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Practicing for summer vacation is like preparing for a sports tournament. In the past month I’ve ventured in an ever-widening radius from remote oasis, Blythe, California to get ready. The technique is drive desert flats and mountain backroads in my ’63 VW bug pickup until spotting a prospect Sometimes it’s an animal trail, old track, mountain saddle or dot on a map. The walk begins. The past week has produced two bonafide escapades, plus a quick episode of survival which doesn’t hold enough water to classify a story.
Seven days ago I head for a hill across a wash-cut rise. It is cross-country hiking w/out trail, something I generally avoid because of the two high dangers of solo desert hiking: rattlers and twisted ankles. A wash is a dry (in these parts) river bed, 5-50 feet wide, sandy bottomed and pleasant to walk because of an animal track smorgasbord and cooling trees. The sides may slope gradually or cut sharply from the desert floor.
I approach another of dozens of washes this afternoon and note its bank drops three feet to a shallow bed. In stepping down I sway slightly to land on softer sand. With one foot aground on the bank and the other descending, I glimpse a rattlesnake head seemingly floating under me. It is too late to stop and, indeed, had I not veered I would have dragged my testicles over his brow.
I’ve encountered many rattlesnakes over the years – circumvented, jumped, retreated, stoned off and outwaited – but this one peeps over the bank like a Kilroy-was-here. My reflex is grab the head and use as a cane, but instead I land unaided and whirl to solve the mystery. The snake is a common coon rattler, 4 feet of dark diamonds punctuated at one end by triangle head to allow venom sacks and warning rattles on the other. My personal thought is the noise maker is to distract from the fang haymaker, but this one is quiet. Coon tails are named for a few black circular stripes above the rattles, and their disposition is retiring unless cornered.
Oddly but true, this snakes stands on end. It seems unaware, though my footprint above is a boot length from its head. That head peers still over the rim and I theorize that with long back to the sun it’s catching a breeze uplifting the bank. The vertical position is new to me but I note that a few inches of the tail coil is sufficient platform as the body length touches the wash wall in a couple places for balance. Maybe it liked the view and fell asleep meditating, so I turn and walk toward the sun.
One familiar with past decades of recommended snakebite treatment will average the sum and come up confused. Most new-fangled texts advise sit and wait for help, as if bites occur at the supermarket vegetable stand. Bitten folks I’ve hobnobbed or read say to walk out if the bite is on the hand, or play wait-and-see if on the leg. There are a variety of factors such as fitness, distance to vehicle, availability of shade, water and food, plus size (and type) of poison bolus that affect the decision. The desert is not such a bad place to be sick, better than some hospitals I’ve been in, so my inclination is self-reliance. I carry a suction “Extractor” available from outfitting stores. Two snakebittens have reported to me that they were rushed to the hospital and given antivenom. The obscure trick is to give this intramuscularly. One of them didn’t know this, nor his doctor, and seconds after the drip began he was “code blue” with stopped heart. The other victum did know and his ignored words before going code blue were “Not intravenously”. Both were revived and billed for cardiac arrest. Happily, I wasn’t bitten by snake or doctor today, and got to see a natural spectacle.
Two days ago, the radius from Blythe has reached 30 miles and I spot a weathering sign “Palen Pass Road” posted on a track that winds into the mountains and disappears. I drive until it peters to trail, then park and hike. My guiding philosophy is where there is a road there was a goal. It may be a mine, watering hole, old homestead, or connecting road. A walk along this is like a story with an impactful end.
