Saturday, May 18, 2024

By Boot and by Boat: The Lower Escalante


I've realized something: Lake Powell is my frenemy. 

In 1999, my uncle spearheaded a family reunion trip on Lake Powell. Through no fault of our own, we were somehow assigned a pair of truly ancient, decrepit houseboats. The air conditioning failed on both boats. Then the toilets stopped working, and an entire extended family ended up using the 'woods' for the better part of a week.

I put a fishhook through my cousin's eyelid. My dad tore a layer of skin off the bottom of his foot. A storm whipped up one night, and my uncle spent a frantic few minutes re-anchoring the houseboat, which was doing its best to escape its moorings. My sister and several cousins got badly sunburned on one side of their faces, a la Harvey Dent, from early morning sunshine while sleeping on the roof of the boat. 

In short, it was a terrific trip, total gong show, and a decades-long object of family lore and nostalgia. And it was my first exposure to the red rocks of southern Utah. I was transfixed. It arguably set the stage for my eventual move to the Beehive State.

Yet there's a darker side to Lake Powell. Glen Canyon Dam generates only a negligible amount of power. It loses boatloads of water to evaporation and sandstone leakage. It drowned some truly incredible landscapes - Glen Canyon, along with the lower reaches of the Escalante and San Juan rivers. And the lake is a pathetic vestige of its former self. Back in '99, the reservoir was nearly full, but it's been steadily dropping ever since. An ugly bathtub ring, some forty feet above the current water level, mars the slickrock that surrounds the reservoir. Unsightly silt benches clog the mouth of canyons. In short, Powell is a pathetic, stinking mess. Lake Foul, indeed.

Not all is lost though. As the water levels have dropped, the lower reaches of side canyons have begun to restore themselves. Flash floods clear out the silt and debris. Maidenhair ferns have begun to re-grow on shady canyon walls. Special spots, buried under the floodwaters for decades, have emerged afresh. The river will win eventually, and Glen Canyon Dam - a classic monolith to twentieth-century hubris - will lose. The only question is how long it will take.

Three Days of Wandering

I'd never been to the lowest canyons of the Escalante River, below where Lake Powell's floodwaters begin to back up. After all, a side-canyon that dead-ends into a lake is a one-way street... unless you have a packraft, of course! I looped three canyons into one loop-type substance over a three-day period in May. I was a bit worried about the heat (temperatures were forecast to hit 90 each day), but the canyons offered ample shade, and I was wet virtually the entire time - either splashing through canyons, or paddling on the lake itself. 

The hike begin with a an easy jaunt down a well-worn trail, past a spectacular arch. Evidently, the arch is everyone's turnaround point, because downstream became a mild bushwhack at points. I spent all morning heading downstream, encountering at one point a brief section of narrows with a mandatory swimmer. I suppose I could have blown up my packraft and paddled the fifty feet, but I opted to just swim it. Ninety degree heat for the win!


I passed a waterfall, well below Powell's high-water mark. I even found a few cottonwoods that have started to grow in the years since the lake dropped. Finally, I reached the lake and transitioned to packraft mode.


Thankfully, the afternoon was almost dead-calm, a welcome anomaly in a land of much slickrock and sparse vegetation. I paddled downstream, past my target canyon, to check out Cathedral in the Desert a few hours south. Inundated by floodwaters for almost all of the past fifty years, Cathedral in the Desert has re-emerged in the last couple years, due to falling lake levels. In the 50s, it was a magical place. Owing to its recent rebirth, it's still on the mend. To be honest, it smells like decaying gunk. Ferns are growing, but it'll take some time before it recaptures its former glory. Hopefully lake levels stay low enough to keep it from being re-drowned.


After fighting a bit of later-afternoon speedboat chop, I finally made it back to my target canyon, a seldom-visited gulch most notable for being the last confirmed location of disappeared 1930's vagabond Everett Ruess. The bottom of the canyon contained the single deepest alcove I've ever seen. Words cannot do it justice. It was enormous, and even partially flooded, still majestic.

Near where reservoir gave way to solid ground, I made camp for the night, after fourteen hours of hiking and paddling. It took me about five minutes to fall asleep.


The next morning started out auspiciously, with an easy hike up to a not-particularly-spectacular arch. That's where things got interesting. Two miles of thick brush lay between me and my exit from the canyon. The canyon is seldom-visited, but in reports I've collected over the years, I've noticed a trend of increasing complaints over the years. The brush is getting thicker.

Yeah, it wasn't fun. Not every step was a thrash, but much of it was, and occasionally it was horrific. The entire stretch is a continuous series of beaver dams. Combine deep water, stinking mud, and sometimes-impenetrable riparian vegetation, and you've got a recipe for a frustrating couple of miles.


By and by, I finally reached my exit, an old cattle trail near where Ruess had left his burros corralled before disappearing without a trace. The exit itself was surprisingly straightforward, a gem of a route in an otherwise-hostile environment. I followed my compass for a couple miles overland, through Navajo sandstone domes, before dropping into my third and final canyon via an enormous sand dune. I was certainly glad to be descending, rather than ascending it! 


This canyon doesn't even have a proper name - just a number, as if it were a Swiss account. And like a Swiss account, its secrets are deep indeed. Incredibly, the entire thing was passable, and its amazing narrows stretched on for miles. Deep-red sandstone walls soared hundreds of feet above me, blotting out the searing midday sun. I followed the canyon downstream, underneath incredible alcoves, to where it flows into Lake Powell. 


