JUST DESERTS

 

You could hike from Mexico to Canada and never leave the Desert - If you aren't too picky about what you drink.

By David Darlington
From SIERRA, The Magazine of the Sierra Club
March/April 1998

 

SOON AFTER LEAVING THE JEEP ROAD and entering the wilderness, we come to a canebrake in a dry wash. Even though we're in the desert, our path is blocked by a dam of downed brush entangled with willows and wild roses. Surveying the steep surrounding slopes, we have no choice about which way to go; one at a time, each of us bulls and thrashes his way through, branches collapsing beneath our boots as we teeter and lurch beneath 50-pound packs. Beyond the thicket, some members of our party have dropped their packs and sprawled out to recover underneath some piņons. "So," Steve Tabor says as I stagger up. "Is it what you expected?"

Well, let's see. According to the topo map, this thicket is supposedly a spring, but the only water I see is pouring from a Nalgene bottle into my mouth. The temperature is about 80 degrees, and until this point the only shelter has been the spare silhouette of an occasional piņon. To protect myself from the sun, I'm wearing long pants and sleeves that exclude any chance of a breeze; climbing the jeep road, my glasses immediately fogged and streaked with sweat, and I drank almost a quart of water within the first hour of walking. So, yes, I guess you could say that desert backpacking is what I expected: cruel and unusual punishment, if not outright torture.

What about the Desert Trail?" Tabor asks the group. "Would this be appropriate for people from the East?"

Dave Halligan, shielded by a straw hat above a black bandanna that protects his neck like a veil, is unsympathetic. "You can't mollycoddle people just because they're from the East," he says. "If they're going to come out here, they're going to have to deal with it."

"Here" is the Silver Peak Range of western Nevada, east of the White Mountains between Mono Lake and Tonopah. The Desert Trail is a proposed hiking corridor from Mexico to Canada, without any signs or markers-or, for that matter, trails. As for Tabor and Halligan, they are officers of the Desert Survivors, a group of arid-lands enthusiasts who enjoy trudging up sun-blasted mountainsides carrying 25 pounds of water.

The Survivors define themselves as "people who like to explore the American desert wilderness and are committed to its study and protection." To that end, they offer a year-round schedule of camping and backpacking trips, augmented by constant political activism, volunteer service, and technical seminars on skills like first aid and compass-reading. Recent editions of the group's newsletter, The Survivor, have included articles on hantavirus, the health hazards of hot springs, the natural history of the chuckwalla and Gila monster, and watchdog reports on Utah wilderness, talc mining in Death Valley, and waste dumps at Ward Valley and Eagle Mountain, California. While other desert-hiking groups are scattered around the West -- the Sierra Club's California-Nevada Desert Committee, for example, sponsors near-weekly educational camping trips -- the Survivors are the only such group that regularly ventures for days on end into untrailed desert wilderness and lobbies federal agencies on important policy decisions.

The Survivors began life in 1978, when University of California at Berkeley undergraduates Doug Kari and Jim Morrison went hiking in the Inyo Mountains, the westernmost range of the Great Basin, just east of the Owens Valley and Mount Whitney. Aiming to backpack all the way to the crest-a vertical rise of 10,000 feet-they ended up melting snow in an old canteen to save their lives. Nicknaming themselves "desert survivors," they later waged war against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which had been rubber-stamping a plan by one of its ex-employees to resurrect an old mine. Joining forces with Sierra Club activists from the Owens Valley, they succeeded in killing the project and thus saving the Inyos.

Kari and Morrison later passed the Survivor torch to Tabor, 47, a union warehouseman who taught himself botany and geology in public libraries. Tabor had moved to California from Connecticut in 1971, living off the land in Humboldt County for six months on fish and nuts and cat-tails. When the winter rains began, he moved south to San Francisco and supported himself at odd jobs, hewing to a frugal lifestyle designed to accommodate regular forays into Nevada, Idaho, and eastern Oregon. "To me, civilization always meant work," he says. "Wilderness meant discovery and wonderment and new experiences."

Studying maps of the desert one day, Tabor noticed a series of springs scattered over its surface, most of them separated by no more than 25 miles -- a distance that he could cover in two or three days. In November 1980, after arranging for friends to mail him equipment at selected post offices, he set out on foot from Morro Bay, California. A year later he arrived at his destination: Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, 1,628 miles away.

"I just wanted to be out there continuously," Tabor explains, "to string together the wilderness experiences and discover new places day after week after month." Five years later he repeated the same trick &emdash; this time embarking farther north, crossing the Sierra Nevada in February of a heavy snow year ("I got most of the way up before I had to fight really hard"), and continuing across Nevada and Utah to Leadville, Colorado. Although at the outset he thought he just wanted to get through Nevada to reach Utah, Tabor found that he enjoyed the Great Basin more than any other place.

