Hidden in Plain Sight: Three Days in the Desert
Jonny Grave | Jul 12, 2017 | 9:00AM |

After months of ceaseless gigging, touring, writing, shooting, and recording, I spent two weeks hopping between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, three days of which were spent in the desert.

Into the Desert

Close your eyes, and think of a desert. What do you see? Sand? Sun? A distinct dearth of water, an inhospitable environment for humans, and miles upon miles of seclusion? We like the idea of a desert being barren, or devoid of life, just like in the cartoons. We see it as something arid, fatally hot, big, empty, and unwelcoming. While the Amazon holds countless species of deadly plants and animals, and features a climate perfect for breeding diseases, it still gets a friendlier rap than a desert.

These assertions, while maybe containing a couple truths, are mostly bunk.

A desert is anything but devoid of life– yucca and cacti line the hills of Joshua Tree, mesquite and other shrubs dot the rolling sides of Red Rock Canyon, and Palm Springs features an impressive array of 40-foot-high palms, stretching high over the canyon floor. There’s also jackrabbits, coyotes, lizards, snakes, beetles, birds, and a few thousand other species crawling around the deserts of Earth. While it’s not the same kind of lush flora one would see in an evergreen forest, deserts are full of life.

They’re also home to some of the most spectacular views. Sunrises, sunsets, a myriad of stars, and the occasional storm all make up the big sky that hangs over the desert. The sky itself plays a role in how the desert is shaped and formed over the millennia: wind whips grains of sand against the rocks, carving impossible shapes from the stones pushed out of the Earth’s mantle, which the rain further erodes, only to be baked by the sun an hour or so later. It makes for an otherworldly landscape, which is at once primal, natural, but foreign, like the surface of another planet.

It is perhaps this otherworldly quality that historically draws some of us Homo Sapiens to the desert. It’s no coincidence El’s creation of the worldthe transfiguration of ChristJim Morrison’s LSD-soaked wedding rites with NicoHunter S. Thompson’s foray into the great Mint 400, and Josh Homme’s “generator parties” all took place in the desert. There is no place on Earth quite like the desert, because the desert isn’t exactly like any place on Earth at all.

With that, here’s three deserts, each with its own peculiar feel and vistas, all within a reasonable drive from “civilization.”

Turtlehead Mountain, Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, Nevada

Two steps off the tarmac and into the airport, and the sensory overload is already getting on my nerves. Billboards, flashing lights, chirps, whirrs, bells, and nothing but slot machines as far as the eye can see. Oh, good– people can smoke indoors everywhere here. That’s nice. Oh? And the liquor is free so long as you’re gambling? No, I can’t see how any of this could turn out poorly.

Thankfully, I’m not sticking around here for long. Maryjo, my smarter, prettier, and altogether better half, has a conference here in Vegas. She’s invited me to tag along, and take advantage of the free hotel room. Naturally, I accepted the invitation, and immediately began packing. On a sunny, windy Monday afternoon, we set up camp at the JW Marriott on S. Rampart, just off Route 159.

159 stretches from West to East, connecting the thriving, neon-festooned, chain-smoking, tourist-infested, and hopelessly drunk downtown Vegas to the desert; Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area is only a 20-minute drive from the hotel’s parking lot. While my girlfriend was doing important things with her adult job, I was speeding out of the city streets, and into the visitor’s center at Red Rock Canyon.
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As I paid the $7 entrance fee, the United States Park Ranger showed me on a map where I could climb, where was off-limits, and which spots would yield the prettiest views. “It’s about 3 p.m. right now, which means you want to be on your way out of the park in about three hours.” I told him I’ll be sure to not get locked into the park overnight. “Oh, no,” she explained, “it’s not that at all. Dusk is when the predators come out, and we’d hate for there to be an incident.” I ask her what kind of predators she’s talking about, and she replies “Just coyotes. You’re not in any serious danger with them. They’re more afraid of you than you are of them, probably. Unless they’re hunting in a pack.”

Turtlehead Mountain is one of the more common hiking trails at Red Rock. It’s also one of the most challenging, despite its popularity. The hike is 4.6 miles, consisting of an out-and-back trail that dissolves into a loose path, marked by neon spraypaint every fifty yards or so. The climb starts easy enough, but turns treacherous exactly as soon as your car is out of sight. Climbing under the sinking light, racing against the sunset, I got what must have been three miles in, before asking a hiker headed in the opposite direction how much farther I have to go. Wheezing, sweating, and stumbling past me, he says, “Does it really matter at this point?” I kept climbing.
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As my knees started to give, and the air became thinner than what I’m used to, I got to the top. A little ammo box from a surplus store was nestled between two stones at the peak’s plateau, complete with an unopened bottle of water someone had left for the next weary traveler. Despite my thirst, I nearly elected to leave it be, wondering how long it’s been up at the top. When I saw a log book, signed by dozens of people who’ve reached the top that very day, I popped the cap, and downed the whole bottle in one go.

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The descent was easy enough, stretching and straining my legs and ankles, but in the opposite direction than their strains from climbing. I made it back to the parking lot just as the sun sank behind the ragged hills of the canyon. Ignition and headlights on, I made my way back east, to the hotel, the buffet, the seven-foot-wide shower, and a bed. I passed out at 9 p.m., and didn’t get up for ten hours.

