THE ANXIETY HIKE
Discovering The Great Indifference
“Or will he, after the tomb-like seclusion
of the past day and night, go forth a
humbled and repentant man, sorrowful,
gentle, seeking no profit, shrinking from
worldly honor, hardly daring to love
God, but bold to love his fellow man,
and to do him what good he may.”
Sharing the way
I’m going to tell you now how to get to a place where I’ve reliably encountered The Great Indifference, though I suspect the very telling may spoil the way. If you follow my path, then you’ll likely find nothing but sand, and waste, and heat—all the composite bits of what you’re after, without the substance of what’s not really there. My guidance is the problem... The fact that you’ve followed my words to a place which I found while alone, and in a sense, lost. You may need those alone and lost bits yourself before you can find the indifference. Not to be lost—in fact—but instead to be somewhat indeterminate in your navigation, and knowingly off-course in your movement.
When you’ve reached the point where you’ve satisfied your curiosity about the route I once took, then ask yourself if you’re ready to step off the unseen marks of my past trespass, to embark along new lines towards your own solitary waste and desolation. If ready, then put aside my maps and guidance; stuff these deep into your pack or tear them up perhaps. But do this only if you’ve a mind to crush the empty promise of discovering anything of real value by retracing my footsteps exactly. So prepared, step now onto the soft sand, or across the hard and slippery granite. Begin walking where your feet will go. Do you have your GPS life beacon? Is it charged, armed, and ready to save your life? If not, are you willing to gamble deep and hard with your own soulless mortality for the chance to meet what isn’t there in the deeper wastes? If so, then you don’t need my words any longer. Go, and die today in the face of what is not, to continue on and better as part of what really is.
Five miles round trip approximate. Return is via a different route. Actual mileage may vary greatly, depending upon how closely you fail in following my course, and how successful you are in losing your way.
There is no trail here, though there are many potential Paths of Wildness. The terrain is mostly flat, with everything rising on a slight incline south to north. The landscape is uneven, with hard and slippery granite and rhyolite slopes, periodic sandy flash flood arroyo and gullies, and several steep, black volcanic domes. There is little or no shade. You will be utterly exposed. And utterly alone. For that matter—and for our purposes—the trail quality here then can perhaps be honestly described as perfect.
Best time to go
November through April. Avoid summer months, unless you’re truly ready to meet the Desert Killer.
There are many: heat, exposure, snakes, spiders, rugged terrain, open mines, no connectivity and no help. Also, there is no love or caring here—beware, these may follow you back.
Reasons to go
Solitude, history, natural beauty. To encounter The Great Indifference. To lose so much you never knew you didn’t need.
High chance of encounter, but only if you go alone.
Why did I come to this place?
I’m haunted by something which does not exist. Something which doesn’t drift across the desert sands, or linger in the cold night air, nor touch my heart, nor press my words. Still the words do come, arising from my own forceful optimism, drawn along in their emergence by the vacuum pull of a landscape which does not and cannot care. The desert is indifferent to my ideas, my positions, my feelings and even my life. Though it can and will consume these, not through any action or intent on the part of nature, but by way of the landscape’s withering neglect and disregard, and the resulting loneliness and disconnect which is the bittersweet end I always seek and discover in such places; as well as the very torment even my bones must painlessly endure as they dry, bleach, and crack to sand under the inferno sun, before desert winds then scatter what’s left of me to oblivion.
A type of anxious motivation comes to me whenever I tread alone into a place which I sense is not just indifferent to my life and death, but incapable of even giving a damn about either. With some mischief I call this self-inspiration my muse, and reckon it a she. Such poetic license… I do worry that I’m only confusing matters by not speaking plainly that my muse does not really exist. She’s only a thing of my mind. A circumstance of place and time, and past experience, and disposition, and bias, and want.
The words I seek, and which I attribute to my muse, come, in fact, from my own liberated senses. The experience is like the anxious freedom a child knows when they go past the limits prescribed by caring adults, to take thrilling risks which yield secret and suspect reward, and hold unknown and unforeseen consequences. The words which arrive to me in this state have more in common with fearful, mad laughter than sane and sober sagacity. Perhaps this is the reason I must always go alone. For to share this experience with another must surely break the spell of relentless risk and introspection. And perhaps this fact can also explain a little why I sometimes fail at my efforts to enter the deep desert alone, and instead turn back for home, citing my family and responsibility and other worthy reasons to give up.
But hope is not lost for those who aim to find more than just my footsteps. All that is needed to go beyond my path is to simply not stop looking—to continue past the lines I’ve marked with my words; to trespass the unknown and uncertain; to be ready to fail, ready to become lost, ready to never come back. And most importantly, to be ready to go alone.
When to go and what to expect
I recommend this hike from November through April, when temperatures are manageable and not too dangerous. Though beware the precipitous nighttime cold which comes on fast as soon as the sun passes over the horizon. Even in summer you can chill deeply through the night due to the limited cloud cover, which absence fails to insulate the Earth, and allows the accumulated heat of the day to dissipate quickly away to space, as from a bare body on a bed without a sheet.
As for heat, there is little shade anywhere along this hike, so dress appropriately, with proper protective cover and liberal application of sunscreen. The reason I didn’t include October and May in my recommended hiking months, is that though the morning temps at these times are quite nice, the afternoon direct sun can be blistering given there is no escape. Particularly dangerous is the fact of occasionally—and surprisingly—very hot days during these months, which can easily kill anyone who goes too far, and finds themselves trapped in the rising heat, miles or hours from safety. Don’t let the blissful conditions of morning lure you so far into the desert that you can’t escape when the inferno turns on at around 11:00 AM. Death is easy here, and it sneaks up quickly upon the foolish and unprepared. Even with sufficient water you may not outlast the experience of prolonged direct exposure to the relentless sun and heat.
Arrival and campsite
Siberia ghost town is easy to find... Just type: “Siberia, California” into your navigation app and follow the way. There are no amenities in Siberia—It’s a desert ghost town after all—so be sure to get whatever you need at the community of Needles, Twentynine Palms or Barstow, depending if you approach from the east, south or west respectively. Don’t be fooled by the fact of Amboy. As of this writing there is really nothing there of much help.
You won’t need a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to Siberia, as the only dirt section of road is short, and passable by an average two-wheel drive car. When your navigation app indicates you are close, you’ll see on the map that you must turn from Route 66 onto a dirt road which leads a short distance into the desert to what’s left of Siberia ghost town. As you approach, look on the north side of Route 66 for a large tire propped up on a pole beside the entrance to the dirt road.
This big tire was placed here by railroad men who marked it with the words “West Siberia” (East Siberia is where the road crosses the railroad tracks) and who use the tire to help them easily find their way off Route 66 to the Siberia railroad crossing. I’ve also heard from the railroad men that the East and West designation are references to the direction of train travel on the railroad. Don’t be surprised if you see one or two big white railroad trucks drive by during your stay, as this important and active stretch of rail seems to require constant attention. The railroad men have only rarely stopped to say anything to me during my visits here, and I don’t think they mind much my nondescript little camp, or the fact that I routinely park my motorcycle near the ghost town ruins. To be safe, I recommend against parking or camping too close to the railroad tracks, or especially the crossing, or little signal shack, as this might indeed raise the attention of the railroad men, who must keep this line secure, and in continuous operation. Please also keep in mind that the area around Siberia is private property, belonging to the railroad for at least fifty yards on either side of the tracks. The railroad police do patrol this area, and they won’t be too happy finding you near or crossing over the tracks. Otherwise, they seem to be fine with folks parking at, and hanging around, the area of Siberia (appendix 5). I recommend leaving a note with your vehicle to inform the railroad police that you are hiking in the desert, otherwise they may mount a rescue party to go find you—as they once attempted to do with me, though I arrived back in time to stop their effort before the helicopter was airborne. Another landmark at the juncture of the dirt road is the enormous “Route 66” graffiti painted in white lettering directly on the ground where the Siberia dirt track meets Route 66. However, don’t count on those painted words to be there in the future, as this stretch of Route 66 is long overdue for a repaving, and I don’t expect the lettering to last should the California highway department come through with fresh asphalt.
When you near the big tire juncture, slow and then turn off Route 66 and onto the dirt road (watch out, as there’s a sandy spot just as you come off the highway). You are now entering the remains of the community called Siberia, a place which once served travelers moving on both the railroad and the highway, as well as miners who prospected and worked claims in the surrounding mountains. This ghost town formally began life in 1883 as one of several water stops for trains on the Santa Fe railroad. The steam locomotives of that time consumed water greedily as they climbed westbound up the Mojave Grade from Amboy through Bagdad, Siberia and Klondike (aka Ash Hill). Clearly, the names given these spots are suitably evocative of far and remote places, and harsh and hostile landscapes. And the names are appropriate, as you’ll discover when you visit.
When you arrive at Siberia you’ll find a single crumbling stone wall marks the current center of the ghost town. This wall, and the foundation upon which it stands, is all that remain of the railroad station at Siberia. Though you can drive right up to the ruins, I recommend instead that you park your vehicle some distance away, as the dirt and sand around the ruins is littered with rusty nails which can easily make your adventure more interesting with a flat tire. I usually park next to the eastern edge of the dirt road which I drove in on (roughly parallel the ruins) and then set up camp a short way out in the open desert. If you look closely, you might even find signs of my camp, which consist of a rectangle of the large stones I use to hold down my tent ends, and a small wooden block (the end of a railroad tie) with a metal grating affixed to the top which is a table for my stove. Like all of the ruins at Siberia, it’s likely my own ruins here will outlive me, and remain to perhaps provoke questions in anyone who finds them after I am gone. Again, when setting up camp, beware of old nails, broken glass and sharp, rusted metal in the sand which can easily puncture the bottom of a tent, sleeping bag, or you. I refer to this site as my “base camp” as I often use it as the setting out point for longer adventures into the desert.
