Friday, March 31, 2017

17 of 52 - The Solstice Cave

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The Solstice Cave, Part I

I arrived to Indian Gorge around 8am and slowly made my way into the valley, stopping frequently to take photos of the wildflower explosion covering the rocky slopes and valley floor. It was already warm and the winds were calm so I knew I was in for a sweaty but beautiful day.

I talked with a couple at the trailhead briefly who told me to watch out for snakes as they had encountered a rattler earlier in the morning. I had already been thinking about rattlesnakes on the drive there and my brain said I was stupid for taking on a seriously brush choked, cross country hike when the snakes were out. My heart dismissed the thought and I headed up the wash passed the palm oasis. Even though my heart was willing to continue, my brain wasn't taking any chances and if you were on the hillside watching me hike, I swear, you'd have thought I was blind as I tapped my poles against every rock and bush ahead of me, hoping not to startle an unsuspecting snake.

In the lower parts of the creek there were a variety of use trails on both sides of the wash. I wasn't exactly sure where I was going, so I stopped frequently to line up what I was seeing with what I had seen in pictures in order to determine if I was going the right way. Occasionally, I would find myself on a pretty established trail and even came across a few rock cairns which I supposed could have been made by modern people or maybe even the Kumeyaay, Either way, I tried to stick with them as much as I could and still maintain the proper vantage point.

It was already really hot out and I stopped frequently to rest and drink while taking in the spectacular views. I could tell this was a very underused area from more than just the lack of trails; It only took a minute of me sitting still for all of the desert creatures to come out. At one point I was serenaded by a pair of Scotts Orioles and then visited by an alligator lizard who's feet made suction cup sounds against the rock.

I continued climbing, following the faint trails and stumbled upon the best type of trail marker, a hand full of potsherds sitting in the dirt.

Eventually, my Indian trail came to a deep tributary wash and I noticed what looked like a mortero down by the palms. I decided to head straight down into the wash which proved to be really taxing on my stamina.

I felt like I had fought this mountain all day and was losing the battle with dehydration and low blood sugar. My steps were clumsy and route choices poor. I jumped from one boulder to another and must have used my leg for balance which ended in me slamming it into a rock. At first I thought I had scraped off a huge chunk and the gushing blood was coming any minute, but it turned out I hadn't broken the skin completely so all the blood made a nice hemotoma which suited me just fine. The less mess the better.

I arrived to a collection of large boulders that matched those in the photos I had seen in others' posts near the cave. My heart told me to go left but my brain said right, and when I went right I ended up taking a no-bullshit route straight up that ultimately lead to nowhere. I plopped down in the shade and felt a bit frustrated with myself. Why was I going the opposite direction of the way I wanted to go? Have you, my readers, ever done that on a hike? I do that a lot when I'm tired and have low blood sugar. It's like I'm watching myself from the outside making a wrong turn but having no way to stop it. It's so annoying! I attempted to circle back towards where I thought the cave was but the route deteriorated in front of me and I found myself traversing boulders that would rival Joshua Tree. I was pooped, and even though I knew I was close, I conceded and headed back down toward the wash.


I slid on my butt most of the way down to the creek bottom and once there, I looked up and was finally able to see the cave entrance. Goddamn it! I had nothing left to give, and even though I knew it was there I couldn't get to it. I whined a bit to myself and felt shitty that I wasn't going to make it. As I stomped the ground like a frustrated kid I had to smile when I found another potsherd next to my foot. It dawned on me that maybe the Shaman just wasn't ready for me to visit yet, or maybe me being so ornery about not making it to the cave meant I wasn't ready to visit the Shaman. Either way I found peace with it and headed down.

I thought if I stayed in the creek drainage I could descend faster, but that turned out to be a really dumb idea. The creek bed was choked with thick brush and large boulders and just when I thought I had found a viable trail I'd arrive at a huge waterfall. I stopped tapping my poles in the brush and just plowed right through, telling myself jokingly that it'd be ok to meet that rattler now so maybe I could get airlifted out of there.

While circumnavigating another waterfall drop-off I arrived to a steep, sandy section and descended it like I was skiing. It didn't take long before the sand started to avalanche in front of me and my feet sunk completely; my legs were covered almost all the way up to my calves and it felt like postholing but in sand instead of snow. I quickly became unstable and fell over onto my side. I lay there for a minute and thought about what a crazy place this was before sitting up and emptying my shoes. This whole hike was like a forced lesson in sitting still and observing my surroundings. I managed to slide the rest of the way down on my butt and once back on semi-solid ground, found I had made yet another wrong turn into a grove of catclaw. I backtracked to find another route and noticed a dead tarantula. I was concerned that I had stepped on it so I stopped to inspect and found he was actually completely hollow. This must have been the work of a tarantula wasp, the only bug I am literally terrified of on the trail. The tarantula wasp's sting is supposed to be on par with the sting of a bullet ant. Not something you want to piss off, that's for sure.

I finally made it back to my truck as the wind started picking up from a storm that was blowing in from the west. I sat in the back of my truck for a while dumping rocks out of my shoes and admiring lenticular clouds which I haven't seen since the Sierra. I was dying for salt having sweated out all of my electrolytes so I made my way to Jacumba for a V8 and 7up, vowing to return another day after my memories of how painful the hike was had faded. Maybe next month, I thought...or next year...


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The Solstice Cave Part II

...or, you know, next week.

