Sunday, May 14, 2017

Belonging, In A Desert Valley

Just when I thought desert season was over I was pleasantly surprised with a reprieve. I've been itching to explore an unnamed desert canyon outside of the State Park, so Josh and I headed out early through moisture laden air underneath gunmetal skies. The thick atmosphere against the desert mountains made everything look flat and it wasn't until we entered the mouth of the canyon that things started to take dimension.

Josh spotted a beautiful beehive tucked into the rocks and his curiosity overwhelmed his instincts as he stuck his face near the opening to take photos and video. The bees were moving very slow and didn't seem to object to his intrusion so I asked if he'd take a photo with my phone. He ended up taking a video and his presence was finally noticed by a guardian bee who buzzed out of the hive and stung him right in the head. He stumbled back to me and I saw a huge stinger pumping poison into his forehead. I managed to get it out with one pass and we took some time to put sting relief wipes on his injury. He said he was feeling ok so we pressed on, both laughing at what a dumb idea that was! I guess if you play stupid games, you win stupid prizes.

The canyon was only a couple of miles long and while it had that eerie canyon feel, like something was watching us from above, it was a pretty pleasant hike. We eventually popped out into a secluded valley which I've spent hours on Google Earth looking at and I was super happy to finally be there! We started poking around the rocks and climbing up hills taking in the views and following where our hearts lead us. There were several flat boulders scattered about with smaller stones on top that I suppose could have been Kumeyaay hand tools at some point. We took a break on top of one of them and scanned the valley with binoculars while enjoying the cool quiet of this remote place.

After our break we commenced exploration and happened upon a random barrel. I believe this area was once cattle grazing land and we found quite a few cowboy artifacts in the form of broken glass, rusty tin cans and really old cow bones as we wandered around. Since this is a rarely explored area it was neat to see the layers of history everywhere we looked. Amidst one of the sets of bones we found over the course of the day was a skull fragment. Just check out the cranial suture! Beautiful! I like that when bones get old they get porous like pieces of coral. It’s like Nature found a cool design and decided to repeat herself. It makes me feel like we never lose where we've come from, we just build on to it...which I guess is the whole basis of evolution. I find it kind of comforting in a morbid way.

The layers of history went deeper as we started to find potsherds and stone tools. I am not sure what these green speckled rocks are but I always find them flaked to a point in Native American sites. They don't look like any of the rocks nearby so I am at a loss on what to think of them. I think I'm going to compile a list of questions like this and take them to the Ocotillo Museum or the Museum of Man and see if I can get some answers. 

The interesting geology abounds on this hike, like this boulder that had a perfectly sliced hunk cut out of it. How do you suppose that happened?! We climbed up a tall rocky hill and only found scant artifacts but several large yoni and some cupules on the rocks near the top. We also saw signs of animal life all around the valley and happened upon a large den in a sheltered alcove and speculated on who it belonged to. I say a kitfox and Josh says a jackrabbit. It could also belong to a family of burrowing owls but we saw no tracks, scat or pellets either way to come to any sort of solid conclusion.

The Cholla was fierce out here and tiny balls easily flung up with every step. I found it interesting that the cholla species on this side of the valley was different than the other side, which has an abundance of the large balls. We crossed the valley heading toward the base of the mountains hoping to find some interesting caves to poke around in. We didn't find much to explore in the way of caves near the base of the mountains but I have a feeling things are really well camouflaged in this place and it may take more than one trip to find it all.  As always, Mylar balloons shimmered in the brush as we explored and we packed them out. Nothing will make you swear off buying balloons than hiking in the backcountry regularly. 
As we continued our journey we found ourselves on an Indian trail as marked by potsherds increasing in quantity the further we hiked. The trail lead us to a tiny rock mound in the middle of the valley and we set about to explore it. I find it interesting that more often than not we happen upon Native sites near the end of our trip. The only thing I can attribute this to is being tired which drops our cognitive resistance made of "good ideas" thereby allowing us to hike on instinct instead of what we'd think was logic. I think this is probably the way indigenous people lived their entire life, and the separation between logic and instinct was nonexistent.

Up in the rocks Josh found an abundance of what we thought could be hand tools along with some pottery. The pottery in this area is thicker than I've ever seen before. I wonder why it is so different in this location. Perhaps the thicker pieces are older, before they had fine-tuned the process? Or, maybe these thick pots were used for cooking or were intended for heavy or bulky items and needed more reinforcement? These are just more questions to add to my list for the museum. There were several yoni in the area, including a large one in perfect view of the kitchen area. While Josh continued poking around he spotted an obsidian point discarded in the bushes. We both marveled at the presence of obsidian in our desert, especially after seeing so much of it in the Easter Sierra on our last trip. I think this obsidian could have only come locally from one hill near the Salton Sea called Obsidian Butte. If it didn't come from there it would have had to have been traded from far away. 

