This is a series of posts about California’s Little Morongo Canyon. To start reading at the beginning, click this link: Link To Beginning. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with a lot of scrolling to find the beginning, due to WordPress’s peculiar way of doing things.
Each post provides a link to the post that follows, leading you sequaciously from the start of the series to the finish.
Note: This is a continuation of a hiking story. Click this link for yesterday’s installment.
Dead Battery Hike, Part Three
Our toilworn feet tripped over boulders, probed through debris from past flash floods, and dodged green and gray piles of cow manure, left by Huckleberry’s herd. The trail meandered down canyon, coaxing our sapped spirits onward, as if to say, “Not much further . . . keep going . . . it’s just around the bend. And if not this bend, then maybe the next.”
We concentrated on lifting our heavy legs, one step at a time.
About a mile down I spotted something familiar on a north slope of the canyon. A slight hint of green. “I think that’s it, Jake.”
Sure enough, we found a tiny spring, just a small seep, surrounded by a few mesquites. Huckleberry Hound had devised a meshlike filtering apparatus, with a narrow black tube that ran downhill from the seep to a nearby water trough. At the trough there was a way to unclamp the tube, so we could fill our canteens, then reinsert it back into a float valve.
A bull and several heifers lounged in the shade of some Desert Willows about 50 feet away, as we parked our tired asses in the shadow of a mesquite. “Look at the balls on that bull!” Jake joked.
Yes, and it’s balls that got us into this predicament, I quietly reflected. It took a lot of balls for us to hike in here, and it will take a lot more to hike out.
The light of day lasts only so long, so we eventually pulled ourselves back onto our feet and wandered on. Jake was looking shaky. I kept glancing back at him to make sure he hadn’t collapsed. “I’m alright, I’m alright,” he’d reassure me.
Another mile and we found ourselves in a shady boscage, confronting the Pierson Ranch gate. The cool umbrage of cottonwoods brought welcome relief. But the gate did not. It was locked, as usual. I knew a way around it, but this required some scrambling. I could do it, but I wasn’t so sure about Jake.
I picked my way up and over first, with Jake carefully following after. And to my pleasant surprise, the old man made it.
On the other side of the gate we were exposed to the windows of the Pierson Ranch house, about 200 feet away. I felt anxious. “Jake, we better get outta here. They’ll see us and come out with a shotgun.” But Jake was having none of it. Before us lay a cool pool of water. Pierson Spring. The old man waded into the pond, filled his hat, and poured precious, cooling hatfuls of mossy liquid over his head, one after another.
It revivified him. After a five minute shower he was electric again, and ready to go. Thankfully, none of the Piersons had spotted us, and we were able to slink down the road until out of sight.
We had about a mile-and-a-half of canyon remaining, but that was one of the longest miles-and-a-half I’ve ever endured. The canyon floor baked in the afternoon sun. We were like fish, frying in a skillet. I felt my brain switching on and off at times. Talking and thinking were kept to a minimum. We had to conserve our energy, or we’d soon become dead meat for the coyotes and turkey vultures.
Jake stumbled along behind me, trying to keep up. The salubrious effects of his cool shower had worn off quickly. I slowed my pace. Near the mouth of the canyon, I saw him suddenly veer off and head for a low cliff. Had he gone doolally from the heat? I wondered. Then he collapsed at the base of the cliff, in a thread of shade, and lay fanning himself with his hat.
“Jake, are you okay? Y-you just stay there! We’re not far from the ranch. I’ll go get some help for you.”
“No, I’ll be alright,” Jake muttered weakly. “Just give me a few minutes.” And so we laid back a little while, against the cliff, in this tiny excuse for shade. Finally Jake started to fidget around, and then he staggered back onto his feet. “Let’s go,” his voice crackled.
A half-mile of staggering and stumbling later, we reached my sister’s horse ranch. As we approached the front door, we delighted in the welcome purr of a swamp cooler, emanating from inside the ranch house. My sister had told me the day before that she and her husband would be away, but that she’d leave the cooler on for us. Bless her sweet, precious soul, my atheistic brain mused.
I fell against the door as I reached for the knob. Cool air awaited us, and we were both anxious to breathe it, feel it, and absorb its sweetness through our smoldering skin.
But it was not to be. The doorknob would not turn. It was locked fast, and I had forgotten to obtain the key from my sister.
Our brains were so muddled from the heat, that we had a hard time figuring out what to do next. We were on the verge of heat exhaustion and needed that cool air to save our lives. Our thoughts swam and sank in the sweat of our desperation. Should we break a window and crawl inside? Did we even have the strength to do that?
And then an important detail emerged from the haze of Jake’s baked brain. He had parked his pickup truck here, the day before. All we had to do was get inside, start the engine, and fire up the air conditioner. The key was in his pocket.
We laughed maniacally at our stupidity as we stumbled toward the old truck.
We scrambled up and into the baking cab. Jake fumbled with shaking hands, as he aimed for the key slot to the ignition. After a few rattles of the keyring, he managed to sink the key. Oh please, engine, start! Start!
This was an aging quarter-ton, with a history of hundreds of thousands of miles, and a decrepit engine. Jake had used it as a runabout truck for his machine shop business, and had held onto it after he’d sold the business and retired, eight years earlier. This old bucket of bolts required tender-loving care to stay on the road, but Jake was sentimental about it, and reluctant to trade it in for a newer beast.
Fortunately, he’d been faithful about nursing it along with routine oil changes and other required maintenance. And now hopefully, the truck would return the favor and save us from heat stroke.
Jake rotated the key. The engine turned over. It sputtered, and began coughing itself to death. More sputtering. But then, with a whining whir and roar of salvation, it found spark and fuel.
This has been the final installation of my six-part series, Tales of Little Morongo. Thanks for reading! Click hereto read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.
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: