“That’s where we’re going.”
I pointed toward the radio antenna on top of Nopal Peak to the south of Interstate 8, even as I drove.
Jon’s voice went off the scale, right on to a still-born yodel.
Actually, we were going through the saddle between Nopal, elevation 4274 feet, and Quirk Peak, elevation 4031 feet, but you could see the tower and not really the road. I pointed again. Scott next to me peered off where my finger gestured. Jon sat behind Scott, and I couldn’t see him for all the camping gear filling the one passenger seat and back of my little Bronco II.
“That’s where we’re going.”
“Well,” Jon finally offered. “Guess we’re going to find out about my fear of heights.”
Jon’s from Iowa, and I don’t know if it’s an accent or what, but he spaces between almost every word, as if English were a second language. He’s learned the words, but he’s not sure of the structure and syntax. It’s sing-songy and it takes too long for him to say anything. Actually, he sounds more like a comedian’s voice for a Martian.
A nerd Martian.
“You’re afraid of heights?”
“Oh, it’s not so bad.” The sentence meandered away from him.
It wasn’t like we hadn’t discussed this. The nameless valley above Moon Valley, like the whole region, cascading from four thousand feet to the sandy floor of the Yuha Desert, every road is a stony ride; any flat spot is a valley.
“Boy are you in for a scare."
“Oh, it’s not that bad,” Jon protested. “I’ll be all right."
I bit my tongue, which was quite a challenge since I was gritting my teeth. The truck ran warm and we hadn’t even gotten off the road, we were overloaded with wood and water, and everyone, except me of course, had packed like there’d been a nuclear strike instead of us just going camping over an extended weekend. We’d left late morning on Saturday because Jon had worked the night before, so we weren’t going to be set up before noon. I was worried about finding a camping spot. Storm clouds crowded the sky.
Truth of the matter was, though; nothing could truly make me unhappy. I had a secret so good that I could only be joyful.
I didn’t even slow down as I shot onto the dirt road going up the hill, just charged up the hill without even going into four-wheel drive. They’d graded it and Scott rolled his beard like he does when he’s happy. It’s an old man thing, even though Scott is only in his forties, but he works his facial muscles so his beard rolls over his chin.
“You should’a seen this road before, Jon, “Scott offered. “You’d either have to ride the edge or go over skree and rocks on one side so you leaned over the edge. This is a big improvement.”
“Up to the tower,” I added.
“Not down the other side? Oh my, the worst part.”
“Gives me a chance to go into low range."
Scott pursed his lips and rolled his beard. Jon was silent.
Up the switchbacks, only slowing down for the turns. A couple parts of the road are covered with fence wire, with concrete poured over it, obviously chronic washout points. You climb at a good forty-five degree angle even with switchbacks, and the view to the northwest is out of this world, Table Mountain and Jacumba. Squaw Tit is a dark red mound with a giant gouge torn out of its side where someone’s excavated the carmine-colored gravel.
Quirk’s top is a pile of sheer boulders, and as you just reach the saddle it fills the view to the south-southeast. Hanging onto this abrupt peak is a Pinyon Pine that seems to be growing out of the side of a boulder, then straightening up and climbing. The wind has shaped it into a gnarled little gnome of tenacity. It’s a precursor of the mountains, and the mountains are all piles of rock, or single slabs of stone that pierce the soil like teeth.
The view to the east was stark reality, from four thousand feet to below sea level, all the way to the Salton Sea, only marred by El Centro’s existence.
“Welcome to No-Man’s Land,” I announced. “Smugglers Cave is due east, the Mexican Border is three quarters of a mile due south. You can camp where you want, shoot if you like, and fart in mixed company. All you gotta do is live with the consequences.”
I turned off the graded road, southeast. The first rut I hit rattled up through my ass.
I stopped and reached for the four-wheel drive controls.
“Better not waste any time getting into low range.”
Scott chortled. I would realize later that a strangled “Ah” came from behind, but at the moment I concentrated on the road as we started down.
“This is a lot worse than the last time we were out here,” Scott volunteered. What he didn’t say I thought, that there was always a chance we simply couldn’t get in. What could be worse? Wrecking the Bronco and not being able to get out.
