Liftoff -- through the air and over the ocean. Banking left. Cloud deck. Clockwork.
Clouds in waves, lap against the San Gabriel Mountains. Ribbons of the city are visible through the seams in the clouds. The city, like a bad dream, remains mostly hidden. The city, like an alien world, allows itself not to be examined at a glance. Regular patterns show the presence of organized life. Sigh.
The clouds break. Dirt roads snake. Along the ridges of the backcountry hills. The settlements -- fewer, dispersed. The realization of leaving the desert, perhaps for good. Going back soon, to begin life new from the old.
I thought that my goodbye to the desert would occur during the drive north, but no. Here it is at 30,000 feet. Look over -- washes in contrasting light shades where they careened out of the darker lands of discontent volcanic deposit and tectonic jumble. Ridges splay at hard angles. Plains sit in monochromatic puddles. The evidence of man winds from horizon to horizon in thin strips, disturbed only occadionally in splotches of condensed settlement.
The man in black fled across the desert, and the backpacker followed.
His silhouette roosted on the ridge that separated the climb on the west side from the broken land below the South Rim. It is a dry, disturbed land, periodically remodeled by a god that couldn't leave well enough alone, and then finally neglected. The silhouette shouldered its pack, and disappeared over the ridge.
It was a dry year in Texas. The landscape was the color of no-color. Even the dust had withered and died. The plants had become ghosts. The flop ears of prickly pears lay in crumbling heaps. Sotol stalks lay collapsed on the ground like failed hopes. Ocotillos still raised their strange arms skyward, but their waxy green flesh had faded, revealing a skeletal gray matrix beneath. Maybe the next rain would reanimate all their sorry carcasses. Maybe not. Maybe they would continue crumbling and new shoots would resume the cycle of life. Who knows? In the Big Bend the border between life and death is as illusory as the border between nations.
Up and up. I followed the dusty trail, noting tracks that I recognized. At the ridge I stopped, planted a foot firmly in the dirt, lifted. Aha—the same track. What did it mean? I shouldered my pack, and disappeared over the ridge.
The path switched back and down and east. Past the old corral. Past the junction of Smoky Creek. Past a skeleton line of fence posts. Through the mesquite and sandy washes. Through forests of sotols and snow banks of dry bunch grass. The path rolled on, a remnant of a communication link between ranches in the old days.
Black shirt, black pants, black pack—the man in black sat on his throne, surveying the next long fall of the land. Round glasses, thin shaggy goatee. He sat calmly, absorbing the waves of the land beyond.
I hailed him: "Nice boots."
* * * * *
Every other aspect of the Big Bend Country—landscape, configuration, rocks, and vegetation—is weird and strange and of a type unfamiliar to the inhabitants of civilized lands. The surface is a peculiar combination of desert plain and volcanic hills and mountains, the proportions of which are increased by the vast distance which the vision here reaches through the crystalline atmosphere. There is no natural feature that can be described in familiar words.
—Robert T. Hill. "Running the Cañons of the Rio Grande." 1901. Collected in God's Country or Devil's Playground: An Anthology of Nature Writing from the Big Bend of Texas.
* * * * *
I met the man in black again later that evening at the junction of the Dodson Trail and Fresno Canyon. His name was G—. He worked in lawn care in Maryland. In the slow winter season he would lay himself off for a few weeks, ignite the truck, and point it at the western deserts. Somewhere. Anywhere. This week it was Big Bend. Next week it was Anza Borrego.
G was fretting his water supply. So was I. You can walk for days and days out there—as long as you have water. The rangers recommend four liters (about a gallon) per day. I packed four liters total for three days. I had two liters remaining. The flow at Fresno Creek would be the difference between slinking back to the trailhead or climbing Elephant Tusk in the morning. Fortunately, even in a drought year, Fresno Creek pushes briefly above the surface, trickling and pooling, before disappearing back into the sand. I took one of G's bottles, wandered down canyon to stock us both with water.
Before I left for the evening G asked where I was going the next day. To the top of the Tusk, I said. He said wasn't sure that it was possible to get up there.
* * * * *
I had my own doubts in the morning. I could see Elephant Tusk looming, backlit in the southern sun. It did appear more vertical than I had imagined. In the golden glow of the South Rim, under the head of the Tortuga, I packed a dummy bag for the hike and started walking. Let possible work itself out.
