Treasures in the Desert

by Bob Sparrow

ironwood 2My formal introduction to the ‘treasures of the desert’ probably took place in the early 70s, when brother, Jack took a job as restaurant manager at Ironwood Country Club in Palm Desert and he invited me out for a weekend. I believe it was in March and I was teaching school in southern California at the time; I remember thinking as I made the drive to Palm Desert just how close the desert really was – only about an hour and half drive and yet, I was to find out, a world apart. And while the weather was certainly nice in Orange County in March, it was amazing in Palm Desert, especially the nights. I remember sitting out on a beautifully clear evening with a billion stars all around, wondering how long this had been going on – apparently for quite some time.

painter's pallet

‘Painter’s Palette’ Death Valley

My love and fascination with the desert and its flora and fauna has continued to this day. I was amazed at the colors and the shear beauty of the desert on my first visit to Death Valley where I was also intrigued with ‘desert stories’ like that of ‘Scotty’s Castle’. My two treks through Joshua Tree National Park introduced me to unique rock formations, eerie hidden caves and spectacular views. My hike through Havasupai introduced me to the extraordinary water features in what was seemingly a dry, desolate desert. I recently visited the Desert Museum in Tucson with niece, Shelley Watson and continued to be amazed at all the beauty and life that exists in the Arizona-Sonora desert. The Raptor Show, featuring Ravens, Great Horned Owls and Falcons was remarkable!

Aside from the ‘family treasures’ in the desert, such as my sister, Suzanne living in Scottsdale and my sister-in-law, Starlet in Apache Junction, there’s a small oasis about three-and-a-half hours from home that calls to Linda a couple of times each year; you might know the place . . . Las Vegas. Linda has not met a Top Dollar slot machine that she doesn’t think she can hit the ‘big one’ on, so for her birthday each year, I ‘surprise’ her with a trip to visit our money. This year we did manage to salvage a little education out of the trip with an excursion to Hoover Dam, the building of which was amazing.

primm3

Primm, Nevada

With all the hikes, excursions, timeshare in Palm Desert and trips to Vegas, you’d think I’d have my fill of the desert, but no, there is yet another pilgrimage that we make each year and from which I have just returned – Primm.

Primm, or what used to be called Stateline, is on the California-Nevada border, and at first passing you wonder why anyone would stop there with Vegas just 30 minutes away. The answer is Primm’s two 18-hole golf courses, which have a unique history of their own. Famous golf course designer, Tom Fazio, was contracted by Steve Wynn to design the golf course at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, under the condition that he would not design another golf course in the state of Nevada. Thus, the two magnificent courses he designed at Primm are just over the border in California.

south point

South Point Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, NV

A group of 12 couples from Yorba Linda Country Club have been going to Primm on ‘Derby Weekend’ since 1996. The outing was originally put together by Debbie Osborne, who with husband Russ, still attend, along with two other original members, John & Judy VanBoxmeer and Don & Marilyn Spradling, who made the trip this year from their home in Fresno. Linda and I have been lucky enough to have been part of this ‘gang that couldn’t shoot straight’ for the last 12 years

equestrian center

Rodeo at South Point Equestrian Center

A small wrinkle in the Primm trip this year was, for the first time, we didn’t stay in Primm. While the golf courses are top quality, the Primm Resort & Casino would be lucky to get the tip of one star in a five-star rating. So, one of this year’s organizers, Chuck Sager, who has ‘connections’ at South Point Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, suggested a change of venue. The South Point Hotel is very unique among Las Vegas hotels – it has 124 bowling lanes as well as horse stables and a full equestrian center, where, last weekend, many of us witnessed our first rodeo. It is truly an amazing place.  Thank you Chuck!  We also changed golf courses to Rhodes Ranch, another ‘treasure in the desert’.

derby

Sometimes a ‘winner’ is a ‘loser’

A tradition at this gathering is a large bet on the Kentucky Derby. We have two legitimate ‘pony players’ in the group, Jack Budd and Russ Osborne, so everyone gives them $105 and they make some sort of boxed, parlay, quinella bet to heighten our interest in watching ‘The Derby’. We actually won about $24,000 in 2011, of course it was split amongst 24 people, but still, it was a lot more fun than losing, or winning the way we did this year. Jack & Russ actually picked the top 4 finishers, but because they were mostly favorites, our $105 bet got us a $30 return, so ‘winning’ produced a $75 loss. But it was exciting for a moment, before we realized that winning was actually losing – more mysteries of the desert!

