Last Winter Desert Hike

Long view to the east behind the dwelling remains
Long view to the east behind the dwelling remains

On a warm, sunny, and moderately windy day last Monday, I took my last hike at the LTVA (long-term visitor area) near Yuma, AZ and the Arizona/California border. I intended it to be just a short two-hour hike to get in some exercise and one last wander through the desert landscape. I had a few long hikes I wanted to do, but for one reason or another, I did not complete that short checklist.

After hiking out about a mile and a half, I was feeling good and as I looked to the west, I noticed the faint rock pile remains of some sort of structure off in the distance. I’d looked at this often since it was a location I wanted to hike to, but was clueless how long a hike that destination would take. Was it four miles? Six? Or more? Really wasn’t sure, and Google did not let me drop pins out here in the wild to figure that out.

So on Monday, I paused, drank some water, and realized I had hiked to the dirt road that if I turned left down it, would take me toward this checklist price. What the heck, go for it.

I’d hiked a lot in this area and as any hiker knows, the first time trekking down a new-to-you path is usually the most interesting part of any hike. And so it was that day as I hiked past the mound with the large cairns on top that I’d climbed on previous hikes and headed into new territory and the fun of figuring out how to go there.

Pictures below show some oddities I saw on the path, the awesome view from above the rock formation, and of course, of the rock formation only previously seen through my binoculars, which didn’t really reveal what it was. Near as I can tell, it’s probably the remains of someone’s hunting cabin from many years ago. Or perhaps some soul’s effort for a solitude life in the desert wilds.

As for my checklist hike, turns out it was a 6.25 mile round trip, easily within my doable range. As I climbed out of the arroyo below where my van was, I was pleased I’d pushed myself to wander toward that spot I’d seen when I first arrived and wanted to hike out to see what it was. A good, fitting final touch on my three months dispersed camping in the desert.

Desert Silence

Desert Silence2

There is something about how hiking in the silence of a desert that is addictive, as though this absence of civilized noise experienced miles into the hike is something you’ve craved your whole life but didn’t know it.

The experience is not truly silent, respective to the definition. You hear your breath, rhythmically marching and retreating, your feet insulated in hiking boots taking up a hiker’s cadence of choreographed crunching, and the carefree wind, working its away across the desert plain as though you aren’t there and never were as far as it’s concerned.

In the Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge’s book ”Silence – In the Age of Noise” said:

Nature spoke to me in the guise of silence. The quieter I became, the more I heard.

… and …

You cannot wait for it to get quiet. Not in New York, nor anywhere else. You must create your own silence.

There is no such thing as pure silence, a place devoid of any sounds. In documented experiences, those trying to obtain absolute silence in truly desolate and lifeless places or in man-made soundproof chambers, found that while external sounds and noises were absent, they could not escape the mortal sounds of their hearts beating in their chests and some even claimed to hear their veins pulsing.

Yet, when we attempt to reduce our ”civilized” world sounds and listen for what is within, interesting things happen. Erling Kagge:

But I tend to think about silence as a practical method for uncovering answers to the intriguing puzzle that is yourself, and for helping to gain new perspective on whatever is hiding beyond the horizon.

I learned to meditate from a girlfriend who was a trainer at a Korean Zen center in New England. My naiveté at the time expected the purpose of meditating to be one of blocking out or eliminating all external and internal sounds. Turns out not to be the case, and that while an objective is quiet the ”monkey mind” inside us all, quieting means not responding to or chasing it until the monkey stops chattering, and doing the same on any external noise during meditation.

As I hike the desert, quiet in my thoughts at first, but later in more of a meditative state, I am aware of the handful of natural sounds from the endeavor yet stay detached from them and let the general silence embrace me.