The path first skirted and then dove into the canyon, weaving its way uncertainly toward the river. I wasn't going that far. Elephant Tusk loomed mean and dark, a strange Triassic tooth emerging from a mound of its own debris. Except in the shadows of the narrowest canyon walls, the Tusk remained always in sight.
Just below the three cottonwoods of Elegant Spring, I left the trail and started up the base of the Tusk, weaving among the defensive desert plants. Allow me to save you some trouble and a pint of blood: do not touch the lechuguilla. Don't even scrape it. The leaves look yellow and dry and impotent, like corn husks. This is a trick. A few times I walked too close and had to pause, remove their knife tips from my pants and the shin underneath. The last time I touched a lechuguilla I didn't have to inspect the wound closely. I lifted my pant leg to remove the leaf tip from my calf muscle and a mess of blood plopped out onto the rocks. I accepted this diagnosis at face value, and resumed climbing.
I followed the ridgeline to where the slope met the wall. Which way to go up from here? Which fissure led to the top? It was obvious from the bottom, looking up, but here every fissure appeared to be the correct approach. Walk around the wall until the scene looked right. Piles and piles of rock plate talus had been spewed from the wall and now lay in a treacherous cascade at the steepest angle in which they could rest. Any steeper and down they go. Any extra force applied to the rocks and down they go. Two steps forward, three steps back.
I clambered up the main fissure, talus scraping and clinking a hollow echo as the walls drew together. The fissure funneled to the width of a thorn bush. A toll gate. Pay in blood. I put my shoulder into the bush, the bush put itself into my shoulder, and I heaved through. Into a wall.
I'm no climber, but I do what I have to do to get up. Up. Fifteen, twenty feet up the chute, up. Top out. Look. There was much more up remaining. There was no clear route to the top, just a mess of ill-fitted vertical terraces of rotten rock and gravel.
Squint up at what was surely a false summit hiding more up beyond. The wind was a low hush. The world cleaved neatly into two parts. There was up, and there was down. There was no audience. There was no winning and no losing. No medals. No badges. No achievements. No discovery. No journey into the unknown. Go up and come down, and then it's just a memory, until you die, and then it's not even a memory anymore. Stand there, steeping in self-doubt, wondering why a person is propelled out and up, and if it might not be better for all involved to go back now.
I put my hands on the rock above, dug a toe into a crack, and stepped up. And stepped up. And stepped up. And on and on until there was no more up that wasn't sky. I searched the summit for a why, but couldn't find any. Maybe there is no why. Maybe the strange music leads to unexpected places for no reason at all.
Clouds floated in from the southwest. The afternoon unfurled like the land below, on and on, a long slope of wrinkled ground to the Río. But there was an end to the afternoon like there was an end to the land, and it was best to start moving. I'm no climber, but I do what I have to do to get down.
I sped into the parking lot, stopped the engine, and packed a backpack with jittery speed. 1:30pm. The show would commence sometime around 5pm.
Sleeping bag? Yes. Tent? No. Water? Yes. Dinner? No. The primary consideration was time. If an item would make climbing the hill slower, it was abandoned. A tent could be replaced with a tarp. Tonight's dinner could be replaced by tomorrow's lunch.
There was no time to pay the entrance fee or to acquire the backcountry permit. Mañana. The rangers at Guadalupe Mountains National Park would have to wait. The sun is a punctual traveler. I am not. I woke that morning in Portales to find my breath turned to frost on the inside of the tent. Hmm. So I stayed in the relative warmth of my bag until the sun rose and inspired the image of warmth, if not the actual temperature, outside. Then I left—late.
The half-packed pack was light. I walked quickly up the switchbacks on the shaded side of the reef. In the crevices above, and soon enough on the trail itself, remains of last week's snowstorm clung to the slope. More than once I had to scramble off the trail to where the Guadalupean wind had thrown my hat.
This was my third visit to Guadalupe Peak, my first ascent in the daylight. I was on a mission to see the last sunset of 2011 and the first sunset of 2012 from the highest point in Texas, from the top of the old reef that stands dry and prominent and strange over the vanished Delaware Sea. Once the mission was conceived, it was indelible. It had to be done. If not now, when? Maybe never. After a 2011 of wonderful high peaks, terrible low valleys, and little land between the two, I needed some good magic, the kind of magic that one finds in desert mountain sunrises and sunsets.
