Sunday, January 6, 2008

Hanging Out With The Boys

Well, I'm still recovering from the visitations of The Boys From Oregon. I hung out with Matt near Phoenix for a day. After that I drove to Palm Springs, California to pick up Al and Chris at the airport. We went off to Joshua Tree National Park for five days. While I was in the neighborhood I also visited Alex Nieto, an engineer who used to work for me back at HP.

I met Matt at his parent's house early on a Sunday evening. Matt was there with his wife Jasmine and their girl Avery. They were visiting Matt's parents over the holidays. Matt's sister, her husband Luis, and their boys were also there. The one night I spent there was pretty luxurious living. I floated around in a heated swimming pool, often sipping a glass of wine and consuming a variety of hour d'earves. Between stretches of catching up with Matt I played with the kids in the pool. Matt's mom and dad came by every now and then to top off our glasses and plates. Later in the evening I told stories from my trip.

The next day Matt, Luis, and I did a long day hike to the summit of Superstition Mountain. We started out in a wash, eventually heading up a canyon through a forest of Saguaro cactus. The trail was rough and steep but we eventually reached a high valley. From there we traversed, reaching a ridge. The ridge lead to a patch of rock pinnacles which marked the summit. The valley actually contained patches of ice and some standing water. Matt had hauled up a rope, so we decided to attempt one of the pinnacles. Matt lead up a short but highly exposed pinnacle. I followed in sandals while Luis took our photos. It was a sunny, bright day, apparently typical of Phoenix this time of year. All too soon we had to start down.

Throughout our hike, Matt, Luis, and I had discussed all the ways in which the various pointy plants could hurt us. I think the one we feared the most was a broad leaf yucca. These things remind me of a sea urchin, but on a larger scale. They were armed with large, blade-like leafs that came to a needle sharp point. We decided that falling on these leaves would be like falling on the end of a very sharp broadsword. It wouldn't be good. Luckily, we mostly avoided falling on the nasties. Near the end of the hike, however, Matt somehow fell on virtually flat ground, opening a massive gash on his hand in the process. Shortly after that we ran into a tarantula. We were back to the van by mid afternoon. I dropped off Matt and Luis, said goodbye to everyone, and headed for Palm Springs to pick up Chris and Al at the airport.

Things actually went very well. I picked up the boys and then headed for J-Tree. By midnight, on the first day of the new year, we had just crossed the park boundary. We found a place to park, fell asleep, woke up the next morning, then headed into the nearby town for breakfast. We had huevos rancheros cooked by a Cambodian lady and got pretty much what you would have expected. At least she also loaded us up with some New Year's Day "lucky beans." They were actually pretty good. Reminded me of tapioca. Since we'd just had our lucky beans we felt ready to try some of J-Tree's famous rock crags. Mostly we top roped on this first day. Despite not having rock climbed in quite a while, Chris pulled off some impressive moves on a higher grade route. After burning out our arms on the rock we found another campsite in the park and settled down for our second night.

Soon after parking the van the boys pulled out multiple slabs of high grade beef cuts from their luggage and proceeded to cook them. The boys thought this would be a surprise for me, but it was in fact all too predictable. Truth is, when you're with Chris and Al, eating well is an expectation. Really, its even more than an expectation. Its a state of existence. If you are ever for one moment not eating well, or don't feel like you're full, something has gone very wrong. The most likely explanation is that you are no longer with Chris and Al.

It was with this in mind that I had taken on the task of outfitting the crew for a three day, two night excursion into the desert. The only way this was going to happen was if we went "slow and fat." This means hauling lots of food and plenty of fuel. We made final preparations the morning after our steak-fest night. I took it as a positive sign when Chris suggested that there was no need for me to pack in the one liter bottle of El Tapatio hot sauce. A park ranger had really spooked the crew about water. She stated very authoritatively that there was no water on our route and that we would have to haul all of our water in. She also suggested that we do a day hike instead. We kept to our plan, but we went really heavy on the water. I think I hauled in about two gallons.

The plan called for us to hike to the top of Quail Peak, the highest point in the park. We started by hiking along a sandy plain through a forest of Joshua Trees. Chris quickly became the navigator, earning the nickname "Nav Unit." After a few miles on the plain, the Nav Unit directed us into a gradually steepening canyon. This canyon turned out to be full of water, both standing and running. It even contained ice, along with plants which are typically found in bogs. We joked that we should worry more about drowning and over-hydration than dying of thirst. Our first camp was set up in this canyon. Smoked oysters and water crackers were served as appetizers. The main course was tuna and couscous cooked in oyster sauce. The boys seemed pleased, so I called it a success. In celebration, I was christened the self propelled FMU (Food Management Unit).

After breakfast the next morning we started for the summit and reached it around noon. It was overcast but we still had a nice view of most of the park along with the surrounding peaks. We decided to further test our Nav Unit by hiking cross-country (no trail) to a mine shaft located on the map. After spending most of the day traversing we arrived at the mine. It looked pretty old, like early 1800s technology. Timbers framed the entrance. Another timber attached to an iron crank was presumably used to winch material up the shaft. This was the Lang mine, named after it's owner, Johnny Lang. After we finished inspecting the mine the Nav Unit took us down a canyon to the site of Lang's cabin. Little remained of the cabin. We camped near the site for the night. The second night's dinner was rotini and salmon garnished with fresh mozzarella cheese. I added tobasco sauce to give it a little kick. Another good meal, if I do say so myself.

