Wind and Scree on the Way Down - Part 3

Villager Peak Walk - Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Text and photos by Bill Sullivan

What is the worst thing that can happen to you when you are out prowling around in the mountains? "See any rattlesnakes out there?" people ask. I saw one once. It hissed and rattled and ran away as rattlesnakes do when they have half a chance. "Aren't you afraid of mountain lions?" Not as much as the sheep are, I suppose. "And scorpions. Don't scorpions scare you?" I did discover a small one on the tarp under my tent one morning when I camped out there. I wished it a nice day and it departed after pausing for a photo op.

When I think of things I would rather not deal with in most mountains, I think of forest fires. But the Santa Rosas are desert mountains. They don't have forests; they get windy. When I think of things I would rather not deal with in the Santa Rosa Mountains, I think of winds strong enough to knock my tent down. I think of winds capricious enough and strong enough to get under my hat and blow upward with enough force to pick it up off my head, even after I've tied it under my chin. I think of winds strong enough to blow me off my course when I am walking. If I slip on a rock and lose my balance, the wind can knock me down. That's annoying, if not embarrassing. I speak from experience here.

If the winds mean a storm, and the storm is one of those rare ones with clouds so low I can't see, I would as soon not have to experience that either. If I can't see, I can't move. If it's windy and I can't move, I might as well pitch my tent, feet to the wind, eat any food I may have that doesn't require cooking (I will do just about anything to keep from having to light my backpacker's camp stove, especially in the wind), and wait until the clouds go away, even if it takes all night.

After climbing to the Villager Peak summit, I returned to my pack, set up camp and went to bed with my head full of thoughts about climbing the last narrow rocky bit of ridge and the wonderful feeling of reaching the top. But the next morning, when I woke up and realized a chilly wind had come up during the night, my first thought was to get down the hill and back to my car before any really stormy weather settled in.

This terrain is full of scree or loose rocks and I am not the most sure-footed of downhill walkers, and that brings me to another thing I would as soon not have to put up with when walking in the mountains. It is something about my long legs and a feeling of not knowing where to plant my feet, and being afraid of going too fast lest I slip or fall and break or sprain something. So I am probably more careful about walking downhill than most people. I hold myself back, putting on the brakes so my legs won't slide out from under me, and that wears on the muscles.

The original humans to walk these mountains were Cahuilla. They tied the leaves of century plants to their feet and thought they had moccasins. It is doubtful that they kicked many rocks. We think of Indian trails as gentle lanes with plenty of switchbacks. The Indians were probably just trying to be kind to their toes. Unlike us, the Cahuilla never had to be in a hurry to get home; this was their home.

People have asked me if there is a "trail" up here. In the sense that no government agency has ever paved or bulldozed a pathway, there isn't. Why are trail markers needed up here? Rarely is it more than 30 or 40 yards from the west side of the ridge to the east side, and where it is wider it is pretty clear which way the ridge lies. You don't really need a trail through country like this. If you stray too far west or east, you will promptly plunge into the abyss below.

I find it interesting, if not sadly amusing, to walk this ridge in the middle or toward the end of a weekend afternoon. This is the time when people, generally people who haven't planned very well, are hurrying to get back to their automobiles and home. People have told me they have run out of water or food. I have noticed people who seem oddly or poorly dressed for this walk, people in shorts and T-shirts, people whose legs have been bloodied by encounters with century plant spikes or by falls, people who are candidates for hypothermia. Usually I see people who look anything from a little frightened to quite terrified, especially if it looks as if it will be dark before they get to their vehicles.

Guidebook author Jerry Schad, who is not the slowest of hikers, says to allow 18 hours to cover the 20 miles from the trailhead at the S-22 road to Villager Peak and on to Rabbit Peak and back. That's just a tad better than a mile an hour so, applying this rate of speed, the 13-mile Villager Peak round trip should take around 12 hours. When good fast hikers are out there making just a mile an hour, you've got to believe you are looking at something fairly challenging. To be sure, there are people who have been there before, and people who are in great shape, who will zip up to Villager Peak and back in a single day of less than 9 or 10 hours. But these people are the exception, not the rule, and they are not wanderers.

Wanderers like me pause to look at plants. We look for signs of animals. We look for forgotten trails, and we go from side to side along the ridge, first to look down into Clark Valley and then to look down into Rattlesnake Canyon. This takes time, and that is why I have visited the ridge many times but have made it up to the first of its summits but once.

It is too bad that some of the panic-stricken people I have met out here haven't allowed for an extra night on the ridge. Late afternoon in the Santa Rosa Mountains can be a wonderful time and place, if the sunset light is right. Because of the height of the mountains to the west, the sun disappears before the ordinary sunset. When the sun is sinking, it's a good time to look not west but east to the west-facing ridges. The light on these mountains comes in various shades of golden red and pink. Sometimes the clouds in the sky behind them pick up the pink and blue hues.

One of the last things a person sees before leaving the ridge is the Lute ridge or fault scarp, one of those things that sends geologists salivating. From up above, you enjoy a good vantage point. You can see all two miles of what Paul Remeika and Lowell Lindsay describe so enthusiastically in Geology of Anza-Borrego: Edge of Creation.

It's interesting how the Lute fault scarp got here. Through the eons, rain has washed sand down Rattlesnake Canyon and piled it up on the desert. Then, shifts in the earth have taken place, moving the sand to the northwest in the direction of San Francisco. One day, the Lute fault scarp will reach all the way to Candlestick Park, although I don't expect to be here when it does.

One of my thoughts as I made my way back to my car was of my dinner the night before, one of those meals in a pouch that you buy at backpacker stores. The envelope the dinner came in was illustrated with a photograph of a couple who were laboring up the side of a steep, snow-capped mountain. While they were well protected from head to foot with every bit of modern high-tech hiking gear imaginable, I just couldn't see them as comfortable or relaxed. The life-line that connected their bodies, lest one of them should fall, was a tip-off. These people put themselves in what well could have been a life and death situation.

This isn't my style. In the desert, I like to listen to the silence. In the desert mountains, I listen to my body. If my body tells me it is tired, or that the wind is blowing too hard and I wouldn't like it, I stop and turn back. Aborting a walk to the top of the mountain is always an option for me.

Sure, the view from the peak was nice, but so was the sight of the tiny white popcorn flower that greeted me when I stepped off the ridge and into the wash that comes down from Rattlesnake Canyon.

Related DesertUSA Pages
Villager Peak Walk, Part 1
Villager Peak Walk, Part 2
Villager Peak Trail Notes
Anza Borrego Desert State Park
Fish Creek Walk at Anza Borrego



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