“C’mon Field Lab Van, you can do it!” As Toby, Cara and I raced to the meeting spot for our annual pre-desert-and-Denim backpacking trip the old trustworthy field lab van started crapping out. It just couldn’t muster up the strength to go uphill faster than 20mph. We were already two hours late and were getting impatient texts from the rest of the team. As we pull up everyone is scattered here and there, laying around on the desert floor. The heat of the afternoon about to pass and the coolness of evening beginning to descend. We gather together, pack up our stuff and drive a couple hours south to the trailhead.
It’s daunting when you drive the distance you’re about to hike. When you’re cruising along at 80 mph in the desert (the field lab van can still go fast downhill) for a couple hours from the ending spot to the trailhead, you begin to get a sense for how far you have to hike. You get a touch of that “oh shit can we do this?” as you’re barrelling by those massive mountains. We all stumble out of the cars at Kelso Dunes, our trailhead and the largest Sand Dune system in the Mojave Preserve.
I’ve done this before with most of the folks in this group, they know the routine, and for some unknown reason, they keep coming back for more. This isn’t easy backpacking. I’ve done my fair share of backpacking in my life and the kind of backpacking you do in well-known spots like the Sierras, Cascades or Rocky Mountains doesn’t really compare to this. You will probably assume it’s the temperature or weather because it’s the desert…it’s not. The weather is usually a pleasant 60’s-70’s during the day at this time of year. If the weather gets “bad” it’s not because it’s too hot but rather the opposite – it’s too cold. I’ve been on plenty of Mojave trips in the winter where it’s snowed. The main difficulty, first and foremost, is being off trail. There are no trails here. Nobody comes out here.
My backpacking mentor and friend, Steve tabor, plotted out this route from the Mexican border to southeast Oregon that basically parallels the much better known Pacific Crest Trail, but on the dry side of the mountains. It’s called the “Desert Trail” . But the thing is, there’s no Trail. He wrote a series of books on this route, and the books describe the route in waypoints. “Your next waypoint is 15 miles across the valley floor at the opening to Marble Canyon.” that kind of thing. Of course there’s no constructed Trail. It’s the Mojave, no ocomes here except to race by on their way to Las Vegas. Steve spent a good chunk of his adult life energy creating this route. He did a number of long treks on his own through the desert – walking out his back door in Oakland and ending up in Aspen, Colorado two years later , doing the same again from San Diego to Santa Fe. In his capacity as president of Desert Survivors, an oakland based desert preservation group, for twenty years , he led over a couple hundred backpacking trips in the Mojave and Great Basin deserts… The guy is singularly well suited to create the official long trail for the desert . So he did it. He spent a decade or so researching routing, The only prob is, its hard to be everything in this world and while Steveprobably knows more about the desrt than anyone else , he’s not a marketer – no one knows about the desert trail. Other than Steve, only one person has completed all of its segments. I’ve been chipping away at it for 15 years now, I was on some of Steve’s original exploratory trips for mapping out the trail . I’ve hiked almost all the segments from the Mexican border to Death Valley and have fallen so deeply in love with this long trail and the endless quiet solitude and stark explosive beauty.
People think the Mojave is barren and empty , but in reality it’s the most biologically vibrant place you can imagine. All plant nerds eventually end up in the desert because the botanical diversity and the intensity of the plants is unrivaled anywhere, and so here we are again. it seems like I’ve done this ritual a million times- stumbling out of our cars at the “trailhead” (an unmarked turnoff on the side of a dirt road in the middle of nowhere ) putting on our packs and hitting the trail. iWe’re starting at dusk, so we’re it’s gonna go a little ways. There’s some nervous social conversation among my small group offive backpackers because some of them are meeting for the first time “what do you do”? … We walk straight into the heart of the Kelso dunes , psychedellic landscapes begin to stretch out into infinity before is, sand walking into the Kels, light joking , I’m seeing old friends I haven’t seen in a while, lotsa catching up, the sound of boots crunching on sand becomes is the constant soundntrack in the background. As we walk up the sand dunes towards a saddle a thousand feet above us, it gets quiet. One step up, half a step backsliding in the sand, hard work . We crest over the ridge and drop down to a nice pocket sand cove as the cool of the evening begins to set in. Here’s our camp, I say, we set up camp, watch the unfolding show in the stars. The Mojave is the darkest corner in the United States outside of interior Alaska. The sky lights up at night in unbelievably psychedellic ways- thick creamy bright belts of the Milky Way, sparkling pinpoints of light, familiar constellations disappearing into the sea of new stars that have suddenly appeared clustering around the constellation…
The next few days will be spent backpacking across various mountain ranges and valleys, doing one of the only things I’m really good at in this world , sinking deep into place . My body was made to do this, I’m good at it, I’ve been practicing this skill my entire adult life . The Rhythms of the days begin to flow. Conversation lighten and relax, disappears completely at times… The stark quietness of the desert is working on us. Smell this creosote plant, checkout this desert ambrosia , it’s leading out early , Nap in the shade after lunch, laugh, hike , sleep on ridges and in washes, hard hikjng, tired, and then blissful quietness and stillness as We eat dinner together , I play my uke a bit, and thn blissful stillness and quietness as I climb into my sleeping bag at night at 5000 feet on a dramatic ridge in the providence mountains. This is what I came for, this feeling right now…. People think I make perfume, but really it’s this feeling I’m trying to put into every bottle. I’m completely in my body, at one with this place … It took three days to get here, to quiet down the anxious mind and all of its chatter, but I’m here now , I’m home .