The next day we woke up and continued hiking cross country, arriving back at the van in the morning. After resting a bit we attacked the rock crag next to the parking lot. Chris and I got a lot of good trad leading in. Chris again flaunted his climbing skills by making a 5.10 route look like something he could have lead. Having wasted ourselves climbing again, we headed into town for dinner. After another great meal we found a patch of desert at the outskirts of town where we spent the night. We were glad we had finished our wilderness trek earlier that day. A storm with strong winds and rain moved in that night.

On our final morning together we had another fine breakfast and then researched Johnny Lang. Turns out he was something of a troublemaker. I found a good story on him at this site. Amongst other things, Lang skimmed from his mining partners and made a habit out of killing and eating other people's animals. He also opened the first saloon in the nearby town of 29 Palms. We decided to hike in to another mine in which he had been a partner. This was the Lost Horse Mine. The weather was still nasty at the time but it was an easy hike. No doubt, the Lost Horse Mine was a bigger operation than the Lang Mine. It had machinery and a well developed water delivery system. It was during Lang's tenure as the night shift supervisor at this mine that he skimmed away some of the gold amalgam. Years later, Lang was found dead near this mine. His grave site was nearby. He'd left a note at his cabin which stated that he'd "Gone for grub." He must have been hungry as he had earlier eaten his burros. The coroner declared that he'd died of natural causes. He was in his seventies. Rumors are his fortune still lies buried out in the desert somewhere.

A couple of hours after our last hike I dropped off Chris and Al at the airport. On the way to the airport the boys christened the van the "Water Buffalo." This was in honor of Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism. He was last seen a few thousand years ago, heading west into Tibet on top of a water buffalo. Hence the name.

Anyhow, the Water Buffalo had been acting up lately, as water buffalos often do. For a while it looked like it wasn't going to leave the airport passenger drop-off area. I decided to head to San Diego to find a good mechanic to look at it. It was the same intermittent cutting out problem it's always had, but the problem had occurred much more often during and after the J-Tree visit. I was hopeful that it could be remedied for good. As I neared San Diego I started wishing that I had the number for a tow truck. The problem got worse, to the point where it was continuously cutting out. I was doing 25 MPH on the shoulder of a twelve lane freeway at night in the middle of a rain storm, with the Buffalo backfiring regularly. It was sick for sure. I turned the hazard lights on and hoped no one would rear end me. I constantly worked the clutch and gas, coaxing the Buffalo to keep moving. I kept whispering to it: "Just a little bit further." I coasted into the shop's parking lot (the engine had died) on a Sunday night.

While I was in the neighborhood I visited with Alex. He'd just returned from his honeymoon. The married life and the new job both seem to be treating him well. We made plans to get together for a climbing trip once I've returned to Oregon.

Right now I'm waiting for the Buffalo to come up in the repair queue. Meanwhile I've been exploring San Diego by foot and tram. This morning I got a citation from the local transit police. I had purchased a two trip ticket, but it turns out its only valid on the day of purchase (which was the day before). As he was writing up the citation the officer asked me what my address was. I told him I'm living in a van. I read the citation after he handed it to me and noticed that under the address section it said "transient."

It was good to see the boys from Oregon. I enjoyed meeting Matt's parents and thank them for their hospitality. The desert trek with Chris and Al was memorable. The most interesting aspect for me was seeing Chris and Al come to the realization that the desert isn't as inhospitable a place as it's generally made out to be. I think Matt has realized this as well. It was a realization I had experienced myself only a few months ago when I first ventured into the desert. For sure, you want to keep your guard up, but all of those trips into the northwest's mountains still count for a lot. The desert has its own brand of beauty to offer and I think we all saw that as well. I really enjoyed the trad climbing too. One of my goals for my year off was to become a better trad climber. The time at J-Tree went a long way towards increasing my confidence leading on trad. Hopefully I'll be able to meet up with the boys again some time before my trip ends.

As soon as the Buffalo's been cured of it's ills and I've stocked up on some supplies I'll be crossing into Mexico. The ice climbing trip to Colorado with Tim is off, but we may still get together in the spring. As a result, I'm unconstrained until mid March. By then I'll need to be back at my sister's place in Texas to help with the bakery start-up. I plan on heading down the Baja peninsula, eventually taking a ferry across the Sea of Cortez to the Mexican mainland. After that I'll likely head east across northwestern Mexico, eventually crossing back in New Mexico or western Texas. I don't know how good my internet and cell phone access will be while I'm south of the border, so folks may not hear much from me over the next couple of months. I'll pass on a more detailed itinerary to Ann as it's developed and as communication opportunities arise. I'm looking forward to spending some time on a beach somewhere. I know I will also enjoy my time with the Mexicans.

Hope everyone had a good new year. I sure did.

Phoenix photos are here and J-Tree photos are here.

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