Thursday, October 15, 2020

Born Again

This is a long one, so pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable!

The old timers called it "Casa Grande". More recently it's usually referred to as the "Coming of Age" site or the "Born Again" site. It's chock full of pictographs, including diamond motif pictos that are known to be associated with girls' puberty rituals (hence the Coming of Age name). The site also contains this interesting cave on one side of the shelter that requires you to lay flat on the ground and literally crawl on all fours to squeeze through. A little beyond half way you come across the diamond motif pictos. When you crawl out the other end, you feel... well, it's a bit like being born again! It's been conjectured that the ritual went something like this: A Native American girl, on the threshold of womanhood, would enter the cave as a girl. The cave gets smaller and more restrictive as you crawl through it, and she would exit out the other end as a woman. But I'm getting way ahead of myself!

Monday, Oct. 12, was Indigenous Peoples Day, AKA Columbus Day, but I guess old Chris is not the hero we once thought. Personally, I would much prefer to celebrate Indigenous People, and as my readers know, I love wandering the desert looking for Native American rock art and other cultural artifacts. With that in mind, I chose to post about the Born Again site, which is one of my favorite Native American sites in all of Joshua Tree National Park. I would put this on my "top 5 all time favorite hikes" list, but I think the list is already full! Seriously, a great hike and one I will always remember.

Are we there yet?

The Born Again hike had been on my "to do" list for years. But the limited information out there all agreed that it's long and challenging. I had approximate coordinates and had spent hours on Google Earth mapping out the best route. The route followed a rocky wash for long distances, and appeared to have a couple of large "dry waterfalls" that would have to be navigated (assuming it was possible to navigate them at all). Challenging for sure, and not a hike I wanted to try alone. Fortunately a couple friends were interested in a hike, and when I mentioned the Born Again site, they gave it a thumbs up!

I'm not a morning person but decided to make an exception for this hike. We decided to meet at the trail head at first light, which I think was about 6:15 or 6:30AM. The hike took place in June, and the temps were predicted to reach into the upper 80's or low 90's, so a little too hot for ideal hiking weather. Man, was I surprised when I pulled up to the trailhead about 6:15AM and saw my car thermometer registering 54 degrees. Could that possibly be accurate?? I didn't even have a jacket! Turns out it wasn't a problem because the day warmed up quickly.

The Nolina flower stalks were putting on quite a show. When they catch the morning light they stand out beautifully!

The nice thing about hiking with friends is you usually end up with some shots of yourself! Mike took this photo and some of the others below (thanks, Mike!). That's Mitch on the right and me on the left, hiking along a desert wash that we followed for miles. Some sections were easy and flat; some sections were full of soft sand that make hiking difficult and strenuous; and some sections were filled with boulders. The boulder-filled sections were the most challenging. 

I mentioned we would have to navigate around a couple of dry waterfalls. That's me (above) looking back up-wash in the direction we came from. If I step back 4-5 steps, it's about a 30' tumble down a huge dryfall!

This is looking down from the top of the dryfall. Hard to tell from this photo, but that's a long way down! We can't get down this way, so let's see if there is an alternate way down.

Here, Mitch and I are picking our way down the boulders on the left side of the dryfall. Not an easy route, but it's the only option we can find.

As we get around the large dryfall and drop into the wash again, we come across this old bighorn sheep skull wedged between some rocks. I wonder how it met its demise? Could it have slipped and fallen off the waterfall, perhaps during a flash flood? Or maybe taken down by a cougar? It's anyone's guess. We left it exactly as we found it and moved on.

The other thing memorable about the area below the dryfall (besides the skull) was the large pool of water on this hot, June day. This could well be a critical source of water for bighorn sheep and other critters in the area.
Please, are we there yet???!!

Finally!!! There it is... the Casa Grande/Coming of Age/Born Again site! What an amazing and unique rock formation. Shelter caves on the left and right sides, and a large spacious overhang providing lots of shade. It's not far from the wash, and years ago there was more rainfall in the area than there is now. Likely this dry wash was a nice little seasonal stream. Who knows, may be it flowed year round. It's no surprise Native Americans were attracted to this site.
This photo gives you a feel for how large the overhang is, and the large amount of shade it provides. That's Mitch, hard at work documenting pictographs.