These weeks and months in the desert of southeast California find me frequently heading off on hikes. I gear up with my proper hat, my trusty hiking pole that’s been with me for over twenty years and countless hikes, a bottle of water, and my expectations to resolve something I’ve been thinking about. Or perhaps it’s working through a clumsy part of something I’m writing. Whichever the ulterior motive for putting one foot in front of the other, invariably a mile or so into the hike all pretenses of objectives melt away and I enjoy the silence from civilized noise, and the quiet in my mind as I am in step with my breath, my footfalls, and the wind as my desert guide.

New Campsite, New Hike

Coming late to the party here at the BLM’s Imperial Dam LTVA (long-term visitor area) near Yuma, AZ, I had to take an available campsite from the handful remaining. But over the weeks, I kept my eye out for a better spot vacated by someone leaving early (season here ends April 15). Finally, patience paid off and got a spot I will stay at until I leave here in late February (my third campsite here). This one overlooks one of the deep, arroyo canyons with a nearly unimpeded view of the mountains beyond. Too bad photographs do not convey well what the human sees, relative to distance and perspective. In reality, these mountains are much taller and closer than the photo would suggest.

To commemorate catching a choice spot, I took a three-mile hike into and along the deep arroyo, a quiet, solitary hike providing continuing appreciation of this desert landscape. When I left the arroyo a few times to walk the level plain above, the landscape resembled a moon landscape more than Earthscape. Obvious that little water falls here, but equally obvious the plants and living creatures thriving here are amazing and have a beauty unique to them.

On this hike, as with many other hikes in the past, I came across a few small, hand-painted stones along the path. There must be a name for these, but since I do not know what, I coined a name for them: smile markers. If you know the name and the premise behind them, please add a comment and let me know. Whenever I come across them, whether on a nature hike or walking in a city or town, they make me smile and appreciate both the artistry and the selfless giving of something handmade to the wild and to the passing hiker.

Desert Winter

When all is said and done, winter probably gets vote for favorite season. I say probably because it is a complicated concept to be definitive about.

A frequent topic here (eight blog posts so far), I enjoy exploring what winter means to me and how I embrace its annual season of renewal, rejuvenation, and quiet recharge of life’s batteries. Winter is not quite the same without the cold, the snow, the shift into staying inside more for warmth, often with blanket cuddling the lap, mug of hot cocoa in hand, and a good book to read despite the inevitable accidental nap encouraged by those three conspirators. Most years, it is a more subtle change of gears in the mind than a shift nudged into place by seasonal weather changes. This year, for me, winter is a season in the desert.

Don’t think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter.
It’s quiet but the roots are down there riotous.

– Rumi

Winter for me typically means read more, relax more, or simply put, a slowed down pace of life to chill more (pun unintended). Most winters I embrace, without labeling it as such, the Danish tradition of hygge, or “coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.”

It is definitely a time when I give myself permission to do less, and ease through the days more than usual to sip each moment. And I must confess, to me the winter image is one of a blazing fire inside and white blankets outside with those endearing snowflakes easing to the ground with little urgency. This year the only blazing I see are the marvelous winter sunrises a desert delivers.

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

– John Steinbeck

This year I am still in my zone of seasonal renewal, albeit without the pleasant fire and white visuals. In the desert this winter, relaxing and renewing inside my camper van, I still have cherished memories of special winters past, ones with a fireplace blazing while outside nature’s en plein living winter artwork continues through the day. Those winters were not better than others without those two, but remain my halcyon memories. Winter is, as I choose to embrace it, is a state of mind and easily transportable to wherever one is, not just when the view outside takes on the look of a classic Norman Rockwell winter scene.

Yet winter’s renewing grace,
Its universal task,
Revives us all,
If we wear its mask.

– Gary Varner

Spiritual Cleansing: A Visit to Redwoods National Park

Long, long ago, I knew I wanted to visit the majestic redwoods on California’s northern coast. These have always been my favorite tree, despite never seeing one except in articles or photographs. I followed those early stories about tree-hugging hippies illegally camping high in a massive redwood tree to save it from the lumberjack’s chainsaw. I connected to their efforts but despite the peaceful protest, felt we would needlessly and eventually lose a special creation of nature.