I won't even try and describe what I found down there, only that physics seems to be broken, and Euclidean geometry ceases to apply in canyon country. An abandoned meander has divided a vestigial arm from the main body of Lake Powell, and it took me hours of pondering to reconstruct how this happened. Ask me about this, if you're really curious about a deeply weird and difficult-to-describe phenomenon. 

I ventured back upstream, the way I came, past the sand dune, and made camp near an amazing alcove underneath a stately cottonwood. The water ceased flowing around here, so I tanked up with four liters, the better to quench my intense thirst. Despite the presence of continuous flowing water for the past two days, the heat left me a bit dehydrated.

The day's heat lingered well into the evening. I played peekaboo with the moon as it flirted with the canyon lip above me. Sleep came easy once again, after another thirteen hours of almost continuous motion.

I hiked the last few miles to my car the next morning, the canyon having transitioned to a dry slot at this point. I bumped into one impassible dryfall, easily bypassed by a faint climber's trail. A couple miles later I hit the dirt road, where I walked a couple miles back to my car.

While the reservoir has certainly marred the character of the lower Escalante, there were still plenty of amazing things to see. Many of them are nameless, poorly-documented, or enigmatic. A little planning, a lot of adaptability, and dropping lake levels made this an unforgettable trip. A weekend well-spent! 




Saturday, May 4, 2024

Drawing Triangles

I bought a packraft last year. The purpose wasn't to tackle intense whitewater, but rather to open up new route-creation possibilities.

I liken the Colorado Plateau to a circulatory system. The major rivers are its arteries; the small side-canyons are its capillaries. A packraft allows me to visit both the arteries and the capillaries in a single journey, giving me a better understanding and appreciation of the underlying unity of the landscape. 

My friend Paul refers to these kind of trips as 'triangles'. Hike down one canyon, float a section of river, and hike up a different canyon back to the car. Everyone loves backpacking loops (as opposed to out-and-backs); packrafts greatly increase loop possibilities. I did my first Utah triangle this weekend, and to say I'm hooked would be an understatement. Despite some gusty winds and occasionally choppy surface conditions, the trip was a complete success.

The loop began with a quiet roadwalk down into a canyon. I only encountered one vehicle along the way - a badly out-of-place Ford Escape on a jeep road. No word as to whether its oil pan survived the journey. Clear, flowing water was a welcome treat, as were the shady cottonwoods. 

There wasn't a great launch point where the canyon met the Green River, so I ended up sliding down a muddy cutbank and taking a leap of faith into my boat. It worked, but wasn't particularly dignified. Then again, there's nothing graceful about entering or exiting a packraft, especially since I have the athletic skills of an earthworm.

The float down the river was mostly uneventful. Peak runoff is only a few weeks away, and the Green was moving at a pretty good clip. I took plenty of float-breaks, and still managed to do 12 river miles in less than 3 hours. A few strong gusts of wind added a little extra spice. And of course, the scenery along the way was terrific.

At my takeout point, the high river had formed a narrow lagoon at the mouth of the side-canyon. There, sheltered from the wind by tamarisk, I paddled a decent ways upstream before reaching dry ground. My boat dried instantly in the intense afternoon sunshine. I met an Ontario couple who were rafting the river (in big ole river-runner craft). They were intrigued by my three-pound boat-in-a-backpack, but horrified to see me sip brownish river water (which tasted fine).

A short distance up-canyon, I visited one of the famous Julien inscriptions. Denis Julien, a French-Canadian fur trapper, left his mark in several sites in eastern Utah in the 1830's. This particular inscription is perhaps the best-known and best-preserved of the bunch. Among other things, it provides evidence that he used a sailboat to travel up Cataract Canyon and the Green River, which makes him the first known European to make the journey in either direction. By happenstance, I visited on the 188th anniversary of the day of his inscription - May 3, 1836.  

After hiking for a couple hours, I made a nice camp on a flat bench adjacent to the wash. The next morning, I ventured further up-canyon to check out a significantly older (and cooler) piece of rock art. Of course, there were several smaller panels along the way.


I climbed out of the canyon on an old rancher's trail, now somewhat perilously eroded. It worked for humans, but no cow in its right mind would use such a dilapidated trail nowadays! I finished with a short scramble up over the final rock lip to my waiting car and a jug of clear water that somehow tasted worse than the chocolate milk from the river. 

I'm still in the very nascent stages of packrafting development, but I can foresee how many possibilities this additional mode of human-powered travel will open up. I suppose it's possible I'll outgrow my flatwater boat, but for the time being, I'm having a blast learning this new skill. 

 





 

 



Thursday, February 29, 2024

Desert Winter Thru-Hike: Advice to Future Hikers

The Desert Winter Thru-Hike occupies a special place in my heart. I hiked all of it in 2024, and half of it in 2021. Here are a laundry list of opinions and considerations for the prospective WTH thru-hiker.

Fast Facts:

  • Name: Desert Winter Thru-Hike 
  • Creators: Brett "Blisterfree" Tucker and Melissa "Treehugger" Spencer
  • Length: ~784 miles
  • Eastern Terminus: Saguaro National Park, near Tucson, AZ
  • Western Terminus: Joshua Tree National Park, near Palm Springs, CA
  • Season: December-March 
  • Experience Level: Expert
  • Physical Difficulty: Moderate

If you have not already read everything Brett has written on the WTH, stop now and go read it. The rest of this guide assumes you've already done so, and won't rehash things already covered elsewhere in the WTH corpus.

Seasons and Timing:

Brett covers the ideal start date pretty well in the literature - mid-January, hiking westbound. It's best to wait until much of the winter rain has already fallen and recharged the water sources along the route.