The wind off the peak was brisk. The ice underfoot was vexatious, melted and boot-packed daily, frozen nightly. The Texas Madroños of the canyon floor gave way to the pines of the higher country, and the sotols and yuccas crossed elevations, binding bottom to top. I had no watch, only the shadow of Guadalupe Peak moving northward across Pine Canyon toward Hunter Peak. The trail wound upward. Returning hikers passed downward.
At the Guadalupe Peak campsite, about three trail miles above the trailhead and one mile below the summit, I set up camp. The tarp was folded over the sleeping bag, staked into the mud, and pinned by rocks to keep it from escaping while I was away. Grab the camera and a notebook, push three bottles of celebration into the snow for later, and go. Plenty of time and sun remaining.
Guadalupe Peak is as I left it. The sun glowed from a different angle and snow hid among the rocks, but it was the same mountain. Good ol' Guadalupe Peak. If you can't trust a good mountain, what can you trust?
Take a seat on the white limestone. The show begins. The sun sank tangerine orange somewhere in Mexico, pink and orange streamers radiating in its wake. The wind gathered itself in one final push before following the sun over the horizon. The ground faded. Indigo prevailed in all directions. 2011 faded to black.
* * * * *
Listen: an organism sitting on a rock watched a star disappear. This happens trillions of times a day—define "day" as you wish—in the universe.
* * * * *
I sat on Guadalupe Peak and watched the sun disappear. It is superstitious to apply meaning to this. Here is my advice: believe whatever superstition makes you strong.
I sat on the top of the bottom of the ancient sea. That sea is gone, gone, gone. Look to the southeast with the right eyes and a shoreline is visible, arcing away and away into the forever distance of the desert. (The perfect disguise above.) Thought becomes slower and slower, imitating the passing of geologic time that saw seas and salt flats and reefs and mountains rise and fall in the same place.
I gathered 2011 in my arms and heaved it over the cliff. Sic semper tyrannis. I suppose that it's still there somewhere, another pile of debris broken away from the main.
Thousands of steps below, red and white lights coursed north and south. Whither? Whence? Perhaps the sociable people of West Texas were off to celebrate the new year in the company of friends. I envied them, but I would not have traded my position for theirs.
I slept the sleep of the cold and alone. It wasn't refreshing, but it passed the time. I crunched through the snow in the campsite, trying not to wake the other couple camped there. Up. Past the mescal that had collapsed like a toll gate across the trail. The cost? Pay attention to what you see around you, you are far away from where you were and will be and you might not return and that notebook won't capture the smell of juniper and that camera won't capture anything your memory won't remember more vividly.
2012 rose from the dust, inviting hope in even the coldest itinerant on the mountain.
The sun had set when I saw someone walking up the canyon along the remains of the old road to Panamint. It wasn't dark enough for artificial light, but it was getting close. I was on the front porch, cooking dinner. I was not expecting visitors—not up there, no, not in that corner of the world.
(Charlie Manson's last hideout, where he was captured in 1969, is in the mountains just a few miles south of Panamint. Helter Skelter, indeed.)
And what a visitor he was. He was red-faced, exerted, and his gaze was focused far beyond, past the old town site and up toward the ridge that marked the end of this canyon and the beginning of the next. It is a difficult hike—a filter for the uncommitted. He carried two backpacks, a large one on his back, and a smaller one on his front. He seemed strange—a viable candidate for the mayor of Panamint City, California.
Panamint is a derelict place, a ghost town. Of course it should attract derelict people. I was there. I was derelict, too.
Ken was going on a bit of a walk, a magical misery tour of Death Valley. Around Death Valley. No exaggeration. He was circumnavigating Death Valley by way of the surrounding mountain ranges . Six hundred miles, give or take. Just caching food and supplies would take him to corners of the park that are so rarely visited they may as well not be on the map. He was going through hell, and taking the difficult route to get there. Alone.
What a nut. What a madman. I liked him immediately. There are still some among us who haven't fallen in line yet. Good for him. I understood his geography.
That was his first day, his first ten miles—about five thousand vertical feet and ten trail miles from Ballarat. Five hundred and ninety miles to go, give or take. In the morning he lay in bed in the back room of the cabin, staring at the ceiling. Stay? Go? Up over Telescope Peak to Mahogany Flat?