We spent the whole day enjoying overcast skies and quiet that was only interrupted by curious humming birds and one very, VERY large rattlesnake: 

I was following Josh as we hugged the base of the mountains and even before I heard the rattle I could read Josh's body language from all of our rattlesnake encounters on the PCT and yelled out, "Where is it!?" as I backed up. The rattling exploded in front of us and while I never did see the snake, a million years of evolutionary instinct inspired me to almost back flip onto a medium high boulder. I may be more than 200lbs but nothing makes me turn into a ninja faster than a rattlesnake rattling. I don't even really fear them, not like I fear mountain lions, but it's something with the sound of their rattle that hits me in the animal brain. It's always a moving experience to reconnect to your primal self and I appreciate rattlesnakes for giving me that experience. Again, playing stupid games and hoping not to win stupid prizes like we'd done with the beehive, we stuck around to try and catch a glimpse of this rattlesnake. I took out the binoculars and directed them into the small rock cave he had retreated to and all I could see was a massive forked tongue flicking in the darkness. The snake never stopped rattling and it eventually sounded more like a gas leak than a rattle. We decided this was an old snake as they are more apt to rattle extensively and as soon as we moved our position he stopped rattling making us think our scent was being carried into the cave by a gentle breeze. We never did get to see him but we thanked him for letting us know he was there and couldn't help but tip toe around for the rest of the hike.

We continued our journey and I stopped to take photos of the abundant rock basins sometimes called tinajas ranging from deep to shallow water collection sites on all of the flat boulders. Considering this canyon is supposed to be scarcely traveled, there sure were a lot of footprints, and some very fresh ones too. We inspected them and decided most of them were made from a group that was in a flat out run and it made us think maybe this was a recent group of immigrants running to get through the canyon before they were caught.

While inspecting the tracks I noticed a small piece of curved pottery on the ground. I always love finding curved pieces so I picked it up to inspect it. I can't imagine the stupid face I must have made when a quarter of a pot rim slide effortlessly out of the sand. Josh and I spent a long time inspecting it and we noticed a repair hole and what looked like a fingerprint embedded in the clay. I put my thumb into the depression and while it may sound stupid, I really felt a connection, like maybe I made this pot in another incarnation and I'd finally found it again. Maybe that's too hippy-dippy at best and arrogant at worst, but archaeology makes me feel a connection to the planet, like maybe I DO belong here and I'm not so weird/crazy/mentally ill. 

After taking a zillion photos I slid it back into the dirt where it will hopefully remain for a long, long time.

**Cue Rambling Thoughts**:
After the PCT I had a flood of thoughts and feelings that I've had since childhood, thoughts that I was worthless, crazy and damaged beyond repair. As my medical diagnosis list grew I felt more and more like I don't belong on this planet and trying to fit into a modern existence has always felt like petting a cat the wrong direction; it just feels foreign and wrong. Since I've gotten into archaeology it has made me look at myself and all of the things that make me so different and realize they would be completely normal if I lived out here in Kumeyaay time. All of my "disorders" and "mental illnesses" would have been necessary tools and evolutionary adaptations to survive here, in the real world. I'm starting to realize there's nothing wrong with me except for the society I was born into; a society so "advanced" that evolution hasn't even begun to catch up. So my conclusion is the world doesn't need to change and I don't either; I just need to live and let live, embrace who I am and nurture those instincts instead of trying to control everything or medicating them away.
-End Ramble-

Among the many signs of agave roasting I found more interesting agave stands. If you look at this valley on Google Earth you'll see that it is covered in agave rings like other archaeologically sensitive areas. I am adding this growth pattern as a question on my list for the museum. I just can't believe that this ring pattern is natural and that man hasn't had a hand in it. 

Our hike reached its end around 11 miles and we were both super hungry having only nibbled all day. We packed it in and headed for Subway sandwiches, still riding the excitement of all we'd discovered throughout the day. I can't wait to go back!


  1. Another hilarious post-the bee and rattlesnake incidents made me LOL (glad you are both OK). Glad you are back in the desert as that is my favorite place to be! Why do you find so many yonis? I'm surprised they're so numerous. Keep on truckin' ! - Carla Sue

    1. Thanks for reading Carla Sue! I don't know why we find so many yoni! I guess most geologists think they're the result of natural erosion and us "Yoni Believers" have a sort of pareidolia. I like finding them because they usually point me in the direction of cool stuff and are visible from a distance so I always have my eye out for them. I read an archaeological survey that said the owner of the ranch in Canebrake Canyon was approached by a Kumeyaay man asking to have access to "fertility rocks", but since their conversation is conjecture it's still a debated subject. I like being in the desert too! There's just so much to learn and see out there!

    2. Very cool. You should really consider starting up a tour company (as if we need more work outside our regular jobs!) with all the hikes you've been on. Looking forward to reading about your future hikes. CS