That's all good in theory, but there's clearly a temptation in the hiking world to start the route earlier. I suppose it's natural to try to squeeze a winter hike around one's existing plans, even if it means the weather window is a bit sub-optimal. Following a couple unusually wet monsoon seasons, a few hikers have successfully hiked the WTH in late fall (late October, November, and December).  

Judging from the few years of water data exist for the WTH, I think it's fair to conclude that most of the sources along the WTH (specifically the guzzlers) are less seasonally-variable than one might assume. Off-hand, I can recall only a handful of guzzlers noted in the water chart as completely dry. That said, most isn't really a useful standard. Averages are cold comfort if you were banking on this source that turned out to be dry, and the next potential source is 20 miles away. Depending on the weather, your hydration, and how far the next source is, a dry source can be anything between annoying and fatal. If you choose to hike the route before Brett's mid-January recommendation, be prepared for a few of those unpleasant surprises along the way. In particular, you'll probably have to carry 50 miles of water with 6-7 days of food on your back, up and over some of the WTH's hardest terrain in Section 6. It's tough stuff. 

The other reason to wait until mid-January is perhaps a bit more straightforward: it's cold in the Mojave! The last few sections of the WTH in California have a lot more "high" (3,000-4,000') terrain than does Arizona. A mid-January start allows the Mojave to emerge from the dregs of winter before you arrive, potentially minimizing the storm systems and brutally cold wind. 

Expert-level Backpacking:

The WTH is a route. As such, there's no trail tread; you have to navigate. There are no trail angels; you have to be self-sufficient. There's enough water, but only just enough. Climate factors are tough, even in the middle of the winter. And you're entirely alone out there.

None of this should be a surprise to WTH hikers; they've all done other Brett Tucker routes, after all. But even for experienced hikers, it's easy to get lulled into a false sense of complacency. If you're looking for a relaxed, wintertime trail to chill out on, go hike the Florida Trail. While parts of the WTH are pretty cruisey, you still need to bring your A-game, particularly when storms blow through.

Pace:

All previous WTH finishers have taken between 40 and 50 days to complete the route. It could certainly be done faster by the hundred-day-CDT crowd, but keep in mind that daylight is very limited during the depths of winter. Night-hiking is not always possible, particularly in areas of complex navigation or trail-less terrain. I budgeted 40 days for my 2024 thru-hike, and would have greatly appreciated another few days to wait out storms, lessen the amount of night hiking, and take more detours to check out off-route water sources. 

Don't be fooled by the amount of "road" on this route. While there's certainly plenty of 3-mph terrain, not all road is fast walking. Many of the roads are nothing more than ancient, abandoned mining tracks. They may provide a convenient handrail for navigation, but often the travel is not any faster than pure cross-country is. 

All of this suggests that a 20-mpd pace is probably right for most folks (adjust for your own pace as necessary). Add in some extra time for towns too, since several of them require significant bonus miles to access. The route definitely gets harder as you progress west, though that may be offset by more daylight hours as spring approaches.

Vertical Gain:

The WTH is pretty mild in terms of vert. Remember, it stays rather low for climatic reasons. Some of the uphills can be short-but-steep, a few hundred feet perhaps. There's some occasional scrambling, usually a class II. There's maybe one spot of brief class III in the Turtle Mountains, but it's no biggee; if you've done the northern half of the AT, you're fine.

The only huge climb on the WTH is up and over the Harquahalas. It's steep, long, and unrelenting. It follows what used to be a jeep road a million years ago, but now is mostly just a rocky ditch with occasional catclaw to dodge. It'll slow you down. Other than that, most climbs on the WTH are either short or gradual.

Underfoot: 

The walking surface contributes to the WTH's difficulty far more than vert does. It's often hard to predict how easy progress will be. Surface type (road vs. trail vs. cross-country) tells you almost nothing. Remember, most of the roads the WTH follows are unimproved, and thus are no easier or harder walking than the adjacent terrain. Similarly, cross-country can range from 3mph on the delightful desert pavement west of the Turtles to a rocky hellscape in the Woolsey Peak Wilderness. Brett sometimes warns you about tough terrain that may not be obvious from looking at the map; other times, it's a surprise.

In general, it all kind of evens out. Buck-30 has lodged some pretty bitter complaints about the WTH's rocks. I share his opinion only partially. True, the rocks were horrifically bad at times (especially in the Woolsey Peak Wilderness, the Turtle Mountains, and the Pintos), but the agony was usually short-lived. Many more miles were kinda rocky, but not twist-your-ankle-and-scream-at-the-sky rocky. I say that as someone with a surgically-reconstructed foot and a well-known loathing of rocks.

Night-hiking:

With as few as 10 hours of daylight during the depths of winter, it's tempting to assume you'll do a bunch of night-hiking on the WTH. Sometimes, night-hiking is peaceful and pleasant on the WTH. Particularly when crossing unremarkable desert basins, it's useful to do those easy road miles in the dark.

But here's the thing - navigation on the WTH often entails following subtle washes, faint mining tracks, or ephemeral burro trails. Or you might follow nothing but a compass heading. That stuff is just plain hard at night. There were definitely times on the WTH where I wished I could night-hike, but it just wasn't practical. My advice: if you need to night-hike (say, to get to the Wenden Post Office before it closes), plan ahead, so you can do easy road miles in the dark, not complex navigational problems.

One fringe benefit of the WTH is the sunrises and sunsets. I generally hiked an hour before dawn until sunset most days, so I saw every single desert sunrise and sunset. And magical they are! Savor this unique aspect of winter hiking.

Water:

On one hand, the WTH crosses the lowest, driest, hottest deserts in North America. On the other hand, it's a Brett Tucker route. If you hike during the recommended season, you'll probably never have to carry more than about 30 miles of water. I consistently found myself carrying 15-20 miles of water, and sometimes more than that. 

As far as quality goes... it's the desert. You will only encounter 1 or 2 naturally-flowing sources on the entire 800 miles. The rest are cattle wells, potholes, and wildlife guzzlers. With stagnant water comes the potential for truly nasty water, of course. You'll almost certainly have to drink out of a source that has a dead animal floating in it. Your water will very often be noticeably green and have a funky taste. If you're not OK with this, the WTH is not for you. On the other hand, not all of the water is nasty. I carry Fruit Punch flavor packets in the desert, reserving them to mask the taste of only the most vile sources. Over the course of 40 days, I think I used 4 or 5 of them in total.

One benefit of hiking in the winter is that you don't need to drink nearly as much as in the summer. Everyone's water needs are different of course, but I frequently found myself drinking only a single liter over the course of a day. Even though 20-30 mile carries were common, I rarely found myself toting a heavy water load.

Navigation:

One key benefit of hiking a Brett Tucker route is the top-notch quality of navigational resources. WTH hikers will already be familiar with his conventions from other Tucker routes. I prefer to navigate primarily by paper maps. I found this a challenge on the WTH for the following reasons:

  • Sometimes the base maps (USGS quads) just didn't have enough detail on them. The contours were illegibly faint, or inappropriately-sized for the terrain (e.g. 40-footers, obscuring a delta of 20-foot-deep washes). 
  • Sometimes Caltopo likes to put labels directly on top of the route, obscuring valuable topographic data underneath
  • Often, the route is a maze of faint vehicle travel corridors. What counts as a road/two-track/vehicle-accessible-wash is entirely subjective. The USGS base maps will say one thing, the OpenStreetMap layer will say another, Brett's waypoints will say a third thing, and your own observations will say a fourth. In short, it's an undefinable anarchy.

None of this is really Brett's fault; it's just the nature of hiking in an environment of braided washes and vehicle mayhem. I've provided all this feedback to Brett already, and I have no doubt he'll continue to refine the mapset in future iterations of the WTH resources. But there will always a degree of unavoidable "What the heck??" inherent in hiking a route like this. And for that, it's imperative to make sure the digital resources are teed up.

Now, perhaps you read the previous paragraphs and shrugged it off since you don't carry paper maps anyhow. In that case - yikes. I won't go off on a rant here, as I'm clearly on the losing side of the Great Paper Maps Debate. I'll just note that my battery pack shorted out in the Sheephole Mountains, and with it my phone. Had I not carried and used my paper maps daily, I would have been utterly lost, in exposed terrain with a massive storm approaching. GPS is a useful supplement, but cannot and should not abrogate the hard work of understanding your surroundings with the paper mapset.

On the topic of GPS: 

  • Avenza Maps works just fine for the majority of the route. It still suffers from text-atop-the-data issue, but usually you can muddle your way through just fine.
  • Occasionally, Avenza just isn't zoomed-in enough to really understand what's happening. In such cases, satellite imagery is really helpful. Download it before you leave home. Sometimes there's no substitute for a photo from space when trying to make sense of a maze of faint roads, washes, or burro trails.

Gear:

The WTH is murder on inflatable pads. I think Recon managed not to pop his, but he might be alone in that regard. After the WTH put15 holes in my pad in 2021, I opted for a foam pad in 2024 - even though I hate foam pads and sleep poorly on them. This was a prudent choice. The only downside to a foam pad is that I had to strap it to the outside of my pack, so my load was a bit bulkier when pushing through catclaw and other nasty desert plants. The pad got pretty beat up. Whatever, it's a foam pad.  

The WTH is an extremely windy trail. It's strong, it's relentless, and it's freezing cold. I wore my windshirt nearly every day until I lost it in the middle of Section 6, and I wished for it every day thereafter. Yes, windshirts are delicate. Yes, you will certainly tear it up on catclaw. Yes, it's still worth it.

I recommend some form of mild bug protection on the WTH. On both my 2021 and 2024 hikes, I had a couple nights of annoying bugs in the lower elevations (near Parker and Amboy, to be specific). Anything will do - a fully-enclosed shelter, or even just a headnet to wear while sleeping. I only used my headnet maybe three times, but it was sure better than waking up to a dozen mosquito bites on my forehead! As long as you're not completely defenseless, you're fine.

Just because the WTH is a desert trail doesn't mean it's hot. Temperatures regularly dip down into the 20's on the WTH. As a cold sleeper, I carried a 10-degree bag in 2021 and 2024. Given the length of winter nights, I appreciated the extra few degrees (and ounces) of fluffy downy goodness. 

There are enough rocks on the WTH that it really makes sense to replace your shoes a little earlier than normal. I generally get 500-700 miles out of a pair. On the WTH, I found that they were pretty much done after 400. I endured a couple weeks of tired and achey feet on the WTH until I replaced my shoes.

Town:

On the whole, the towns on the WTH are pretty bad. A solid half of the resupply stops are nothing more than a remote station and maybe a post office. Parker is a good town and makes for an excellent place to take a celebratory halfway-there zero. Buckeye's alright. The rest are pretty primitive. A typical resupply plan:

  • Arizona City: Buy (Dollar General)
  • Buckeye: Buy (Dollar General)
  • Tonopah: Skip. Carry from Buckeye to Wenden (120 miles total)
  • Wenden: Maildrop (PO, though note the limited hours) OR buy in Salome
  • Parker: Buy (Walmart or Safeway)
  • Fenner: No great solutions. Maybe bribe a driver going to Needles to take you.
  • Amboy: Maildrop (Roy's)

Red Tape:

There's basically zero red tape on the route, and none that's particularly burdensome. In brief:

  • Joshua Tree National Park requires non-quota backcountry permits. If you're already in the town of Twentynine Palms, you can get one in person. If not, you'll have to pay your blood money to Wreck-Dot-Gov. 
  • There's no camping in the western unit of Saguaro National Park, which really isn't a problem as you're only in the park for a few miles. It's easy enough to just keep hiking until you get outside the park boundary

Termini:

The WTH is designed as a stand-alone route, and its termini in the two National Parks are certainly worthy objectives. They also provide easy access to other long-distance trails - the AZT and PCT on the east and west ends, respectively. In both cases, Blisterfree has mapped short connectors to those trails. The WTH therefore plays the role of the PNT in its ecosystem, facilitating all sorts of exciting journeys. Want to hike from the Divide to the Pacific Ocean? A combo of the GET, AZT, WTH, PCT, and SDTCT is your ticket.

Limited Circulation:

The WTH is amazing, but it's not for everyone. Buck-30 covers this very well in the "Should I Hike This Route" section of his WTH overview post, and I'd encourage you to really read and consider whether the WTH is for you. In my opinion, there are a couple factors that contraindicate broad popularity with the hiking masses:

  • Inaccessibility. The WTH is beautiful, but not in the classical sense of green trees, snowcapped peaks, and sparkling lakes. The route is remote, stark, and forbidding, and yet those precise qualities lend the WTH its beauty. The towns suck, the water sucks, the wind never stops blowing. But it's enormously rewarding, in large part because you're scraping together an existence - however meager - in a most hostile environments. Not everyone's a dyed-in-the-wool desert rat, a prerequisite trait on the WTH.
  • Fragility. Footprints last forever in the desert. Potholes and guzzlers only collect a finite amount of water, and a large crop of hikers could easily drink them dry. Gates, wells, and fences are decades-old, and might break if not treated with extreme care. The Wenden Post Office is roughly the size of my tent, and cannot handle a flood of resupply packages. In short, the WTH is a particularly fragile route.

I think of the WTH as a delicate manuscript in a library's rare book collection. Unlike an ordinary paperback (the AT, PNT or whatever), it can't be circulated in an unrestricted fashion, as it'd quickly suffer an ignominious fate. On the other hand, it does no good to lock it away entirely and prevent all access - what would be the point in even having it?

Of course, libraries have already solved this dilemma already. They generally limit:

  • Who can access the rare book collection (researchers with a demonstrated need of the materials and with experience handling them properly)
  • Under what conditions they can access the collection (on-site in a special reading room; no checkout available). 
Brett's solution for the WTH is similar. The WTH resources are available only to veterans of at least one of his other routes (400 mile minimum), under the condition that they not share those resources with others. You can find more details on his site. I think of the WTH as a nice little treat available to those who have already proved their desert route-hiking chops, and who've demonstrated their ability to be exemplary citizens of the route-hiking community by giving back (particularly in the form of water information).

Resources:

Brett's stuff is required reading, and I'd recommend reading Buck-30's summary post at the end of his journal. If you want to dive deeper, you can also peruse Buck 30's daily entries, as well as Recon's.


Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Forty Days and Forty Nights

 

Certain landscapes seem quintessentially “Southwest”: a  sea of Joshua trees, punctuated by granite boulders and a handful of precious oases. A jolly saguaro, wearing a cowboy hat, of course. Mirages seething above a low desert bajada, forever just barely out-of-reach reach. Low, rugged mountains full of hideouts and abandoned mines.

These deserts - the lowest, driest, and hottest in North America - are the domain of the 800-mile Desert Winter Thru-Hike (WTH). The WTH isn’t a “trail” per se. Indeed, actual hiking trails are a rare treat in this hardscrabble country. Instead, it mostly follows jeep tracks, ancient mining roads, dry washes, jagged ridgelines, and the occasional utility corridor from Tucson, AZ to Palm Springs, CA. A pair of National Parks - Saguaro and Joshua Tree - bookend the route. Some of the most desolate, lonesome, and rewarding miles of my hiking career lie in between.

Map courtesy of Blisterfree

I flew to Tucson the day before New Years Eve and spent the night with friends Ralph and Sue. It was an evening full delicious food and delightful conversation on topics ranging from faith and worldview, to baseball, to small-town childhood shenanigans. Ralph and Sue dropped me at the trailhead in Saguaro National Park the next day. I couldn’t imagine a better way to begin a long hike.

That evening at Ralph and Sue’s was the last vestige of true civilization I’d encounter for many weeks. Like any trail, the WTH featured “towns” every week or so. But I use that term loosely, because of the seven resupply points on the WTH, three of them are mere gas stations, in the middle of nowhere. This route is not exactly plush. And that’s exactly the way I like it.