He went. I don't know if he made it.
I first hiked Surprise Canyon six years ago. How much water has gone under the sand since then.
Panamint was my base camp for hiking to Sentinel Peak, a summit to the south of the city. I didn't make it that far. The desert below was dry, but the mountains were still covered in snow. Surprise. This may seem obvious but I grew up in Illinois, where mountains are mythology and climate varying with elevation is an abstract idea. Snow. I followed the old mine road to upper Wyoming Mine, where I quit, red-faced, exerted, hands on knees after an hour or two of postholing through the snow, Sentinel Peak nowhere in sight.
I returned with more preparation and less snow. In the morning, I hiked the old mining road up and up to Wyoming Mine, perched a thousand feet above the town site. Wyoming Mine is a fantastic installation in the museum of Panamint, with derelict generators and pumps and carts and tramways arranged as they were abandoned.
There is no trail to Sentinel. The road peters out at Wyoming Mine—or it doesn't.
I clambered up the edge of the graded road beside the mine. Paused. Walked forward to the corner of the ridge that pointed toward Panamint Valley and the Argus Range beyond. Calm. No reason to go anywhere. Not up. Certainly not down. In that moment the rest of the world was forgotten, gone, had never existed. I was the first and only.
I wasn't the first. There were bits of broken green glass underfoot, piles of rusty cans to the right, and artificially stacked piles of rocks to the left. A path emerged from the gravel hill side, leading around the corner and into Marvel Canyon. Sentinel was the high point. I could go there at any time just by walking up until there was no more up. This path was immediate, insistent.
I won't vouch for an exciting time around the corner. The trail became a little broader, more defined. There were more cans, more bottles, more low rock walls, more mine adits, more mine tailings. All of these unremarkable things were remarkable because they were unexpected. There was always one more piece of evidence to be found, one more prop for the imagination. The real show wasn't on the mountain, but in my head. What was it like to be here when the action was happening? What was it like to work this far from the established world? What was it like to hope for a big strike? What was it like when the bubble burst and the speculation ended? What was it like?
(Later I saw the world from Sentinel Peak.)
The men left the mines years and years ago, but the burros stayed. At night, far away—but never far enough—in the canyon they bray like bellicose ghosts. HAW, EEHAW, EEHAW. In the distance the sound is chilling. When they wander into the foreground the sound explodes like a mortar.
HAW, EEHAW, EEHAW.
I do not like the burros.
I hiked up Sourdough Canyon on another morning, on another old mining road. The sides of the path were littered with the stratified debris of temporary human settlement. In the lower layers were the mining equipment and occasionally habited structures. In the upper layers, higher up the road, there was little more than rusty cans, weathered boards, maybe a few bedsprings. In between there were cots, stoves, disintegrating clothes, standing walls, and the ghosts you never believed in.
I walked, eyes on the ridge line that connected to the spine of the Panamints—morning meditation in the mountains. A snort/cough erupted from the hill to the left. I yelled. I danced on one foot. These are evolutionary responses that I do not claim as my own.
It was another burro. Of course. Territorial bastards. Standing rigidly, twenty or thirty yards away. Staring with solid black eyes. Can burros think? Do burros dream of feral sheep?
I tossed rocks into the ditch between us, just to let him know that I meant Business. I picked up a few more rocks and kept walking, up and up. Behind me, around a bend in the trees, I heard the clattering of rocks. Burro. I heaved the rocks in the direction of the sound. The sound resigned. Up and up.
The road banked out of Sourdough Canyon and climbed the ridge to the west. It was now a true road—graded by powerful tools but not degraded by time and weather like other relic roads. My mission: a square at the top of the road. I had seen the square, a neat little square, in satellite pictures. It was an absurd geometry in an otherwise random landscape. What was the square? Why was it there? Was it a cabin on the saddle between Surprise Canyon and Hall Canyon? Should I expect a shotgun salute upon approach? A buckshot bienvenue? Fine, fine—a fine way to go out, better than being bitten by a burro or stepping into a mine shaft.
Up and up. The cabin was nothing—and everything. The door remained. The windows did not. There was a barrel converted into a stove. There was a cot. Insulation had fallen from the walls. Graffiti took its place. There were empty shotgun shells and broken bottles—mementos of 4x4 trips past. It takes a certain type of person—and not a very interesting one, I suppose—to be excited by all of this. So be it.
