Journal Excerpt: Dang what a day, so much variation in the landscape, temperature and terrain we hiked over. It’s now 9:45 pm and I need to get to resting, but there is so much to tell. I just finished eating my couscous with re-hydrated veggies and tempeh, a tortilla and some chocolate. I am doing well with this no cook system, however it is cooler tonight and a hot meal would really hit the spot. Right now it’s 50 F and dropping, so I am not sure I could go stoveless in really, truly cold temps.
I woke up painfully this morning from a not so great night’s sleep. The moon is getting brighter, maybe that’s the culprit. Yes, will blame it on the moon for now. Oh beautiful moon, why do you keep me awake? I must have slept some though, because it was so difficult to wake up when the light day finally replaced the light of the moon. I knew we were burning the cool morning hours we needed to hike comfortably, so I pushed myself to get out of my cozy bag. The brisk air was refreshing and once I got moving, I felt awake and ready to face the day.
We walked away from camp by 7:00 am and stopped once more at Darwin Falls to fill up water and stretch a bit, we are both extremely sore. So here’s the deal with the scramble: now I know what the route description’s Class 3 is and I know I can do it, and with a full pack on to boot. It was steeper than I’d thought right from the get-go, but we gained so much elevation so quickly and soon had the most amazing view of the canyon below with all the green trees tucked into the narrow wash. I saw a beautiful hawk swirling around as the sun began to hit the upper canyon walls and the dying night time shadows slowly crept across the rock walls before they disappeared for good.
We scrambled for what felt like a long time. I will admit I was a little nervous (and excited) about this endeavor and as I climbed, adrenaline pumped through my veins. It had been such a mystery how difficult and/or scary it would be. They say fear is nothing but the unknown. I climbed and climbed, using my adrenaline to push against gravity, the rocks rolling underneath my grips. The first little section was slanted at a steep angle and we walked up the narrow ledge swiftly, bodies and backpacks hugging the wall, fingertips grasping for the rough rock surfaces.
We made fast upward progress, and soon I was literally grappling with my hands, wedging my feet into narrow crevasses and using the strength in my upper body. It all felt really good and I was enjoying the rush and the use of different skills and muscles. The views kept getting better and better as we climbed. The route became more and more faint and we would look around for cairns that proved few and far between. When we didn’t see any, we’d check our GPS and maps to see where the route was supposed to go. Do we cross the creek here? Do we cross the creek again? We would have to drop down to the water and climb up again, on the other side, and then what? In one area we were faced with a thick slippery slime plastered all over some rocks we needed to cross over. It was like we came to a standstill. If you got the slime on your shoes, it made every step dangerously slick thereafter. Ask me how I know this…
We scrambled far up one side of the canyon, traversed a ridge, only to discover we hit a dead end and had to back track. There was scree to be negotiated, cacti abound, with sharp needles to be avoided and brilliant flowers to be photographed. In terms of mileage, it is slow going this way. You really have to use three points of contact most of the time and you cannot afford to slip. It took some concentration and courage, yet I was confident as I was doing it. At one place I backtracked on my course to find a better way down, because it just didn’t feel right, this is when you really have to listen deeply, these decisions are so important. That voice is your inner guide, and your ego’s nemesis.
The scrambling continued and finally I started to get into a rhythm and a feeling of comfort and clarity infused my mind. I was elated, I was ready to do this all day. Don’t ask me why, but I thought it was going to be like this for miles and miles and had visions of climbing through this canyon for the better part of the day. Within about an hour and a half however, we reached a point on the route where we veered out from the canyon, following a ridge line on a cow trail, skirting the margins of a branch of the Darwin drainage, which also still had water beneath a thicket of cottonwoods. I was a little relieved to be back on solid ground and be able to just walk, since it took us 1.5 hours to tackle only one mile of terrain. It had seemed like it was going to be a long day and suddenly everything was going to speed up.