Something Old, Something New


The terrain was not entirely unknown to me, however. I walked the Arizona half of the WTH in 2021 while waiting to clear a work-mandated background check. You might wonder why I opted to hike the whole WTH in 2024 rather than just resuming at the California border where I left off in 2021. I suppose there are a couple reasons:

  • Re-hiking a trail is like reconnecting with an old friend. Sure, there’s less novelty the second time, but that’s offset by a deeper understanding of the landscape and a host of good memories from the first go-around.
  • The route was in its very early stages of development in 2021. Blisterfree, the route’s creator, constantly tweaks and refines it. Therefore, even though I had in theory hiked the route before, there was still plenty of terrain that was new to me in 2024.
  • As a route creator, I enjoy seeing hiking routes evolve. I ground-truthed some of the segments in 2021 and have kept fairly close tabs on the WTH over the years. Blisterfree is, without exaggeration, the best in the world at what he does, and it’s fascinating to watch a master craftsman at work. In 2024, I was gratified to hike the (mostly) finished product.

I don’t regret my choice. I enjoyed Arizona just as much the second time, and the much-anticipated California section lived up to my lofty expectations.


Low Desert Wandering

Among thru-hikes in the Southwest, only the WTH is suitable - and in fact designed - for the dead of winter. Unlike other routes, it spends no meaningful time at high elevations. Instead, it oscillates between broad desert basins and low, rugged mountain ranges.

Such is the rhythm of the WTH: I'd cross an expansive desert basin on a two-track, or perhaps just by line-of-sight navigation through the sparse vegetation. Most basin water sources were of the windmill or solar-well variety. Even in this arid country, a few hardy and/or sickly cows subsisted on a meager diet of scrubby thorns. Travel through the basins was generally easy, and often provided opportunities for night-hiking.

Sooner or later though, I'd climb out of the basin into a low, craggy mountain range. I'd often encounter a wildlife guzzler at the periphery of the range, just before crossing into a designated Wilderness area. Once inside the Wilderness, I'd follow ridgelines, dry washes, and burro trails. Travel was much slower in these rugged mountains, as rocks, cacti, and pour-offs slowed my progress. But the scenery was often jawdropping, and the sense of isolation was sublime. These were the miles that made the WTH truly special. Ever heard of the Old Woman or Harcuvar ranges? I hadn't either, and probably never would, had it not been for the WTH.

After crossing the mountains, I'd descend into another basin, and the cycle would repeat. 

Though everything in the desert wants to make you bleed to some extent, I discovered that not all plants are equally sinister. On one end of the spectrum is creosote, the kindest and gentlest of all desert plants. It's a little grabby, but unless you crash into it headlong, it won't ensnare you too badly. On the other end are the twin terrors of cholla and catclaw. Tangle with these guys at your own risk! Cholla is the villain of more open desert terrain. It doesn't actually 'jump' of course, but it falls to the ground in pieces, which stick to your shoes and calves on the way by. Catclaw tends to grow near washes and other sheltered/brushy areas. Slaloming around it can be an absolute pain, but not nearly as painful as getting hopelessly tangled in it. My clothes didn't get too shredded by catclaw on the WTH, but only because I was exceptionally careful. My foam sleeping pad, which protruded from the top and sides of my pack, wasn't so lucky.

There wasn't too much out-and-out bushwhacking on the WTH, but even a small amount of occasional overgrowth was enough to give me a nice set of desert pinstripes.

Dihydrogen Monoxide and other Toxins

It's impossible to overstate the importance of water on an austere desert trek like the WTH. Sources in the desert are infrequent and incredibly precious. Even when water was present, some of it was of dubious quality. Nearly all of the sources were stagnant - either cattle troughs, wildlife cachements, or potholes in the bedrock. Some of my water came in exciting hues - green, brown, or yellow. Sometimes it tasted a little funky. And once, it was a radioactive-green algae sludge so noxious that it stained my hands and my water bottle. On that occasion, I suddenly decided I wasn't thirsty after all!

I encountered the pièce de résistance just west of the California state line, at one of only three naturally-flowing sources on the entire WTH. It had just rained the day before, and I was more than a little jazzed to find a brief flow of cold, clear water in the sculpted narrows of a deep canyon. After filling all my water containers, I continued upstream, humming a jaunty little ditty. Then, around a corner, I stumbled upon a rotting burro corpse, lying right in the middle of my cheery stream. Yuck. 

I drank the water anyway.

A Big Mistake

I didn't really plan to hike the WTH this winter. But when the holidays rolled around and I found myself with a little extra time, I made a somewhat last-minute decision to squeeze in a WTH hike. I had firm commitments on both ends - Christmas on the front end, and a February family shindig on the back end. I intended to fly the day after Christmas, but the cheapest airfare I could find wasn't until December 30th, so I opted to fly cheap and hike fast.

This decision left me with only 40 days to complete the route, a relentless 20 mile-per-day pace. I knew this was a risky plan, but to start any earlier would have cost me another couple hundred bucks in airfare. I figured that I could make up a day or two along the way, even if it meant a little night-hiking. This was, of course, penny-wise and pound-foolish. A forty-day itinerary gave me zero wiggle room, which I sorely missed when El Niño dumped his entirely-foreseeable torrent of rain on the desert Southwest.

If there's one guarantee on a thru-hike, it's that something will go wrong. The trail quickly reminded me of this lesson. My bad ankle did Bad Ankle Things my first week on the trail, and I lost about half a day babying it. Then my poncho-tarp abruptly announced its retirement, and I lost another day waiting for its replacement to show up. Do a 19-mile day over tough, rocky terrain? Congratulations, you just fell further off the pace. I was behind the eight-ball from the very beginning.