Before leaving Panamint, I borrowed a handsaw from the main cabin and collected a bag of empty propane bottles, beer bottles, and liquor bottles. The trash man comes infrequently to Panamint. The day was clear, blue, warm. I followed the old road, downward ever so much faster than the grinding walk up. The handsaw I employed to clear the tunnel through the vegetation in the canyon. In the willow and tamarisk jungle, up and down were equally difficult, frustrating. Ten years since the last vehicle passed that way, and the trees and grapevines are getting thick. So be it. I left the handsaw on the trail register with a note: saw your way back up.
At Novak Camp I put the rental car in gear and rolled slowly, slowly, slowly down the road, not willing to risk an oil pan or tire or gold-plated tow out of the valley. At the bottom, at the junction of Indian Ranch Road and Surprise Canyon Road, on the edge of the dry lake, I stopped, stepped out barefoot in the gravel. I turned to see where I had come from. Other humans, whether Timbisha thousands of years ago or single blanket jackass prospectors a hundred and fifty years ago, looked at those awful mountains and said to themselves, "Let's go there." And some people insist that we are the intelligent species. Madness.
I blazed down the gravel road, and then down the paved road, and then up the intermittently paved and unpaved road to Wildrose. Balls to the oil pan. I could, with the right amount of foot pressure, make it to Aguereberry Point before sunset and see Death Valley at its sultry, beautiful best. Rattlesnake Gulch, White Sage Wash, A Canyon, Wood Canyon—zoom down the asphalt. Lean into the turns. Down the barrel of Emigrant Pass. Harrisburg, Eureka Mine—six miles and a cloud of dust, no need for any real traction on the corners.
I barged around the final turn to Aguereberry Point, spitting rocks. The sun was a memory of pink clouds in the west. There were no people anywhere—maybe they had never existed, maybe they were just another mirage in this desiccated, brutal, awful place, just a few more ghosts in there or out there or wherever.
I had the speed, I had the momentum, and I knew what had to be done. I pressed down with both feet, pulling on the steering wheel with both hands for leverage. The car leaped from the edge, soared over Blackwater Wash, exploded like a cheap firecracker in the twilight, fell in a tinkling rain of debris on the rubble below. If you stand at the bottom, at Furnace Creek, and look in the right place at the right time in the westbound morning sunlight, you can see the glass and metal shards light up like stars—a constellation on the hillside. Look with the right eyes and you can make out the shape of the constellation:
- Panamint Range, Last Chance Range, Grapevine Mountains, Funeral Mountains, Amargosa Range, Black Mountains, Owlshead Mountains, Panamint Range. [back to text]
- All of my photos from Panamint City on Flickr: Panamint City, September 2011; Panamint City, March 2005.
- Recommended reading: Richard Lingenfelter, Death Valley and the Amargosa: A Land of Illusion.
A few astute observers noted: hey, wasn't I supposed to return next week? Indeed. The plan was changed a little, and I'm already home. Let me tell you a story.
7 March. Bus Stand, Jalgaon, Maharashtra--a junction town in west-central India. I was no longer rushing. It was too late--the bird had flown. I had just finished a four-hour bus ride from Aurangabad. I had a rail ticket in my wallet for the 12627 Karnataka Express, a train that was leaving to Delhi from Burhanpur in two-and-a-half hours. Four days prior I had come from Burhanpur to Jalgaon. It took three-and-a-half hours to make the trip.
I had a plan. I grabbed an auto from the bus stand to the railway station, crossed up and over the tracks to the third platform, and went to the Deputy Station Manager's office. He ignored me. I went to the Station Manager's office. He wasn't there. I went back to the Dy. Station Manager's office. He gave me an annoyed look that had clearly been honed over time.
I told him my story, that I had a ticket from Burhanpur to Delhi.
He said, "It is too far. What can you do?" and bent down to his papers again.
Yes, yes, I knew that. I informed him that the the same train stopped at Jalgaon before proceeding to Burhanpur. Could I board the train there in Jalgaon?
Ah. A chink in the official's armor: the enquirer knew something. With near-comic exasperation, the manager made a phone call, said a few things in Marathi, hung up. I had a 2AC (two-tiered, air-conditioned) berth. He said there were no available seats in that class.