The cow trail took us around some bends and back into a wash. Abruptly, the canyon and the scrambling and the waterfalls below were no more. We walked about a half mile and soon saw a cluster of giant Cottonwood trees. This must be China Garden Spring, I thought. By then it was about 9:30 am. So it took us 2 hours to go one and a half miles? I was a bit perplexed about all this, but stoked to be at the Spring so early in the day. We made it! My trepidation regarding the scrambling through Darwin Canyon had long since disintegrated and this reassured me and fear I had wrestled with really was just fear of the unknown. Class 3 scramble up Darwin Canyon, China Garden Springs, check!
The spring does indeed have coi fish, as I’d read about, and had seen photos of. The water is crystal clear and just beautiful. It’s a little bit of Zen in the middle of this hot arid desert. I mean, I could have opened up an acupuncture clinic right there! We rested in the shade, ate snacks, and filtered water. It was already quite hot by now and the shade was like engine coolant. If the pools had been bigger, it would have been hard not to swim in them, fish and all. The pools were small though, and the water so pure, the fish so lovely, I would not have wanted to pollute it with my sweaty, sunscreen covered body. So, I sat there in the shade, wishing I could take a dreamy mid morning nap instead, but couldn’t, we had to press on. From here, we needed to make another 6 miles to Saline Valley Road where we cached more water. But that only gave us 8 miles for the day at that point, and our goal was 22, we still have a long, long way to go….
We took off from the Spring just before 11:00 am with thoughts of making the next 6 miles in time for lunch. We both were hydrated from drinking at the Spring, and each carried 2 liters for the next 6 miles. We entered another wash and it was tough going the next 3 of the 6 miles and I quickly realized it was going to be a “late” lunch. I’m beginning to understand how different of a pace I make in cross country travel compared to a trail.
It seemed in my mind that 6 miles would be nothing. It wasn’t nothing. The wash entered a narrow canyon, and then we began to climb again. It was absolutely beautiful though. There was something magical about this canyon. It was dead silent, there was no shade, there were so many giant boulders, all manner of shrubby plant species with flowers, needles and tiny leaves. The desert was dry but it did not look thirsty. I was thirsty though. The climbing in the sand and stepping up over and negotiating large rocks took more effort than I’d imagined. I was hot, sweaty, thirsty, and found myself begging for some shade.
Despite all these challenges, I was enjoying this canyon immensely. In the few and far between places where I did find a touch of shade, I took a rest. These were places where a canyon wall cast a 10 foot wide shadow because of the angle of the sun, and I would wedge myself up against the cooler rocks to take refuge. Even 5 minutes in the shade seems to bring down the body temperature to a more manageable level. Eventually, I found Hurlgoat sitting in one of these shady spots and took the liberty of dropping my pack and joining him for a few. It was there that he informed me we were to leave the wash right there, and continue up a ridge, cross country. The terrain was about to change, again. We still had 3 more miles to get to our water.
After our brief break in the shade, we headed straight up the ridge, and that popped us up onto a place that looked like Mars. There were black shiny lava rocks scattered throughout a barren landscape that seemed to go on forever into the horizon. We could see some topography where a water drainage once flowed and carved into the Earth, off to the South. Note to self: steer away from the drainage. We aimed above it and toward a slight ridge on the horizon to the NW. We were once again on a steady ascent, loosely following a faint animal trail that had lots of decomposing donkey poop. When the animal track disappeared, we would look for donkey poop and then would be reassured we were on the correct “route”. As it turns out, every time we saw the poop, which was a lot, and we checked our GPS, we were indeed on the correct track. So, this became a fun game. Follow the donkey poop trail.