Keeping it in low first, tapping ever so lightly on the brakes so I rolled over a pointy, oil-stained boulder, I crept away from the edge and toward the sheer wall slashed into the desert mountain, trying to avoid sliding down the fifty degree grade. My voice shivered just a little as I spoke.
My stomach muscles tightened as I came on a spot where the front tires drop into a rut then squeeze over two sharp rocks that make a ‘V’ just as the rear tires drop into the rut. For a lifetime you’re pointed up and you can’t se anything but sky. When the front end dropped I was glad to find we were still on the road and not over the edge into the ravine.
“Do you hug the wall here or go wide?”
“I’d go wide and avoid this tipping, but I can’t see the edge. On the way out I go wide ‘cause I can lean out the window…”
The rear end bounced out as the inside rear tire chirped off the rock wall. I sighed as we started into gray skree.
“Depends on my mood at the time. Look at the view, though.”
The valley ahead was as primitive and wild as I always hoped it would be, always new and alien, the surface of another planet.
“Watch the road,” Scott chided gently.
“What road?” I countered. At this point we were simply riding over the top of a flat ten-foot wide boulder, onto the next ground patch of skree.
“What I hate is having to turn on this stuff. Here we are.”
We had reached the bottom. An audible gasp came from behind.
The road improved considerably, running across a sandy stretch, and I picked up velocity. We could hear the report of handguns out ahead.
“That’s the first camping spot. Robin and I always go there with the boys. It’s a got a good long range, you can shoot rifle.”
We rode past the turnoff for the spot to the right. We could see two guys dressed in matching white long-sleeved Team Smith&Wesson turtleneck shirts, their hands filled with autos. Scott waved as they watched us go by. They glared back.
“Whoa!” I gasped.
Out ahead a Datsun 4Runner blocked the road. Around it, a group of young people looked back down the trail while dogs took an interest in us. I pulled off the road.
“I’ll go see what’s up.”
I let the engine running, walked forward. Three jacked-up 4x4 trucks back, a crew of guys stood around a minivan bouncing on its rear while the driver revved it.
Anything we can do?”
They all looked at me like I was from Mars. One forced a smile.
“Got an air hook?”
Just then the minivan popped off the ridge it was stuck on and bounced back onto the road, throwing several adults onto the dirt and scattering kids and dogs.
“See? My very presence freed it.”
Suddenly they all smiled, laughed with relieve, everyone but the driver of the minivan, who looked toward the road we’d just come down.
“Going to do some target shooting?” the one guy asked.
He looked startled as they all moved back toward their vehicles.
I felt suddenly wary.
“We didn’t even bring any guns.”
Now they all looked startled.
“Say,” I continued, changing the subject, “any campsites still open in there?”
“All the campsites are open. You’ve go the place to yourself!”
Serendipity. Wary serendipity. That just didn’t seem possible. I looked to the sky. Angry clouds boiled above us, but the wind on the ground seemed placid. Scott argued that no one would come out with a storm threatening, but hell, it appealed to me, Scott and Jon. Wouldn’t other people be attracted?
The party of kids trundled by, all smiling except for the gray-faced minivan driver.
Scott shook his head in amazement.
“First thing we do,” I said as I turned off the main road onto another nameless trail, “Is unpack and set up the tents. Nothing worse than trying to set up in the dark when you’re good and tired from hiking around all day.”
"We may have to unpack me first.”
I looked back. Two sleeping bags and maybe a tent had crawled over Jon’s shoulders and were on his lap.
“Geez, Jon, sorry ‘bout that.”
“Oh, no problem. It’s kind’a cushioned me.”
If I had my druthers, I knew right where I wanted us. Being BLM land you can camp anywhere you like, but there are only six camping spots with metal fire rings in the upper valley. Four of them are in a row, I figure for the phenomenal view to the north, where you look across the Anza and Yuha Desert into the Badlands and beyond. The second to the bottom one has got the best view, but I dismissed that one. That’s where I’ve always camped with Robin. The top one, snug up against a double-pointed set of rock peaks, buried itself in a pile of boulders, struck me as more remote, more appropriate for a bunch of guys.