"I'd get to the top of each mountain range, look across the next valley, descend and cross it and climb the next one," he recalls. "I'd see new life zones every day, and how they changed as I moved east." Inspired by another transplanted easterner, Edward Abbey (who later disappointed Tabor in person, striking him as meek in comparison with his writing), Tabor had considered living on the Colorado Plateau, but by the early 1980s found Utah to be "overrun." He concluded that Nevada -- that unvalued kingdom of untamed mustangs and unreined atomic bombs -- was the best place to experience wildness and solitude.

Two years after this second trek, Tabor joined the Survivors' board of directors and began leading group trips in the desert. "Rivers have been saved by putting a lot of people on them," Tabor explains. "River-rafting is an accepted fact of American life now; it's in the movies. We want to get people into the desert so they understand the value of the ecosystem."

One way Tabor is trying to accomplish this is by helping to map the Desert Trail, an idea modeled after other long-distance thoroughfares like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails -- but with some major differences. For example, in light of its lack of signs or markers (or even, in wilderness areas, cairns), it would not be an actual trail, but rather a "corridor" through which people can find their way with map and compass. The route has been completed in southeast Oregon and northwest Nevada, but water scarcity and land-access problems halted progress until recently. Then the Desert Trail Association, led by Dave Green of Madras, Oregon, enlisted the help of Tabor, who designed a course through California and Nevada in 25-mile segments, each of which can be hiked on three gallons of water.

Last summer, Tabor announced a reconnaissance hike in the Silver Peak Range, with an eye to including it in the Desert Trail. I decided to tag along. Despite having written a book about the Mojave, I (like a great many other arid-lands "experts") had never gone backpacking in the desert. I'd taken plenty of day hikes and car trips, but was unenthusiastic about hauling so much water on my back. Tabor insisted, however, that if I wanted to see unspoiled places, I would have to backpack in.

 

AS TABOR AND I DRIVE EAST from Oakland, California, for the beginning of our three-day hike, he holds forth on the topography of practically every place along the way. Cresting Tioga Pass in the Sierra Nevada, he tells me how he avoids Yosemite because of all the people. While I agree that the crowds are almost as amazing as the views, I submit that the integrity of the scenery prevails in the end.

"You mean you still like lakes and redundant pine forests?" Tabor asks.

"Well," I say, "at least they have shade."

"Sure," he answers. "If you don't feel all crowded in."

We meet our party in the middle of nowhere -- the junction of U.S. 6 and Nevada 264. It is, I gather, a typical Survivor rendezvous: five people sitting in the shade of a van dwarfed by the enormity of the Great Basin, that mind-bogglingly unconfined universe that John McPhee once described as a "soundless immensity with mountains in it." As we caravan south into Fish Lake Valley, on our right loom the 13,000-foot White Mountains; on the left is the Silver Peak Range, topped by 9,450-foot Piper Peak -- the highest point on the proposed Desert Trail. Our plans call for us to stand on its summit by the end of the day -- after climbing 2,100 feet in three miles.

Survivor trips are rated according to elevation gained per mile; as with the Pacific Crest Trail, anything over 400 feet -- a gradient of 8 percent -- is considered strenuous. Under 400 is "moderate" and under 150 "easy" -- though some people claim that no Survivor trips are easy, since almost all take place in the open, off the trail, and under the burden of water (which weighs in at eight pounds per gallon).

Beyond the pesky willow thicket and above 8,000 feet, the piņons grow larger and denser, assuming the appearance of a bona fide forest. The hard-packed sand of the wash, littered with pine cones and needles (plus the occasional scarlet penstemon and prickly-pear cactus), provides a de facto trail, with a gentle enough right-of-way that I fall into a relaxed rhythm. Perhaps because of constant drinking, my pack feels lighter, too. Maybe desert hiking won't be so bad after all.

We stop for lunch on a level bench bathed by a breeze and mottled sunlight. It is, I note, a ruminative bunch: instead of talking, people simply stare out at the landscape and chew. The scant conversation concerns past trips on which participants brought too much to eat (three pounds of salami for three days, for example), or made life difficult for others.

"One guy who'd been in the military took the term 'Survivors' literally," Tabor recalls. "He tried to go without food or water, and as a result got disoriented and lost. We had to set up a four-post lookout for him. Another person couldn't carry her own pack, so we all took turns carrying it, then going back to get our own. One woman broke down and started screaming, 'I can't go on!' Half an hour later she told me what a good time she was having."