If you arrive before sundown, then I recommend spending some time exploring the desert around the Siberia ruins, where you’re sure to find many reminders of the town which once was. I suggest a walk through the desert along the dirt road leading back to Route 66, where—with a little luck—you’ll find the remains of a stone-lined footpath which someone created here decades ago. The narrow trail was made by careful placement of desert stones positioned on the ground, one after another, in two parallel lines leading from nowhere to nowhere. I find strolling this old forgotten path conducive to many empty thoughts, which are a satisfying suggestion of the empty offerings you may be lucky enough to find during your desert hike. At times, I've been tempted to call the outline of these stones The Path of Wildness.
If you overnight at Siberia, then be prepared for strong wind, cold air, brilliant stars, and the frequent low rumble and groan of long trains passing nearby. Most will be slow-moving freight trains, numbering dozens of cars, with three to five growling locomotives at the head, and maybe one or two locomotives pushing from the rear, and possibly another squeezed in somewhere in the middle. At least once in the night you may glimpse a fast-moving Amtrak passenger train speed by with brilliant lights flooding the night from every domestic compartment; always moving fast, always west to east. The sight of this civilized, peopled, conveyance is a bit surreal in this lonesome and otherwise dead-of-humanity place, like the passing of a bright, lively mortal through the dull and gray land of the dead. Each and every train which passes will sound its horn four times as they approach the crossing where the dirt road goes over the tracks, and where crossing bells and lights announce the approaching train to the empty, indifferent desert. Each train will issue four horn blasts, three long and one short: blaaaaaaare, blaaaaaaare, blare, blaaaaaaare. A similar blast of four will be heard as the train passes far off past Klondike to the west, and again where the railroad and highway go by Dishbowl Crater to the east. Very few cars will pass on Route 66 during the day or the night. If you are very lucky, and visit between the months of July and September, then you’ll likely witness, at night, the flash of lightening upon distant peaks to the south and northeast; though it’s unlikely that you’ll hear the sound of thunder, the distance being too great, or that any rain will fall where you are, Siberia being one of the driest places anywhere on earth.
Don’t be surprised if you sense something watching you in the night. Desert fox emerge from their den at sundown to hunt in the dark, and their natural curiosity may lead them to pause and watch you from some distance out. If you’re very lucky you might catch sight of their eyes gazing at you from the dark, reflecting the light of your flashlight. How suspect, strange and alien we must seem to them. Do they wonder at our motives? Ask themselves why we are here? If only you could reassure the fox that you’ve no intent to leave or take anything besides your own complacent certitude and weak dependence.
Tongues of rock
Beginning in Siberia, you’ll want to start your hike early in the morning by heading out towards the northeast. If you must, then use a compass. If you can, then consider the art of dead reckoning. Though, if you are not possessed of a good sense of direction then please don’t try this, as the desert here is no place to become lost. Just remember that if you are ever in a pinch and can’t remember your way out, then simply head south and you’ll eventually run into the railroad, and then the highway. Another simple solution to escape this particular region of desert is to simply follow the apparent course which water might take. Since all rivers in this immediate area drain to an enormous dry lake basin to the southeast, you will eventually arrive at the railroad if you simply pretend to be water, and flow with the watercourse down.
Setting out from Siberia you’ll immediately come to the railroad tracks. I don’t recommend crossing, or even approaching these, which is a sure way to get in trouble should the railroad police catch you, or worse, a train. Instead, I recommend hiking a quarter-mile east to cross under the tracks, where a low bridge goes over a flash-flood channel. But watch out for snakes under the bridge, which is a perfect hiding place for such species. After the tracks, you’ll immediately see a large earthen berm stretching out to the left and to the right. This berm was formed by the railroad using bulldozers in an effort to protect the tracks from flash floods. Coming out from under the tracks, the berm spreads away in long angles out into the desert. Beyond this berm is open desert. When you step past the berm you’ve now left civilization. Moving away from the tracks you’ll probably see some railroad debris such as old steel tracks and wooden ties resting along the edge of the wash, as well as older items such as rusted cans and broken glass—though after the berm you’ll only rarely spot anything made by humans, beside periodic Mylar balloons which float out here from birthdays and surprise parties in Los Angeles, to become tangled and entwined in the limbs of creosote and burro bush. Please consider collecting these intruders to take them out of the desert with you when you go. As they no more belong here than you.