Something else amazing about this site is the metate grinding stone just outside the Born Again cave (center of photo). It's possible the stone on the lower left is a metate as well. There would have been a smaller stone called a mano used to grind seeds and other materials on the metate. I didn't look carefully, but somewhere in the area might be the mano, which would be a stone that would comfortably fit in your hand and show definite signs of worn down edges from the grinding process. Oh, and that's Mike, in the process of being born again!

A closer look at the metate. Others before us have placed pottery sherds, chipped rock, and bone fragments on it. I was tempted to clean it off to get a better photo, but decided to leave it exactly as I found it.

The Born Again cave is bigger at the start and narrows as you crawl forward. The walls are stained with soot from long ago fires... who knows how many hundreds of years ago? There are pictographs sprinkled in between the soot, but I get the impression there were probably many more pictos here, covered over by soot from ancient fires.

The diamond chain is perhaps the most significant pictograph in the Born Again cave, helping to give the site it's name. If you look closely, you can see a white pictograph and something that looks like a petroglyph, along with black soot.

Mitch being BORN AGAIN!!

Back out into daylight, it really is an experience crawling through the born again tunnel and coming out the other end. Let's take a look at some of the many pictographs scattered all over the walls at this site.

On the underside of the overhang, you can see lots of rock art. Most of the pictographs are reddish, but there are also black and white pictos. Many look to be significantly faded (perhaps they are older?). I wonder what the rock art at this location looked like a few hundred years ago, prior to so much of it fading? Likely spectacular!

As odd as it sounds, spending an afternoon taking pictures of pictographs can be exhausting! Here's Mitch in the process of composing a shot. In areas that are darker, we have to also balance a light.

This last one is my favorite. It looks like a butterfly. We have all three colors represented here. It looks like the faint black pictos might be the oldest. I can make out areas where the white pictos cover the black lines. The red picto looks like it covers both black and white lines, although it's hard to be certain. Note that I used dStretch on most of these photos to make the pictos stand out more clearly.

Some of the pictos at this site are very unique. That, combined with the sheer number of pictos, the gorgeous rock formation with caves (especially the Born Again cave) and large overhang providing lots of shade, and the metate and pottery sherds, make this a very magical site. If you are lucky enough to visit, please leave it exactly as you find it, so others may enjoy the magic!
9.5 miles of boulder-filled wash; ascent 988'; descent 965'. 
One of the toughest hikes I've done!
Linking with Skywatch Friday.
Stay safe & stay healthy.
Thanks for stopping by!!

Thursday, October 8, 2020

The Lonely Desert

I remember driving the Jeep east on Highway 62 with my wife and granddaughter. It was hot, so I had loaded a 5-gallon water container in the Jeep. I wanted to check out an old mine that was only a few miles off the highway. Going east on Highway 62 out of 29 Palms quickly turns into open space. It's been called "one of the most desolate stretches of highway in California." Once you get past the Wonder Valley homestead cabins that dot the landscape, that's it. Nothing else.

Back when I was skinny!

After driving due east for about 30 miles, we came to the little GPS dot on my cell phone map that indicated the turn off. There was a very faint road heading south, toward the mountains, which is what I was looking for.

After driving just a couple hundred yards, I felt the Jeep sinking into the sand. Even 4WD didn't seem to help much. The sand was powder-fine. What the locals call "blow sand"... the really small particles that are picked up by the wind and then accumulate in certain areas. I just barely managed to turn the Jeep around without getting axle-deep in the sand. No mine today. We spread out a blanket and let our granddaughter play. I went out to explore the local area.

The desert Smoke Tree (Dalea spinosa) is primarily seen in desert washes, which would seem like a nearly impossible environment for a plant to survive. For most of the year it looks more or less dead, with a grey color hinting at green, but not really green. It really does resemble a puff of smoke. But they have a certain ragged beauty when you come across one in the late afternoon light.

Not far from where the Jeep was stuck parked, I was surprised to came across some old fence posts, barbed wire, a rusty water tank, and a concrete foundation that indicated a cabin had been here. Someone, or perhaps even a family, had lived here many years ago.

Judging by the amount of rust and decay in this old water tank, it was a long time ago. Just a guess, but may be in the 1930's or 40's? A quick search on Wikipedia tells me the state highway between Yucca Valley and 29 Palms didn't even exist until 1962. For most of the years before that, it was just tracks in the sand. And the road beyond 29 Palms going east (leading to this location) was added even later. When this little homestead cabin was built and lived in, there was no paved road. A trip to 29 Palms from here would have taken hours. Perhaps a full day, and the risk of getting stuck in the soft sand or having a breakdown would have been high. 

