We're in the Mojave desert. This is an odd place for a sailor. But we've become addicted to desert life.
At sea, of course, the view in all directions looks alike -- water. During our first few hikes in the desert, we were bedeviled by an "it all looks alike" confusion. The desert rats can tell us it does not all look alike. To them. To our eyes, accustomed to the ocean and the Appalachians, it was all Joshua trees and rocks. Yes, there was a ridge, but after we walked a mile, our perspective changed, the ridge looked different, and now we feel lost.
Lost at sea and lost in the desert are common scenarios without a good outcome. We try to avoid being lost at sea. We bring charts and compasses and GPS receivers.
For desert hikes, we're not quite so careful. We have gotten better about feeling lost in the desert. Which is good, because we were totally lost when we stumbled on this:
Yes, that's a massive carved stone -- one of four -- with a life philosophy.
As the song says "The ocean is a desert with its life underground/ And a perfect disguise above".
While the sea is of described as "teeming" with life, the life can be spread out across miles of trackless water. The desert feels similar. Life seems to aggregate visibly in pockets around springs and sumps where water collects. In the ocean, life collects around reefs and mangrove swamps. Large parts of the desert show little evidence of the big and obvious life I grew up with in the foothills of the Adirondack mountains. While the cryptobiotic crust has an amazing amount of hidden life; it's hidden. Hence the "crypto" in the name.
When we lived at anchor in the Bahamas, it became clear that the sand-spits that surround so many islands are ocean deserts. The water is clear beacuse it's empty of life. The fish, coral, grass, and algae live in the rocks and narrow channels where they're washed by the tides. Some days a shark would linger in our boat's shadow. It's a desert; the shark is hoping to find something edible.
We moved from the Chesapeake Bay to the Mojave desert, and found ourselves feeling lost. CA found a cool-looking book in the independent book store in Las Vegas, Writers Block. The book had a simple, but intriguing title: Desert Oracle: Volume 1. The pending "volume 2" by itself was intriguing. The titles looked like they might tell us a little about our new home in the desert. See https://www.desertoracle.com.
Because of this book, we struck out, at first on established hiking trails. We went to places where we couldn't get lost unless we worked at it.
Then, we discovered the Mormon Well Road through the Sheep Range in Nevada. We drove some of this road, never really getting past the Joshua Tree forest. My dream was -- and still is -- to drive through to Sawmill Canyon. This, however, is still a "can't get lost" route. When we got out to stretch and look around, we'd always stay within sight of the truck.
One of the stories in Desert Oracle, Volume 1, was about a man, John Samuleson, and the rocks he carved in the desert. And Erle Stanley Gardner, famous writer and creator of Perry Mason. See "Philosophy on the Rocks." (I don't think this story was ever featured on the radio program or podcast, Desert Oracle Radio. See https://www.desertoracle.com/radio/. Buy the book.)
Finding Samuleson Stones is an easy way to get lost in the desert.
Our first attempt involved going to the parking area in Joshua Tree National Park with a copy of Desert Oracle, Volume 1, and reading the story carefully. We came to "follow the wash SW" and -- well -- started walking. We peered at every boulder near the trail. After a few miles, we broke a rule of desert hiking, and stepped off the trail to investigate a large pile of boulders not far from the trail.
For the two of us, both new to the desert, this was a very bold move. Perhaps foolish. There was no truck to track our position against. There was no established trail to or around this pile of rocks. As SCUBA divers, we were careful to stay together. We planned the time to allow before going back to the trail. When I got too far away, CA called out for me to get back to where I was visible.
Doing a few things right means doing other things wrong.
It was the wrong pile of rocks. We were simply lost.
Our second attempt was in June, when the limitations of heat and available water are far more serious than our first attempt. Since we'd already been lost here once, we were also much more comfortable hiking in the desert. We set off without a care in the world. We managed to follow the Quail Springs Historic Trail almost all the way to the edge of the park in Smith Water Canyon. No Samuleson Rocks.
A bunch of trails converge at the edge of the park, and -- by weird luck -- or the guiding hands of Saint Minerva -- we took the wrong trail back. We found ourselves looking at a little sign with the Bigfoot Trail distances to God-Knows-Where. We saw eleven miles on the little sign. We'd barely walked three miles to get here. How could it be eleven miles back? Eleven miles to -- what, exactly? -- was evidence of a problem. A problem that could get more serious later in the day when it started to get really hot.
I was sure -- as sure as I could be -- that the Quail Springs Trail was south of a nearby pile of rocks.
Further, I could see landmarks on the south side of the Johnny Lang Canyon that seemed vaguely familiar. A pile of black rocks we explored back in November. A tumble-down area of boulders a little east of that.
All we needed to do was break the rules (a little) and scamper across a quarter of a mile of no-trail land, and we'd find the Quail Springs Trail. It would be hard to miss, since it was a wide, sandy wash. And. We could summit the pile of rocks to look around and be sure we were on the right path.
CA agreed -- reluctantly -- to this plan. It took a while to be sure that -- yes -- that piles of rocks in the distance should be a lot closer. The map on the sign post showed a 0.7 mile detour back to the main trail, but we could cut that in half by stiking out due South.
Away we went.
Today's hike was a victory. We navigated the desert. On our own. Perhaps guided by Saint Minerva. Perhaps it was luck, if you believe in that sort of thing.
We did not download (or even know about) the NPS park map that actually shows the Samuleson in-holding. (This was, in retrospect, an error in judgement on our part. We should have had the map available.)
Instead of using a map, we went by our guts, my recollection of a Google search, and the words of the Desert Oracle. And we found what we were looking for: some knowledge of the desert and some confidence hiking around at the edge of the wilderness. And we found three of four of Samuleson's rocks. I need to go back to find the fourth.