Giants in Moon Valley III, Desert Sprite
by David John Taylor
edited: Sunday, February 16, 2003
Posted: Sunday, February 16, 2003
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The desert is magic, and deadly.
"Mason, you're going the wrong way."
Mason pointed out ahead of him.
I stopped and juggled my compass and map. The compass danced a sluggish jig, east, then south, but never right.
Over my shoulder, Myer Valley; brutal stone, merciless sand, forgotten roads leading nowhere, morteros where there is no water. South of that, what should be right below us, Pinto Canyon; sheer rock cliffs, petroglyphs that haunt me. Water.
Between us and water, about a mile and a half as the crow flies, and a two thousand-foot drop; sheer cliffs of toppled stone. Impassable, especially with backpacks. They were thirty pounds lighter than when we'd started, though. We had drained our water bladders.
What I'd done enthusiastically for the last two days I now did with mechanical determination. I raised my camera and took a picture.
Mason scuffed to a halt.
"There they are again!"
I shuffled up next to him. Sure enough, the shoe print that taunted us. No tread, small as a child's.
From Moon Valley we had hiked south-east, until we came to a clearing where wild horses gathered, the dirt churned by unshod hooves, the smell of horses in the air. It was a memorable spot, a natural bowl, but a dead end. We started doing aggressive forays due east, turning north to find a pass down to the next plateau.
Seeing no other way, we finally committed to climbing down a rocky bajada.
Dropping off the final boulder at the bottom into the sand, I gasped and waited for the stroke I must be on the verge of.
Something was different.
I sensed it, frowned between gasps. The Salton Sea was still on the distant horizon, but the world had changed somehow.
Mason fell down next to me.
"We can't do that again," he gasped.
I looked up the tumbled boulders we'd just fallen down from as the pounding in my ears eased. Eight hundred feet. We couldn't go back the way we'd come, either.
A stand of tall Pinyon Pines was ahead of us.
Underneath them, an empty water bottle, opened cans of salmon.
So much for unspoiled.
Walking away from the trees; shoe prints, not boots. No tread.
"Could be old prints," I said changing film in my camera. "Who knows how long prints'll last out here."
Mason didn't answer.
We crossed the plateau, maybe two hundred yards, to look down across cascading gray stone.
We found that little shoe print on every trail we chose, sometimes going with us, sometimes going where we'd come from. When we swung south and found the same sheer wall to peer down, we came across the shoe print again and again. Crawling south, the plateau shoved us further west. I had no idea where we were on the map. Nothing matched up for me.
Meanwhile, Mason had turned mute.
We were trapped between two sheer mountain slides. Grimly I admitted to myself that we'd not planned enough, not been in good enough shape. If we couldn't get to Pinto Canyon, we couldn't get to the water.
And the merciless desert knew it.
Out of the cool westerly winds of Moon Valley, facing east and catching all the sun's rays, this plateau was a natural oven.
And that stupid little footprint was everywhere, taunting us.
"We can't be going everywhere this guy's going," I offered. Mason didn't answer, but started off again.
"Mason, this is all wrong. Nothing looks like what's on the map, the sun's in the wrong place, even the ground doesn't look right. The compass, it's not working..."
Mason stopped, turned around and looked at me.
"Panic will kill you quicker than the desert."
There. He'd said it. We were lost, maybe dying. He turned back and started off again.
"I'm following the footprints."
"But we don't know where they're going."
"It's got'ta be out'a here."
I would wonder later if that was so.
We walked at a quicker pace now, sometimes southwest, mostly west. We had silently surrendered ourselves to the mercies of the footprint. Our goal, Pinto Canyon, forgotten.
The plateau, mostly flat rock with occasional Pinyon Pine breaking through, grew sandier.
I staggered more than walked. I'd told Mason that the ground didn't look right, and I didn't mean just the map compared to our surroundings. The soil, the sky, had changed, not color nor shape, but texture.
I wondered silently how badly off I really was.
The sun began its descent.
The footprints danced about, exploring every crevice and plant, always returning to the wash, heading upstream.
The wash rose into crevasses of rock that soon towered above us. By this time my eyes didn't stray from the soft little foot mark on the sand in front of me. My head buzzed, my panic deepened.
I walked into Mason's backpack. Mason had stopped.
The footsteps turned right at a clearing, led unhesitatingly into a rock wall that rose two hundred feet above us, and disappeared.
I looked around the clearing. There were no other prints.
I slapped my jaw shut.
"He didn't even slow down." Mason exclaimed. He stared at the wall for a long time, then unhitched his backpack and slung it to the ground.
I let my backpack drop, turned and collapsed next to Mason.
Mason shook his half-filled canteen, twisted the top off, took a slug, handed it to me.
"No," I muttered.
"Oh, come on, 'Boy, what's the point of being found dead from dehydration with water still in your canteen."
I took a slug.
"Mason," I handed the canteen back to him. "We could drop our packs, just leave em here and scramble..."
"Cowboy, that's not even an option anymore. "
I held my breathe for a moment, then sighed. We sat silently for a long time, and took another long draw on our water. We had a quart left between us.
Mason looked up the trail, then pointed.
"Let's reconnoiter a little."
To the west, the rampart rose four hundred feet. We couldn't see south because of some boulders, so we dragged ourselves up onto an outcropping.
We stood there stunned.
The rock stretched five hundred yards across, a fortress wall, with battlements and parapets, unreachable ramparts and crenels, and we stood on one of its lower turrets, resting our hands on its merlons.
Mason peered around, eyes wide, then turned back to me.
"Well don't just stand there, Cowboy. Take some pictures!"
Mechanically I snapped the shutter.
The fortress wall was impenetrable, like it should be. We returned to our packs.
Surrounded by stone walls, it seemed very late, yet having seen the fortress wall, I felt unexplainably better.
I looked back at the wall the footprints disappeared into. We'd rested now for a good thirty minutes, and I turned to the defile. Without a word, I took a running leap. Two steps up, there was a hand-hold. My boots grasped the barely perceptible cant, and I pulled myself up.
Onto a sloping shelf you couldn't see from below.
The wall of rock the prints disappeared into was an optical illusion. I walked easily up this shelf to a crack in the rocks and slipped through.
I knew where I was, I just couldn't believe it. I was in the natural bowl where the wild horses gathered, our furthest southern point before we started working our way north.
Nightfall found us camped back in Moon Valley, nursing our last quart of water. Next morning we hiked out and hitched a ride to the Jacumba off-ramp. My wife came and picked us up.
The only casualty was the loss of my camera, and all the pictures I'd taken after we'd dropped down the boulders to the stand of pines.
Maybe the sprite stole it.
(A version of this article appears at DesertUSA.com, with extensive pictures.