Letter From the Desert: Burro Loop

Yesterday I sat, exhausted after a fast hike, at a little spot in the desert I will just call 34.111142, -116.255970, because that is where it was. For all I know the little spot is still right there, but having not seen it since yesterday I cannot be entirely sure.

I sat in the shade of a granite boulder three stories tall. Six feet above my head were smooth caves. At some point some tens of thousands of years ago the soil level was that high, and chemical action and the questing roots of plants carved notches in the rock. I noticed this only in retrospect. I was waiting in the rock’s shade for my heart rate to fall below the triple digits, for the film of dehydrated, anoxic endurance to dissolve away from the part of my brain that notices things.

It did, finally. I noticed the small caves, and I noticed that they were occupied by desert woodrats, one of my favorite mammals out here. Evidence: stray bits of straw and cholla stems deposited where only packrats could have put them. Also, the ground at my feet was littered with decades’ worth of rat scat. I looked at that ground. I thought about the fact that just ten minutes before, my brain enfilmed, I had retrieved a dropped piece of tortilla from just that patch of ground and eaten it anyway. I needed the blood sugar. Desert hiking can be perilous.

I wasn’t that far into my hike, which started at my front door. I forget sometimes that we have honest to god capital W Wilderness adjacent to the neighborhood we live in, and I find myself driving dozens of miles to hike in a place I haven’t seen before. There are plenty of places I haven’t seen before that I see every day, if you catch my meaning.

My resting spot was only 500 feet higher in elevation than my front doorstep, but as it turns out I climbed each of those 500 feet something like three times, as my path led across the grain of a large alluvial fan, dropping down into washes and small cañons and then back up the other side. I have not been eating as voraciously as usual the last few months, and my meager breakfast of coffee and good intentions proved inadequate to keeping my blood supplied with glucose.

So I flagged. And I found the shade of a tall eroded hunk of granite. And I looked out at the world as that film dissipated.

Two more tortillas, a few hands full of trail mix, a pint of slightly tepid water, and the last of the hiking tension sloughed off. I had been berating myself slightly for stopping, thinking of vague mileage goals and elusive senses of accomplishment and such. I stopped. This was as good a hiking destination as any.

The north-facing face of the rock was still as cold as the night had been, and I shivered against it in the breeze. Ladderback woodpecker calls echoed every few minutes. I smiled at a loud conflict between cactus wrens. No bird squabbles as convincingly, and as onomatopoetically, as cactus wrens. They flitted around a Mojave yucca that, now that I was actually seeing it, must have been a good 600 years old at least. I am 60 in a few months. When was the last time I shared a happy moment with someone ten times my age? Sitting in my grandfather’s lap in his Barcalounger watching cartoons during the Johnson administration, probably.

My granite shade provider stood in the middle of a small wash, and I traced that wash downslope in my mind, trying to imagine where it emerged into our neighborhood of washed-out rectilinear dirt roads. And then a realization. Five years ago, give or take a month, I sat in this same wash a few hundred feet inside the north boundary of Joshua Tree National Park and radically changed my life. The details are unimportant, even boring. We have all had unhealthy attachments. Everything in my life has changed for the better since.

All of which is an eyeblink in the life of that yucca over there.

It turned out the walk back was almost as strenuous, even with its minor downhill trend. Somehow that was fine, and there is the rest of that trail to explore, and off-trail I found canyons that need further examination, which is the way things usually go.