Sunday, May 21, 2017

Balloons For Days

After a failed attempt at a cross country hike around Dos Cabezas that resulted in me rolling down a cactus covered hill, I opted to try for a less boulderish hike in Anza Borrego. I've never been to this particular valley, mostly because the whole parking and private property thing had me confused, but today I decided I'd try my luck parking on the side of the road and see how that went. I hiked next to the highway for a long time before joining a dirt road that would take me into a wide valley at the base of the mountains.

The silty road went on forever and I identified tracks from everything from birds and rodents to a huge mountain lion, all freshly indented in the soft sand.

I also found a couple of large samples of mountain lion scat along the way. These looked to be pretty fresh and REALLY BIG. It caused me to do the old over-the-shoulder glance for a while until I got into open desert.

I could certainly see why the cougar decided to call this area home. There was an abundance of life and signs of water all around. With each step I took, Jack Rabbits bolted from nearly every bush.

After crossing into BLM territory I passed a large den the same shape and size as the one Josh and I found in another remote Borrego valley.

I made a beeline to a rock pile that caught my attention earlier and found my intuition was right. This was a pretty substantial encampment with upwards of 13 deep morteros.

I hiked around the base of the mountains and noticed they were covered in a network of trails leading from clearing to clearing. The areas looked like tent sites, cleared of rocks and rubble and I stood still for a while contemplating them. All of a sudden my imagination put a tule reed hut in the center of each clearing and a whole city materialized. I imagined this alcove would have been bustling with Kumeyaay life, and looking back at the mortar sites I thought about how the network of streams surrounding the area would have created a lush paradise.

I continued on, hugging the edge of the mountains and at every turn the hills were streaked with hunting trails still marked with rock cairns from long ago. I followed one of these trails up the side of a rocky slope to retrieve a mylar balloon that was stuck in an ocotillo and wished that Josh was there to see it with me.

In a canyon that topped out into a mountain saddle, I saw another small stack of boulders and hiked cross country to check them out. There I found a trail of potsherds leading to a small cave only suitable for one person to squeeze into. Behind the cave was a deep mortero partially covered by bushes and a grinding stone sitting nearby. I took some photos of the rocks in the cave but D-stretch didn't reveal any hidden pictographs.

After poking around a bit I crossed a small arroyo to the base of another boulder pile covered in what looked like hunting trails and circular blinds.

While I didn't find much evidence of hunting or dwelling activity I did find this discolored rock that looked to have been marked with little circles. I'm not really sure what I'm looking at here but I feel like it is not a natural feature. 

I climbed over the hill and hiked around the next bend, heading ever deeper into the valley. There I saw another mylar balloon and added it to the growing collection in my pack. As I hiked out of the boulder field to retrieve the balloon, I noticed a long dirt mound in an open portion of the valley and I followed my curiosity over to it.

As I neared the mound, weird debris started showing up. I first came across this rocket type thing and had trouble picking it up to investigate due to the plastic being so brittle it crumbled in my hands. 

A bit further from the rocket I started to find what I thought were microchips scattered in the dirt. Upon closer inspection they appeared to be woven pieces of wire coated in some type of plastic. I have no idea what they are but they were interesting none the less. Sometimes I have a hard time knowing if I should pack this stuff out as trash or leave it there. I generally err on the side of caution and just leave it when I'm not sure. It's after only 45 years that trash becomes relic, so even a coke can from the 70's has a place in the history of the location and should be left alone. Kind of crazy to think about huh.

I climbed up to the top of the mound and spotted something large and black in the distance. My mind decided it was a TV, like someone had hauled out an old tube style TV out there to shoot at, but when I arrived I found it was a huge black rock that looked like it had no business being there. My first thought was that it was a meteor but there wasn't a crater to suggest this came from above, so I really have no idea. This hike has left me with many more questions than answers, that's for sure!

The sun was straight up in the sky and I could feel heat radiating off the sand. I decided to start my trip back toward the truck and scanned the area for the best route. In the distance I could make out some sort of structure, so I pulled out my binoculars and saw that it was a trailhead kiosk. I hiked toward it and when I arrived found it was the end of the road I had started my hike on and it marked the boundary between the state park and the BLM Wilderness.