Today’s workout leads to an abandoned well with “1949” etched in the side, and I turn around for the uneventful three hour return to the “bug”. The vision of the puggy car is reward enough – I wouldn’t be here if not for it – and within is replenishment liquids. I drink water and, because the sun sinks and the mountains are deep, begin to back down the steep road to a turn-around point. The bug has truck mirrors with spots (small convex) to view around the rear bed. Urging it backward slowly, there is a feeling of dropping, a klunk, and I’m looking out the front window at the sky. “Feces”, I whisper, and I’m not one to swear. The vehicle has somehow tilted and the driver’s door won’t open. My sense of balance advises me to crawl through the window and, once on familiar ground, the scenario unfolds in glances. Through life we have seen footage of vehicles hanging over cliff edges with living victims inside holding their collective breath for fear of weight of exhalation. I determined long ago not to freeze but react, and this is what took me through the window.
The narrow mountain road had eroded sharply as if cut by scalpel, a third of it gone and dropping into a ravine. Unable to see this gape in the mirrors (and I’m not off the hook for not surveying the road by foot before backing up), the rear driver’s side wheel and approximately half the car are dangling in open air. Picture a hypotenuse drawn from under the driver’s seat to the right rear tire. The fulcrum – point of balance – is a line along this hypotenuse. So touchy is the car that I walk to the front passenger corner where the tire is 1.5 feet off the ground, put one hand on the bumper and rock the vehicle like a teeter-totter.
The first solution comes to mind. I can pile rocks on that front corner of the hood (engine is in the rear in a VW) to tip the car level. One neighbor in the desert once drove home counterbalanced in this manner when his buggy wrecked a wheel and he weighted the kitty-corner. However, even as my own wheels work there is the sound of dirt and small stones falling as the road gives way along the fulcrum.
The next solution is to come-a-long the car from the cliff. A come-a-long is a hand winch a foot long that has cable around a pulley and hooks at either end. It is the desert rat’s panacea and few are without it. Mine is in the front trunk and that means getting the keys. I reach daintily through the driver’s window, snag the keys and a water jug to boot. I unlock the hook, get the winch and try to unwind only to find it’s stuck. No desert traveler is without cure-all WD-40 spray oil, but mine is in the tool chest atop the truckbed, and that isn’t a relished climb.
Standing with useless come-a-long and sipping from the jug, I peek again at where the road has given way. The ravine drops 20 feet into a wide wash and with my luck, had the bug tumbled earlier, I would have done a 360 degree roll, landed on all tires and driven out of the wash to safety. I can push the car over the edge to test the idea, but see something better. There are stones strewn everywhere and I begin to build a patch for the missing part of the road. After 30 minutes and dozens of stones the patch is in place but looks too precarious. Sadly, I look south and begin to entertain the 30 mile walk to Blythe.
Now the tool box is a more reasonable speculation and I climb the bed and get the oil, In seconds the steel cable is free and I stretch it’s standard 15 foot length. To utilize a come-a-long there must be an anchor point and there is nothing along the road within that range. However, I carry a 20 foot extension cable and can take longer sightings from the pull point of the car’s front bumper. There is a miserable mesquite bush, a 150 pound rock, and a smaller stone half-buried in earth. The bush won’t hold the anchor, then the larger rock pulls out while I lever the hand winch and I nearly lose the bug. The little stone in earth proves solid enough and the VW tugs clear of the drop-off inch by inch.
The desert will have to be meaner to eat me and the bug. The other point of balance of the story is, though true, who would believe it: .I had a camera in the glove compartment but was afraid to retrieve it.
Yesterday, in fact the one following the tipping bug incident, something happens on the road to summer vacation preparation. My radius from Blythe has reached fifty miles and I see a track lead into the hills then dip where the sky begins. A map check reveals the unimproved route should lead to Turks Spring. Most of these dabs of promising blue print are as unfilling as a mirage but nonetheless provide a target, so my feet are on the dirt as soon as it becomes impassible for the tires.
It is mid-morning and May with the temperatures in the 80’s under clear desert ceiling. My gear is the normal backpack of 20 pounds of books and 6 pounds (3 quarts) of water. This is a weekend outing of expected 5 hours, so if I drink a quart an hour I’ll feel privileged but if half that won’t grip. Additionally, I take a hard view of desert hiking and carry perfunctory survival gear and a working knowledge.