Whoever lived here would have needed to be very self-sufficient. It would be much to far to drive for water or groceries. The fence posts and barbed wire tells me they likely had livestock of some kind. No electricity. No running water. This would have been bare knuckle survival. Who were they? Why did they choose such a remote, lonely location? Another desert mystery!

This side of the water tank is badly rusted away. Let's go take a look inside (or course, first we will look closely for snakes and other critters!).

Capturing the setting sun through the rusty, eroded side of a metal water tank. We went looking for an old mine and instead found the abandoned dreams of a desert pioneer. The old mine will just have to wait!

Thanks for stopping by. Stay safe and stay healthy!!
Linking with Skywatch Friday.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

The Mysterious Quartz Boulders

I've hiked Twin Tanks in Joshua Tree National Park many times. Some of you might even recall some of these hikes. I've hiked it alone here and here and here. I've hiked it with my friend Pat Tillett here. I've hiked it with Cousin Scott, although I can't find the post, so it may have fallen through the cracks!

One of the really interesting things about this area are the large quartz rocks sitting on a hilltop, placed there as if by some mysterious force of nature or alien being. I have never visited the mysterious quartz rocks at sunset or after dark, and that had been bouncing around in my mind for a while as a potential future hike. Then I happened to be talking with my photographer friend Mitch M., who said he couldn't recall seeing the quartz rocks or even the two man-made water tanks, which give the area its name. That was the push I needed to schedule a hike out to Twin Tanks!

I planned a route that, in theory, would take Mitch and I a little north and west of the usual route. From there, I was hoping we could head west and south, and drop into a hidden pictograph site I was aware of. Finally, we could return using the usual route (a sandy wash) that would take us right by the quartz rocks. If my plan worked out, it should put us there just as the sun sets. I know what you're thinking... If my plan worked out, right? That's a big if!

Looks like the mysterious Joshua Tree stone mason has been hard at work again, building this wall.

Front view of "the wall"!

Impressive workmanship!

I took almost no photos on the first half of the hike, but as the sun dipped and the shadows got longer, things got more interesting.

Backlit Mojave Yucca

Mitch composing a shot of an interesting rock pedestal.

A closer look at the rock pedestal. I think we're close to the petroglyph site. Let's go see if we can find it!

So far, my hiking plan was working. We found ourselves right over the top of the secret petroglyph site. I had seen a pose similar to the one above on the Dzrt Grls site here, and wanted to see if I could get something similar. I asked Mitch to climb down below to take my photo. It was scarier than I anticipated, and as I waited for Mitch to capture the shot, I kept feeling like I was going to tumble forward. I was glad to get off the ledge! Oh, did you spot the petroglyphs?? If I ever pose in this spot again (unlikely), I'm going to stick my arms out so I look like the little anthropomorphic petroglyph pecked in the stone. 

Now all we had to do was head back down the wash, and (in theory) we would pass by the mysterious quartz rocks. We wanted to explore this area a little more, but we only had about 30 minutes or so until sunset, so we needed to hustle.

Ah, found them! Look closely and you can see Mitch (upper right) heading up the hill to the quartz boulders. He helps give scale to the size of the boulders. As you can see, they really stand out! Like they don't belong here. My theory is that with geologic time, as the hill eroded, pieces of quartz broke off from the original deposit and tumbled down the hill.

Pretty shot of Mitch up on the hill, capturing light on the quartz boulders just before sunset.
Here's what the quartz boulders look like when you are standing right next to them, on top of the hill. So bizarre. I can't imagine what kind of geological processes must have taken place to produce these. Smoky haze is visible in the background sky. This is the view to the east.

I was lucky to catch this shot just as the sun was setting on the horizon. This is the view on the opposite side of the quartz boulders, looking west.

Mojave Yucca

I used two LED lights on the quartz rocks for this shot. I like the way it really helps them to stand out. From this view, they remind me a little of headstones in some long forgotten desert cemetery!

Do you see it? I didn't even realize this was a full moon night, and almost as soon as the sun set, this beautiful moon started to rise on the eastern horizon.

Thanks for dropping by to check out the alien quartz rocks! As we put on our headlamps for the hike back to the car, we kept our eye out for aliens and UFO's. Lucky for us, no encounters on this particular evening!

Stay safe and stay healthy.
Linking with Skywatch Friday.