RIP Original "Moak Cloak", 2014-2023

I ended up doing a lot of night-hiking on the WTH. Sometimes this wasn't a problem - a few mindless miles along a jeep road in the dead of night is no big deal. But often, the terrain precluded the possibility of night-hiking. The WTH darts in and out of many minor washes and subtle terrain features. It sometimes heads cross-country for a few miles. These navigational problems are a cinch during the day, but they become nearly impossible on a cloudy or moonless night. I spent an annoying amount of mental energy timing my days so that the post-sunset miles were easy ones.

The Fury of the Child

WTH hikers have a complicated relationship with the weather. And boy oh boy, did I ever ride the roller coaster on this trip.

On one hand, most of the water on the route is a direct result of recent runoff. In the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, much of the year's rain falls in the winter. I therefore needed the rain to recharge all the potholes and wildlife guzzlers on the route. Other hikers had reported the aforementioned dead-burro water source as "dry" a month before, leaving me with a potential 50-mile water carry. Only because of the previous day's rainstorm did I have anything to drink.

On the other hand, storms on the WTH are a special kind of miserable. Usually, terrain features squeeze most of the moisture out of the clouds before they reach the low deserts the WTH frequents. But even so, desert storms bring copious wind, which howls across the open landscape. The temperature crashes into the 40s, and suddenly it's you're in Hypothermia City once the rain starts.

This year was an El Niño winter. Warm waters off South America's west coast trigger a chain reaction across the Pacific Rim. El Niño's effects aren't uniform or always predictable, but one thing's certain: in an El Niño winter, there will be fireworks.

In this case, "fireworks" meant weeks of unrelenting, bone-chilling wind and a trio of drenching Atmospheric River events. I increased my pace still further as I neared the end of the trail, trying to buy myself a little flexibility to sit out the truly horrendous weather. And it almost worked.

At 4,500' in the Mojave National Preserve, the weather is raw indeed. I'd been keeping an eye on the weather for a week already, and knew that a significant storm was on the way. I put the pedal to the metal, trying to drop a few thousand feet before the storm hit. The day before the storm, I hiked until 9:30pm. I caught a few hours of shuteye, then got up at 3am and did ten miles before sunup

Around mid-morning, it started to rain. I'd already decided I was just going to wait out this storm in my tent. Even the best raingear can't eliminate the misery when it's 35 degrees and raining sideways. So, before long, I set up my tarp and got comfy. I put on my fluffy sleep socks, ate an enormous meal, listened to podcasts, and read scripture while the rain and wind buffeted my tarp. Thunder boomed overhead. Life was good indeed.

Red sky in the morning...

And then from nowhere, vwooooooooom. An enormous gust of wind, perhaps a thunderstorm downburst, slammed into my tent. I never even heard the tent stakes let loose. Instantly though, I was staring directly into the sky as heavy rain poured down on me. There was no time to think. I yelped, threw my shoes on, and chased after my tarp as it hurdled downwind in true prairie-schooner form. After about a hundred yards, a corner caught in a creosote bush. The tarp stood straight out like a flag, flapping in the wind. I grabbed it and raced back to my campsite. Everything I owned was saturated, and getting wetter by the second.

I had to make a decision, and fast. I was wet. My sleeping bag was wet. The temperature was forecast to crash overnight. Not great. Pell-mell, I jammed everything into my backpack and dialed Rascal.

Phone-a-Friend

An auxiliary benefit of spending a decade in the long-distance hiking community is that you make friends in really weird places. Such is the case with a couple I met in 2023 near Eagle Rock on the PCT. Rascal works as a field biologist in the Mojave National Preserve, and Ripper's a ranger in Joshua Tree. So when my tent turned into a sail in the middle of nowhere, Rascal was just around the corner. Due to roadway flooding concerns, she'd just left work for the day.

The long and the short of it: half an hour after getting my stuff drenched, I was sitting in Rascal's car with the heater cranked on our way to town. When we got there, I threw everything in the dryer as the rain continued to come down in torrents. Rarely have I been so grateful to be warm and dry.

But wait, there's more! After Rascal dropped me back off at the trail the next morning, I hiked for a few days before yet another atmospheric river arrived. The forecast for this one was truly apocalyptic, so I hitched to town and hung out with Rascal and Ripper again. And when I finished - you guessed it - Rascal was there to pick me up and deposit me at the airport.

Usually, "I couldn't do it without them" is nothing more than a trite platitude. As humans, we're pretty good at adapting and make-do. Perhaps it would cost a little more, or be less convenient, but we find a way. In this case however, the sentiment is sincere and literal. If not for Rascal and Ripper, I'm not sure I would have finished the WTH successfully. I owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

If you're into Weird Desert Crap, the Mojave is the place for you.

A Slog to the Finish

By now, you might be getting the impression that my final few weeks on the WTH were a dumpster fire. And in that assessment, you'd be entirely correct. 

Of all the things you wouldn't want to lose in the middle of the Mojave desert, a windshirt would rank pretty high on the list. Let me paint you a picture.

Somewhere after leaving the amazing Turtle Mountains, I came across a 4-foot-long Super Mario Bros Mylar balloon. All wilderness travelers eventually grow to despise Mylar balloons: they're eyesores, never decompose, and drift for miles before settling down into otherwise remote and untouched landscapes. I sighed, bundled up the enormous piece of litter and crammed it in the back pocket of my pack.


Apparently though, that pocket was too full. Somewhere in the next ten miles, my windshirt must have popped out while I was wandering through the creosote in a low desert basin. By time I realized it was missing, I had zero chance of finding it again. Oh well, I only had a couple weeks left on the WTH. I'd just tough it out.

