Letter From the Desert: Coxcomb Mountains

It is the end, perhaps, of my tenth summer in the desert. Daytime temperatures have dipped as far as the high seventies, and the nights are even colder. It may warm up again. Or it may not. Cooling is inevitable either way. Orion rises earlier and earlier each early morning, and so do I.

Long-distance hiking season has begun, at least for those of us who, reluctant to become the subject of short news items, stop hiking for more than a mile or so in triple-digit temperatures. Do my three to five miles a day with the dog count as hikes? Good question. She has a new friend in the neighborhood, an eight-month-old male mutt named Patches, and her play with him leaves a little less energy for long walks in the neighborhood. La mujer que amo and I had planned a moderate hike Saturday not too far away in the National Park, but she begged off at the last moment for various sensible reasons.

If hiking alone, I preferred to find a place I hadn’t been before. Some years back Joshua Tree’s superintendent David Smith had told me of a walk he took in the far northeastern corner of the park, in an area rarely visited except by climbers seeking solitude and challenge. I’d been wondering about the place since.

I have seen what writing about quiet places does to those places, so I will not provide directions. Those of you who are motivated enough to do some research may do so. There is no trail. The usual established route requires either moderate to good cross-country route finding skills or proficiency with a GPS. I went anyway.

The Coxcomb Mountains are Joshua Tree National Park’s easternmost mountain range. They were added to the park 25 years ago next month, with the signing of the California Desert Protection Act of 1994. They have remained largely unvisited since. The deep sand in the usually recommended trailhead parking lot had no tire ruts in it until I got there. There were no other footprints along the old closed two-rut road that serves as the core of the usual hiking corridor. On several occasions in the first two miles I heard distant voices. They turned out to be ravens. Every few minutes there was a sudden violent rustling sound as I walked. Jackrabbits exploded out of shrubs where I would not have seen them if they had stayed still.

Have I mentioned how fond I am of jackrabbits, of their absurd and Pleistocene Megafauna aspect? Of their ability to fix a locale solidly in place simply by showing up, and their ability to draw perfect parabolas in three dimensions of desert and shrub and air? I have? Never mind then.

Those bursting jackrabbits were a pretty good mindfulness tool, almost forcing me into a heightened awareness of things outside my skull. That paid off before long: had I been lost in thought, I would likely have missed this small family that crossed my path:

I spent the next several hours with variations of this expression on my face:

The Coxcombs, at least in the vicinity of my walk, are composed of more or less the same aesthetically pleasing monzogranite that attracts climbers to the more domesticated parts of JTNP. The rock was shot through with a whole lot of crazily oriented fractures. Some of those fractures created outcrops with many rounded, thin layers like stacks of the world’s stalest pancakes. Other parts of the rock exfoliated into unpredictable shapes, like the ridgeline chimney shown in this NPS photo, about 5/8 of the way along the skyline from left to right:

I spent a lot of time watching that chimney pivot as I hiked.

That parent rock breaks down into a gravelly mineral soil of the kind desert plants like just fine. Most of my walk was in or along braided washes, so I was treated to a great display of desert dry wash woodland vegetation: smoke trees, catclaw (a.k.a. bighorn chow), Schott’s cedar (for which I will avoid the usual common name, which the New York Times would probably describe as “racially tinged”), desert senna and perfect dried clumps of chia and shin-high creosote. Many of the smoke trees had been pruned somewhat radically. I identified the gardeners responsible by noting the abundance of jackrabbit scat around each plant.

I found it interesting that despite the dozens of jackrabbits in the course of my 7.95 mile walk, I saw not a single cottontail. I should probably figure out why.

Given the abundance of catclaw, I spent much of the hike scanning the nearby slopes for bighorn. I didn’t see any. I will have to come back. I understand the local population has been dwindling. But my upward-directed gaze made it possible for me to see something that shows up as a tiny speck in this photo:

That speck, if you were to magnify it well beyond the actual resolution of the phone camera’s image, turns out to look like this:

A juvenile golden eagle, which I watched circling for a solid five minutes and saw not a single flap of wing. How excellent a soaring beast.

And then into a main wash and a canyon through the body of the range, and I found a spot of shade large enough to sit in — only the second I’d seen in the hike — and angled myself so as to afford the best lunch break view.

I will have to go back. Early in the hike, I climbed a low saddle off the main hiking corridor and looked westward into a valley I did not recognize at first, though I have spent hundreds of hours there. I was standing in the northeasternmost extension of the Pinto Basin, 25 miles from the only pavement in the valley, with a view reaching 80 miles west to San Gorgonio. That part of the Pinto Basin has been a compelling blank spot on the map for me for some decades, and I will be walking into it before year’s end.