The space up on that ridge was quite beautiful in it’s own way, and had it not been so hot I would have enjoyed it even more. We took a break after an hour or so of climbing over lava and poop, it was so frickin’ hot at that point and the heat was making me damn tired, and hungry, and thirsty, and dizzy. I wanted a nap desperately, and there was not a drop of shade to be had. There were beautiful, great, old Joshua trees emerging, and ironically, they produced zero shade. I took the umbrella out once again while I sat down, grateful for the little bit of sun cover it gave me. Thank you Umbrella. I should give you a name….a very endearing name, I thought.
I ate more food and drank more tepid liquid and eventually we had to push on. We still had a couple miles to get to Saline Valley Road. Why is this taking so long? I was feeling a major lack of motivation, and tried to snap my head out of that funk, but it was hard, not gonna lie. Fortunately we got some clouds that came in and cooled things down just enough, then a little breeze and eventually a little downhill through sand, lava and those glorious Joshua trees. Oh the Joshua trees, they were so stunning and they gave me the lift of spirit I needed! Thank you J trees, you are magnificent! The downhill helped too, lessening the energy necessary to propel myself forward. Before long, I could see so far into the distance, I knew the road was out there somewhere and I started to feel a wave of relief. We both picked up the pace and were able to get back into a steady walking groove.
The terrain became more like a shallow sand, with grasses and cacti, dotted with thicker and thicker Joshua trees, and the occasional worn foot path. I kept my gaze into the distance and noted that there were cars the size of fleas zooming by. That optical illusion of seeing cars on the road got me again. When will I learn? I saw the cars, and that made me feel like we were oh so very close to the road, but you tend to forget that in the desert, you can see so very far into the distance, and nothing is as close as it seems. This kind of thinking is dangerous. Don’t do it.
As I negotiated this optical illusion and tried to gauge how much longer it would take to get to the road, the sand got deeper. Once again, it seemed like it took forever and a day to reach the road. The fact that the last mile was in deep sand did not make matters any better. Finally, finally… we made it to the road. Hurlgoat was just a little ahead of me, and when we reached our water cache we rejoiced and did a happy dance.
There was a sign along the road, which marked the South Pass Entrance to Saline Valley, warning travelers that they were about to enter the most remote corner of Death Valley. “Remote tranquility, solitude, wilderness, and vastness are some of the qualities that attract people here. These same traits also demand that visitors be self-sufficient and provision themselves for any emergency, since assistance is not readily available.”
Our cache of 4 Gallons (16 Liters) had been sitting there in the sun for days, so as expected, it was nice and hot. Oh well. We sat down at the side of the dirt road and as planned, ate our lunch, it was almost 4:00 pm. We had made those last 6 miles in 5 hours! How was that possible? It was so hot and exposed, there was no shade, so we sad right there by the side of the road and the sun felt mean. I attempted to make a shade with my umbrella and a trekking pole so I could be hands free to eat, which failed miserably. The clouds would come and go intermittently though, and we talked to them, begging them to stay. Oh beautiful clouds, please keep covering the sun, it really helps us…..we really need your shade…please don’t go… Really really appreciating the clouds today.
We drank as much water as we could consume in one sitting, and lined up the rest to evaluate how much we could carry. Of course, we were not going to waste a drop, and as it ended up, I carried out six and a half Liters and Hurlgoat had eight. We had the 4 empty plastic containers to contend with too, and while we planned originally to flatten them and pack them out, Hurlgoat committed a brave act. A 4WD Jeep came by on the road, and he waved them down, and proceeded to ask them if they wouldn’t mind taking the empties for us. I was feeling shy about this whole endeavor, and just sat on the road quietly under my umbrella, while he did all the negotiating. The folks were super nice and happily agreed to take them and “recycle” them. Even better! Well played Hurlgoat!
We sat there on the road for way too long, and eventually made a plan for the remainder of the day. We decided that since the next chunk of the route was going to be dirt road walking, that we would hike late into the night to make up the miles. It was nearing 5:00 pm and we decided to hike until 9:30 pm or so. That would give us, by our calculations, another 12-13 miles, getting us pretty close to our goal of 22 for the day. It seemed like quite a task at the time. My feet were not happy, so I tricked them into doing more miles by eating some Trader Joe’s cold brew coffee chocolate and taking some ibuprofen. You gotta do what you gotta do.