“That’s the spot, right under that boulder.” I pointed.
“Uh, Dave,” Scott said. “The road’s stopped.”
“No, no. It goes a little further.”
I squeezed over the two opposing boulders, then started a little too fast over the next bunch of rocks.
“This is not a road,” Scott stated flatly.
Okay, so its boulder hopping, but only for a short distance, up to the next level of stone, where there is another flat of sand.
I bottomed out, the skidplate smacking stone that probably weighed more than the Bronco. I gritted my teeth.
“Haven’t done that for a while.”
The road reappeared. Scott shook his head and sighed. I knew what he was thinking. We had to go out the same way.
“Okay,” I said with some forced gaiety. “We wanna be right back there.”
I couldn’t see out the rear window. Scot got out and hand-signaled me in.
While I hauled stuff off the top of Jon, who seemed remarkably quiet, Scott strapped on his shoulder holster and .41 Magnum Black Hawk Ruger.
I noted casually that Jon had no color in his face.
We all now stood looking over the campsite. Snug with two-story high boulders to the south and some to the east, and chest-high rocks to the north and west, the tent sites would be under eaves of stone. There was a slight pass through the stone to the west, and easy walk to the top of the granite.
“What’ya think? This the spot?”
“I like it,” Scott said. “Considering how difficult it is to get here.”
“What if there’s an earthquake?” Jon asked, looking at the granite wall leaning over us. Though the big LA earthquake was less than a week old, I hadn’t even considered ground turbulence. I looked up the side of the mountains we were under and admired the size of some of the boulders tacked haphazardly above us.
“You sleep with a knife nearby,” Scott started, “and the moment the quake wakes you, you slit a hole in the tent and run to that spot right there.” He pointed to a clearing thirty feet beyond our camp, a big flat boulder flush to the ground with no other rocks nearby.
“And don’t mind me running over you through the hole,” I added. “Now, we need lots of room for my tent.” I motioned at the opening where the truck’s rear marked the boundary of our space.
“Where will I put my tent?” Jon asked.
“Why not in the crotch of the rocks here?”
There was nothing less than a inverted ‘V’ shaped cave to the south where two boulders lean against each other until eons have melded them into a single monolith.
Scott the Minimalist frowned.
“Considering how roomy Dave’s tent is, why do we even need to put up yours?”
Jon’s face lit up.
“Ah, that’s because – ngauwh – I have a small but notable problems with flatulence.”
“’Nough said, Jon.” I made squaring motions at the crotch of the rocks. “Right there ‘s just perfect.”
Scott had closed his eyes.
“I forgot,” he offered softly.
The look on Jon’s face made me think that our flies were open and he was waiting for us to notice.
“Let me put it this way,” he continued in a sing-songy nerd-Martian voice. “Amanda complains, but I don’t even notice!”
I sighed, looking forward to this moment ending.
“Well, that paints a picture.”
We unloaded, stacked the wood, which considering how much room it took up in the Bronco was a paltry pile, and set up the tents.
Robin, my wife, is not a patient person , and when she helps put up the tent, a Taj Mahal of a dome tent that stands seven feet tall at the center, it seems to take forever. With Scott, it went up in minutes. If there was a snag, he’d scratch his beard and admire the dilemma. Jon’s geodesic tent seemed to pop up even quicker than my cabin.
The three of us paused now around the metal fire ring, and all three smiled. I was positively giddy.
“Three days!” I squealed. Scott smiled.
“Anybody got a watch?”
“No,” I said, a little startled. Ever since Scott had become senior he was never without a watch, and he knew I couldn’t wear one.
Scott’s face looked beatific.
He said this softly, but with serene finality.
“I got one!”
Jon reeled back out of his tent. I hadn’t seen him go. “It’s shows the time and date – ngawah – but, but it shows when the moon and sun rise and sets, and the phase of the moon…”
I have the non-word ‘Ngawah’ occasionally in the text, spelt differently just to be annoying, which is uniquely Jon, though Moe does something similar to it. Other people say ‘ah’, or maybe just pause. I’ve tried to reproduce this sound in my own throat, and it has a curious gagging quality, blocking the nasal passages with the back of my tongue. Moe’s version is very funny, especially with his restraint and subtlety of nuance. Jon’s version is just irritating.
