Monoliths and Stars: Wonders of the Mojave

I thought I had seen it all, that there was no type of landscape which I had not become accustomed to throughout my travels. It was quite a disheartening feeling to consider, what could possibly be left? The good news, though, is that I had not been completely spoiled; that I was far from it. Only ignorance had pervaded my thoughts, for I stood before something entirely new- a landscape previously uncataloged in my mind- a monolithic wonder in the Mojave National Preserve. The very thought in my mind was, Wow, I couldn’t have imagined something like this.

This moment was near the end of my day. I had started about 295 miles away in Phoenix, Arizona, where the first night of my trip had been spent at the house of my cousin Matthew and his wife Robin. By the time I traveled across the remainder of Arizona and into California to the Mojave National Preserve, it was late evening. My plan had been to visit the Kelso Dunes and hike a short three miles to a mountain peak, but this would have to wait until the following day.

Although sandwiched between interstate 40 and Interstate 15, and a mere sixty miles from Las Vegas, this park has yet preserved its remote feel. When I turned to enter the park, I was greeted with the official National Park Service sign. Visitors had tatted up the corners of the sign with stickers and a few bullet holes punctured the middle, telling me that this area was not as well supervised as some of the other parks. I entered from the south on my way to the Hole-In-The-Wall campground. It was first come- first serve, and I wasn’t concerned about finding a site, for I read that visitation was low in the summer. The Mojave desert is just not a place most people want to be in the summer with the sweltering temperatures, but my only concern was the drive, for a number of roads in the park were marked unpaved, including the one to this campground. Before I hit the dusty sand roads, I was cruising along the pavement among grand stretches of desert. Dry shrubs nearly covered the terrain, and every once in a while a cactus, yucca, or Joshua tree would stick up. Around me I saw crumbly mountains and mesas in the distance. I hadn’t expected the expanse of this area to be so enormous. 

When I reached the bumpy dirt road, before me crawled an animal I had never seen before. Its fur was dark, and its appearance was prominent. Although nor particularly large in the grand scheme of things, it was larger than anything I was expecting to see. I got out my cell phone and texted my friend Zack in Kentucky, who would be joining me on the adventure in a few days. “I just saw a wolverine,” I typed. I was wrong, so embarrassingly wrong. I did not know. Wolverines do not live in the American Southwest. They are mammals of the far North. We can file this next to the instance on my first adventure, when I thought I saw a wolf, but it was really just a coyote. What I had just experienced was my first sighting of a badger. When I neared the campground I witnessed a pair of black tailed jack rabbits situated in the middle of the drive, jumping further down the road and then off into the shrubbery as I neared .

Finding a campsite was not hard. I was alone, except for one other occupied site. I quickly pitched my tent at a site far from the others, on the opposite side of the campground. I was distracted at times by a nosy little desert cottontail, whom I pursued to capture a photo of, and who surprisingly let me get closer than I expected. Back to work, I got my tent set up swiftly, as I was planning to get at least one hike in before the day’s end. Once I had everything set up, I drove over to the Hole-In-The-Wall visitor center. It was an old Western style wooden ranch building with a wrap-around porch. There was a clear place for a sign to identify the ranch, but it had been removed, and the flag pole out front was also bare- a sure sign that this was definitely off season. It would have been the perfect time for a tumbleweed to tumble on by or a vulture cry to sound off in the distance, for I was very much alone and very much in the desert. I checked around the perimeter of the abandoned visitor center for any maps or trail guides, but nothing. I was on my own.

However, I found my trail head next to the visitor center. I then geared up. First off, I was certain to have water in my camelbak backpack. I brought a light hoodie, expecting that soon the temperature may drop, and I brought my headlamp, for I knew sunset was not far away. I made sure I had my car key securely in my backpack. I was not going to face the panic of last summer when I locked my key in the car at Chiricahua. To help avoid repeating that situation, I bought a short lanyard keychain at a gas station earlier in the day. Then, all ready to go, I hit the trail. It began with a stroll among the shrubbery and quiet meandering around some teddy bear cholla cacti. Then the path slithered between some boulders, and up to some rocks adorned with native American petroglyphs. At this point, the sun was just resting above the horizon, casting dark long shadows behind every protrusion in the desert, but laying gold upon anything its light touched. The path then led around some big rocks to a picturesque Southwest view. There were two large mesas, one laying in front of the other and the top of a mountain peeking up behind them. The air was warm and incredibly still. All around me was silence. I climbed up a rock, not taller than myself, and stood upon it, gazing out into the distant stretches of evening desert. I closed my eyes and quietly reveled in the moment, in my being, in the presence of God, in my arrival to a new adventure. I felt as if I had come back to an old friend. The desert: I know you. We have been separated for a while, by time and space. So much has happened. So much has changed, but yet you are the same, quiet and reserved, a library of adventures past, calling me to be grateful of the years gone by. The desert knows years gone by. It has been through them. The desert is well weathered by the ages, but yet calm and knows its place. 