From where you are now, look towards the northeast, and you should see a large and ominous Black Mountain standing alone like a dead sentinel. This mountain is your destination. It’s about two and a half miles away as the crow flies, and will serve as a reliable beacon for the next hour or so of hiking. There’s another, still larger, black mountain (volcano, really) directly east of you, but this is not your destination, as it won’t lead you far enough from civilization and safety to do any real good. The indifference there being simply too faint to perceive.
When you pass beyond the railroad berm you’ll be stepping onto what is simply the most current page of a long geologic story. The hard-packed sandy soil beneath your feet extends downward to depths of dozens or hundreds of feet before reaching bedrock. Further south from this spot the depth of sand grows steadily deeper by hundreds and thousands of feet to a maximal depth of over ten-thousand feet of accumulated alluvium. You’re standing then upon an ocean of eroded sediment deposited here over millions of years. That’s because the desert around Siberia is the outer edge of what was once a vast valley between the hills and low mountains of the Bristol range to the north, and the much larger Bullion Mountains to the south. The Bullions are those large peaks you can see when you look south from Siberia, and where you may spot one or two red light beacons flashing at night from the highest peaks. Those mountains are very far away. Long ago, the mountains on both sides of the valley were much larger than they are today, and the space between them vast and deep. However, that ancient valley has since been filled in over a long expanse of time by the steady and gradual erosion of the mountains on either side. If we could snap our fingers and suddenly make all the sand which fills the valley disappear, then you would find yourself wishing you had a parachute as you begin falling towards the valley floor far below. Imagine all the time required to fill this enormous empty space with sand. Imagine all the wind and rain necessary to complete the feat of eroding, transporting and depositing all of the loose rock bits which comprise the desert sediment. This fact is still more startling when you consider that much of this sand arrived gradually via intermittent flash floods which, just once or twice a year, pour from the mountains to add another layer to this long story of sand.
The ground where you now stand is composed of a mixture of many types of rock: from beach-like sand grains, to pebbles, to stones and even very large boulders. All of which were laid down by perennial streams and rivers during wet epochs such as the Pleistocene, or by intermittent flash floods during the current dry desert climate. Try and imagine the countless successive late summer floods which spilled from these mountains out onto the open plains, emerging from narrow and winding canyons onto broad slopes of sand; waters mixed and churning with mud, rocks, boulders, sticks, logs as well as dead plants and animals. Upon exiting the mountain canyons, these fast-moving floods would spread into myriad braided channels, which then diverge, meet and separate again over the course of many miles before at last depositing their load and sinking into the landlocked desert basin or evaporating into the dry, stale air. These violent flash floods are infrequent and intermittent—rarely re-visiting the same open desert course twice in years or decades, as new sediment deposits tend to push subsequent floods to either side of the last course. This is the process which, over many hundreds and thousands of years, did produce the alluvial fans and bajada upon which you now stand, which are made more clearly visible due to the lack of any trees or extensive ground cover.
The desert near Siberia consist of volcanic rock and sand of dark and light coloration. I refer to the darker material as “Tongues of Rock” due to the way these formations stretch across the land for miles north to south. Both the light and the dark rocks are volcanic in origin, having come to the surface of the Earth at different times, to flow and cool after exposure to the atmosphere. The dark-colored rock appears to be from an earlier eruption, consisting of magma, rich in iron, which oxidized as it flowed over the surface of the Earth before at last solidifying into miles-long petrified flows. This is what gives these landforms their “Tongue of Rock” appearance when viewed from high altitude or satellite imagery. The red color of these rocks is due to oxidation after exposure to the Earth’s atmosphere. The lighter-colored rocks and sand here appear to be from a different volcanic event, in which the rocks solidified underground, providing little or no opportunity for oxidation. This is the reason for the lighter color of these rocks. Walking across this landscape is as pleasant an experience as reading a book of ancient geologic history, as every mile reveals a new and interesting chapter in the story of the Earth. Keep your eyes open here for bits of petrified wood, as this area did also once host a conifer forest which was apparently killed and covered by the ash of a nearby volcanic eruption; possibly from one of the volcanoes you will see during your journey today.