The road faints on hard scrabble but again and again picks up. At dry washes it drops but is retrieved on the opposite bank. The way reminds me of what a Salt Lake judge once said on a freight hopping charge, “Inconveniences like this are part of the adventure”. He pound the gavel and let me walk. The sun clears zenith, the temperature rises and I anticipate the turnaround. The return to the bug should be easier with a downhill road, sun to the rear, and ever-lighter pack as water is drank.
However, a tempting opportunity pops up and I take it. A formerly well-etched track leads further into the frontier. Why did it exist and why left to the elements? The way is beautiful and beguiling, but after two hours I pause, take stock and turn around before finding Turk Spring or another solution. Turning tail in wilderness is no mistake. I did it once after walking 600 miles along the beach of Baja due to a bottleneck of rattlesnakes, and another time in the Amazon when natives grabbed my jugular and pointed ahead while shouting “Gato”, which is panther. Today in the desert the sun is setting and, like kissing a girl on the cheek before curfew, I must be back.
The white bug, parked purposely on a high spot in the valley below, catches gleams of failing light that guide like a beacon. Tired, I close in on what turns out to be a white rock of similar shape and size as the car. I’ve been decoyed. In fact, I’ve put most my mental apples in one basket and am lost at sunset.
I’ve been bewildered or lost in jungles, mountains and deserts for as many fingers and toes are on my body, so the fear is gone. Not that lack of it is a good thing, because where there is fear there’s adrenalin and that’s the stuff of survival. The well of adrenalin has a bottom where one needs solid information. Knowing ones limits and what to do are paramount. The present facts are I’ve walked 8 heated hours and the water is gone but the legs aren’t. Breakfast was early and sturdy but nothing since. I’m generally fit and my bug is out somewhere n the dark, but how to find it.? There is a backup plan.
Global positioning systems (GPS) were developed by the military and eventually worked their way into savvy hikers’ pockets. Mine is a Magellan, simple and small as a cigarette pack, yet with a button push it zeros on 3 satellites circling the earth, performs spacial geometry, and shows my location in terms of latitude and longitude. It also tells me where the bug is. There is an arrow on the tiny screen which should lead me to within 50 feet of the target anywhere on the globe. Power on, and the science says walk 3.38 miles at heading 184 degrees. In layman’s terms, follow the arrow for 2 hours and you’re home.
This readout is unsettling because my Search & Rescue instructor drummed into our noggins, "“Rely on instruments as backup to your own observations”, and I don’t believe this GPS reading is correct. Throughout the day’s hike I’ve followed similar advice from western writer Louis L’mour, “Walk with eyes in the back of your head if you’ll retreat on the same trail”. I’ve wheeled constantly and I swear my surroundings now - the general composition and slant of dirt, the vegetation quality and ratio, the mountain signatures in all directions - resemble those where the bug is parked. So, as the moon presses upward and the options narrow to either scrounge the hills or follow the GPS arrow, I grudgingly pick the latter.
It’s a star-studded night, cooling finally, and the big dipper points to the north star. Sometimes I follow hill crests for comfort of sight, or low washes for welcome chill. At other times, flat prairie is rougher going with rodent sink holes and lizard tail whirls in the sand everywhere. My boot prints show stagger and toe drag over the hours. The hike would be wonderful with water but without I begin to fail.
As an inveterate self-appraiser it is disheartening to witness the “baked bean effect”´set in. Dehydration and overheating are the main reasons my mind starts giving mis-information and the arms begin to shake as if on strings. For instance, a flowering Palo Verde next to me houses a hundred bees that were there in daylight but are imaginary now. I forget what my print looks like and ludicrously pull my penlight only to drop and lose it in the sand. If this desert weren’t familiar it would be frightening. In the middle of the night I reach the GPS’s marked opinion of the car location and stop. There is no doubt the place is wrong, so I must have taken the initial reading too near the radio antenna or for whatever reason that no longer matters. For the first time there is a worry of having to walk 50 miles back to Blythe, and a wonder if I can make it. The town is south but I gauge the car is north, and at this juncture I choose to search for the bug.