Of course. But, sir, couldn't I buy an unreserved ticket, ride the 180 km from Jalgaon to Burhanpur in general seating, and then switch to 2AC?
After a very well executed eyeroll and sigh, he made another phone call, then reported back to me. He said that this train had a minimum distance requirement. Tickets could only be bought for a 600 km or greater segment. He said, "It is impossible."
Nothing is impossible in India. Nothing.
I crossed back over the tracks to the ticket office and bought the impossible ticket with no problems. When the train arrived--late, of course--I took a deep breath, grabbed the bar beside the door, placed my foot at the threshold, and charged.
Let's pause for a moment to explain something. Unreserved or general class train cars are mobile madness. Every inch of space was occupied--I mean, every inch of volume was occupied. The two tiers of benches were filled with people. People were lying in the overhead luggage rack. People were sitting on the floor. Some industrious person had rigged a hammock over the corridor to the toilet. Bags were dangling from all places that could hold them. The aisle was packed from front to pack with people, people, people. Cattle don't like to be packed this tightly. Claustrophobes are kindly requested to avoid general class.
You have to push to get beyond the door, and then push to get beyond the first corridor, and then push until you find a place to stop. When you stop being the pusher you become the pushed. Until the train leaves there will be more people boarding.
Ten minutes down the line I noticed something was... off. I touched my front left pocket. There was my mobile phone. I my front right pocket. It was empty. I touched my back right pocket. It was empty. No wallet.
Perhaps, while compulsively checking my ticket at the platform, I had slipped it into my back pocket instead of my front pocket. Or someone could have taken it from my front pocket, given all of the jostling as I boarded. No matter. The wallet was gone. I wasn't angry. I was amused. I was an easy target. I glanced around and met the eyes of several passengers. There was no way to tell who was the culprit. It could have been anyone. The setting sun shone through the port side window bars, turning all that brown skin a potent orange. It was almost beautiful.
First stop: Bhusaval Junction. Second stop: Burhanpur. I pushed through the crowd toward the door a little less gracefully than my entrance. Burhanpur is nowhere. It is a one-minute station stop. My car (bogey, if you'd like to use the local term) was eighteen cars down the train--200 or more meters away. Backpack strapped, camera bag in one hand, ravanhatta in the other hand (another story later to explain what this is), I leaned forward and ran down the platform. Breathing raggedly, I closed in on my destination. The whistle blew and the train started to move toward me. I grabbed the bar, swung on board. 1200 km later I was in New Delhi.
I doubt I lost more than $20 in cash in that wallet. I regret that, but not as much as losing my ATM card, which was my access to future cash for things like eating and sleeping. So I moved my return tickets forward. Forty-eight hours after running the Chandigarh Marathon I was already in the sky, facing westward.
I maintain, even after the loss, that I'm some kind of logistical savant--the bus from Aurangabad to Jalgaon, then the impromptu second-class ride and run to fulfill my reserved seat. I could pass clear across that country with nothing more than an idea. Next time, though, I'll be a bit more careful.
So. I'm back. A few people asked: am I going to write a wrap-up post from the trip? No. Maybe I'll make a wrap-up map that shows where I went. Also, I'm posting photos. The generous gypsies from the musician's colony in Jaisalmer and the rotten shopkeepers from Udaipur and six days of boulder-scrambling in Hampi--these are all full stories, not just paragraphs. India is a big, strange place that doesn't wrap up neatly in a little box. That would be impossible. Stay tuned.
[P.S.: I'm searching for meaningful work now that I'm back. In the meantime, I'm available for a variety of temporary work: web sites, various IT and database things, digital archival, outdoor work, whatever. If you've got a lead, give me a shout.]
One of the going away activities from my 2005 X PRIZE internship in the Mojave Desert, California, was a chance to eat lunch with Burt Rutan, Mike Melvill, and a few of the other rocket men of the Scaled Composities SpaceShipOne team. Midway through lunch, a gray-bearded man came in. He had been cycling across the desert, at midday in May, and wanted to show Burt his invention, a remarkable thermal material that could help the boys in Kuwait. ("Or Iraq," Burt corrected.) It was aluminum foil. He also had an older invention: Braille candy. ("You can taste the colors.")