I hope you’ll enjoy your long trek across the open desert from the railroad to the Tongues of Rock, and the experience of investigating the story of the dark and light-colored sands. To maintain your bearings and heading, just keep your eyes on the dark Black Mountain which is your current destination. But again, be careful to not confuse the mountain you are now after with the large black volcanic cinder cone which can be seen further out and to the southeast. If you find yourself running roughly parallel to the railroad while steering towards this more distant dark-colored mountain, then you are probably hiking towards the wrong peak. The mountain you want is the smaller one more to the north, which stands alone and looks something like a black, bell-shaped dome, and for which walking towards will gradually conduct you further and further from the railroad. But beware, for you will soon lose sight of this guide…
Black Mountain begins to disappear while walking on the Tongues of Rock due to the fact that the landscape has begun rising more steeply ahead of you. If you are not good at dead reckoning, then it might be a good idea to bring a GPS unit or compass and maybe a proper map, as this isn’t a good place to get lost or turned around in, and it’s worthwhile to come with proper navigation equipment and skills if you believe you’ll need them. I’m pretty good at just finding my way in and back, and so when I lose sight of the Black Mountain I just continue walking uphill in the same direction I was headed. Eventually, if you keep to the same course, then the landscape will begin to level off, and you will again spot Black Mountain, though this peak is now much larger and closer than when you first lost sight of it. At this point, look for stones on the ground displaying the impressive geologic phenomena called desert varnish.
The rocks near the summit of the Tongues of Rock are quite interesting, with many surface rocks resting on the ground in intriguing natural tableau, almost as though they’d been positioned here by the landscape designer at a Japanese Zen temple. If you look closely at many of these stones you’ll note that they are covered with a deep and rich patina. This dark coloration is quite evident when you pick up one of the stones and examine its underside, which is likely much lighter in color than the surfaces which are exposed to the open air. This phenomenon is called “desert patina” or “desert varnish” and there are several explanations for its origin. Keep your eyes also open also for hematite, which is a high-quality form of iron ore. The specimens of hematite here are particularly nice, and may be easily mistaken for meteorite, especially since both rock types are strongly attracted to magnets.
One explanation for desert varnish is the gradual accumulation of impurities which are deposited on the rocks from rain water. Another idea is that bacteria are the source of the varnish, leaving the dark stains as a waste by-product of their metabolism. In either case, the varnish appears to develop on the rocks at a known rate, which is helpful to researchers who can use this information to date how long a stone has been exposed in the open by noting the relative accumulation of varnish. Another useful function of this knowledge is in determining how long ago human rock art was inscribed on desert stones, where such marks were made by scraping away the dark varnish. This is done, again, by measuring the amount of desert varnish which has accumulated on the stones since the scraping was first made. The stones which you will find resting so nicely upon the summit of the Tongues of Rock are some of the best examples I’ve seen of desert varnish, and I highly recommend you take a break from your trek to examine the stones here. Just please be careful to replace these as you found them for the sake of future passerby to enjoy.
When you can see the Black Mountain again, you are now very near a major landmark on this hike. At the end of the tongues of rock, you will suddenly come upon a small bluff overlooking a large sandy arroyo called Siberia Wash (real name). The wash is always dry, save for the times when sudden and violent flash floods come through. You’ll be safe crossing, though definitely check the weather before your hike, as a forecast of rain should keep you on the alert for the sudden, upstream appearance in the wash of a churning wall of water, led by a loudly grinding head of boulders, stones and plant debris. Though the chances of encountering a flash flood are slight, the risk is real and the likelihood of death should you become caught up in the flood are quite high. As an added precaution, please remember to never set up camp in a sandy wash basin, as this is just asking for trouble. Keep in mind that one of the leading causes of accidental death in the American desert is drowning due to setting up camp in the soft sands of a flash flood arroyo. Desert floods can appear suddenly, and without warning under a cloudless sky due to localized cloudbursts occurring far out of sight higher in the mountains.
From the bluff overlooking Siberia Wash, you can now easily see Black Mountain directly ahead. If you look a bit to the right you’ll see a smaller peak with something at the top which I call “The Watcher” due to the fact that it looks like a human figure standing on the top of the hill looking back at you. This Watcher will follow your movements from now until you pass beyond the northwest edge of Black Mountain. Before you move down off the bluff, and into the sandy wash, you’ll want to see if you can spot another small wash leading up and out of the larger wash on the other side of the arroyo. This is a good landmark and destination if you want to discover the jeep tracks which are the next section of this guide. It’s alright if you don’t find the small wash though, as your overall destination is still the Black Mountain which you can likely easily see from where you are.
Descend carefully down the side of the bluff and into the sandy wash. Be careful here as the descent is deceptively dangerous, with loose and slippery footing and many narrow slots and crevasses where you could easily catch a foot and twist an ankle.
Old jeep tracks
After you cross the Siberia Wash you’ll encounter a short, yet steep, climb up and onto the tongue of rock on the far side. As before, watch out, as the crumbly rock surface could cause a bad slip and fall. Once you’re up on top you’ll find it easy going along the flat surface which inclines very gradually upward in the direction of Black Mountain. This area is curious for its exceptionally flat and even surface, and if you look closely you might spot some old jeep tracks running in the same direction you are walking. I imagine these tracks were laid down many decades ago by miners, though they remain quite distinct for the fact that there is little rain to wear the marks away, and though the wind is strong and nearly constant here, it is rarely powerful enough to move the small stones which form the outline of the jeep tracks. Keep a lookout here for fine examples of a phenomena called “desert pavement” which is the seemingly delicate arrangement of tiny pebbles into a mosaic of stones upon the flat surface of the desert. The process which produces this pavement requires many years of wind, rain and gravity to bring the stones into just the right place to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Call it a miracle if you like, though I see no more wonder here than chance and the mindless will of nature.