Scott frowned at our woodpile.
“This is not enough wood for three days, especially if we’re cooking on it.”
Our first outing crisis, and my fault. I was in charge of the wood. I just couldn’t’ have put any more wood in the Bronco and still be able to bring three people.
Too late, I had a bug up my butt.
“See the cave up there?”
I was looking up the side of the rocky peaks we were at the base of. Up above and to the right of a lone Pinyon Pine hid a depression carved out by water and wind.
Scott struggled to sound interested.
I walked west up the boulder, then south up a pile of stones that made a challenging but passable set of stairs to the pine’s level, another large boulder that gave a gentle climb toward the cave. I looked back at the camp. Jon was working his way around to the east. Scott stood in the middle of the camp. He gestured.
“Go. Be free.”
I turned and started off again. The cave was seven feet up the side of yet another boulder, a sheer stone that rose perpendicular to the earth. I wedged my boots in a couple of holes and inched up off the ground until I rose to peer into the cave.
“Hey, this is pretty big!”
I looked down. Scott stood in the center of the camp. I couldn’t see Jon.
The urge for height was irresistible, as if the air would be easier to breathe up there. To the immediate west another outcropping of tan rock rose above me. Between me and it yawed a split filled with the tumbled headstones of a giant's cemetery, occasionally forming a hedgerow of steps.
“I’m going to see if there’s anybody around,” I announced.
Jon staggered onto the flat below the cave as I came down.
“There’s caves over here, too.” He pointed to a spot underneath the large Pinyon. I’m sure I twisted my face with irritation.
“I wanna go high,” I shot back, and danced across stepping stone grave markers that kept me midair until I got to my intended target.
Jon picked over the ground along the edge. I paused at the base to let him catch up. When I couldn’t wait any longer I launched.
It was a hand-over-hand affair, eighty-five degrees, ten feet up. I wedged my back against one outcropping of rock, and hand and foot-holds appeared just within my grasp until it seemed I was kicking off the bottom of a pool. I broke the surface and bobbed to my feet on top, gasping for air.
Jon peered up in abject amazement.
I looked around the top. Giant rocks had been placed on its flat surface, like some giant’s child placing his treasures of the day on a table. My breath came hard and deep, but I knew it didn’t count, only the lungs anticipating a need. I looked south guessing the peak along the ridge there was Blue Angels. There was supposed to be a monument marking the Mexican-American border somewhere near there. To the southeast was Elliot Mine on T’ahe Peak. I kicked myself for not having my compass and topo. I’d been meaning to get better with compass and map, and here was a perfect opportunity to triangulate my position. I’d do it later, I told myself as I looked north.
The immediate three campsites were empty. I could see their rings, then the stunning view beyond through the wide splits in the mountains around us.
“Hey Scott,” I shouted down, did a double-take. He’d grabbed a folding chair and seated himself, and being cami’d head to toe, for a moment the perched form didn’t register like it was supposed to. To my eyes it looked surreal.
My voice echoed off the mountains around us.
“What’s up?” he answered softly. I dropped my voice in response.
“We are so totally alone here. I see no one in the valley. No one.”
Scott nodded sagely. Maybe he rolled his beard, I couldn’t be sure.
“And Scott? I see wood down at the campsite below us, and maybe more at the one below that.”
He made a motion to me as he rose.
I slid over the edge, catching an occasional foothold and holding my shoulder against the outcropping, falling close to where Jon had reached. The tombstones opened underneath us. I wondered about the caves down there.
“Quite the mountain goat.”
I felt suddenly conspicuous, the show-off, as I studied Jon’s expression and tone of voice.
“It’s the boots,” I said with awkward gaiety. “Put these puppies on and I just gotta climb.”
Jon’s surliness didn’t fade, so I took off past the pine, following an easier route down. The cave underneath the pine that Jon had found was as big as the one up the side of the stone.
We walked down to the other campsites. There must have been a sale on Eucalyptus somewhere, big round logs. We had to make two trips for six logs, campers having left their surplus for the likes of us. Scott went down to the furthest spot for the last run and Jon and I scored the two logs at the nearest sight.