As I set off on that long dirt road, I realized I was going to be walking on it’s flat, compact surface for the next 5 hours. Just walking, straight ahead, on a dirt road through the middle of this enormous, extremely remote desert. It looked as if the Earth was nothing but a big, vast desert, and that’s all there ever was, all there ever would be, and I loved that. My mind was clear as I walked and I thought of nothing in particular. My mind reflected the landscape, an open chasm of empty space, Joshua Tree contours that cast shadows, clouds that gave texture to the sky, mountains in the distance like watercolor paintings, gravely dirt that crunched under my feet, rhythmically alternating with the tapping of my trekking poles, crunch crunch, tap tap, crunch crunch, tap tap. I lost my mind in the unbounded space and the lulling beat of my own dance. I am in My happy place.
Turns out, that rest, food and coffee chocolate gave me just the energy I needed. I ended up keeping a 3 mph steady pace for those next two hours, and with over 6 L water added to my pack, that’s not so bad. By 7:00 pm I stopped for a rest and to wait for Hurlgoat, who was far enough behind me I could not see him. It was a great place to sit and watch the last rays of sun streaming across the land as the clouds dragged themselves into thin wisps across the cobalt sky. The air finally began to cool, and as I sat there I actually felt chilled! I will take it! Hurlgoat caught up shortly and we took a 30 min break to watch the sunset and rest. We also resumed eating, and did some stretching. We didn’t let ourselves get too comfy though, and we set off again by 7:30 pm, with the plan to get as far as we could by 9:30 pm, we hoped.
By 8:00 pm it was dark, and we both walked along the dirt road without our headlamps. This, to me, is one of the most free feelings in the world. Just imagine, you are walking through a vast, empty, silent desert under the big open sky, the stars are glowing points of light by the millions, all you see around you are silhouettes of mountains and odd shaped trees that slightly resemble a human form, but much larger. You cannot see far enough into the horizon to know what is coming next, and you cannot see or hear your hiking partner, yet you know they are there. You just walk, for hours like this. You are floating through the world, the air is fresh and cool around your skin, you feel like you could walk like this all night, you are so, dang, alive.
By 9:00 pm I was pretty much done. Hurlgoat was now in the lead and I stopped to get out my headlamp in anticipation of seeking a place to sleep. Fortunately, he got the same idea at the same time. I saw his lamp illuminate up ahead of me as I was getting mine adjusted, so I scurried up ahead to catch up with him, hoping he was ready to make camp too. We agreed it was time to call it a day, and by our calculations, we were at mile 72, about 3 miles shy of our original goal for the day. Still, we made it 19 miles total and that included the scramble that morning, the 8 miles by 4:00 pm. Ha! It took us 8 hours to go the first 8 miles of the day, and then we knocked off the next 11 miles in only 3.5 hours, that’s the L2H for ya!
Journal Excerpt: We walked off the dirt road into the Joshua Tree forest and found a nice, sandy area to call home for the night. This remote corner of Death Valley National Park is called the Lee Flat National Scenic area. I’ve made a mental note to myself to come back here someday soon. There are literally thousands of old, beautiful, thriving Joshua Trees here who have been my constant companions for the last several hours. I am elated to have this privilege to lay my body and rest under the protection of these old souls. That just must be good for you, right? The elevation here is 5,200 ft and the current temperature is 50 F, there is a slight breeze and I am feeling a little chilly, ready to tuck in and get some rest. Hurlgoat is already sleeping. We will hike through more Joshua Trees and more dirt road tomorrow before we start the big climb up to to Cerro Gordo where we will get more water. But for now, I am going to turn my body over and gaze at the diamond points in the sky before I drift away…into the dreamtime.