The most common problem, Tabor says, is "greyhounds": people who hustle ahead of the group, and then get separated from it or lead followers into tight spots -- for example, climbing a cliff in the dark by the light of a headlamp. "Only once have we ever had to spend the night out on a day hike," Tabor assures me. "The trips are well planned so that people aren't in danger. They might be uncomfortable by the end of a hike, but they're not exhausted."

After lunch we encounter the steepest part of the route: a 500-foot climb in a third of a mile. Tabor's approach is to take ten steps, stop for a breath, then take ten more. "One foot in front of the other," he chants. "Very Zen. Instead of 'I chop wood, I carry water,' it's 'I continue uphill, I continue uphill."' Proceeding in this enlightened manner, we eventually find ourselves near 9,000 feet, on the edge of a sunlit plateau covered with sagebrush and dotted with piņons. Scraping the sky at the top of the slope, about a mile distant, is Piper Peak. To the west is the massive backlit wall of the White Mountains; to the south, a multitude of yellow hills swarms in the lowering sun. The atmosphere is utterly silent. Aside from distant alfalfa farms in Fish Lake Valley, there's no sign of human impact except for our footprints. "So," says Tabor, shedding his pack. "Is it wilderness?" Everyone nods enthusiastically.

Setting off for the final ascent, we skirt the edge of a ridge to the east, then trudge straight up the open slope, picking our way among twisted sagebrush, volcanic rock, grizzly-bear cactus, and black obsidian. Here and there, wild-horse hoofprints are accompanied by enormous piles of dung.

The summit is a pile of basaltic boulders covered with orange and yellow lichen so bright it seems the rocks have been spray-painted. Piper Peak lies on the south rim of a 6-million-year-old caldera; the far edge encircles a flat, forested floor below the ridges bordering Blind Spring Canyon, where we will exit tomorrow. To the west, a purple storm cloud looms up behind the Whites; streaks of rain are sucked from its shining perimeter as rays of sun shoot out from the back, infusing the luminous caldera in the north. Beyond that glowing massif, the wrinkled khaki of the desert recedes to infinity.

"Good God," Tabor exclaims, perusing a register in a glass jar wedged among the rocks. "Nobody came up at all between 1992 and 1997."

We camp just below the peak at the edge of a small playa. Everyone immediately spreads out his bag and makes his own dinner in isolation. I stroll into the sagebrush to gather wood for a fire, returning with an impressive pile that Tabor terms "totally inappropriate." He makes himself an "Indian fire" a few inches in diameter, then buries its remains in a hollow that he scoops out with a trowel. "There's no sense using that much fuel," he says, referring to my pile of "logs." When I question his terminology, he says: "I consider a log to be anything larger than a pencil." So much for campfire sing-alongs.

Such conservatism is typical of the environmentally dutiful Tabor. He discourages hikers, for example, from swimming or bathing in natural pools, since sunscreen or even body oil can alter the water chemistry. Some

months earlier, he wrote a letter to the Express, a Berkeley, California, weekly, impugning the owners of house cats (or, as he put it, "vicious mechanical killing machines") for their role in the massacre of North American wildlife. "There is an emotional immaturity to adults who need to love pets," Tabor wrote, demanding that all cats be licensed and kept indoors. Violators, he suggested, "should be killed and their bodies left out for coyotes." For this modest effort at animal control, Tabor received three death threats himself.

In the morning, our steely leader declares himself to be suffering from altitude sickness. Fortunately, the first part of the route is level or sloping gently downward, with rabbit brush and pink-blooming buckwheat scattered among the sage. From this height, we can see our lunchtime destination: Jeff Davis Spring, a pale green spot of a meadow amid the gray-green piņons below.

To get there, however, we first have to descend the rim of the caldera -- a precipitous slope overgrown with brush and littered with unstable rock. Sweating profusely in the sun, we inch down the overgrown slope, quadriceps straining with the weight of our packs, gingerly picking our way through a tangle of twisted sage and honeysuckle. "Careful," Tabor warns the group. "We don't want anyone to sprain an ankle."

Survivor trip leaders are required to be proficient in first aid, but according to Tabor, many desert "dangers" tend to be highly exaggerated. "On a hundred and twelve trips that I've personally led, we've never even been struck at by a rattlesnake," he tells me. "I did find a dead scorpion in my sleeping bag once; I must have rolled over on it in my sleep. To get bit by a Gila monster, I think you'd have to pick it up, put it in your pocket, carry it around, and show it to your friends."