“We’re gonna have to make a point to cook on the avocado,” I said. “I know it doesn’t throw off any tars.”
I threw my log down on the growing pile. Jon rolled his out of his grasp, but just as it left his fingers, he started, eyes instantly swelling. He fell back, a “ngawah!” escaping his throat like he’d seen a ghost.
A nerd ghost.
“What?” I yelled, jumping away from the log.
“A spider!” His voice quivered, sing-songy.
Sure enough, a dark brown spider with stubby fat legs peeked out of a crack in Jon’s log before ducking down, doing a Kilroy. Jon’s quaking voice intensified. “I’m afraid of spiders!”
“Well you’re in luck. It’s down there and you’re way up here.”
Jon had a short piece of creosote limb with a sharp tip. He stabbed at the spider. It dodged to the left in its little crack.
“Jon, it’s just a …”
Another stab. This one raked the legs off the spider’s left side. I winced.
Now the stick fell quicker, sharper until the spider was pulpy paste and broken legs, wedged into the little crack.
I stuck my hands in my pockets and looked up at Jon.
He beamed with an I-Told-You-So triumphant smirk. I checked my fly.
The camp was set. The two five-gallon jugs of water sat in the shade. We’d all strapped on our side-arms, me with my Colt .45 Commander in a leather practical shooters holster on my left hip, Scott with his .41, Jon a Ruger .357 GP-100 with a four-inch barrel in a black ballistics nylon holster.
We all took a seat on our claimed soil.
“What are we gonna do, then?” Scott asked.
“Well now,” Cruise Director Dave whipped out an In-Ko-Pah quadrangle topo map. I even had an extra one I handed over to Scott. “I thought maybe we’d walk around and check out the immediate area, maybe walk down to this one spot over on the other side of the Slide. It’s really neat, you’ll se when we get there. Then tomorrow we could go up to the Emmett Mine…”
“What’s the Slide?”
It’s the reason we aren’t further in than we are,” Scott explained.
“I could get down it,” said. “And I could probably get out, too, but it’s a lot closer to fifty-fifty than I can afford.”
“The ride ain’t worth the cost,” Scott agreed.
“We’ll show you that, too,” I said to Jon. “I could get down. I could, ya’ know.” I shifted in my seat. “Also.” I opened the map and pointed to a small black square on the road that brought us in. “I’d like to check out these two structures that are supposed to be in here.”
“Structures,” Scott echoed.
“Yeah, well, you know Erik? He lives in Pine Valley now, and he’s been hitting all the old mines around there –“
“Bet’cha he hasn’t found ours,” Scott said. Scott was very proud of the flooded mine we’d explored just above Pine Valley near Sunrise Highway. We’d dug around until we found this mine entrance behind a bunch of marsh growth. It had one little bat in it, and he’d seemed a shy tolerant sort.
“Yeah, well, Erik’s run into a couple of old-timers, and he claims that there was an old marshal’s station and corral up here, back in the 1880’s.”
Scott gasped a laugh. I continued.
“Erik says this old timer visited it as late as 1991 and it was still standing.”
“A hundred and ten year-old building,” Scott scoffed.
“maybe not the same building. When did they form the Border Patrol? And Smugglers Cave is right here, and look, two structures are shown here on the map.”
“What’s Smuggler’s Cave?” Jon asked.
“Ooh! That’s where the banditos met before and after the raid on the Gaskil Brother’s store. There’s something we can visit if you like. ‘Corse it’s been vandalized pretty thoroughly.”
“This map was field-checked in 1959,” Scott announced.
I was losing the argument.
“It was revised in 1975.”
“They put things in, they don’t generally take things off. Besides, we both know there’s an old cinder block building and antenna platforms up by where the new tower is, and neither one’s shown on the map. These maps aren’t infallible.”
I exhaled, then waved a hand in front of me.
“Well, it doesn’t matter if the building’s still standing. Erik says there was a spring right next to it, with enough water year-round for men and horses.”
Scott’s face twisted with understanding. He knew what I was thinking. He folded his map and smacked his lips.
“I’m certainly willing to go look.”