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Mouse’s Tank, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

With Maryjo’s conference ending, and my strains from scaling Turtlehead subsiding, we switched hotels. Farewell to the semi-elegant, halfway-stately JW Marriott, hello to the goofy, plastic, unreasonably loud, and utterly chaotic Excalibur Hotel. Why, exactly, did we choose the goofy, castle-shaped, Camelot-themed hotel? Because we figured there’s no half-in/half-out in Vegas. Go ridiculous, or go home.

Luckily, Excalibur has a means of escape for us: a full-service car rental dealership downstairs, which can be found by carefully navigating the acres upon acres of slot machines. It took me half an hour to find it. In a brief exchange with our rental agent, and a polite request for something small and fuel efficient, she puts a pair of keys on the counter, each marked with a silver galloping horse, telling us “So sorry! No compact or economy cars are available on our lot this afternoon. I can give you a Mustang for the same rate, though. Is that okay?”

Only an hour and some change later, I pulled the canary-yellow Mustang off I-15, and onto the narrow, two-lane blacktop that snakes its way into the Valley of Fire. Stepping out of the car, we noticed the sound changes dramatically in the valley. There’s a wind, there’s the odd truck or two, there’s maybe the far-off chatter of other hikers, or possibly some birds and bugs… but nothing else. It’s still.

I picked the Mouse’s Tank Trail over the other slightly easier loops because of the archaeological finds in this part of the park. Thousands of years ago between 300 BCE and 1100 CE, to be exact, the Anasazi lived in these hills. As humans are one to do, they left bits and pieces of themselves behind. Arrowheads, flints, buried remains, and stone hand tools have all been found in the Valley of Fire, then removed from their resting place, and put into museums and collections all over the world.

 

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What’s left, though, is a thousand times more compelling. Petroglyphs (literally “stone writing”) are a form of rock carving found in abundance in the Valley. Iron deposits in the sandstone leeches out to the surface of the rock, turning the red surface black. The Anasazi discovered early on that the iron is easily carved away, leaving a red stone carving on a black background. The Valley is full of wall art from generations of ancestral Puebloans, forever marking their hunting achievements, the size of their families, commemorations of their honored dead, changes in weather patterns, and the wilderness around them.

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Walking the narrow path between canyon walls is not unlike walking through an art gallery, only there’s no clear way to discern the artist, and the absence of the sun creates a significant temperature drop. Maryjo and I made it back to the Mustang, freezing, then headed West, ate the second best meal of the journey at Honey Salt, then sped clear across Vegas to head out to Red Rock Canyon one more time, just to see the stars.

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Indian Canyons, Augua Caliente Indian Reservation, California

Jennifer, my girlfriend’s sister, is impossible, but in the absolute best of ways. A consummate hostess, she will almost physically bend over backwards to make sure all her guests are having the best time. When Maryjo and I came to visit a year earlier, it was at her bidding (and in her car) that I made my first trip into the desert. We went to Joshua Tree on a cold, windy, and beautifully clear day, and scaled Ryan Mountain. Jennifer remembered how much fun I had, and specifically blocked off an afternoon for Maryjo and I to drive out into the desert again.

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Palm Springs is just a couple miles off I-10, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians have a reservation. The 125 square miles is only a tiny portion of the land the Agua Caliente used to occupy. The United States Federal Government carved up the area to better accommodate the railroad, segmenting the land into individual square mile plots, granting every other square to the Cahuilla. The result is a checkerboard pattern of land in Palm Springs, a major source of tension in the area. The unique land layout continues to raise the question of land ownership and usage of resources in the area.
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Just south of the checkerboard, though, is a massive park on undeveloped wilderness, featuring miles upon miles of trails, and lush valleys lined with the region’s distinctive palm trees, surrounded by jagged hills and crooked horizons. The smell of the air changes from dust and gravel to fast-running water, plants, and soft earth. A 60-feet waterfall in the desert was the last thing I expected to find in the desert.

The settlements in the canyons are old. The Cahuilla moved in here thousands of years ago, though there’s debate as to exactly when. What’s certain is that agriculture was an essential part of life in the early days of the valley. Melons, squash, beans, and corn were all farmed here.
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This is something we sometimes forget about early civilizations; We’re so quick to believe the humans of three thousand years ago were somewhat dim-witted, or at least less-smart than us. It’s easier to think of them as incapable of understanding something as complex as a smartphone, or a zippo lighter. Y’know– cavemen. Ug-Ug.

When, really, the early Cahuilla settlements in this valley were complex societies, with irrigation systems, dams, medicines, basket-weaving, and communal food prep areas. There are flat, table-like rocks, not far from one of the trailheads at the park, with divots of varying depths hewn into the stone itself. An Agua Caliente guide explained these smooth indentations on the stone were from families using the rock as a mortar to grind grain or seeds. The deepest ones, our guide tells us, are the oldest, and were passed down within families from generation to generation. This was where food was prepared for millennia. I’ve only had my favorite cast iron skillet for five years.

Maryjo drove us out of the park so I could take pictures of the sunset. As the car twisted through the highways East of Los Angeles, and as the clouds rolled ominously around the sun, like black smoke billowing out of a house fire, we drove through a wind farm. Crouching on the seat, with my head, my shoulders, and my camera out of the moonroof, I snapped away at the windmills. With the wind rushing around me, and cars passing us on the right, I silently wondered what future archaeologists, alien or otherwise, might make of the scene before me. Would they think the windmills were some kind of temple? Would they think these were barbaric, mechanical totems we erected to spin endlessly in the desert? Would they even know the names of those who built them?

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