This story is not the usual POM fare. Where it properly belongs I could not say. If it is not your cup of tea, skip it. I have never told this tale to anyone except my wife. Believe it or don’t, that’s up to you. But every detail is true, down to the last.
Especially the last …
The year was 1994 or 1995. I cannot say which for sure; maybe 1996, even. The salient point is that it occurred back in the day when airlines gave big price breaks if you stayed over a Saturday night, so that it was often cheaper to pay for an extra couple days’ worth of hotels and meals than to fly home on the Friday evening of a business trip. And for that reason my normally stingy company gave me some leisure time on the West coast, such as I could never have swung on my own budget.
I was young then and in great shape. A day off meant a day on the trails, hiking or biking. The East Coast has lovely forests and rolling hills. But this trip was to San Diego, and the mystique of the desert beckoned. I had made two earlier trips to work with that contractor in La Jolla, and both times I wrapped up early on Friday afternoon to beat the traffic out of town, heading two hours northeast, to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
In previous outings, I explored the sights of the desert floor, even tenting one night alongside the Borrego Badlands, where I met a shy coyote in a dry wash. But for my third visit, I wanted to go up. The park is ringed by mountains—rugged, high mountains unlike the ones I knew from the Appalachian Trail back home. The choice to climb was motivated in part by the fact that this visit was in June, and temperatures on the desert floor would be above 100º F by the afternoon. At higher elevations there would be more cooling breezes and less worry of dehydration.
Towering above the Park Headquarters and Visitor’s Center is San Ysidro Mountain, with a curious and alluring shoulder called The Thimble. That’s where I wanted to get to, a point almost 5800 feet above sea level, far higher than any peak I had summited before. The plan was to get an early start, right at sunrise, in order to do most of the heavy climbing in the coolest part of the day, saving the hot afternoon for the descent.
I never found too many companions willing to do the 20- and 30-mile treks I enjoyed. So most often I hiked alone. But a savvy lone hiker takes certain precautions: extra food, extra water, etc. I didn’t have a cell phone back then, but it wouldn’t have mattered. I doubt there were any towers to pick up a signal in the remoteness of the park.
Instead, as a lone hiker I always left a travel plan with someone: a description of my route, expected time of return, license plate on my car, where it would be parked, who to call in case I didn’t show up after several hours, and even a boot print in aluminum foil, in case there would be a need to track me. Back home I would leave that information with my wife. Here on the other coast, I knew the best people to entrust this information to would be the park rangers.
And so I found myself, at the crack of dawn, checking out of the spartan hotel in Borrego Springs and driving my rental car to the headquarters around 5:30 am. I intended to stick a write-up of my travel plan in the mailbox of the headquarters, or stuff it in the crack of the front door—someplace where it would be readily found.
But when I got there, I was not alone. There was a petite young woman in a park ranger uniform outside the headquarters. She was short and slender, a Caucasian with long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. Despite the early hour and the dim light of early dawn, she wore mirrored sunglasses.
I greeted her and told her my intentions—to hike up to the Thimble if I could, and to leave my travel plan with the rangers. I showed her what I was contemplating on my map of the park, spreading it out on the hood of my car. She looked at the plan and suggested changes.
Don’t try a direct ascent up the flat. Use the California Riding and Hiking Trail to make the first 2000 feet of ascent. Then leave the trail and bushwhack over open ground to the south slope of San Ysidro Mountain, right under the Thimble. There would be desert brush to skirt around, but it would be no problem to weave a clear path around shrubs and cacti until I hit the slope itself, which was largely open rock. For my descent, she suggested, come right down to the desert floor, to the back end of a canyon that snaked up around the foot of the mountain. The map indeed seemed to indicate by a dotted line that there was a footpath all the way to the back of the gorge. And the map even gave the name: Hellhole Canyon.
I wrote up the changes and gave the piece of paper to the ranger. Good luck, she said. Have fun. She spoke these words, as she had throughout, with a flat voice, her face expressionless. I drove a short way to a spot off the road just where it passes the trailhead of the California Riding and Hiking Trail, a spur off of the Pacific Crest Trail further west. I chugged as much of a gallon of water as my stomach would hold, strapped on a pack full of more water, food and gear, and I headed up the trail.
The early hours were beautiful: watching the sun’s rays spread over the desert floor, admiring the tiny, delicate flowers that opened with the light as they dotted the ground along the trail. It was a trail engineered more for horses’ legs than humans’, but still a fine way to gain elevation. Two hours or so of moderately easy hiking brought me almost to the point where the trail runs along State Road 22, and thus to the place where the Thimble was almost due north above me.
The first steps off the trail were easy. But soon the way was unclear. The scrubby flora grew shoulder-high and thick. Finding a way around the shrubs was difficult. In one spot there was no break in the brush at all. I scouted for a quarter-mile in both directions. I either had to plunge through the thicket or turn back. I had come so far already: turning around meant only a half-day left with no good plan for how to spend it. So ahead I plunged, figuring a few scratches were a small price to pay for the vistas beyond.
The morphology of plants in the desert is guided by the need to minimize water loss as much as possible. Everything is spiky, scratchy, and sharp. As I forced my way through the hedge, I felt the plants tear at my clothes and skin. But I made it through. Only to discover that the initial higher hedge had hidden another series of equally thick but slightly shorter bushes behind it. Again, no way through except to push. Once more the pain of scrapes and pokes. Once more a forced passage leading to another line of shrubs.
After the fourth row of prickly brush, the terrain opened up somewhat. But now the impediments were rocks and boulders, interspersed with ankle-high cactus plants bearing spines that seemed to reach out for the lower leg, regardless of how carefully one’s steps were chosen. And beyond that, more cacti, close enough together to make it hard to find a path. I would venture forward, only to meet a dead end of boulders and brush, and then have to retrace my steps and try a different direction.
My first seven miles of hiking took two or three hours—not bad for a 2000-foot ascent up a horse trail. But in the next two hours off-trail I only got about one mile closer to my goal, although with all of the scouting and backtracking I had actually put in more like five miles of walking. And still I had another mile or so before I even got to the slope itself—and the hardest hiking of the day. I had been ready for a hike of twenty miles and ten hours. But I was already past the halfway point on mileage, and nearly halfway through my planned time.
And, most importantly, well more than halfway through my water supply. By now it was shortly before noon, and the temperature had risen quite seriously. I was not dripping, as is usual on a long hike. Sweat dried right at the pore. My shirt was not even damp and my skin was coated with a fine crust of salt.
I stopped to eat lunch and reassess the situation. Realistically, I had another couple of hours and another three or four slow, winding miles ahead just to complete the ascent. The descent would be by a different route, and I had no sense of how long that might take, except—judging by everything heretofore—it would take far longer than I had planned. I was pretty scratched up and even bleeding a little here and there. Discretion is the better part of valor, I decided. End the attempt on the summit now and just get back safely. It had been enough adventure for one day.
The ranger said that I could make the hike down into the back of Hellhole Canyon, a drop of some 2000 feet from my present altitude. I turned my face eastward and started heading downhill. I have hiked at times off-trail in the East. It is difficult, because it means choosing every step with deliberation. But this descent was several orders of magnitude harder than anything before. The grade soon became too steep to head straight down: I would have to make my own switchback path, putting extra miles on the tiring feet. It took two hours clambering over boulders and jumping from rock to rock to get to the floor of the canyon. It was nearly two o’clock when I stood on the last boulder before the floor. The sun was now at my back, and there was shade in the bottom of the gorge. But I was exhausted and out of water.
My legs did not have the strength to make a simple jump off the final four-foot high boulder. I stuck my hiking stick down into the sand to bear some of my body weight. It is a good thing that in my fatigue, I hesitated. It gave me that two-second interval in which to hear the warning rattle. He was right under me. I got on my knees and peered over the lip of the rock. As rattlesnakes go, he was a big one. I swiped at him a few times with my hiking stick and he slithered into a crevice, giving me enough space to jump down and dash away from a strike.
I had done it. I had reached the back of Hellhole Canyon. Now it was just a matter of picking up the trail and limping out to the canyon mouth and back to the car. It should be a matter of a few miles and a couple of hours.
Except … there was no trail. I knew from a previous trip that the trail into Hellhole Canyon goes quite a ways in. But not as far as where I was standing. The dotted line on the map meant nothing. There was no path. And the scrubby brush on the floor of the canyon was worse than anything I encountered on the ridge.
Somewhere in that gorge there is a red bandanna with my old company’s logo on it that got stuck on a cactus; it is probably bleached white by now from the sun. I suspect it is still there, because I doubt that any human being has gotten near enough to find it. And I wonder if any human had ever stood in that spot before me.