Since back then, I have admired this amazing tree yet combined with shame and sadness at how our human race so quickly decimated the vast majority of these stately trees. Coastal California redwoods have been there for almost 20 million years and fossils of trees related to these coastal redwoods go back to the Jurassic Era, some 160 million years ago. Yet it took man less than one hundred years—from around 1850 on—to nearly wipe out these old-growth forests through relentless and uncontrolled harvesting.

Protection finally began around 1918 when a group began acquiring large acres of untouched old-growth forests. By the time national park designation came in 1968, what remained of the world’s old-growth redwood forests was a mere 5%. Scientists estimate the original coastal redwoods range was about two million acres. What’s left is about 116,000 acres. Over 95% of the world’s remaining old-growth redwoods are in California.

The history of these unbelievably huge and tall trees is both interesting and depressing, and serves to emphasize what a special privilege it is to walk among them and experience the spiritual cleansing that comes from being in wild, untouched nature such as these redwood forests. 

In mid-November, even though not the best time to visit, I had two days and three nights to immerse into the woods. That time of the year is unpredictably cool but predictably wet. Between the fog that rolls in and nourishes the forest, and the fronts that come in from over the ocean, the area is, in concept, basically a rain forest. One realizes this in a few minutes after hiking into the woods and seeing the predominance of ferns and mosses around these gigantic trees and also covering the fallen tree trunks and limbs.

One of my favorite quotes says it all about how I feel when in a place like the redwood forests:

I believe in God, only I spell it n-a-t-u-r-e.

– Frank Lloyd Wright

Anytime I visit natural places where the beauty, scale, and sheer variety of life and form exists without evidence of human interference, trash, etc., I have felt closer to something spiritual than in any man-made edifice. It is unusual, however, to hike into a place so void of humanness both in sight and sound as it was hiking two long trails in the Redwoods National Park.

Redwoods N.P. - The Big Tree
Redwoods N.P. – The Big Tree

I have been thinking about what to write about these silent denizens of a very special forest in the week since I was there. To say I was moved to be in their midst does not convey the punch I felt. To reiterate, it was both humbling and sad to realizing the vast numbers lost before conservation took place is obvious, and I think most everyone would feel that as well.

From the rangers I learned that most who venture into these old-growth forests mention it being a religious or spiritual moment, or did not know trees grew as big as these redwoods, or found the absolute quiet of the deep woods both amazing and disarming. For me, I can add the amazement of unrelenting natural beauty at every turn and dip and rise along the soft paths. I have had some amazing hikes in my life, but the 10-mile hike the second day that took me ever deeper into the redwood forest may be the best I have ever trekked, if not the top two or three. 

Photographically, I have never tried to capture the essence of tree like these before only to fail. Their immensity alone makes for difficult shots and lack of context or scale. Between the woods bathed in low light and the inability to back up to catch the enormity in the viewfinder, I managed to catch a few hikers beside trees and a few selfies of myself, but even these do not relate what my eyes were feasting on.

I will return and planning to spend at least a week there next summer, but I expect, because of crowds, my isolated experience will not be so easily repeatable. A helpful ranger, however, helped me understand the better trails to go on next time and the secret for better enjoyment in season: out walk the tourists. Most who visit rarely venture more than a mile or two into the popular trails. With over 75 miles of gorgeous, soft-pathed trails (from fallen ferns and redwood needles) throughout the park, hiking past most visitors should be doable.

I hope you enjoy the photos in the galleries below. I went a little crazy with the cameras (mix of Nikon and iPhone shots) but can assure you this is just a small selection of all the shots I took! If you are ever near the park, you will not regret stopping for a few days to wander amidst these giants who silently live out their lives (some to 2,000 years old) and quietly, spiritually, connect life and nature.

Click on any image below to begin a slide show.