Desert Notes (April 1989)
by Michael Ellis
I was in the Eastern Mojave Desert in what is known as the “empty triangle”. This is the loneliest area in all of California. I just spent a week with a group exploring Anza-Borrego Desert in southern California. I was scheduled to meet my next group just south of Death Valley in the tiny town of Tecopa. I had a day to spend in between the trips and so I was scouting out the Castle Buttes. This dramatic erosion area rises abruptly high above the desert floor; it has fascinated me for years. But I never had the time to explore it until now.
I had my trusty Volkswagen Van. VW’s were the first two-wheel drive vehicles to traverse the length of the Baja peninsula before the route was paved. They do well on rough roads and in desert conditions, but they take a little more skill and attention than the modern four-wheel drive vehicles.
I turned off the Ivanpah Road onto the Hart Mine Rd and traveled along an old railroad bed. I noticed one set of car tracks and one set of mountain bike tracks both fairly fresh. After five miles I turned off this road onto a side spur for another mile. There were no tracks on this road and hadn’t been for days. I then turned left onto the dirt trail that led to Castle Buttes, seven miles away. The road was not too bad. There was soft sand in some areas and I had to keep the van moving quickly through it. Sand was my greatest fear. I have been bogged down in it and you can get really stuck.
I stopped to read my guide. “The Castle Butte area is the most remote section of the California desert. If you want to get away from it all then this is the place.” Oh boy, I was feeling good. The desert sky was clear and I was surrounded by thousands of bizarre Joshua Trees. I turned the radio on to a country music station out of Bullhead, Arizona. Twanging guitar flew out my window, the perfect music for a perfect day.
I passed an old mine and the road got rougher. There were some big ruts that I had to carefully straddle. Then I went through more soft sand, fishtailing up a ravine. But I was a good driver and I was getting closer to the Buttes. They had been beckoning me for years and I was finally going to see them.
Oh God, Patsy Cline came on. I turned the radio way up. It was too much; it couldn’t be any better. I was way out in the desert, totally alone, a perfect spring day and Pasty Cline was belting her heart out about no-good men.
She started to fade out, a little static-y. No, no Patsy come back! I reached to adjust the radio just as I was going up a rutted incline. My attention wandered just for a moment. Suddenly the underside of the van smacked into something with a loud impressive thump. Ouch. Patsy kept singing as my oil light flashed on a second later. I looked in my rear view mirror to see black oily smoke pouring out of the engine compartment.
I immediately turned off the van and walked back to the rear. I had knocked the oil filter off and all the oil had poured onto the desert floor. A very sick feeling came over me. This was not good. I walked back to the guilty rock to retrieve my filter. Bashed and heavily dented it didn’t appear to have any holes in it. That was good, because although I carried alot of spare equipment, I didn’t happen to have an extra oil filter.
Jeez. Ok, Michael don’t panic. I forced my rational mind to take over. My emotional side was getting nervous. There hadn’t been any cars here in days. I was twelve miles from the nearest road, a road that had very little traffic on it. I was 45 miles from the nearest paved road and probably seventy miles from the nearest tow truck. I had food and fuel to last a week, 20 gallons of water and several six-packs of beer. I certainly wasn’t going to die but it also appeared that wasn’t going to be easy to get the van out of there. My situation was bleak but not desperate.
Suddenly I began to laugh because I have had enough car trouble in the desert to last several lifetimes. Any sane person who has had my experiences with tow trucks, blown engines, fried fuel injectors, broken clutch cables, clogged gas filters and faulty ignition switches and spent days in towns like Nogales, Indio and Barstow would never drive through the desert again. In fact they probably should probably never leave home. I guess I am a slow learner.
I carefully beat the filter back into shape and screwed it back on. It didn’t quite seat properly but I was hoping for a miracle. I had to meet my next group in five hours, 150 miles away. I replaced the lost oil and started the engine. The oil light didn’t even flicker off once; the filter leaked.