Whether I’m hiking, exploring, golfing or just losing money, the desert continues to lure me to its hidden treasures.

Hiking Lost Palm Oasis and Ladder Canyon with the Odd Couple

by Bob Sparrow

3 hikersNow that the rainy season in Southern California (2 days in January, maybe just one this year due to the draught) is over, it’s time to hit the hiking trails. Spring’s first trek takes us back to Joshua Tree National Park and to Mecca Hills Painted Canyon and Ladder Canyon for the first time.

(For new subscribers or for a re-visit, here are the two links to our Joshua trip two years ago: http://fromabirdseyeview.com/?p=1506     http://fromabirdseyeview.com/?p=1534)

The Cast

Patrick ‘Trail Boss’ Michael, my Nepal trekking buddy along with hiking novice, Marc ‘Swizzle Stick’ Webb, who stirs up all the neighborhood parties with his wit and enthusiasm make up our hiking trio. Patrick, the engineer and Marc, the salesman, invariably look at almost everything from two completely different perspectives. I felt like I was watching an episode of the ‘Odd Couple’ all weekend. The banter between them was constant and hilarious on virtually every subject.

Pat Marc

Pat & Marc disagreeing about something

We leave Orange County, Friday morning in Patrick’s Avalanche truck, which is pulling a 25’ camper – so we’re not really roughing it this time by sleeping out under the stars. As Marc’s wife, Lisa says, “You guys are going glam-ping”. We arrive at Cottonwood Springs campsite inside Joshua Tree National Park around noon and set up camp, which entails winding out the awning on our camper, unfolding our chairs and cracking open a beer.

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Lost Palms Oasis

Lost Palms Oasis

This hike was about an 8 mile round trip trek over a series of ridges and valleys and after reading the brochure’s description of this hike, below, we were very excited about the hike and having lunch at the oasis.

Large boulders, pools of water, intermittent streams, willow thickets and sandy beaches make this a delightful spot to pause.

That description of the oasis turns out to be a verbal mirage, as there were no pools of water, no streams, not even intermittently.  There was sand, lots of sand, but no beaches – I think water is a requirement for a beach. We did find some moist ground in places, so perhaps it once was as the brochure described, but thanks to the California draught we ate our lunch in a dry riverbed. But the hike was not without its redeeming features.

French toast

Banana, bacon French toast

Those who think of deserts as just brown mountains and sand would have a hard time imagining all the beautiful flowers, robust plant and animal life and beautifully colored rocks that are abundant here. When we realize how the flora and fauna in the desert gets by with so little, we almost feel ashamed wolfing down our banana, bacon French toast and New York steaks, but not ashamed enough to eat lizards and cactus instead.

Back at our campsite, dinner cooked under a billion stars and wine enjoyed around the campfire was all the stage that ‘Felix’ and ‘Oscar’ needed to continue their discussion of things like Patrick’s list of ‘trailer cleanliness tips, campfire protocol and bathroom ‘Dos & Don’ts’ – no matter the rule, Marc managed to ignore them all.

Ladder Canyon

This was the more interesting hike of the two – much more interesting! However, while researching this new hiking destination, we found the following . . .

“The geological formations of Mecca Hills are among the most unusual of their kind in the world and were formed by the convergence of the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate along the San Andreas Fault, which is overdue for a large quake.”

Which is what?!! ‘Overdue for a large quake’! Well isn’t that special.

We also should have read this other not-so-subtle admonition about the hike . . .

“Wear proper clothing, have proper equipment and follow these hiking tips or you may pay with your life.”

‘Pay with my life?!! Wow, I guess we should have read those hiking tips!

So, if you’re reading this and it ends suddenly in mid-sentence, you’ll know that the hiking tips were more important than we thought or ‘the big one’ hit.

We set out with the hope that the tectonic plates in Ladder Canyon were feeling very comfortable just where they are. The canyon is so named because the walls of the canyon are so steep in places that ladders are needed to get up and down the trail.