Thoughts wander as does the walk. Woe, I’ve forgotten I’m wearing 10 pound ankle weights and quickly discard them. (Once, lost and jacketless in the winter Chile Andes, the same happened.) Something triggers the memory of my S&R teacher explaining that a cell phone need not be activated to dial the 911 emergency line. (I’ve forgotten that a newly acquired phone is now charged and in my pack.) The factor that kills most often in the desert is heat, and next the night’s cold. (Once, hiking the length of Death Valley, I came across a lone backpack that was zipped shut and preserved by dryness. The owner’s year-old bones lay150 yards away where he had probably walked circles for hours until dropping and freezing within a sand dune maze.) I don’t dial 911 because the situation is not desperate. The first thing the operator would ask is location. I can provide GPS bearings but it would take a copter to lift me out, and that’s expensive. Next they would want name and that would be spicy, radiating news in a small town Blythe. Then they would test my mental orientation and find I’m compromised. I’m so goofy I think maybe I should go ahead and call 911, but don’t.
There is a singular time later in the night when I reconsider the phone. My tongue swells and “hairs over” to produce reoccurring bouts of suffocation. I find a small rock and suck but there’s no saliva, however by pressing my cracking lower and upper lips together they stick permanently and allow the tongue to drop so I can walk comfortably with an airway. I’m tickled, but later an attack of dry heaves unglues the lips and I again get a bit frightened at the difficulty to breath. I pee scantily and slurp the mouthful from a cupped hand. It is a first for me which tastes like bad Kool-Aide, and would be better with ice.
The moon seeks the western horizon and finds it, leaving the night embracing dark and quiet. There is an occasional patter of feet or flurry of wing from a desert civilization that I’ve crept closer to tonight. There is the idea of digging a hole, lining it with bush and falling asleep in my hiking shorts, but that would leave tomorrow’s sun to walk in. Experience and optimism lift the boots.
An hour after the moon goes the sun comes. Now it’s a new ball game in the desert since I can walk backwards. This comes strange perhaps to some but I honor it as keeping my legs under me. A month ago at home, I took my regular evening walk on far-flung dirt roads and at the turnaround point decided to walk backward three miles. The last mile was with eyes closed until, taking cues from the crickets in washes, I opened them at my place, “Scorpion’s Crotch”. My trailer was just 50 steps away.
Walking backward rests the front quadriceps and soon I stride strongly. The environment takes on a familiarity. Half an hour later, after a total 20 hours hiking, the car appears in the morning light. I’m home free. My treatment for dehydration and heat exhaustion is to shade and four fluids: distilled water, milk, gatorade, and orange juice. Tepid is better and this morning it’s the only choice. The ratio of the liquids depends on the condition nuance, and I take juice and water. A half-gallon maximum down the hatch and wait for the physiological surge. In ten minutes I feel good to go.
A bizarre thing happens with the first swallows. The oral cavity and tongue are so firmly cemented that it fells like a mouse crawled in and died. Well, I drink and the furry ball comes loose and I involuntarily eat a slough that would have been fun as an owl pellet to study. An hour later I reach town in the bug and open my mouth to ask for a milkshake. Nothing comes out. That’s why I’m writing rather than telling you this.
So ends another week on the proving grounds, with three warm-up stories for this year’s vacation. I lost my taste for summer desert hiking but it will return, along with the voice, in a couple days. The training effect of recent hikes has been gainful. The lessons have been many and varied, but the deepest is summed up by my former wrestling coach, “Practice a move a hundred times on the mat before using it at a meet,” and “There never was a horse that couldn’t be rode nor a man that couldn’t be throw’d.”