We had been planning for a little over a week. An ambitious micro-adventure that would take us across the high and low deserts of California and nearly 500 miles of driving. Our plan was to leave home Friday night and return late Saturday night. That was our plan.
My buddy Brett arrived at my house around 7:00pm Friday night. He, my wife and I had a quick dinner, and then we packed up the truck and after fueling up we hit the road. Traffic was a little heavier than I had expected or hoped. Isn’t it always?
Still, we made good time once we got out of the urban sprawl and onto the open desert interstate. The stars began to emerge and the darkness yawned out before us. The interstate was still quite busier than I’d expected, full of travelers eager to begin their President’s Day weekend. I guess we were no different.
We approached our off-ramp and I could sense the tiredness that comes with sitting in the car for three hours begin to fade and the anxious anticipation of a new adventure fill my spirits. After venturing another twenty miles deeper into the darkness (and a wrong turn or two) we found our campground and settled into a routine of making fire (Brett), cooking ramen (me) and having a beer (us). The warm broth and noodles paired with a hoppy IPA satisfied our hunger and helped do their part to keep us warm in the 38 degree night. But over five hours after beginning our journey we finally called it and nestled into our respective sleeping bags underneath that amazing blanket of stars.
As the darkness in the desert is moody and impenetrable (save for those stars), the daylight in the desert is broad and wide and all encompassing. Even a little severe. But it serves as a great wake up call. Well, almost. When you don’t get to sleep until after 2:00 in the morning, not getting up until 8:30 isn’t exactly rising with the sun. But close enough…
Though only one of us was really moving. A bug of some sort had been making its way through the building where Brett works, and it had finally caught up with him. I guess being awake for twenty two hours and sleeping out in the freezing night didn’t help, either. Needless to say, breakfast probably wasn’t a good idea.
But after cooking, cleaning and getting ready I did what any good partner would do in such circumstances…I left my partner to lie in the fetal position in the bed of the truck and nurse himself back to health while I geared up and headed down the trail to play. I know, I know…you’re thinking I’m a horrible friend. But I had his blessing. He said, and I quote, “At least one of us should be having a good time.” And no matter what anyone tells you, misery does not really love company.
Mojave National Preserve was established in 1994, in the vast desert of the San Bernardino County, the largest in the lower forty eight states. The landscape is incredible and to some degree, surreal. Growing up in Southern California I’ve visited both Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm amusement parks, both of which have attractions that feature the tall cliffs and volcanic rock of the high desert. Being immersed in the landscape first hand had a familiar feel to it, but to be honest it went beyond the familiar. To say the land is vast and majestic is to fool yourself into thinking those descriptions alone are sufficient. They’re not.
We were in Mojave for the Rings Loop Trail as part of the Hole in the Wall center. A one mile loop, the trail begins by looping around a cylinder of volcanic rock that projects itself directly from the desert floor and into the bright blue sky for a thousand feet or so. My first time through the loop I was alone, not only because my buddy was still back at camp but because there wasn’t anyone else on the trail. I truly had the feeling of solitude in the desert. The open fields of Manzanita and Yucca spread out before me as far as the eye could see. As I walked, the spire remained on my right and I continued until the trail led back toward the rocks and into Banshee Canyon, named for the winds that howl through on a consistent basis.
The canyon is everything you want it to be, except empty. Hole in the Wall campground is a pretty popular spot, even in late February when the nighttime temperatures were mid-thirties and the daytime temperatures ranged from low-fifties to high-sixties depending on whether the wind was blowing or not. But though I prefer to enjoy something like the canyon in silence, listening to the sound of Mother Nature orchestrate the wind and the birds and the buzzing of the bees, the amount of people there didn’t turn my micro-adventure into a line at the grocery store. I was still free to roam in relative solitude and peace.
They call it Rings Loop as the trail heads into the canyon and up a few scrambles where iron rings have been drilled into the rock for safety and support. The rings help visitors climb three separate ten foot sections of rock that are closely confined but near vertical. I did the hike twice and didn’t use the rings either time. I think because of the landscape, the rings and the length of the trail, this would be a perfect place to bring kids and introduce them to the art of scrambling.
I wandered, as I often do. I took some video with my camera, I snapped some still shots. I took a picture of my feet, and noticed the wind was having its way with my hair. All in all, not a bad time when you’re out in the desert and trying to have a good time. But I wanted to check on Brett, so after being gone for almost two hours I returned to the camp to find him in the exact same position I had left him. Only this time, one eye squinted in the sunlight, and was promptly followed by “this sucks.” I knew he was ready to go hiking.
He downed a few bottles of water and walked around to shake the haze from his mind. The water served to calm a stomach that had been a little angry with him since breakfast. Maybe before. A few more verses of “this sucks” and he managed to collect himself enough to be ready for the trail.
Once more I headed down the footpath and around the volcanic monolith, though the early afternoon had brought with it more people. It was still as glorious a hike the second time as it was the first, although a bit colder as the winds had picked up a bit. Together we stayed in Banshee Canyon longer than I had the first time through. We managed a little bit of scrambling, but not quite as much as had been the plan. It’s never wise to climb when you have scrambled legs…
We did manage to scramble ourselves up to a perch about twenty feet above a picnic site near the canyon. There we sat in the growing wind and rested and enjoyed the day. We reminisced on the trip from the night before, the suicidal mice darting across the road in the dead of night in the middle of nowhere, the frequency of the signposts with the image of a cow, the ability of the jack rabbits to really scare you as you drive down a dirt road and they suddenly appear in front of your bumper. Our original plan had been to wake early enough to quickly do the Rings Trail before packing up and heading 137 miles down the road to another hike, another destination. In my friend’s weakened condition, some plans were best saved for another time.
Overall the day had been fun. For me, anyway. My buddy managed to regain his humor as well as hike and climb some. I think for him it was a memorable day, too. As the day drew closer to an end, we packed our things and reluctantly agreed to head for home.
Halfway to the interstate we approached an outcropping of rock that sat alone along the roadside and rose about fifty to sixty feet into the air. I sat quietly and watched as it grew bigger and bigger through the windshield before finally hearing “how about we stop and grab that peak before heading home?” It was the best part of the trip.
Our pile of rock, what we affectionately named Snaggletooth, provided us with a nice view of the surrounding desert and beyond to the mountains in the distance. We were alone, in a rugged land and scrambling around doing what we had ventured into the desert to do.
Though it wasn’t a perfect trip, it will remain an incredible memory. A new place experienced. I’m left with a longing to return to the desert and finish what we started, but that’s okay too. Another adventure to look forward to down the road…