Amateur Radio

May 22, 2005

In April 2005, Mojave National Preserve welcomed my friend Sharpe and me with temperatures in the 40s and wind that ranged from 20 mph to 40 mph. Let me tell you, I like cool weather in the desert. But this seemed too cool, at least at first.

Just to orient you, here's a map that shows the area of the hike (gray circle) and the route of the trail (green line). In March 2004, we hiked among the cinder cones and lava beds and on Kelso Dunes. We hiked a little ways uphill from Hole-in-the-Wall toward Mid Hills Campground and liked what we saw. That's what led us to return and schedule a hike along the entire trail.

We planned our first hike of this visit for the trail between Mid Hills Campground and Hole-in-the-Wall. Here's the trail map:

The trail is downhill from north to south. A ranger at Hole-in-the-Wall said she would drive us to our car at Mid Hills if we finished the hike by 4 o'clock. We started hiking at 11:30. Our first steps were along the trail to the east, but I quickly became convinced that was the wrong way because it was uphill. We retraced our steps and restarted from the windmill along the "short loop return."

With the cold wind at our backs, we started down the road. We soon reached a gate at a turnaround that divided the passable road from a deeply eroded, two-rut track that continued downhill. We went through the gate and continued on, past a livestock watering tank and along to a dry wash.

A hiking marker indicated that we should continue along the wash, which the map also shows. I've been through some dry washes that have boulders, ancient twisted trees and banks of grass, but this dry wash had little to offer. But the combination of the deep blue sky with puffy clouds and the desert horizon was beautiful. 

Extraneous hiking markers confused us at one point, and we started hiking up the side of the valley. I didn't notice we seemed to be going to one side, but Sharpe did. He suggested we backtrack to the dry wash, and we did just that—although I hate to backtrack! Little did I know what was coming . . .

The landscape took on a stark appearance as the dry wash took us through a section where a fire had burned the grass, trees and shrubs. The blackened and bare tree trunks and branches offered high contrast to the light-colored sand in the wash and the deep blue sky.

Our steps took us across roads several times. Once, we saw a couple in a yellow car pass by, and as it turned out, those were the last people we saw that day. Hiking markers directed us down further stretches of dry wash. I became more convinced that we weren't going in a direction that would take us to the southern part of the trail that we had hiked the year before. I couldn't say where we were, I just believed that we weren't where we should be.

We deviated from the dry wash and found this two-rut track that continued downhill, and we followed it for a couple of miles. At one point, we left the road and hike up across the scrub toward a ridge that we thought might conceal the correct road or trail. It didn't. We followed a fence line back to the road and continued downhill.

Time was getting away from us. It was after 3 o'clock, and I didn't see any hope of finding the ranger station in time to get a ride back to our car. In fact, I started to wonder whether we could get back to the car before dark. I didn't want to think about it, because it represented miles of backtracking, uphill and into the wind. Ugh! We kept going, passing through two barbed wire gates that spanned the road. Sharpe said, "It's just around that ridge" more than once, but we never saw any landmarks that seemed familiar from last year's hike, except possibly for Table Mountain, which the trail guide said "has served as a landmark for native Americans as well as travelers passing through the region." It didn't help us much.

Here's the trail map, marked with where we might have been. Or we could have been somewhere else entirely. When it got to be 4 o'clock, I told Sharpe that as much as I hated backtracking, I thought our best chance of avoiding having to spend the night in the desert would be to reverse course and go back to the car. We didn't know where we were, but we did know how to go back the way we came. Someday, maybe I can show my photos to a ranger who can tell me whether we were on the right trail, after all. But as the sun dropped lower in the sky, I wanted to go for the car and not risk wandering further into the desert without finding Hole-in-the-Wall or the Wild Horse Canyon trailhead. Sharpe felt certain that we would intersect the Wild Horse Canyon Road if we just kept going, but he was willing to go back the way we came.

It simply became an exhausting chore from that point, walking uphill, into the cold wind, watching for our own footprints to guide us on the reverse course. At one point, we made a wrong turn and came across a house. Sharpe wanted to approach the house and ask for a ride, but the rough road leading toward the house was blocked with a barbed wire gate and stern warnings: "Keep out"; "No trespassing"; and the best one: "Danger—firing range!" A weathered five-gallon can riddled with bullet holes topped the post holding that sign. And a bullseye on the hillside marked a 200-yard measurement. I must admit, this signage gave us pause!