The trip to the kiosk wasn't as far as I thought it was going to be and when I arrived I felt like I wasn't ready to leave. I started to hike back into the Wilderness paralleling a fence when something told me to turn around. I stopped and took out my binoculars again and looked deep into the desert, scanning the distant rock covered mountains. I noticed an interesting looking cave on a hillside and scanned the area around it, when suddenly something in the foreground caught my eye. 

Next to a stand of very large agave plants with silver shoots towering into the sky was something bright orange on the ground. The agave seemed like a good marker for a cache since its dried stalks were so reflective and bent over each other like an X marking the spot, so I set out toward the hill I'd just come from to see what it was. I stopped a few times to look through my binoculars to see if any more information was revealed before hiking all the way over to it, thinking I'd arrive to find a bush covered in Dodder, but I could never quite make it out. 

When I finally arrived I found the shrubs were covered in kite string and that string lead me to a bright orange parachute. 

What the hell? 

I squatted down to read a card attached to the plastic which said not to touch the balloon if it was inflated. 

"THIS IS A WEATHER BALLOON!" I said out loud to no one.
I got super excited and followed the string to the electronic sensor where I found it was not just any weather balloon, it was an official NOAA balloon!

I was so super excited! I don't know why I found it so cool but I did and still do! I messaged Josh a few times and untangled the line from the bushes, wrapping everything up in the plastic parachute to keep the cactus thorns contained. I loaded it into my pack with the other balloons I'd recovered during the day and decided that since I was riding a second wind of excitement I might as well check out that cave.

I blasted across open desert toward a distant mountain that got further away the closer I came. I pushed myself hard until I finally entered the canyon where the cave was, and noticed the wind stopped completely. I started to climb the boulders up to the cave entrance but the further I went the more the atmosphere felt like a vacuum, leaving an eerily still void infiltrated by a heat so thick it made it hard to breath. I was not far away from the cave opening but something in my brain alerted and told me to get the hell out of there. I climbed back down and rushed to get into the open valley where it was cooler. Once there, I was greeted with a hot breeze, but a breeze none the less and I opened my shirt to receive it. I pounded a liter of water in one go while looking back at the cave with curiosity coated in trepidation. 

"I'll come back for you." I said out loud. "If there aren't pictographs in that cave, I'll eat my hat!"

The heat-vacuum took the last of my energy and I headed back toward the trailhead kiosk I'd visited earlier. On my varied route back, I found some cowboy remnants but didn't stay long to investigate them. I was hoping the kiosk sign would provide me with some shade so I could get myself cooled off for the hike back out.

I was relieved when I arrived and found a good piece of shade for me to sit in and took off my hat and shoes for a while, relaxing against the wooden post. I decided to try wearing the Merrells on this hike to see if they'd hold up better for cross country hiking since my Hoka's just act like big ol' pin cushions, squirreling away cactus in their foam soles to poke me with later. The Merrells definitely performed better in the cactus department, but goddamn, they hurt my feet something fierce! I picked at a small blister that was forming under my toe, while eating some salty Pringle chips in true hikertrash fashion.

This mini siesta got me thinking about the PCT and the people hiking this year and how I felt in the heat when I was on the trail. I had this realization that I used to think those types of experiences on the trail were suffering and I approached them with the idea that they needed to be fixed or avoided. But now I realize those times were actually lessons in humility.

Maybe the hard experiences in Nature are part of the cycle of life and are intended to teach you how to be humble; to make you right sized, if you will, so you fit like a cog in the wheel. Maybe they're meant to teach you how to relinquish your illusions of control so you can become one with yourself. I've learned that it's only when you allow yourself to be molded by an experience, instead of raging against it, that you get to be a part of something bigger, something real...

"This heat is real" I mused, "This desert is real, I am real..."
I enjoyed the feeling of being plugged into a body that was plugged into the planet for a while before packing up and heading on.

On my way out I noticed two survey markers which are always kind of cool to happen upon, but I was too burned out to do more than snap a quick picture for posterity. I was limping by the time I got to my truck and have decided that pin cushion shoes are probably better than lead weights, so the Merrells are a no-go unless I am going to be climbing something cactus-y with a very limited approach hike.

When I got home I doodled a little message on the back of the envelope for the NOAA radiosonde unit and included a note with the date and coordinates of it's location. I also sent a request to email me the data collected if at all possible and I hope they will respond! At very least, they'll shake their head at how weird desert people are. :-)

All together I did about 11 miles and logged another successful solo desert exploration in the books. 

On to the next!

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