I had high hopes for this trip. I went out with the intention of hiking the Fried Liver Wash from Pleasant Valley, connecting with the Washington Wash on the Pinto Basin side of the Hexie Mountains, then looping back to my staring point.
That plan was immediately foiled when I got to Geology Tour Road and saw a giant 4WD ONLY sign at the entrance. I’m familiar with Joshua Tree dirt roads, having driven plenty in 2WD compact cars, but I wasn’t sure if something had changed and I just wasn’t feeling up to testing it. So I switched course, driving to Pinto Basin, intending to pick up the Fried Liver Wash on that side and reverse the loop.
I was getting a bit impatient by the time I parked. There was traffic on the drive out, the billboards all seemed especially belligerent, soon the entire planet will be eating from the same five crap food chains, and people were driving like maniacs. And Joshua Tree has been completely overrun. I’ve never seen crowds like this in 25 years; I sat with the car off for 20 minutes in traffic just to get through the fee kiosk at West Entrance. The misanthrope in me started to surface, alive and powerful, bellyaching and grimacing over what the hell a person’s got to do for some peace and quiet and solitude…
But all that settled quickly. I love the moment when you turn off the engine, step outside, shoulder a pack, and realize it’s quiet, nothing but wind.
I also loved the quizzical, almost disbelieving looks from the other visitors parked at the backcountry board as they saw me walk off into the desert with a pack. I had almost 10 liters of water, enough to go goof around for a couple days if I chose. I headed cross country for the mouth of the wash.
The desert is deceiving. What from a distance looks like easy walking can prove to be quite slow. Broken rock everywhere, no level footing to be found for miles, not until I finally picked up the first fingers of the wash fanning out from the mountains. It became quickly apparent that I’d be changing my mileage expectations drastically.
The wash was dead still. Any breeze that I had before entering completely disappeared, leaving me doing a drunken shuffle through glaring sand, sweat starting to pool. Being on the low side of the park, temperatures hovered around 90. “Fried Liver Wash” was beginning to seem quite appropriate and it’s only spring.
A few hours in I took refuge under the shade of a smoke tree, stretching out for one of the most glorious backcountry naps I think I’ve ever taken. Nearly a full hour of peaceful slumber, awakening occasionally only to brush buzzing things from my ears or face. A silence surrounded me that was so dead I could hear flies and bees from scores of yards away. This would be the highlight of the trip, staring lazily through the branches at the sun and feeling my weight against the earth.
Walking, walking, I renamed the Fried Liver Wash the Same Old-Same Old Wash. I felt like I was walking in some strange limbo in which every bend revealed the stretch that I was just in, some sort of horror unfolding in which I’d never, ever get out. I am a very patient person and I don’t mind my share of suffering, but something about the nature of this trip was beginning to shift. I was losing my drive. After another few hours, nearly at the end of the wash spilling into the Pleasant Valley side, I began to ask what proved to be a trip-ending question: Why?
I truly enjoy long stretches of solitude, but on this occasion I genuinely found myself wondering what I was doing out here in this wash, sweating and alone. What is it with beating myself up in the wilderness, with long hikes that end up with me limping home when I could be riding waves or sitting under shady waterfalls instead? Motivations for sitting in silence I can understand. But why the need for discomfort?
My imagination turns to all of the desert ascetics before me, the Desert Fathers, Paul the Hermit out baking in the sun, St. Anthony of the Desert, itching and thirsty and silent. I wonder about the Shia whipping themselves into ecstasy with chains, the famed standing or sitting or rolling Babas of India, contorting and punishing themselves into an imagined purity. I daydream about monks throughout the monasteries of the world, meditating until their legs are locked, staring at walls for lifetimes. To say why I understand this nonsense is too difficult to put to words, but for better or worse, something inside me can relate. But on this day, I was growing pretty certain that I had had enough.
I was sufficiently satisfied that the scenery was not going to change and started to consider setting camp and retreating into chores and daydreams, but there were still three hours until dark and I was a bit restless.
Enough. “I’m going home” a voice says, “As long as I don’t get snake-bit or break an ankle, I can be back at the car by 10PM”. But another voice was telling me that I was just giving in to the monkey-mind and being impatient, that I needed to pitch camp and finish what I started.
And then a quiet voice reminded me that life is short and there is no need to sit in the desert alone if I’m not having fun, stuck on a trip only trying to prove some sort of pseudo-spiritual point.
I think I need to listen to that last voice a little more.
I was done with Fried Liver Wash, content to turn the trip into a twenty-plus mile dayhike with way too much water on my back. I’ll likely be back to finish this loop when the temperatures are a little cooler and the familiar ascetic voice starts to get loud again.
I’m taking a jog to my favorite shaded waterfall.