It should therefore go without saying that the wind never stopped blowing for the last two weeks of the WTH, and there wasn't a half hour that went by that I didn't chide myself for losing the windshirt. Things came to a head on my penultimate day. Winds increased throughout the day, and by evening were absolutely screaming. The prospect of sleeping with my tarp flapping furiously eight inches from my face was... unappealing. 

As the sun set, I found a mining adit, an exploratory horizontal shaft maybe 30 feet long. Its tailings pile protected the entrance from the howling winds. The floor wasn't entirely flat, but good enough for the night. When I emerged to pee in the middle of the night, it was snowing sideways. I crawled back into my cozy, quiet cave and fell back asleep. 

I ventured out in the morning to cranking winds and fresh snow. Said snow had blanketed the windward side of the Joshua trees' trunks at the upper elevations. In the delightful Wonderland of Rocks area, a normally-dry stream flowed for several miles, and dry feet were a fool's errand. The WTH clearly wanted to give me a fitting send-off!

Splendid Isolation

I've complained enough, don't you think? Let me circle back to the delights of the WTH. I saw a handful of day-hikers in Saguaro National Park on my first day on trail (a beautiful New Years Eve afternoon). I bumped into one group of day-hikers in Joshua Tree National Park on my last day on trail. In the intervening 750+ miles, I saw zero hikers. I only saw a tiny handful of vehicles on the primitive 'roads' that the WTH follows at times. Nearly every day featured a mountain range protected by Wilderness designation. In short, hiking this route felt like true exploration.


Of the route's seven towns, three of them were mere gas stations. One of them didn't even have water; two of them didn't have indoor plumbing. Civilization was but a thin strand out there. And unlike my 2021 WTH hike, fighter jets from nearby Luke AFB were only an occasional annoyance, not a continuous roar. Of course, there was one night near the end of the trail where bombing at a nearby Marine base kept me awake for hours!

Theological Ruminations

By happenstance, I spent exactly forty days in the desert. During my desert sojourn, I focused my Scripture reading on episodes where God’s people spent forty days - or forty years - in the desert. As I read, I realized that God often uses the rigors of desert life to prepare his people for what’s next. Examples!

  • God calls the descendants of Jacob out of Egypt “so that they may worship Me in the desert” (Exodus 7:16). After a miraculous deliverance, he establishes a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai. God uses Israel’s desert wanderings to transform them from a rag-tag band of slaves into God's special possession, by whom he would bring blessing to the entire world.
  • Elijah despairs at Israel’s recalcitrant idolatry even after God demonstrates his absolute superiority over all pretenders. Fleeing persecution, Elijah high-tails it to Mt. Sinai, back to the same mountain where God originally established his covenant with Israel. There, God assures Elijah that despite Israel’s apostasy, God is still working out his purposes, even using godless foreign kings at times. And God hints at the next development in his redemptive plan - to preserve a remnant for himself even as the majority of the nation backslides into idolatry and unbelief. This remnant will eventually find its focus in a single man - the God-man - Jesus of Nazareth.
  • Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness where he faces an onslaught of temptation. Unlike Israel’s misadventures with idolatry, Jesus remains faithful, succeeding where Israel failed. This, the first event following Jesus’ baptism, prepares him for his public ministry.

There are plenty of other examples, but we’d be here all day and your supper is getting cold. To be brief: on this hike, I was struck by the way in which Jesus ties all the Old Testament threads together. His 40 days in the desert don't just use convenient Biblical imagery, but rather are intended as a specific counterpoint to various Old Testament 40's. They illustrate how Jesus, a specific Israelite, embodies and fulfills Old Testament Israel's God-given vocation.

To wit: I’d always been a bit troubled by how the New Testament authors seemed to ignore the original context when applying Old Testament prophecies to Jesus. The original context often referred to events already in the past, or to more proximate future events surrounding Judah’s exile and subsequent return. For example, when Jesus was a toddler, he and his parents fled to Egypt as refugees. Upon their return, Matthew cites a passage from the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son”. Matthew employs this quotation to illustrate how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. But in the original prophetic context, it’s clearly a backward-looking passage describing what God already did centuries ago: calling Israel, his metaphorical “son”, out of Egypt. There’s no indication that the prophet is anticipating a future event, much less that the “son” would refer to the incarnate Son himself, e.g. the second person of the Trinity.

Akin to real estate, the first three principles of Biblical interpretation are context, context, and context. Yet here we see Matthew ostensibly ignoring the original context. Is he just plucking a convenient turn-of-phrase out of the Old Testament to serve as a shoddy proof-text? For a long time I couldn’t make sense of this puzzle - how the New Testament could repeatedly apply Old Testament prophecies to Jesus, even when the original meaning obviously referred to something else, usually Israel itself.

During this hike though, something clicked. I finally understood that these passages rightfully apply to Jesus not despite the fact that they originally applied to Israel, but because they originally applied to Israel. A main point of Jesus’s messiahship is that he lives and embodies the story of Israel. Where Israel failed in proclaiming God’s kingship on Earth, Jesus succeeds - not only in proclaiming the kingdom, but in being the King himself. Because Jesus is living out Israel’s story, the motifs and prophecies that originally applied to Israel apply to Jesus too. In fact, these passages find their fullest flowering not in the proximate fulfillment of exile and return, but in Jesus’ messiahship.

Anyway, that's your dose of theology for the day. Thanks for coming to my TED talk 🙂

What’s Next:

The WTH is a nascent route and information is scarce, aside from Blisterfree's foundational writings. In an upcoming post, I hope to contribute to the corpus of WTH literature with some advice for future hikers.