Keep the Black Mountain directly ahead of you now, and just a little to your right as you proceed, and you will soon encounter a second wash smaller than the first. From the edge of the tongue of rock you’ll want to carefully survey the Black Mountain which is now just across the wash. You’ll find several small ridges coming off the side of the mountain. There’s a ridge at the near edge with a small canyon on either side. Make your way up and into the north-side branch.
About halfway up the small canyon, turn right, and begin climbing carefully up the side towards the ridge above. About halfway up the side, stop…and look around. If you’re lucky (and in the right place) you might make out the very faint outline of an animal trail where it crosses the hillside. I discovered this animal trail through the study of satellite imagery, and it was curiosity about the trail which first led me here. Go to the trail, and then follow it towards Black Mountain until you reach the looming flank of that ominous peak. Now that you have reached the mountain look up. Impressive, huh? When I reached this same point I quickly gave up any idea of climbing Black Mountain. There was simply something about the steepness of the sides, the fact that I was alone, the strong wind, the startling sunlight, and the poor condition of my body—which was already protesting the hike with fatigue and the whispered voice of caution—which together suggested I was done with this upward advance. At least for today. For the record, I have since returned and climbed Black Mountain.
Climb now along the very edge of Black Mountain where it meets the little canyon, and up to the ridge which extends out from the side of the mountain. Walk out on the ridge and find a nice spot for a sit, to look back in the direction of Siberia. Black Mountain is now looming directly behind you. Small canyons falling away on your either side. Looking left you can see “The Watcher” upon his distant perch, watching you still. To the right the second wash you crossed disappears soon around a bend and into the badlands to the north, to the place you are headed next. In there can be found the Sandman’s Bed. If you’re lucky the wind is now blowing, blowing hard perhaps. Looking far directly ahead you can see many miles to Siberia and the distant Bullion Mountains beyond. So far. So impossibly far.
This is the point when the fear first struck me on this hike. A real anxiety rising from the immensity of the vista before me. The solitude. The uncaring wind. My own growing sense of my body’s failing functions and frail durability. How easy it would be to stumble and twist a leg on descent from this place. Somewhere where nobody knows where I am. Someplace I’d not likely ever be found. Sure, someone could find my motorcycle back at Siberia. But what could lead them here to me across such trackless desert, with so many other places to look? Yes. Here I am so clearly vulnerable, and weak, and getting old, and so plainly mortal. The indifference becomes apparent at this point. Especially when I look over my right shoulder at the badlands to the north. Towards the Sandman’s Bed, which is my next destination. Again, for the record, the first time I came here I did not have a GPS rescue device and no one knew where I was. I was truly, utterly, alone and beyond help. Though I hesitate to say so, this factor may be important to the quality of the experience which I’m attempting to relate. Though if anyone asks, you didn’t hear that from me.
The Sandman’s Bed
Look behind you from Windy Ridge. If you came here alone, could you climb to the top of that Black Mountain at your back? This challenge proved too much for me, and I found myself dismissing the thought outright, with vehemence, with such conviction that I was startled by my own willingness—eagerness almost—to give up. How could this be? As climbing Black Mountain was the very reason I’d come here. Now all I could think to do was retreat. And I couldn’t escape fast enough… If your resolve is greater than mine, then climb Black Mountain, and hazard a glimpse of deeper Indifference than my courage or resolve could then muster. When you’re done—or if, like me, you give up—then make your way carefully back down the side of Windy Ridge the way you arrived. Though don’t go back along the animal trail, and instead simply go directly to the bottom of the little canyon, and then up the other side. Below you now, are the badlands. Make your way carefully down, and then skirt east along the base of Black Mountain until you can see another black volcano in the far distance to the east. Turn now to the north and move straight into the badlands. Note how the wind suddenly stops here. Where did this silence come from? And suddenly the fear is gone, or nearly gone. Maybe it will soon be replaced by something else?
Wander a bit to the north into the hard and irregular landscape here. Attempt to get lost a little, and perhaps forget the reason you came. Within a few minutes the land will dip down and to the left at what is the start of a small drainage. Go down into the drainage and follow it as the water would flow, back in the direction of Siberia. You’ve just passed the furthest point of this journey and will now be making a roundabout return to Siberia; following a new route back in the worthy tradition of Thoreau.