 

Trail to nowhere

The Trail to Nowhere

The hike is incredible; the canyon walls get to 50+ feet in height and as narrow in places as shoulder-width – not for the claustrophobic. Once through the canyon, we were supposed to continue the loop around through Painted Canyon, but we took the ‘Trail to Nowhere’ and had a view of Painted Canyon, but not a way to get down into it, so we ended up having to double back through Ladders Canyon to get home.

The day ends with another beautiful evening around the fire and another episode of the ‘Odd Couple’ discussing their opposing views on campfire flatulent etiquette.

Another Walk in the Park: JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL – Part II

by Bob Sparrow

Joshua-Tree treeSaturday morning:

Anyone that tells you they slept like a baby in a sleeping bag in a tent on a windy night in a public campground is lying, or the baby was colicky.  The night passed slowly, but I knew I’d feel better in the morning after a cup of coffee and a nice warm shower.  I settled for a cup of coffee, there were no showers.

We’ve got three key destinations planned for the day, so we set out early for the first one, The Hall of Horrors.  ‘The Hall’ is a natural tunnel through a large rock formation, that is not easily found, but once found, is spectacular.

Here is a video of our trip through the Hall of Horrors as found on YouTube – it is really cool.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3NuhY3oN7c  (click on or copy and paste into your URL)

Our next hike was the loop to the Lost Horse Mine. To quote the parks literature on the mine, “the story of the Lost Horse Mine if filled with cowboy gunLost horse mine fights, cattle rustlers, horse thieves, the lure of gold and some sticky-fingered miners”. Surprisingly there were a lot of gold mine in the Mojave Desert, over 300, but most were very unproductive, the Lost Horse Mine was an exception.  Over 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver (worth about $5 million today) were mined between 1894 and 1931.  We had perfect weather for this 6+ mile hike and found the history of the mine and the area around it fascinating.

Our final destination for the day was Keys View – thank goodness it was drivable as we were low on water, but had plenty of wine; so we drove there before sundown, snapped the neck off a bottle of Pinot Noir and enjoyed the view.  There was an interesting picture on a plaque at Keys View showing what the view would look like if it were smoggy – I guess Southern Californians are used to seeing things that way, so they didn’t want to disappoint anyone who made the drive up there and found that the air wasn’t something you could sink your teeth into.  keys view

Our view on this day was crystal clear. To the south we could see the Salton Sea, and beyond was a mountain at the US-Mexico boarder.  In front of us some 5,000 feet below was a very visible San Andreas Fault, running the length of the Coachella Valley, from Palms Springs to Indio.  In the distance you could see Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio, both over 10,000 feet and snow-capped at this time of year.  Finally, we could see the bottom of our wine glasses, which meant it was time to head back to camp for a hot shower and dinner.  Oh yeah, just dinner.

Dr. Chuck Wagon had prepared a delightful repast featuring cooked-over-the-fire chicken and his ‘special potatoes’ . . . and some more wine.

Hiking affords one a lot of time to just walk and wonder, not bothered with interruptions or to-do lists. Hiking in the desert is particularly inspiring as one sees this abundance of flora and fauna and wonder why and how they manage to not just survive, but thrive in this environment.  Josh sunset

To me the desert is amazing; it is so desolate, yet filled with so many wonders.  No one made the Indians, miners and ranchers stay in the desert, but many remained and managed to carve out a living in this seemingly god-forsaken place.  The reality is that it’s not god-forsaken, there are an amazing number of things living in the desert.

We sit around the campfire as the sky turns incredibly black and the star shine literary like diamonds.  We can hear some critters in the distance and the popping of the logs on the campfire.  It was a good day . . . no, it was a great day! 

  • Camping fee: $10 a night
  • Entrance to the park: $15
  • Sharing stories around the campfire with Trail Boss, Greeter, Sparky and Chuck Wagon: Priceless

Campfire at Lake Cumberland

 

 

Another Walk in the Park: JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL – Part I

Cholla Cactus

Cholla Cactus


by Bob Sparrow

It was all I could do to make a left turn when traveling southeast on Interstate 10 through the Mojave Desert.  The usual right turn takes me into the Palm Spring/Palm Desert communities where for years I’ve gone to relax, play golf and perhaps partake of a margarita, maybe two.  But last week, turning left took me into Joshua Tree National Park where hiking and camping replaced golf and margaritas.  ‘The Boys’ and I planned to camp and spend the weekend hiking just to see what was shakin’ around the San Andreas Fault, which runs through the park.  Even though I’ve lived within two hours of ‘Josh’ (we’re now on a first-name basis), I had never been there.  Apparently I’m not the only one late to this party, Joshua Tree was a mere National Monument (at slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island it was quite a large monument!) until as recently as 1994, when it finally became a National Park.

