New Years on the top of the bottom of the sea

(Photos on Flickr)

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.

Guadalupe Peak

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.

Guadalupe Peak

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?

Last sunset of 2011 from Guadalupe Peak

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.

Last sunset of 2011 from Guadalupe Peak

* * * * *

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.

So what?

* * * * *

New Years party on the bottom of the sea

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.

Traffic

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.

First sunrise of 2012 from Guadalupe Peak

A blank spot on the map

Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?

—Aldo Leopold. “The Green Lagoons.” Collected in A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation.

Just one more ghost in Panamint City

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.

Thompson Camp interior

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 [1]. 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 City, California

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.

Upper Wyoming Mine

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.

Mine near Panamint

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.)

360 degrees 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.

Mining equipment in Sourdough Canyon

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.

Ruins in Sourdough Canyon

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.

Cabin at ridge of Hall and Surprise Canyons

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 4×4 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.

Surprise Canyon and Indian Ranch Road

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:

A burro.

Thompson Camp transportation

Notes

  1. Panamint Range, Last Chance Range, Grapevine Mountains, Funeral Mountains, Amargosa Range, Black Mountains, Owlshead Mountains, Panamint Range. [back to text]
  2. All of my photos from Panamint City on Flickr: Panamint City, September 2011; Panamint City, March 2005.
  3. Recommended reading: Richard Lingenfelter, Death Valley and the Amargosa: A Land of Illusion.

Theirs for the asking

Lecturers traveled all over Northern Europe with such pictures in olden times. With assistants to unroll one end and roll up the other, they urged all ambitious and able persons to abandon tired old Europe and lay claim to rich and beautiful properties in the Promised Land, which were practically theirs for the asking.

Why should a real man stay home when he could be raping a virgin continent?

—Kurt Vonnegut. Bluebeard.

Higher civilization

The darkest secret of this country, I am afraid, is that too many of its citizens imagine that they belong to a much higher civilization somewhere else. That higher civilization doesn’t have to be another country. It can be the past instead—the United States as it was before it was spoiled by immigrants and the enfranchisement of the blacks.

This state of mind allows too many of us to lie and cheat and steal from the rest of us, to sell us junk and addictive poisons and corrupting entertainments. What are the rest of us, after all, but sub-human aborigines?

—Kurt Vonnegut. Bluebeard.

Moderate giftedness

That’s what I think. And of course a scheme like that doesn’t make sense anymore, because simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world’s champions.

—Kurt Vonnegut. Bluebeard.