A more serious consideration is water, the need for which "people tend to underestimate, largely because it's heavy. If the temperature is below eighty-five, I use a gallon a day for cooking and drinking." If it's hotter, his daily consumption goes up by a half gallon every 10 degrees. Oddly enough, in light of his avowed ethics, Tabor carries this water in leftover plastic kitty-litter containers.

Since we were scheduled to visit a spring, I started out the trip with just seven quarts of water. Now, 22 hours later, less than a quart remains. "That's terrible!" Tabor scolds me. 'You should suck on a pebble to moisten the inside of your mouth. And try breathing through your nose. just being thirsty isn't the same thing as being dehydrated, you know."

During a break in the shade of the piņons at the bottom of the slope, I notice that my urine is dark yellow-a sign of dehydration, not thirst. Happily, we soon come upon Jeff Davis Spring -- a luxuriant meadow with a sparkling rill that dispenses enough water for everyone. Dragonflies dart among nettles and columbines on a balmy breeze. It appears that we've found the Elysian fields, a notion advanced by a mountain bluebird, hopping about within arm's reach as we fill our containers.

Not all springs are so obvious or generous. "On one trip I led in June of ninety-one, there were supposed to be four water sources," Tabor recalls. "One we couldn't even find; another was a trough with a dry pipe; a third was completely trampled by wild horses and burros, filled with urine and feces. I explained to the group that, although it would be unpalatable, we could treat the water with iodine tablets and drink it without harm. But one guy from Massachusetts started freaking out. People were picking up rocks from the mud and scooping out water with Sierra cups."

This reminds me of a Survivor camping tip: "Tablets are of no use if there's a dead animal in the trough or stream," it advised. "You have to boil."

 

AFTER LUNCH, WE TRAVERSE the floor of the caldera. A gravelly wash descends the canyon, growing wider as it goes. Maroon andesite and mottled rhyolite -- flow-banded, red and gray, shattered into pieces like shale-decorate the banks, along with bricklebush and mountain mahogany.

"They smell pretty, but they're monstrous," Tabor says. "Eventually they'll choke the whole canyon -- until a flood comes along and knocks them all down. I don't think there's been a big gullywasher here since about 1984." As a result, the washbed has been colonized by rice grass, rabbit brush, scarlet gilia, goldenbush, and pink primroses.

Gradually the northern rim of the caldera is coming into view on our left: a broad, brown, beautiful cliffside plunging toward us in slow motion, culminating in a cleft where the wash cuts through the cliff. In order to skirt a sheer rockfalls we scramble down over scree; as the temperature creeps toward the mid-80s, this effort inspires another rest stop, this time in the shade of the narrows. After we reconnoiter another alleged spring, Tabor still wants to trek another couple of miles before camping, so we set off down a wide-open canyon that receives the outflow of several drainages. It's classic Western-movie country: red, craggy cliffs and knobs and spires, lava slopes decorated by ash deposits and layered slabs of tuff, all shot through by slanting beams of late-afternoon light. The canyon floor itself is gentle, unimpeded by rock or brush, streaked with sedimentary sand patterns. Gravel bars divide the wash; game trails lead toward tributary gulches, each of which brings new material to the main gorge. One 18-inch-wide arroyo has edges as sharp -- and footing as firm -- as a cement sidewalk. I amble along within its walls until it joins the primary channel. There's something alluring about walking these watercourses -- indeed, about conforming to natural contours throughout the trip. Freed from the dictatorship of trails, we obey the logic of the land itself. Following these alluvial routes, I begin to feel like a molecule of water, seeking the path of least resistance through this parched terrain. It's amazing, in fact, to see how aquatic an arid environment can be.

As the sun falls behind the west wall of the canyon, I drop behind my companions, pausing to take pictures and enjoy the oncoming dusk. This is when the silent desert attains its state of greatest quiet, and the landscape acquires a profound sense of peace. At such times, I could sit cross-legged on a rock indefinitely, staring out at the planet. Or at least until nightfall, which forces me back down to business.

Ahead in the gathering dark, the others have made camp in the wash. Each has his own Indian fire, though tonight people seem somewhat more sociable: Bruce passes around some peppermint schnapps, and others sit together to eat. Several have taken off their shirts-the temperature, Tabor reports, is 78 degrees. As a pink glow fades from the western horizon, the full moon appears above an eastern ridge. Somewhere up the volcanic cliff, a canyon wren sings its falling song.

I spread my bag on a level spot. After 11 hours on the trail-descending a sagebrush-choked slope in the sun, clambering down a dry rockfalls bushwhacking up an overgrown canyon in search of an invisible spring -- I'm beat.

