18-Dec-2006 -- LET THIS ACCOUNT BE A WARNING TO YOU: THIS CONFLUENCE IS IN DANGEROUS, DESOLATE TERRITORY, MANY MILES FROM ANY HUMAN PRESENCE, AND SHOULD NOT BE SOUGHT ALONE.
I made the 202-mile drive from my home in Orange County very early in the morning, timing it so that the sun would be up by the time I started walking. By the time I pulled off in the familiar spot along the dirt road following the railroad, the temperature was about 30 F. I knew I'd be warming up with the exertion before too long, so I just had on jeans, hiking socks in sandals, and a loose pullover sweater with a hood. I slung my backpack over my shoulders, which carried a bottle of water, a baloney sandwich, and a camera, and headed out across the flat plain. The cold air mildly bit my skin.
I slowly trudged my way through the mile of boulders to the canyon I remembered visiting the last time, and I headed in. Every patch of ground in these mountains is covered in loose rocks and boulders, and it was very slow going. I came to a dead end at a wall of solid rock about the height of a tall man. I peered over the top, and I could see that a narrow passage continued on; but, as I hadn't read about this in anyone else's account, I decided that it probably wasn't the right way to go. I remembered reading that people climbed up out of the canyon at a certain point in order to get over to the confluence, so I looked up at the steep mountainside immediately to my left and figure that had to be it. Nothing to do but go for it, I decided.
The climb was laborious and scary. The steep angle demanded climbing on all fours as though one were scaling the Alps, intensely concentrating on the very next place to put a hand or a foot. This was not easy, as a lot of the rocks and boulders were loose and sometimes gave way beneath my weight and tumbled to the canyon floor below, requiring me to scramble to grab onto something to keep me from tumbling down after it. At one point, I found myself with all four limbs splayed out over a large rock, and it seemed nearly impossible to get myself out of that position. A sharp pang of animal fear swept through me when I realized that, if I were to fall from there, I would most likely be seriously injured or killed, and there was nobody within 10-20 miles who would even be remotely likely to come upon me. It gave me a sharp mental clarity, and with a rush of adrenaline I surged forward, instinctively grabbing onto one thing and then another, until I finally got myself out of the predicament. The rest of the climb was much easier; I zig-zagged my way up, hopping from one large boulder to the next, until I finally realized I didn't have any higher to climb. I briefly enjoyed a quiet feeling of satisfaction and took in the panoramic view of the desert that stretched out for miles, and then I gathered myself to continue on. All in all, I think it took me about 2 hours to climb that slope.
My GPS said the confluence was still about 2 miles away, so I made my way up one and down one "peak" (about 2000 ft) and then another in the direction it said to go. From top of a mountain range, though, I had no idea how to gauge how far 2 miles was; and after about 3 peaks, I saw that I wasn't getting very far. My legs were starting to get shaky after the third peak, and the sun was now high in the sky, so I figured it was a good time to stop for lunch.
I hiked down off the top of the ridge and into a small clearing. Since I was out of the way of the cold wind, I warmed up nicely. I ate half of my sandwich, but I started to feel nauseous and couldn't eat any more. I got myself together, and I climbed back up to the ridge to continue on.
Gradually the distance decreased, but very slowly and very slightly. I kept looking at landmarks and thinking that the confluence must be over that ridge or on that far slope, only to find once I got there that it would still be a mile away. I got to a spot that overlooked a canyon, and the GPS said the point was only about a half-mile away. I was sure it was on the other side of the canyon. I looked up at the sky and realized that the sun was sinking low, and it would probably be down by the time I reached the point... and I still had a long way to go after that. Besides, I was exhausted. I decided I would have to cut my losses and head back to the car.
I descended into the canyon, alternating between climbing over boulders and sliding on my rear end. By the time I reached the bottom, the sun had disappeared behind the mountains, and the light was fading. It was then that I started to feel how exhausted I really was. And sick. I looked at the territory that stretched in front of me, and realized with a sense of doom that I still had another 2 miles of slow boulder-hopping, then another mile across the plain, then another 2 miles or so down the dirt road to get to my car. I remembered that the temp was down in the 30s before the sun had come up, and I knew that I'd soon be facing that if I didn't get to my car as soon as possible. I had no source of warmth apart from the loose pullover I was wearing.
I slowly made my way from one boulder to the next, straining to see good places to step in the gathering darkness. My whole body shook, and I felt sick to my stomach. I worried that I was dehydrated. I felt great fear sweep over me. "I don't want to die alone... I don't want to die alone..." I repeated to myself. I had no choice, though, but to keep going. If I stayed out there too long in the state I was in, I might be facing hypothermia. I kept myself moving, trying to keep my mind off of everything except the very next place I had to step.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl. All that existed was the present moment. When the tired-sick feeling came over me, I willed myself to go on, telling myself: Keep moving, or die.
It was with a tremendous sense of relief that I finally came out onto the flat plain and eventually reached the dirt road. It was completely dark now, and it felt very cold. I still had another 2 miles to go, and I could barely keep myself upright.
Keep moving, or die.
I stumbled slowly down the road, utterly drained of all energy. A few times I laid down in the middle of the road to rest. I gazed up at the sky, which was clear and blanketed with trillions of beautiful stars. I felt peaceful, and I wanted so badly to go to sleep. I was sure, though, that if I allowed myself to go to sleep I would probably never wake up. I mustered every ounce of will I had to pick my body up and start walking again.
Keep moving, or die.
The moon wasn't out, so the dirt road was completely devoid of features, so I didn't notice at all when my foot landed in a shallow ditch, and I tumbled end-over-end to the ground, briefly knocking the wind out of me.
Keep moving, or die.
I picked myself up and kept walking. To enable myself to keep track of time, and also to distract my mind from the ordeal, I played a long Led Zeppelin song over and over in my head. I don't remember which one. I occasionally looked down at my GPS, and I saw the distance to my car gradually decrease. Finally, I was there.
I got into my car and cranked the heater up full blast, and I called my dad to tell him what happened and that I was okay. I stayed there on the phone with him until I felt rejuvenated enough to drive, and then I headed 80 miles north to his house in Indio. When I got into town, I stopped off at a Denny's to get myself some badly needed food and drink. When I got out of the car, I felt like I was 90 years old. Every part of my body hurt. I stayed at my dad's house the whole next day, never once getting out of bed.
In all it was a 10-mile hike, with a 2200-ft elevation gain, over 9.5 hours... in completely the wrong place. It was one of the stupidest things I've ever done, but I learned a great deal about where my limits really were, how fragile I was without other people, and how strong my will was to do what absolutely needed to be done.