Company of Strangers
Text & Photos by David Taylor
I’d gotten out there around 7:30 and by 8:00, there were 3 of us; Night Owl, an intern with the Weather Service, and college student when he’s not fighting ferociously for the environment; PCT Packer, so-named because he’s got a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail under his belt; and myself, Space Cowboy.
This would to be that day’s group. Hiking today, camping tonight, backpacking in to Rock House Canyon after meeting with Frank Colver and his son on Saturday, and exploring that corner of BLM land on Sunday.
Quickly we decided to explore nearby Canyon Sin Nombre, which translates to Canyon Without a Name. I’ve only driven this route -- twice down, once up. My wife tells me it’s gorgeous. I’ve been too busy creeping up or sliding off a boulder to really notice, so I suggested we hike it. We claimed a campsite, put up our sign that Packer had thought to make, so that any other ‘boarders who might wander in would know to wait for us there, then took off.
East on S-2 by truck to the bottom of Sweeney Pass, we turned onto a dirt road on the left that skirts the Coyote Mountains, paralleling Carrizo Creek. The road goes around a piece of private property that recently was acquired by the Park. An ancient fence still marks the property lines. Then the road winds through a large Tmarisk grove. When there’s any kind of rain, the road here floods and turns into a muddy gooey nightmare.
This time, the truck kicked up a fine silty dust. Still, I smelled water as we pulled up near the Bow Willow wash entrance. Any further and you really need four-wheel-drive, and Night Owl didn’t have it.
There’s supposed to be a well right there. Though there’s the telltale signs of a barbed-wire fence, we couldn’t find any other evidence of human habitation. With water and lunch we headed east on foot, up the wide mouth of Canyon Sin Nombre, through Smoke Trees thick with red-berried Desert Mistletoe and Creosote. The wash was sandy and an easy walk, the climb mild and merciful.
The walls of the canyon began to rise and close in on the road, still a sandy smooth thoroughfare. Packer knew of a slot canyon that would get us to the top of the canyon walls. After about a mile and a half, we finally found a promising entrance that we followed up. The sandstone walls slowly closed in, rising above our heads until finally the sky was a mere slit over us.
Walking sideways was the only way to slip through some parts of the route. Every once in a while we’d see a small depression underneath the wall, eye level, maybe a little lower, that had droppings of some kind below it. No place for a bird to nest or roost, we decided these must be bat dwellings. Black Widow Spider webs gently swayed in the breeze that came up The Slot. Finally, we burst out at the top.
To the east, across the Canyon, the Coyote Mountains continued to rise, stark, sharp-edged and strong. To the north and west, the Carrizo Badlands; Vallecito Creek, South, East, and Middle Mesa, Arroyo Tapiado, Arroyo Seco Del Diablo. Where the stage coach station used to be, it was green and wet. Always a shock to the system, running into that marshy spot after cruising along dry washes. Beyond that, the Impact Area is a story in itself. Further west, Carrizo Creek and the Tamarisk grove we’d driven through.
Further out, what at first I thought were clouds hugging the ground, was instead sand being picked up by wind, blurring the west. Standing on top of the canyon, with no cover of any kind, we still didn’t feel any wind. To the south, trails led upward along the top of the canyon wall, the sides at this point a hundred feet tall, mostly straight down.
Walking along the roof of the southern side of the canyon, we followed a trail marked occasionally with cairns, and after maybe half a mile, descended down another slot. We continued, sliding down an occasional boulder, noticing more bat guano and small tufts of Carrizo Cane, until we found ourselves once again in the main canyon. Here the walls were witness to millions of years of tumbling turmoil. Time and again we saw fissures of quartz cut and hacked, sometimes running horizontally, then suddenly split vertically. Colors and minerals came in dozens of layers and textures.
We stopped just before the top entrance of Canyon Sin Nombre for lunch, hiked a bit further to glimpse the Badlands Overlook, then started back down the wash. I kept pulling out my antiquated GPS, which occasionally gives useful information. "You trust that thing?" Packer asked.
"Hell no," I answered quickly.
"Well, why not?"
"Because it says the cars are over there," I said, and pointed to the wrong side of the wash. In the entire length of the canyon, the road was a perfect smooth sandy surface. Only the entrance and lower exit would keep a sedan out. All the hair-raising boulders I remembered creeping over in my four-by lay underneath the sand. Canyon Sin Nombre, the natural outlet for all the rains from the Coyote Mountains, had apparently not caught enough water to flush the sand out this year. We reached the vehicles and headed back to camp. We’d covered a little bit less than 7 miles, taken it easy and made it a full day’s hike. It had been a good day, and I was no longer in the company of strangers.
Go to Part 2
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