I could hardly walk for the entire week after the first trip to find the Cave. Josh was curious about the hike and asked if I wanted to attempt it again with him the following week. I was hesitant because I was really sore and wasn't sure if my muscles would be healed enough in that short amount of time. I did a lot of foam-rolling and googling over the next couple of days to get myself pumped up for a re-do and those efforts paid off. We arrived to the trailhead around 9:30am to an empty parking area with gentle breezes and flowers everywhere. I just love spring in the desert!

I had spent the week analyzing my previous route in Google Earth and thought I had found an easier way than before. My plan was to get high where the climbing was easier and stay high on the mountain side, avoiding the creek drainage all together. We followed a shallow wash up and met again with the Indian trails which were marked by more pottery sherds.


I was feeling great this time around: It was cool, the route was less strenuous and knowing where I was going helped a lot. We arrived to the tributary drainage on a much higher trajectory than before, which not only afforded us an easy crossing but also gave us more artifacts to look at in the form of a potential yoni and cupules.

We started cross country climbing again after the tributary and stopped for a break on the hillside where Josh was visited by a beautiful iridescent beetle that I believe is part of the blister beetle family.

Only I would be so dumb as to wear short pants on this hike, even when I know it's a brushy, granitey mess. Josh fared worse than me when it came to cuts and bruises. He tried to shimmy over a rock and the ground gave way beneath him adorning him with an epic abrasion on the inside of his thigh. This canyon is no joke!

Like a trooper, he continued on and we climbed slowly looking for the best routes. I had more holes in the butt of my pants than ever before and stopped occasionally to drop-trou and dump out sand and rocks which gave Josh a giggle.

In what would be record time compared to my last hike, we arrived to the boulder field that contained the cave. I guided us in the correct direction this time and was glad the Shaman was willing to see us! 

The cave is really deceiving in size for as large as the shelter is. It's precarious position on the hill also adds to the camouflaging effect. We dropped our packs inside and explored, craning our necks upward to inspect the dozens of pictographs consisting mainly of suns, scattered across the ceiling. 

While poking around Josh found a piece of bone that looked like it could have been used as a tool. It's hard to say if this is original to the cave or just the area seeing as there was a large packrat nest in the tighter squeezes of the cave. Packrats sometimes like to collect bones because they are drawn to the shininess of them. While I sat on a rock inspecting the bone I felt something move across my lower back. I let out a scream and popped up thinking there was a snake behind me but saw it was just an unstable rock. My reaction scared the crap out of Josh who thought I was screaming at something behind him and we both had a good laugh about it after.

I downloaded the D-Stretch app on my phone, which is a program that uses specific types of filters to bring out the details of faded pictographs and I was amazed at the results! While taking photos of obvious glyphs, I found that when I put them in the program  new glyphs that were barely visible to the eye popped out in full color. Take a look at the before and afters of some of the less prominent glyphs in the cave.
My hand near a large sun glyph for scale. Remember not to touch the rock where pictographs are present as your oils will damage them.

Before D-Stretch

CRGB filter

Before D-stretch

YWE filter with adjustments

Before D-stretch

CRGB filter with adjustments

Before D-stretch

CRGB filter with adjustments



Before D-stretch

YRD filter with adjustments


Before D-stretch

YRD filter with adjustments

YDT filter with adjustments


Before D-stretch. This one blows my mind.

YDT filter. I think the blue is some type of white pigment or maybe just some type of mineral in the rock. I'm not sure but it's interesting to see it interact with the glyphs.

YDT filter with adjustments


Before D-stretch


YDT filter with adjustments

YBK filter with adjustments

Before D-stretch

Can't remember which filter I used on this one but it looks like writing doesn't it?! I'm not sure about this one.

Before D-Stretch

YDT filter



Before D-stretch

CRGB filter with adjustments

What a cool place! Josh and I lay on a large slab in front of the cave for a long time in the sun. We tried to think about what happens here on the summer solstice, since it's rumored to be timed with that date. Since the cave faces due east I'd imagine it's a sunrise event. I'd like to come back and video it on the Solstice to see what, if anything, actually happens.

We decided to head back down the mountain a little after 2pm and it was slow going. I spotted this little cactus on the hillside and he looked like he was sprouting RedHot candies as flowers.

We tried to stay high on the way down so we could explore a washy plateau above the lowest oasis that I'd explored on google earth. 

We found we had stayed a little too high on our trajectory and that made the travel slow and a bit sketchy in some parts. Eventually we started to see sheep tracks and scat and tried our best to stay on their trail down into the washy plateau. As we descended I stepped into some more of that super soft sand and wound up sliding onto my butt. I tried to play it cool, like I was just going to take a break there until I felt something on my leg. I looked down to see a massive spider crawling up my pants and let out a scream while flying to my feet. I don't think I've screamed this much on any one hike, ever! Right after my spider encounter Josh stepped on a loose rock and fell hard, managing to catch himself at the expense of his elbow and ankle. We stopped immediately and got him some advil in hopes it would keep any inflammation and pain at bay while we tried to get out of there.

After navigating a large dry waterfall and following a variety of animal tracks including some haunch prints from what looked like a sitting cougar, we made our way back to the oasis.

We were both super hungry and bleeding but happy we had made it! On the way out we took a side trip to the other fork of Indian Gorge road and stopped to watch ants crawling around under the skin of a dead and bloated lizard.

We stopped off in Jacumba and got a Subway sandwich, which we pretty much swallowed whole in the parking lot, and continued toward home on Old Hwy 80. Just after the little downtown area of Jacumba, Josh spotted a horned owl sitting on a wire. We stopped to take photos and he hooted at us which made us both smile.

It was a really awesome day and I'm still riding the inspiration I received at the cave! I just love this archaeology shit! On to the next adventure!

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