There was no passage possible. The only way to proceed would be to sidle along the canyon walls, climbing over each boulder one by one to avoid the plant life. But—as I had just learned—down among those rocks were possibly hiding the relatives of the rattlesnake I almost stepped on. A snakebite then and there would be a death sentence. I had to get away from the canyon floor. Salvation was up, not down.
This meant getting back up steep canyon wall back to the California Riding and Hiking Trail, an ascent of nearly 2000 feet. It was too steep to go straight up. I picked out a route that cut diagonally across the slope. If I could find the strength to get back to the trail (past the point where the hedges had impeded me), I might have enough oomph to go the last three miles downhill to the car.
Advanced dehydration is a strange condition. Core body temperature rises; it is a fever without infection. Muscles large and small start to cramp up in agony. The imminent feeling of a paralyzing charley-horse is ever-present.
Mucous membranes dry out. Spit turns to cotton. It is easier to spew it out than to swallow. The walls of the throat, unlubricated by saliva, in the act of swallowing chafe against each other like sandpaper. Without tears, eyelids with each blink scrape over corneas. Urine production almost ceases, but not entirely. Every once in a while, one must stop to squeeze out a few drops of acrid fluid that burns all the way through. Vision blurs and sense of balance starts to fade. All while scrambling over boulders in a steep wilderness, and always a cactus nearby looking to take one more bite out of your skin.
I don’t know how I made it up the side of that canyon. I would tell you I prayed, but there was no voice left for speech, and only enough lung-power for ragged breathing. My thoughts were mostly on the young woman I would leave a widow.
Yet at some point, before 4 pm, I found myself on the ridge and the trail once more. I stumbled down the final miles, falling once or twice just from failing muscles. But I made it back to the car, where I pounded down the remainder of that gallon jug of water, which by now was almost too hot to drink after a day in the car. I drove to the park headquarters to report in.
I walked into to the visitors’ center in a daze, shortly before the 5 pm closing. I looked like I walked off a battlefield. I’m certain that I smelled like a goat. I went to the restroom and washed away layers of blood and dirt. I asked the rangers for some first-aid, something to dress the longer, bloodier scratches. They had only small band-aids, and so the wounds would stay untreated until I got back in San Diego that evening. They logged an injury report anyway, even though they didn’t do anything. I told the ranger that they shouldn’t recommend the route I tried to take today. “Yeah, we won’t,” he said with a superior smirk.
On the way out of town, I stopped at a small general store and bought several large bottles of Gatorade and cold water. I forced fluids all the way back to San Diego. No, I wasn’t really safe to drive, but with air-conditioning on full blast and more hydration I started to perk up. After checking in at the hotel, I found a drugstore and bought ointment and gauze wrappings. There is a scene in the movie No Country for Old Men where the villain gets in a bathtub to pull shotgun pellets out of his legs. I did something like that, extracting cactus spines instead. It would be weeks before the last ones worked their way out of my skin.
I flew home the next day. It wasn’t until nearly a week later that I showed my wife my bare legs. She almost fainted. More than two decades have gone by and I still have faint scars from a couple of the deepest scratches. Many years later, we went together to a conference in San Diego and took an afternoon drive out to the desert. We found a scenic turnoff on S-22 and peered over the ridge into Hellhole Canyon. I traced out my hike with a finger over the landscape. My wife cried a little.
It was impossible that I could have survived. Sometimes, deep in the wee hours of the night, I have wondered if my unfound body is in fact still there, decomposing in the cleft of a boulder; and all that which I think of as life since then is but one long dream of the dead.
One more thing …
As I left the visitor’s center, I told the head ranger in passing that he could throw away the travel plan I left with them. I didn’t want anyone to find it tomorrow and wonder if I had made it back.
“What travel plan?”
The one I left with the ranger this morning.
“Not one of us.” (There were three or four rangers there.)
No. The woman ranger who was here very early.
Right around sunrise, 6 am.
“There’s never anyone here that early.”
She was a ranger. She had the uniform.
“What was her name?”
I don’t remember. (I realized now that she hadn’t had a nametag on her shirt, like the other rangers had.)
“What did she look like?”
I gave the description.
“There’s no ranger in this park like that.”
I was speechless. He cocked an eyebrow at me.
I left, and they locked the door behind me.
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