The little watercourse you’re on will grow slightly larger with each step. When I came this way the anxiety I felt up there on Windy Ridge had vanished by this point, and was replaced instead with a confidence which grew in proportion to the erosion of the landscape where I now walked. I believe that the cause of this change was the cessation of the wind, which blew hard up on the ridge, unsettling my nerves with a reminder of these fierce natural circumstances, and the implicit threat of such solitude, and disconnect from the comforting fellowship of my own species. The quiet now of this meandering dry gully hushed my nerves, but perhaps only as much as any illusion of security the mind can invent in dangerous places and compromised circumstance.
Soon your little course will merge into a larger gully, with steeper sides and a sandy bottom. How much water and rain were required to make this sand from solid volcanic rock and granite? Was this done during this current epoch of desert? Or perhaps during an earlier period of geologic time, when the landscape wasn’t desert, and rain fell and flowed here sufficient to produce a perennial stream; with fish, and insects, and birds, brush, trees and an entire green ecosystem? Was this small stream basin carved then from stone by the constant attention of a bursting biome of animate purpose and action? Am I seeing this now in the absence of such seeming purposeful force? Is this thing which is lacking, in fact the cause of the indifference I sense all around me? The vacuum absence at the cessation of activity? Is this why I can only best comprehend such indifference in the desert? And only after I’ve wandered far from somewhere, into a nowhere, where memory remains visible only upon the face of stones, and the piles and swirls of sand. My steps begin to slow and falter here. The Sandman’s spell begins with comfort and deep wonder. I mustn’t let myself sleep. There’s time enough for that after.
After a short distance, the larger gully will widen and then turn gently to the right. Black Mountain is now near at hand, directly to the southeast. It blocks and protects us from discovery. To the east, west and north there’s only vast waste and empty. This place is nearly as good as you could hope to find for quiet introspection, though you may need to bring such peace with you. I recommend stopping somewhere here in the sand. Take off your pack. Lay it aside. Sit down on the sand. Pull off your shoes. Then your socks. Lay these aside to dry a bit in the still, sunny air. Take off your shirt. Lay down on the soft sand. Close your eyes now with your head facing upstream, and your feet towards the somewhere where you are headed. Your feet should always face in the direction of your somewhere.
Close your eyes and let the sun blaze. Warmth rises now on your exposed limbs. Feel your skin beginning to heat. Does the sand feel good under your back, bottom and legs? It should be soft and surprisingly comfortable. Let your mind wander. Note how it doesn’t wander far. There’s anxiety again now as you lay exposed and vulnerable in the wilderness. What danger might come of this? What animal could be watching you now from above the gully? What might come padding or slithering up or down the wash towards us? What small things might now be creeping across the sand in our direction? Did I stay too long out here? Do I have enough water to make it back to Siberia safely? Can I remember the way? I’m already on a path which is not the one I used to get here? Do I have enough time to make it back? Will I die today, or tonight, out here in the desert? Have I already made some fatal mistake?
Note how these thoughts are different from those on Windy Ridge. Was your thinking so practical on the ridge? Looking out at the impossible landscape, feeling and hearing the wind, tracing your mortality across some past few decades of your life to this moment? Asking yourself how much more to come, and what, if anything, might follow? These were the impressions on the ridge. Not fear, but frightful awe, and an awesome comprehension of irrelevance to the lack of any comprehensible meaning, intent or purpose in the greater scheme of nature. This is the difference between the naked and raw exposure to indifference, and the mere fear of being alone someplace far and alien.
When you’ve had your rest at The Sandman’s Bed, put your shirt and shoes back on, hoist your pack and continue walking downstream until you spill out into a larger wash. Turn right and go up this wash a short distance—maybe a quarter mile—before turning sharply to the left and heading up and over the ridge. Now you cross the badlands. You might cross here through another couple of washes as you move steadily west. Now’s the time to get lost and lose your way to the next stop in our journey. If you do get lost then don’t panic. Just head downstream with the next dry wash you encounter, or go back to the last wash. Following any wash or watercourse now towards the south will eventually take you out into the open desert, where you should be able to regain your orientation. And even if you don’t, if you continue south now you will certainly eventually encounter the railroad and route 66. But again, don’t come here or follow this course unless you can accept the chance that you might make a mistake and find yourself truly lost, with night arriving soon, little water left, and absolutely no idea where to go. This risk is one of the reasons to come.
At this point in the hike I’ve rather left you on your own, and am now providing only rough guidance to get you from one place to another. This is both deliberate, and a consequence of the fact that, as I type these words, I can’t really think of a good way to guide you along a route that is largely trackless, and without good landmarks. All I can say is that you need to continue west through the badlands until you again encounter Siberia Wash. But don’t let the fact of your larger journey and goal distract you from the worthwhile value of attendance to each step through the badlands. In hindsight, if there’s any place I wish I’d lingered more on this hike, it’s here. There isn’t much to be found in this waste, which is precisely its attraction; and the uneven up and down of the landscape, somewhat slippery underfoot, gives good traction to the type of reflection my dead muse so often promotes. In fact, I’m a little suspicious that these badlands are where the corpse-like inspiration I call my muse first found me, and then followed me back home.