Anyway, the point is that people cycling across the desert in the middle of the day are carrying more than a week's supply of The Crazy.
While I was in Jaisalmer I rented a bicycle from Narayan Cycles for a midday ride west out of the city, into the Thar Desert. Suriya suggested it would be a nice ride to see the Jain temples at Amar Sagar and the cenotaphs ("umbrellas") at Bara Bagh. Hell yes: adventure. (More on Suriya and family to come in a later episode. He's a good friend of mine in Jaisalmer.)
Before going, I glanced at a guidebook so I'd have a rough idea where I was going and what road to take to get there. All I had to do was to take the highway west from Hanuman Circle, near where I was staying. Amar Sagar would be 5 km to the west. A place called Mool Sagar would be 2 km beyond that. Perfect--a path and a distance.
Here bicycles are simple machines: one speed, crunchy bedspring seats, U-shaped handlebars set to the plane of the street. Jaisalmer has the simplest traffic I've seen yet in India, but it is still a challenging to dodge pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, autorickshaws, cars, jeeps, and cows. (And cowpatties.) Jaisalmer is a small city. Once you've passed Hanuman Circle you've passed everything but the military guards at the "Thundering 27" base, the guards with the red Japanese fans on their heads.
Then: nothing. The Thar Desert is not a scenic desert--at least not the small bit of it that I experienced. Granted, I'm prejudiced towards the Mojave Desert of California, the Chihuahuan Desert of Texas, the Canyonlands of Utah. These are legendary places to me, wonderlands of mountains and arches and canyons. The Thar Desert along MDR 53 wasn't even that scrubby. On one side of the road there was a landscape of smashed sandstone, perhaps being quarried for building projects in Jaisalmer and beyond. On both sides were sparsely distributed plants with large rubbery leaves.
The children were friendly. From the sides of the road, from the dilapidated buildings set back in the dust, and from places I could hear but not see, children waved and yelled, "Hello!" Women filling water jugs at a leaking irrigation pipe giggle and said, "[Something something] gora" among themselves. Men passing on tractors slowly rotated their heads to follow my passing. Exchange the turbans for feedcaps and it was just like Central Illinois.
At Mool Sagar there was nothing. Nothing. I went an extra kilometer down the road to be certain. Nothing. Kuch nahin. There were a few miserable houses and rock-bounded plots with no houses at all--much like California City, California. How do people survive on the fringes? Why do people survive on the fringes? I turned back, left them there. Maybe it's better on the fringes, on the outside. At Mool Sagar I had an omelette and a chai with a few stone cutters before returning to the east, to Jaisalmer, capital of the fringes.
Later, in the guidebook, I would read more closely about Mool Sagar: "...Mool Sagar, a run-down oasis with a Shiva Temple." Ah.
About 5 km from Jaisalmer there is a junction. Ten kilometers to the north of the junction is Lodurva, the home, I'm told, of a collection of Jain temples. I hadn't found Amar Sagar yet, so what the hell? Why not go to Lodurva?
There at the crossroads was a boy in a light blue ninth-standard school uniform. I prepared my best Amar Sagar kahan hai? (Where is Amar Sagar?) Before I could ask, he pointed at the back of my bike. I returned a quizzical look. He motioned again, and mimed that he wanted to sit on the rack. Oh, you want a ride? Yes, I'm going to Jaisalmer city. Let's do it. Hop on.
Off we went down the desert highway, a gora and his boy--or was it the other way around? We puttered along for 3 km, exchanging simple Hinglish questions and answers.
About 1.5 km from Jaisalmer, as we passed Indira Indoor Stadium and entered Defence Land, the boy on the back said something I didn't quite hear. "[Something] five [something] rupees." Ah, how cute. No, young man. I come as an informal emissary of the United States of America. I am here to do Good Work. I will not charge you for this strange ride across the desert. Go forth. Uncle Sam loves you.
"Money. From you to me."
"500 rupees? I am poor boy."
And so on. The treacherous little bastard continued to ask for money. It's one thing to ask foreigners for money. It's another thing--and certainly not a problem--to ask for a free ride. But it takes a real deviant to cop a ride and then ask for money from the driver as he pedals through the noontime grit.
After another half kilometer of being hounded for cash, I stopped. "Get down." I rode the last stretch alone, free of one white man's burden.