Desert Hike:
Part 2

Text & Photographs by David Taylor

Brief Recap: The five of us knew each other only through the messages we posted on the Message Board –Frank Colver and his son Marty, Night Owl, PCT Packer and myself . On the Board, I am called the Space Cowboy.

Night Owl had suggested that we all needed to meet. That’s what brought us to Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.Night Owl, PCT Packer and I had camped at Mountain Palm Springs along the S-2 thoroughfare in the southeastern end of the park, after having spent a day hiking Canyon Sin Nombre.

We discussed our plans for the next morning's backpack through the high pass and descent to Bow Willow Campground where we planned to meet Frank and Marty for a trip into Rockhouse Canyon. Someof us would spend the night in the canyon.

Then, electronic disaster struck. Night Owl, an intern with the National Weather Service and on call, got paged. He would have to leave our party early and report to work.

Day 2: The next morning, the three of us hiked up to Southwest Grove, where a recent fire had burned the skirts off the palms. All around the grove, water seeped. New shoots of palm trees broke the earth. The path was slippery with wet mud. Packer pointed out Pupfish in the small pond nestled underneath this grove of California Fan Palms.

Packer and I left one unhappy Night Owl behind, beneath those palms, and we continued on up the trail, rising quickly.

I knew now that I'd brought too much water. We scrambled over rocks and scree. Balls of Jumping Cholla littered the path. Crossing a wide wash, we waded through Teddy Bear Cholla, Creosote, an occasional Smoke Tree and on toward Bow Willow.

When we reached the campground, Frank Colver, tall and barrel chested, loomed over us. He measured us as he shook our hands. His son Marty was just as tall, but lean. Frank owns five acres at Canebrake, a settlement just a couple miles north on S-2. The route we followed took us up Bow Willow Wash about a half mile, then turned east into Single Palm Canyon, where the trail turned into rock climbing.

I sucked air. My heart thumped. Frank and Marty, unencumbered by packs, practically levitated up the boulders that hampered my way. Packer, who has twenty years on me, didn't even breathe hard.

We climbed six hundred feet within about a quarter of a mile, passing a single, handsome Washington Palm that gives this wash its name. At the top, a flat plateau stretched east before us. Boulders are piled precariously high, aging, graying and crumbling.

At a long break, Frank broke out his American Indian flute. In amongst the boulders, the eerie alien sounds bore great haunting weight, reminding me why I love to wander in the desert. It’s like a Mozart concerto. It’s simply 'true.' No words I possess can possibly expand the understanding of it.

Hear flute

If you don't have QuickTime try
-Wave Format(650k)------Real Audio(163)

Marty noticed a curious pile of boulders. With some effort, we crawled through a door-shaped entrance into a room shielded from the wind. A fire once burned against a wall, blackening earth and stone.. How long ago? How long undisturbed?

Following the cairns when we could, dodging Beavertail Cactus, cholla and occasional Barrel Cactus, we finally descended into Rockhouse Canyon Wash. The Catclaw and thistle brush tore at my pack. If I hadn’t wrapped my thermo-rest with an old wool blanket, the thorns would've pin-cushioned the self-inflating mattress.

I took a reading with my GPS. "How far does that device say it is to the cabin?" Frank asked.

"Half a mile," I puffed.

"Why, that thing's downright…" Frank studied his words, "discouraging," he finally said. .

"There it is," Packer said finally, pointing. The little cabin is tucked into the folds of the mountain. The road that once led to it appeared at our feet.

Except for these last few yards, there'd been no signs of that road. The cabin's roof is battered, one wall is crumbling away, but the wood door still swings open. The chimney stands over the tiny hearth inside. We all admired the view through the paneless window. Rockhouse Canyon stretches away to the east, wide and wild. Behind the cabin is a dry concrete tank. A galvanized pipe stretches down the mountain over boulders and into the reservoir.

There are other cabins like this in the In-Ko-Pah and Jacumba mountains. Built by cattlemen as refuges while they tended their herds, the cabins were built right against the rock. Except for this one with a canyon named after it, none is shown on a topographic map. Uncelebrated, they decay in obscurity.

We ate lunch, lounged a bit. Frank and Marty had to leave. If they waited much longer, they'd be getting to Bow Willow Wash in the dark.

"I'll think of you in our nice warm cabin tonight," Frank winked, "drinking an ice cold beer."

"Have one for us," I shot back.

"I will!" Frank said, and shook our hands. They waved as they took flight, freed from the guys with the backpacks.

Packer and I continued up the wash for a short while, red-blossomed Chuparosa catching my eye, until we came to a spit of sand between two walls of Desert Willow. We threw out our bedspreads. Packer fired his little pack stove to heat water, and he offered me a hot cocoa. It started getting really cold. Even though it was not yet dark, it was time to get into my sleeping bag. "I've never gone to bed this early," Packer protested, but he got in his bedroll, too. Soon it was dusk, then dark, and we watched the stars as they appeared in the sky. We argued over what those two bright planets to the southwest were. I was sure they were Jupiter and Saturn.

Packer checked his thermometer. "It's thirty four degrees," he said Shortly after that, no later than six-thirty, I fell asleep, toasty warm. I wished my mattress was a tad thicker.

Day Three: The next morning, we climbed up the canyon behind us. It is a steep two hundred--foot climb through dry, thorn-choked boulder falls. Packer directed us to the Bighorn Sheep trails that run higher up the sides of the canyon. There, we only had to dodge cholla and Beavertail Cactus growing out of sun-glazed scrabble.

First up one wash, then over through a saddle into the canyon that drains down next to the rock house. The change from the one gorge to the other was dramatic. The first was soft, sloping sand and brush, a small palm caressing a sumac plant. The other had walls of tumbled rock and little vegetation. Thefloor of the wash rock, black rimmed from water stains, lay dry..

The cattlemen had built rock walls along one side of the canyon, the other side already made impassable by boulders. A crude barb wire fence wrapped around boulders, sticks of Ironwood, and pieces of metal pole, until it stretched the length of the canyon. We opened a rude gate and stepped through. At the rock house, we considered our options, and we decided to get back to our gear and head on out to Bow Willow.

The day was getting on. Up through Rockhouse Pass, we descended down into Bow Willow Wash and walked east. Bow Willow is a wide wash, in places choked with Smoke Tree, Tamarisk and Bow Willow trees. Bow willow limbs, legend has it, were used by the Indians to make bows.. The sides of the wash are wide expanses of lightly disturbed sand into which you sink as you walk. The center trench is turmoil, water having cut deep through smooth stone layers. Tree roots protrude from the walls. Easier going here,, though. Although rockier, the ground is hard.

We came out of the mouth of the canyon and crossed a large flat wash. We hiked over a hill covered with Teddy Bear Cholla. The rocks reminded me of the pass over Single Palm Canyon. We had to go through the rocks, ascending slightly until we reached Southwest Grove. From there we could see our vehicles.

A quick side trip up to Mary Grove, a place Packer wants his ashes spread when he dies, then off we went, back home, our Message Board adventure finished until next time.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest desert state park in the contiguous U.S., is located in eastern side San Diego County, western Imperial County and southern Riverside County. It is about a two-hour drive from San Diego, Riverside or Palm Springs.

Link to Part one

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