Dead Battery Hike, Part Two

Tales of Little Morongo

Chapter 5: Dead Battery Hike, Part Two

About five years after my Dead Battery Hike, which I posted about in Dead Battery Hike, Part One, my father-in-law was impressing me with tales of some monumental foot treks he’d conquered. Why, Jake had hiked Mount Whitney. He’d traversed some long-assed trail around Mount Baldy. He’d summited San Gorgonio–Old Grayback itself! And he’d trophied a number of other imposing trails in California.

I didn’t doubt Jake. He was very athletic. He had set records for his age group, running marathons, and was once invited to a track and field event in Germany, to compete against world-class athletes.

I wanted to fit in, in my own wimpy way, so I meekly mentioned my Dead Battery Hike. He listened with interest. So on a whim I suggested, “How about I take you on that hike, Jake?”

To my utter surprise and great disappointment, he took me up on that challenge. Now the gauntlet had been thrown down. There was no backing out. We were men, after all, and had an obligation to prove our machismo, even if it killed us.

And it could. This was mid-June, a time of year when the high sun and punishing heat has been known to send many a seasoned hiker to an early grave.

We should have started our journey around 4:00 am, so we could reach the shady walls of the canyons before sunup. But we needed a driver, and my wife wasn’t about to wake up that godawful early.

Jake had parked his old pickup truck at my sister’s horse ranch, the day before. Our plan was to start the hike in the desert flats north of Pioneertown, follow the route I’d taken about five years earlier, on my Dead Battery Hike, and finish up at the horse ranch. Then Jake would drive us home in his pickup.

Our feet touched dirt around 6:00, while the sun was already up and cooking. My wife blithely motored off, oblivious to the nearness of death, as we marched toward the maw of Pipes Canyon.

Tramp. Tramp. Tramp.

I pointed at a house surrounded by the carcasses of old, junked buses. “That’s the Snake Lady’s house, Jake,” I informed him, like a cicerone. “She’s crazy. She doesn’t like people coming near, and has been rumored to throw live rattlesnakes at them.”

We eyed her property warily, as we traipsed on by.

We changed course at Key’s Ranch Road, which brought us shortly to the mouth of the canyon we sought. This is now the home of Pioneertown Mountains Preserve, but at the time it was just private, unguarded ranchland.

Up Pipes Canyon we sweated. At one time the dirt road here could be managed by a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle, clear up to Big Bear. But storm damage had left it so severely damaged, it could only be navigated by foot, tank, or bulldozer now. And even by foot, it was tricky in parts.

But Jake and I made it up, down, and over all the various rips and tears in the landscape, without incident. We passed by the old sheepherder’s homestead, abandoned decades before, and took a tour of his dilapidated house. Then onward we forged.

My memory seemed a little foggy. “I know Indian Canyon is around here somewhere,” I confessed to Jake. “Maybe we passed it already. I’m not sure.” Well hell, it had been over five years since I’d last navigated this terrain. And there were no distinctive landmarks that came to mind.

Jake eyed me nervously. “Should we turn back? Or do you think it might be ahead?”

I stopped and surveyed all around. Finally I shrugged, “Let’s keep going a little ways further.”

Around the next corner, at a sharp, northward bend of Pipes Canyon, there it appeared, waiting as it had for thousands of years, and it all came back to me. We turned south at the fork in the trail, and headed up an acclivity.

Indian Canyon begins as shadeless desert, at around 4,800 feet. But as one gains altitude, the chaparral grows higher, and pinyon pines and scrub oak emerge to cast cooling shadows. It tops out at 5,200 feet, before a 1,400 foot heat bath, down a south-facing declivity in open desert, toward the burning bowels of Little Morongo Canyon.

By the time we reached Huckleberry Hound’s makeshift cattle gate, at the top, we were tuckered out. We stopped a spell and rested in the umbra of a scrub oak. That’s when I pulled a gun from my daypack.

“Hey Jake, check it out. I brought my pistol, just in case we run across marijuana growers. Wanna try it?”

“Sure,” Jake was always eager to fire a gun.

He shot at a pine tree in the distance. I think he hit it, but it didn’t go down. I fired a round at the defiant tree, also. Again, it stayed put. But we sure showed it a thing or two.

With that piece of macho action out of our way, we pointed our boots downhill, toward the hellacious gauntlet of Little Morongo Canyon. That’s where Huckleberry Hound ran cattle, as mentioned in a previous tale about Little Morongo.

Our canteens were getting frighteningly easy to carry, and sweat was blinding our eyes, by the time we stumbled onto the hot canyon floor.

I peered all around. “I know there’s a spring around here somewhere, Jake. In fact, lots of ‘em. Let’s head for the Pierson Ranch. I think there’s one along the way.”

Jake was 68 years old, looking shaky, and feeling his age. This man, more than 30 years my senior, had outwalked me on prior hikes. “Hey Jake, would you wait up a minute!” I’d find myself begging. His long legs and quick stride would leave me in the dust, exhausted and ready to collapse.

But not today. This time I was the yare one, while the old man had been trailing behind me.

He gazed at me with a desperate skepticism, his eyes seeming to plead, “Are you sure there’s water around here?” But he stoically breathed nothing, other than, “Okay, let’s go.”


To be continued in a few days . . . but if you’re thirsting for more, here’s a Western tune about water, sung by Johnny Cash:

This is the latest installation of my six-part series, Tales of Little Morongo. Come on back in a few days for the final installation, entitled, Chapter 6: Dead Battery Hike, Part Three . Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.

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