When I confess as much to Tabor, he asks: "Just from walking down the wash?"

 

 

FIRST THING THE NEXT MORNING, I SEE Tabor splashing his face with water. Since this is our last day in the desert, perhaps he's feeling profligate. Unfortunately, I'm unable to join in the debauchery; with seven miles still to hike, I'm again down to one quart. And today, as we break out into the basin, there will be no shade.

My one source of hope is a spring that we visit soon after leaving camp. It consists of a pipe protruding from a bank above a sodden hollow. Though horse tracks are evident in the mud, the place isn't badly fouled.

"It smells wonderful here with all these weeds," says Tabor. "You can feel the water evaporating, like on the banks of the Colorado River." Looking around at the shrubbery, he says: "Ol' Creosote [fellow Desert Trail mapper D.W. Tomer] told me that you can make your own well anywhere there's mesquite. With a ten-pound sledge, you drive a pipe with a sharp end into the sand at the base of the bush, then send a hand pump down."

I've neglected to bring along such tools, but luckily water is trickling from the pipe. Watching it collect in my bottle at the rate of eight minutes per quart is the most Zenlike practice yet.

As we approach the mouth of the canyon, broom snakeweed and four-winged saltbush begin to show up in the wash, accompanied by bladder sage and shadscale. "It came down from Saskatchewan and proliferated," says Tabor. "It really likes the alkali." Speaking of which, we soon make out a playa at the bottom of the basin. Far across the alluvial expanse is the tiny white dot of our shuttle van; noting its position below a peak, we set a course, aware that we'll lose sight of the vehicle when we get lower in the landscape. We go straight across a gravelly plain dotted with cholla, cheesebush, and box thorn, which are replaced by Russian thistle as the rocks give way to sand. Eventually the sand dunes up, supporting a thick growth of greasewood, and we beat our way through the high-peaked waves of a choppy, sun-drenched sea.

Down here at the bottom of the basin, the temperature is nearly 90. As the air grows hotter, I notice an impulse that has afflicted many desert non-survivors: an urge to shed my clothes. Without shelter or water, this place could cook you in nothing flat.

Bearing that in mind, we had scouted one last spring for the Desert Trail: a mesquite-and-tamarisk-choked oasis on the flank of a bare, clay hill. The spring itself was barely a seep, and the mud stank strongly of sulphur. The rest of us reclined in the shade of the shrubs as Tabor scraped a hole from the muck. "I think you'd need to dig six feet down, then come back in a week," he said, standing up and staring down. "What should we say for the Desert Trail?"

"That if it's a choice between this and death, this is pretty good," said Dave Halligan.

It's a curious pursuit, this desert hiking -- wandering from water source to water source, begging the favor of grudging land, endeavoring at every turn to optimize one's chances for survival. It's not unlike the life of an animal, but for modern humans who rarely have to engage in such hardship, it exhibits earmarks of mendicant ambition. An unspoken maxim in the Survivor ethos is that suffering is necessary for reward; as our ascetic leader himself observed, carrying water is an exercise that borders on the religious. After all, since Biblical times, monks and madmen have wandered barren wilderness in search of pure states and exalted visions.

In any case, it's a more intimate way of experiencing the environment than coming in with a four-wheel drive and five extra gallons of water. Of course, the same can be said for more conventional backpacking -- but as is true in many things, the desert provides the most extreme example and hence the most radical adjustment of awareness. Aridity may be an acquired taste, but when one has learned to love the desert, one has evolved by an order of magnitude in appreciating the earth.

"It requires a change in perception," Tabor acknowledges. "It takes courage, perseverance, and other very human qualities that are mostly gone now from Homo americanus. That's why we come out to these places, and tell the [government] agencies we're doing it. We want them to know people use this land for its wilderness qualities. In many cases, they're amazed because they've never been out here themselves. Some people are afraid of the openness and distance, but I enjoy it as a sojourn in space. We could turn in any direction, go anywhere we want, and each place would reveal something different. There's just a feeling of freedom in the desert that you can't get in the woods."

Tabor and I are the last two to reach the waiting van. When we do, Bruce produces an ice-cold Heineken from a well-insulated cooler. There once was a time when I would have jumped at this offer -- but now, by God, I am a Desert Survivor.

"No thanks," I say with a stoic smile. "I'd rather suck on a pebble."

 

DAVID DARLINGTON is the author of The Mojave (Henty Holt, 1996) and, most recently, Area 51: The Dreamland Chronicles (Henry Holt, 1997).