But it looked as though there was another approach to the house beyond the gate that was better-maintained, so we scuttled under the barbed wire and walked closer. Another gate, and more signs: "Give an alert before approaching" and "Enter at your own risk." Sharpe called out, but there was no response from the house, and no vehicles were visible. We didn't go any closer, and instead trudged along the road a hundred yards or so until Sharpe recognized the dry wash we had walked before. Once again, we were moving uphill and, did I mention?—into the wind, as the sun dipped lower.

The sun set at 7 o'clock, three hours after we had turned around. I thought we still were some distance from the Mid Hills trailhead, but about 10 minutes later, Sharpe yelled that he saw the windmill. He reached the car first; I got there a few minutes later, just before it got dark enough for the stars to come out. 

I think we would have to consider ourselves fortunate that the hike turned out as well as it did in the face of our poor navigation. Without a compass, we were figuring our direction by shadows cast by the sun. The trail map wasn't detailed enough for us. The hiking markers didn't clearly indicate which was the trail we wanted and which were side trails. Several people have suggested we buy a GPS unit for our next hike of a similar nature. Actually, we'd like to return to Mojave Natural Preserve and see if we can get this particular hike right. We still think it would be worthwhile.

All right, enough of the story about the hike on that first day, Saturday. I thought I would be so worn out that I wouldn't be able to move on Sunday. But Sunday morning came, and I felt fine. We had breakfast at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Needles, and then Sharpe wheeled us out onto the Interstate for the hour-and-a-half drive to Providence Mountains State Recreation Area inside the Mojave National Preserve.

Sunday's activities included a photo shoot alongside the Interstate where Sharpe found a blossoming cactus; a walk along a Nature Trail in the recreation area while we waited for our scheduled cave tour; then the tour of Mitchell Caverns, and finally a hike up a canyon in the recreation area to Crystal Spring. Here's a photo album to describe the day:

OK, so I thought it was a funny idea, too. Sharpe had the notion that photos of cow dung might look much like his photos of rocks. He's going to see whether people who view his photo album notice the difference.
Here's Sharpe, hunched over another photo subject. He kindly agreed to stop here so I could photograph the tower in the background. On the way back to the Interstate, he noticed a blossoming cactus.
And here's the cactus that Sharpe was photographing. Nice, eh?
On the second day of our visit to Mojave National Preserve, we took it kind of easy. After all, we had hiked for eight hours, covering about 10 to 14 estimated miles, the day before. This photo was taken at the Nature Walk at the Providence Mountains State Recreation area, a trail rated "easy."
Notice the ladybug?
A cactus blossom of another color. This cactus was growing along the Nature Walk.
Here's a view of the valley looking down the canyon from Crystal Spring Trail. Sharpe and I climbed the trail in a canyon above the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area ranger station.
In the Providence Mountains State Recreation area, state park rangers offer tours of Mitchell Caverns. This ranger guided a group of 20 through the cave, which was developed as a private tourist attraction before the recreation area was formed.
One of the limestone formations in the cave.
Sharpe took this picture using my camera. He comes up with some good angles.
This would be your obedient servant. I'm perched on a rock along the Crystal Spring Trail that Sharpe and I hiked after the cavern tour. With loose rock and a 600-foot rise, the trail is rated "moderate."
The Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Needles, California, saw Sharpe and me several times for dinner.
Time for a phone call to Sharpe's wife Barbara.
Saturday morning, we awoke to find that electrical power in Needles had been interrupted. Restaurants were closed. Sharpe drove us 15 miles to a Colorado River marina in Arizona to a functioning restaurant for breakfast, served by quick-moving high school girlswho worked there as waitresses. This photo was taken in marina's bar.
An obligatory cellular antenna tower photo. But give me some consideration, won't you? If I hadn't asked Sharpe to drive the rental car up a rocky access road so I could take this photo, he wouldn't have seen the blossoming cactus that he then spent about 30 minutes photographing.