Oh boy. What now? If I could just get going downhill, I ‘d coast for a couple of miles. Any desert walking that I could avoid would be good, but to run an engine without oil is stupid. I decided to go for it. I gave the van a push and hopped in. I started the engine every once in while to get me through tough spots. I flew, bouncing over rocks that I had carefully avoided an hour earlier. My head smacked into the roof several times. Everything in the van was flying around. When I finally stopped, it looked like a hurricane had ripped through all my possessions. Everything was on the floor.
Now it was time to walk. Fortunately it was only 80 or so. If it had been hotter I would have waited until late afternoon. A person can sweat out a quart of water per hour hiking in the midday desert heat. Every year people die walking from their stranded vehicle.
I packed some food, spare clothes, flashlight, map, and address book. I grabbed a couple of sodas, filled my canteen and then lugged an additional 2 gallons of water. I didn’t plan on dying of thirst. Paranoid??? You bet. I even had iodine tablets to purify water in a cattle trough if necessary. But I have been thirsty — really thirsty — and I don’t ever want that experience again. Right before starting I drank as much water as I could.
During the first two hours of walking I stopped every 15 minutes to pee. At least I wasn’t thirsty.
It was strange hiking through a forest of Joshua Trees. These queer plants are woody members of the lily family, very unique in the botanical world. They made early visitors nervous. Colonel Fremont said that “their stiff and ungraceful forms make them the most repulsive member of the vegetable kingdom.” Another traveler said “one can scarcely find a term for ugliness that is not apt for this plant. A landscape filled with Joshua Trees has a nightmare effect even in broad daylight.”
To the early Mormons traveling from Salt Lake City to San Bernadino the trees reminded them of Joshua. The forked branches, like the Prophet’s arms, rise up to the sky and God in supplication. I have always loved Joshua Trees. This was fortunate because I was surrounded by 500 square miles of them.
I walked quickly and didn’t see a soul, only cows. Sometimes I’d hear a car. But it always was a dust devil — a tiny tornado — that would swirl down, spinning and dancing across the desert plain. Once one came right through me, a refreshing kiss from the wind goddess.
After ten miles I finally reached the Ivanpah Rd just as a truck flew by. I screamed, whistled and shook my water jug. The teenagers in the back just waved; they didn’t get it. That was the last car I saw for three hours. My plan was simple: catch a ride with anyone, going anywhere. North led to Nipton, a tiny railroad community and south led to a phone booth out in the middle of nowhere.
I realized that when I didn’t meet the group at 5:00 they would call my home. I didn’t want anyone worrying needlessly, so I began the seven-mile trek to the phone. It was getting late and it dawned on me that I might be spending the night outside. The previous evening it had dropped to 40 degrees. I wasn’t prepared. Maybe I could snuggle up with a cow or two.
After an hour of hiking there was a glint in the distance, probably just another water trough. No, it was an RV. I must confess that the sight of a giant RV in a wilderness area usually elicits an automatic negative response in me but not this one. I had very positive feelings about this Winnebago. It was still two miles away and a mile up a side road. It was risky leaving the main drag but only one car had passed me the entire day. Just before I reached the RV a truck came by. A young couple from Nevada was out for a drive. Sure, they would give me a lift.
At Nipton I called my group. Then I phoned all the tow trucks in a 100-mile radius and couldn’t contact one. Everyone was busy with Easter Sunday. I thanked the couple for their help but they wouldn’t leave me.
We went to their house and several gas stations where we loaded up with dinner, oil, gaskets, filters, and silicone sealants. We drove back out to my van. At midnight under the cold desert sky we discovered the threads on the engine were stripped and the VW oil filter could not be screwed on tight. We tried plugging the hole with silicone; that didn’t work. We were just about to give up when one of the other filters fit snugly. We put oil in the van, started it and no leaks. I was actually going to drive out of there.
During my time with this couple, they threw cans and trash out the window and told me of the joys of off-road motorcycle racing through the desert. How could I explain about conservation, desert ecology and environmental ethics? I kept my mouth shut and thanked the desert gods for sending these two kind people my way.