‘The Boys’ are:

Sparky, Avalanche, Greeter, Trail Boss

Sparky, Avalanche, Greeter, Trail Boss

Patrick ‘Trail Boss’ Michael, who plans the trips, draws the permits, has all the trail maps, plans the menu and   brings the firewood.  He’s an engineer by trade – what a surprise!

  •        – Bob ‘Sparky’ Pacelli, who insists we each carry a walkie-talkie even though we never get more than 20 feet from each other during the entire weekend.  The only time the walkie-talkies were used was when he heard from a trucker on Interstate 10 trying to get lucky.

Rick ‘Greeter’ Sullivan, the friendliest man on the trail; greets everyone he meets with his big, easy smile. If he’s at your campfire make sure you have plenty of wood, ‘cause he’s got plenty of stories.

Richard ‘Chuck Wagon’ Wade, who is not a hiker, but asked if he could come along and cook.  Hell yeah!  Since he’s a forensic doctor with a degree from Harvard, we respectfully call him Dr. Chuck Wagon.

– My nickname is ‘Avalanche’ because I used to come down a hill fairly quickly, that was then, now they’re thinking about changing my name to ‘Lava Floe’ or ‘Petrified Rock’.

Dr. Chuck Wagon

Dr. Chuck Wagon

We entered the park at the Cottonwood Springs entrance, which is at the far southeastern corner; our campsite was at the Black Rock Nature Center, which is at the far northwestern corner, so it allowed us to drive through the middle of the park (about 65 miles), stopping along the way when we found something interesting.

Bra & Shoe Tree

Bra & Shoe Tree

The first interesting site we saw was the rare ‘Bra & Shoe Tree’ (photo left).  Nope, not sure how they got there, but I’d appreciate it if the person who put them there would call my wife and explain – she’s not sure what kind of camping we were doing.

Our first stop was right inside the gate where there is a good long hike (Lost Palms Oasis) and a good short one (Mastodon Peak).  Given that we had ‘miles to go before we sleep’ we took the shorter hike, which took us past the old Mastodon Gold Mine and ultimately to Mastodon Peak which provided us a great view of the Salton Sea and the namesake rock, the one that looks like a mastodon.

 

Joshua Tree is filled with all kinds of interesting rock formation, many are named after what they look like – Skull Rock, where we stopped to hike

skull rockand have lunch, is a good example. The rock formation in the photo below didn’t have a name that we knew about, so we made up one: ‘Four Frogs Fornicating’ – if you look at it long enough and from just the right angle maybe you’ll see it, but probably not.  I don’t think our name will make it into the National Park Registry.

The road through the park has a good number of pullouts and informational plaques that help explain what lies in front of you, like a beautiful Joshua Trees forest, or a row of those pretty, but prickly cholla cactus or just a collection of interestingly-shaped rocks, many of them with rock climbers on them.

Since ‘Dr. Chuck Wagon’ wasn’t getting in until the next morning, after we got to our campsite and pitched our tent, we decided to go into town for dinner.  Town, in this case was Yucca Valley, although we could have opted for the bustling burg of Twentynine Palms.  We were told about a place just out of Yucca Valley called ‘Pioneertown’, where a movie set of a western town was built in the 40’s and a number of western movie and tv series were shot there staring the likes of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and the Cisco Kid to name a few.  We had dinner at an old western saloon there called Pappy & Harriet’s.  OK, we weren’t exactly ‘roughing’ it, but we did drive back to the park after dinner and retire to our tent for the night.

Four Frogs Fornicating

Four Frogs Fornicating

 

 

Coming on Wednesday – Part II 

                                  Treks to the Lost Horse Mind, Keys View and the Hall of Horrors