson learned. No matter how impatient you are to get out exploring, always follow the rules and over prepare. I toasted my unwitting coyote savior and set out for my campsite.
It’s not the greenhorns, Emmett said, and he would know. Some of the accounts of his adventures in Death Valley make this one pale in comparison and he was an old hand with decades of prospecting under his belt.
You can get lucky any number of times out there, but you only need to get unlucky once.