Hiking the Jacumba Wilderness in California
Tracking a Desert Spirit
by Dave Taylor
AKA Space Cowboy
"Mason, you're going the wrong way."
Mason didn't stop, but pointed out ahead of him.
The sun said southwest, but I couldn't trust my senses anymore. The compass needle danced a sluggish jig, east, then south, but never right.
I looked behind me. The horizon was tan mountains, cobalt gray sky. Closer, Myer Valley; forgotten roads leading to abandoned claims, waterless mortreros. South of that, what should be right below us, Pinto Wash; sheer rock cliffs, eerie petroglyphs that haunt me. Water.
Between us and them, about a mile and a half, and a two thousand foot drop; sheer cliffs of toppled stone, dropping five hundred feet from plateau to rocky plateau. We'd dropped down one plateau and nearly killed ourselves. We couldn't go back up, especially with our backpacks. We couldn't find a way down, not in time.
What I'd done enthusiastically for the last two days I now did with mechanical determination. I took a picture.
Mason scuffed to a halt.
"There they are again!"
Sure enough, the shoe print that taunted us, no tread, so small it could be a child's. We'd seen it the moment we'd fallen down the rocks to this plateau, to a stand of pinyon pines.
"We can't be going everywhere this guy's going," I offered.
"Practically every trail we've been on, he's either coming or going on it, too."
Mason paused, then started off again.
"Mason, this is all wrong. Nothing looks like what's on the map, even the ground doesn't look right. The compass, it's practically spinning..."
Mason stopped, turned around.
"Panic will kill you quicker than the desert."
He turned back and started off again.
"I'm following his footsteps."
That had to sink in.
"But we don't know where he's going."
"It's got to be out of here."
I would wonder later if that was so.
My legs ached dully at the knees. I more staggered than walked. Mason wasn't any better off than me. I'd told Mason that the ground didn't look right, and I didn't mean the map compared to our surroundings, there was that, too, but the soil, the sky, had changed, not color nor shape, but texture.
I wondered silently how badly off I really was.
The sun had begun its descent.
The footsteps were not easy to follow, you had to be judicious. He danced in and out of the wash, shooting up rocks, exploring every crevice and plant he came across.
The wash skirted thick brush and gently rose into rock that soon towered straight up on both sides of us. By this time my eyes didn't stray from the soft little footmark on the sand in front of me. My brain was fuzzy, my panic grew silently.
I walked into Mason's backpack. Mason had stopped.
The footsteps turned to the right at a clearing, led unhesitatingly into a rock wall, and disappeared.
I looked around the clearing. There were no other prints.
I slapped my jaw shut.
"He didn't even slow down." Mason said. He paused for a long time, then unhitched his backpack and slung it to the ground.
"Take a break."
I worked the straps that released my pack, let it drop to my feet, turned and collapsed next to Mason. The wall of rock the spirit had disappeared up or into afforded at least something of a seat.
Mason pulled his canteen from its holder on his web belt. He shook its half-filled content, 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 canteens."
I took a slug.
"Mason," I handed the canteen back to him. "We could drop our packs, just leave 'em, and scramble as best we can..."
"Cowboy, that's not even an option anymore. "
I paused, then sighed. We sat silently and took another long draw on our water. Besides this canteen, we had another quart between us.
Mason looked up the trail, then pointed.
"Let's reconnoiter a little."
To our west, a wall that rose four hundred feet, sheer, straight up. We couldn't see to our south because of some boulders, but with a struggle we dragged ourselves up onto an outcropping. We stood there stunned.
The wall of rock stretched five hundred yards across, a fortress wall, with battlements and parapets, unreachable ramparts and crenels, and we stood on one of this fortress's 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!"
I snapped the shutter, but wondered if film could capture this.
The turret was the end of any trail, though. We went back to our packs.
Surrounded by stone walls, it seemed very late, yet having seen the fortress walls, I felt better.
I looked back at the wall the spirit had disappeared into. We'd rested now for a good time, and I turned to the defile. Without a word, I took a running leap. Two steps up there was a handhold that I grunted up to grab. My boots grasped the barely perceptible cant, and I pulled myself up onto a sloping shelf you couldn't see from below.
The solid wall of rock the spirit had disappeared into was an optical illusion. I walked easily up this shelf to a crack in the rocks up ahead and slipped through.
It took a second to recognize where I was. It was roughly where we'd started that morning.
We camped in Moon Valley that night, nursing our last quart of water. Next morning we hitched a ride to the Jacumba offramp. 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 spirit stole it.
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