You’ve seen my photographs and heard my stories and from the outside I’m sure it seems like one ongoing adventure but a lot goes into prepping for trips: research, mapping routes, devising plans, putting together supplies, firewood, etc. And then there are the electronics. Determining optimal lenses, charging batteries, charging all my other devices (drone, headlamp, camera batteries, Garmin). There is meal planning too and making sure I have a good supply of salty/sugary snacks to replenish energy loss while hiking and sweating, and of course ensuring I have at least twice as much water as I’ll likely need in the event that something goes seriously awry.
Then there are the intangible elements. The risk of getting too comfortable in remote places and making poor decisions, getting a little too cocky and not paying attention, failure to think ahead, etc.
Most trips go largely according to plan. But they don’t always. This past trip to Eureka Valley was a mixed bag. Nothing disastrous happened and I got some magnificent images but multiple equipment glitches, unexpected weather phenomena, and me not anticipating certain events culminated in a fairly hefty sack of stress.
This was my first time into Eureka Valley and the route is simple compared to some of the other outings I’ve done. So, driving up over the high passes following a convoy of Inyo County Sheriff’s vehicles, I turned my brain off. When they turned onto Waucoba Saline Road, I thought to myself, “Oh, I know this road!” And followed them onto the slushy, snow-lined dirt road. It only takes a small lapse to screw yourself up.
Only took me a few minutes to realize I was heading south - parallel to Eureka - instead of continuing east. Looking at my map I tried to reckon an easterly route. All I could see where I was a pair of snowy tire tracks headed down a wide valley. There was no way my rear wheel drive truck with street tires could handle that. Perhaps driving down, but going back up? Not a chance.
I messaged my friend Kevin who I was meeting there and told him I wasn’t going to risk the snowy roads, that I’d likely explore a bit and then head south to my usual places in order to minimize risk. He replied that there had been no snow on the road when he’d driven through last night but understood. That should have clued me in that I was in the wrong place - for whatever reason, it did not. I decided to try to get into Saline Valley from the north (which is where Waucoba Saline Road ultimately goes) and drive through to South Pass which would take me into my usual territory, albeit from a different direction. But as I continued, the snow got deeper and slushier. If North Pass was this snowy, it was a possibility that South Pass had gotten precipitation too. If that were the case, I’d end up trapped in Saline Valley. I turned around, resigning myself to retracing my steps and heading back out to Owens Valley and the 395 which I had just come up. The prospect sucked.
But when I got back to the intersection where I’d originally turned, I sat and stared for a minute and finally put two-and-two together. Roundly cursing myself for the idiot I was, I turned down the right road and began the descent into Eureka Valley.
I had messaged Stephanie via my new Garmin to let her know what was going on but she didn’t respond and I got this odd message back from Garmin saying I “had to give consent to share my location” on their website. She was expecting me to update her periodically but now I wasn’t sure my messages were getting through. If she didn’t hear from me at some point, she was going to grow concerned and might involve search and rescue. And it was already much later in the day than I had anticipated due to my marvelous detour.
My stress increased as my elevation decreased and, as I was rattling across the final ten miles of washboard road, I was contemplating having to drive almost all the way back out to Big Pine to get a cell signal to let Stephanie know the Garmin wasn’t performing as expected. That would suck big time. I had already burned a lot more gas then I anticipated and it would end up consuming the entire first day. I was not a happy camper.
When I finally pulled into Eureka Dunes Dry Camp, I was a bundle of stress and anxiety. I messaged Kevin to say the bonehead had finally arrived, then messaged Stephanie asking her to please reply if she received anything. To my relief, she did. She had been holding off on responding because of the limited number of texts you can send for free. One hurdle down.
Kevin replied and said he was up in a canyon and would see me shortly. He was camped away from the dry camp. Awesome. It had been stressful but now everything seemed to be back on track. Far later than I’d like but I wasn’t going to complain.
I sat and waited. Minutes ticked by until two hours had passed. Where was he? I started fiddling around with the Garmin and realized suddenly that if I zoomed in on the map, I could see the locations from his messages. As dusk was beginning to purple the landscape, I jumped into the truck and hurried over to his campsite. He was still high in the canyon when I arrived. I hurried to set up camp and get a fire going to cook.
“You may see my headlamp above you,” he messaged me. I peered into the growing darkness and could make out a tiny speck of light far far up the alluvial fan behind the campsite.
Eventually he walked into camp and I had chili bubbling on the fire.
We caught up while eating and imbibing and he mentioned how humid it was in the valley, that everything had been soaked the previous morning. Good to know since I make a habit of sleeping in the bed of the truck. To prevent drowning in the desert, I made up my bed, then draped a tarp over the back of the truck. But the tarp sagged during the night and I woke up to a rather moist sleeping bag anyway.
We got a late start the next morning. I left gear out to dry during the day without considering that we were probably not going to be back before dark. The hike we had planned was lengthy.
Then my trekking pole broke. And it dawned on me as we began the hike and were miles from my truck that the temperature was going to drop as soon as the sun set and I was wearing a lightweight hiking shirt and pants. I don’t usually do night hikes and bringing a jacket didn’t occur to me when we left. I also neglected to bring a light. Have fun freezing and tripping on everything, dumbass. But, as you will see shortly, bringing or not bringing a light would be a moot point.
“I cannot get my shit together this weekend,” I muttered to Kevin. He laughed.
We hiked cross country and had a great time exploring. As the day waned though, we were still five miles from Kevin’s vehicle and I mentioned that we might want to take a pretty direct route back since I anticipated chilly temps after dark. So we set off, and it was surprisingly comfortable. Maybe my body remembered all those Canadian winters and shrugged off the relatively mild coolness. I walked in the penumbra of Kevin’s headlamp and we made quite good time back to the trailhead.
All the gear I had left out to dry was soaked by the time we got back to camp, including my fire-starting materials and kindling. Not really a problem - I could improvise. I’d done it before. I grabbed my headlamp and start working on the fire. Two minutes in, the headlamp died. Really odd considering I’d charged it fully the night before and double-checked it. Okay, I’d just grab my spare one which runs on batteries. That one lasted maybe five minutes. Totally fine - I always have batteries.
But I didn’t.
I’d pulled them for something else at home and hadn’t thought to replace them since I had the fancy rechargeable one and this one was purely back up. I still had three regular flashlights, but working in the dark when you need both hands is aggravating. Eventually I got the fire started and I think we finally ate close to 9pm.
None of it was catastrophic and I did have back ups for everything but all the little things ended up making the weekend a strange mix of stress, fun, frustration and the satisfaction I get from being out in wild places.
Next time I’ll have batteries. And a functioning brain.