“Okay, now, we can also retrace our backpacking trip a little, see where we went wrong.”
“What went wrong?” Jon asked.
Both Scott and I made noises and re-adjusted ourselves in our seats.
“We wanted to go from Moon Valley down to Pinto Wash, there’s this story about the Italian’s gold placer…”
“We got lost…”
“So turned around we ended up back in Moon Valley two miles into Mexico.” I’d gone into hyper-drive, my mouth accelerating. “Low on water, ditzy from exhaustion, we thought we were gonna die.”
“Dave, I don’t, don’t –“
“Okay, one mile. The only way we got out, we followed somebody else’s footprints. Peter and me came back a little later, Peter Ackberger? He wanted to take pictures of a full moon rising over Moon Valley, and I had the Mexican topo for this area that time, and that set of microwave towers we saw west of us when we popped back on top is three miles into Mexico.”
“Okay, west, southwest of us.”
“So what else can we do?”
I took a breath, paused, spread my hands.
“First and foremost, we do anything we want to, and don’t do anything we don’t.”
“I’d really like to hike around some,” Jon said.
“Take it easy on me, guys. Since I got this new job, I’ve gained thirty pounds.”
He didn’t look as tight as I’d remembered him. I didn’t see him much anymore, now that he didn’t do the Clairemont run. Still, I thought of Scott as the frustrated mountain man stuck in the wrong century. I snickered.
“Sure, Scott, no mile-long sprints.”
We locked the long guns in the Bronco, loaded up our canteens and slipped through the pass to the east. If it were just a little wider you could have gotten around the Slide, but between staggered rocks and brush, even motorcycles hadn’t tried it.
We made the road and headed south.
“Check it out, Scott.” I pointed at the ground. “Horses.”
“Could be domestic.”
Nah, nah. They’re not shod.”
Scott studied the markings.
“By God, you’re right. Wild horses.”
“Wild horses?” Jon asked.
“Boy howdy. Like satanic thunder. First time Robin and I tried to get to Smugglers Cave, a stallion chased us right back up the hill.”
“You weren’t armed?” Scott accused.
“When isn’t Robin armed? However, for one thing, we didn’t want to shoot such a handsome monster guarding his mares, and second, what’s a .45, let alone a .380, gonna do to a thousand pound ball of snorting muscle?
“Here’s the Slide.”
First step off the slide commits you so completely that it’s always kept me from going any further. Halfway down the sixty degree slick you’ve got to jig left, then right as far as you can, putting the whole vehicle at a leaning angle, to miss a hedgerow of incisor rocks geared to rake your underbelly. Then you have to pull yourself back all the way to the left again to keep from sideswiping a multi-colored boulder with a patch of every Jeep that had failed to keep from sliding into it.
“This is do-able, y’know.”
I scrambled up the skree.
“It’s this first step. You drop off all this rock, and you really don’t know how you stand until you’re pointing down.”
“Do-able,” Scott echoed.
“Yeah. Pete did it.”
“Pete got stuck going in and coming out.”
“Yeah, but did I mention he had bald tires?”
“And there was a traffic jam, six Jeeps stacked up behind you. On a full-moon weekend.”
“Yeah. Hey! See this spot over here? Ron Smith and a buddy of his camped right there.”
Smith was an ex-Green Beret that had somehow ended up being a security guard for the Company.
Scott grunted, ignored me as he studied the slide from a slightly different angle.
“Why haven’t you gone down here before, Dave?” Scott finally asked.
“Because Robin’s always been with you before. Why would you try it this time?”
“Right there.” I pointed again at the spot Ron had described. Right behind it, according to my readings, an old Indian campsite had once been. Scott sank to his haunches, still looking down the Slide.
“Because Robin isn’t here. And by the time we limped your Bronco home, I bet Robin would have the distinct impression that Jon and me brought all this on, poor ole’ Dave just tryin’ ta’ be one’a the boys.”
Scott rose back up, squinted a bit looking east and north.
“Where’s this campsite you’ve talked about so much?”
Right then I knew one of the things I thought I’d be doing this weekend wasn’t going to happen.
At least I could still be cruise director. I danced to the lead. Due north. We retraced our steps, then just kept going down the road.