Stop when you reach the eastern edge of Siberia Wash, and then look across the wash for a dark line of rock stretching low and long against the foot of the hills at the other side. This is a dyke of rhyolite which stands in the midst of the wash, very close to the far edge. There are two additional rhyolite chunks in the wash here, closer islets of stone. Move now towards these rocks, visit each if you can, find the surprise treasure hidden here (appendix 6), before continuing towards the larger dyke. When you arrive at the largest and furthest dyke, note the fact of shade here, which is something you can’t easily find in this desert. Use the shade now if you need to, though beware black widow spiders in the crevasses of the porous stone.
Maybe you’ve already noticed now that you are at the dyke, but there’s a wooden structure standing alone just a few dozen yards to the west of the dyke. This is “Campo #1” which is a long-abandoned mining camp. The location of Campo #1 is an outstanding desert camp site on the south end of an island in the wash, protected from the floods, and protected from the winds. It’s a good place to overnight. I’ll leave the rest for you to discover on your own, as there’s not much here that isn’t worth finding any other way than alone.
Dangerous abandoned mine shaft
When you are finished at Campo #1 head south down Siberia Wash. Do you feel that subtle relief of being homeward bound? Are you tempted, as you walk through the sand, by the sight of deep, long, canyons extending off to your right? Do you see the colors in those hills? Do you want to go there now? I thought the same; though I resisted for a while, which was a good thing, as the first few of those canyons will take you too far out of your way, up and into the place I call Deep-Water. I recommend saving your swim into Deep-Water for another hike. I’ve been there. That place deserves a fresh start—and more importantly, fresh reconnaissance—and an understanding of the area that comes from first successfully completing The Anxiety Hike.
Do you sing? I don’t—though I found the walk along the wash from Campo #1 to the abandoned mine shaft a good place to sing. Just about the time you’re starting to get into it you should see a large pile of dirt atop a small embankment to the right. This pile marks the site of a vertical shaft dug straight down into the Earth. Approach carefully, as falling in would be very bad. There’s a large wooden beam across the hole. Throw a rock in and wonder at the depth. How deep does the desert really go?
This hike is almost over. At least in terms of what I can tell you. The last part is a bit of a risk, as it consists of a freeform walk into the near edge of Deep-Water, and a somewhat challenging push out through The Edge of Deep-Water, up and over a landscape which is indeed a bit dangerous, will likely provoke some panic, and may lead you to become truly lost if you are not careful. Perhaps it’s better you skip The Edge of Deep-Water and just continue down the Siberia Wash towards the railroad. You’ll find your way back. It’s the smart thing to do.
The Edge of Deep-Water
As I type these words I feel like I’m being overly melodramatic at this point in the story. However, I’ve been to The Edge of Deep-Water three times, and every time I felt the same. It’s a scary place, largely due to the fact of exposure, and heat, and distance, and the strange sense that time is running out. It’s not like the indifference I sensed on Windy Ridge, or the unseen threat I pondered at the Sandman’s Bed. There’s something more real about what I feel every time I go to The Edge of Deep-Water. A sense that the clock is ticking, perhaps a bit too fast. A mild panic that rises as I begin to race back to safety. A sense that the Desert Killer is on its way.
From the abandoned mine shaft, continue past the hole and into the small canyon which cuts into the place I call Deep-Water. Walk and walk. To the left, and then the right, as the canyon twists and turns. Admire the color in the walls. Admire the plants. After a bit, things will open up to the right, revealing a very interesting and different type of badlands, consisting of rolling hills and deeply faulted canyons. On your extreme right side, a small mountain rises to a high point. About halfway up there’s an “Old Miner” squatting and watching, taking over your surveillance where The Watcher of Siberia Wash left off. This is where you’ll discover The Home of Faith. Look to the north now. Look hard. No faith is needed.
Some distance further, you’ll need to make a sharp left and then strike for the low, and very near, hills to the south. Though the climb isn’t too difficult, I do think it’s dangerous. The ground here consists of crumbly, slippery granite and very narrow channels and crevices where feet could easily slip, get caught, or meet a rattlesnake. Take care now. Make your way safely to the top.
When you arrive at the summit you’ve reached The Edge of Deep-Water, from which you’ve also just emerged. Though in fact, your encounter with the Deep-Water wilderness was only passing, and fleeting. Turn now and look back. Take in that view. Don’t you want to go deeper? Take off your pack and sit down for a bit. Let the wind press from behind. Look over your shoulder towards Siberia. You’re almost safe again. All you need to do is make it down through the hills, out over the tongues of rock, onto the alluvium, and out across the open.