As I pondered the desert, I thought about how in the desert, you don’t have to be up high, or in any particular overlook, to look out among the immensity of the land. In the desert there are no tall trees nor overgrowth hindering your view. Here it’s all laid open. One stands above and can see the great immensity of the land. And the desert here, in the Mojave, is not a barren plain, but it does have features: mesas, rocks, and distant mountains. The view just stretches on seemingly forever. It derives a similar feeling of a mountain top experience, when your life is sort of put into perspective, as you observe the immensity of that which is around you and are surrendered to a humbling comfort. Your problems seem diminished and are put in their place. 

The warmth of the desert also has a comforting feel to me, especially in the evening, when the sun isn’t harsh, but a dry warmth still blankets and comforts you. If the sun were to set, if I were to be lost for the night. I would be fine. The desert may cool some, but won’t freeze. The air is still. Bugs are absent. Any perils of the night are gone. Yes, some may find the desert to be harsh and univiting in the day, but in the night I find it very welcoming and suitable for the lone traveler. 

When I jumped down from the rock I was observing from, I turned around to a giant monolith in the desert: a massive rock feature just protruding solo and drastically from the desert floor. The trail wound around into a wide slot canyon that was somewhat narrow but then opened up in the middle of the monolith to a canyon wonder. Here I paused. Wow I could have never imagined something like this. I was taken away by the uniqueness of the scene. This was a new terrain, a new landscape I hadn’t experienced before. Here giant groupings of hoodoo-esque spires huddled together, right up against each other. They were together, yet individual, like you could pull or peel them apart. They stood as if flaunting their curvatures. And all of them were missing circular chunks, as if shot by enormous canyons, mimicking swiss cheese, or as if they had sunken eyes looking out at me. I had never seen any rock formations quite like this. It was unexpected. The desert just outside this canyon was not drastically different than what I’d seen before, but this short walk into the slot canyon displayed a whole hidden world, so unique. It was so nearly enclosed too, like it’s own hidden fortress. I paused and just looked around in amazement. It completely wiped away from me the thought that nothing I could see would be terribly new. This affirmed there was much more to see, and things can, and would, exceed what I could imagine.

This was only the first of two surprises on this short hike. The canyon grew narrower with each step until there was no canyon left at all, and it seemed I had been walled in, but upon observation I found a passageway of sorts. There were cracks in the jumbles of rock, just enough space to fit a body through, and they were steep, ony presenting a passage that went vertical. Affixed to the sides of the rocks were a series of steel rings. This was called the Rings Trail and I had read about it, but seeing it, I was well surprised. The rings portioned looked more challenging and more extensive than what I had imagined. This would be fun. Like a puzzle to solve. I had to figure out where to establish footing on the rock wall, and which rings to grab onto, as to establish grip which was conducive to a trip upward. The passage grew narrower, then curved. I was really immersed in this rock world all around me and the task at hand. 

I appreciate a trail that presents a challenge, a unique skill, or problem solving. There is one trail back home in the Big South Fork that requires one to rapel him or herself down a boulder’s face. In the Rocky Mountains I’ve hiked up a waterfall. Even a mere swinging bridge can add some fun and variety. This Rings Trail presented something new, and it was definitely one of a kind. 

When I finished making my way through the narrow rock passageways, I found the rock terrain to open up. I found myself not completely out of the canyon, for walls still surrounded me, but I was well above the portion I had just traversed. Now I was at an established viewpoint where I could look back down in the rock world beneath me. Up around me I noticed the curvatures of the rocks. They were not jagged nor harsh points, but rather the rocks seemed to flow and lump, as though melting chocolate. The rocks were plain gray although lumped into the mix were orange colored rocks as well. If I was handed five stars, I would rate this trail 5 out of 5. “Unique” is the most justifiable term to use to describe it. 

When I made it back to my campsite, a mere maybe quarter mile away, the sun was setting. I was walking around the campground, tracing its perimeters, trying to see if there were any trailheads from the campground. I had the intention of going on a nighttime hike. I would rest in my tent, and, when it got much darker and the stars came out, I would go for a night hike by flashlight. 

When I did get to resting in my tent, I was out. I slept long and deeply. At one point I did wake up, as a different aspect of nature was calling. Inside my tent it was very dark, as I reached for the side of the tent to unzip my way out. When I pulled the flap of my tent backward, I unwrapped the most beautiful night sky. Millions of stars decorated a huge desert sky. The milky way ran prominently and astonishingly through the middle of the expanse above. I was amazed. This was all visible with simply my glasses on, which I don’t see very well with. Right here, right now, in the middle of the night, well…after answering nature’s call, I put on my contacts so I could really see and take in the beauty above me. 

Looking out upon the desert alone is enough to make one feel small and shift one’s life into perspective. But take on top the desert the profundity and awesomeness of the night sky, and then one is really put into place. One of my favorite song writers, Matthew Parker, in his song Shadowlands writes “The moon and stars are the only light to tell us that we’re lost in the endless darkness of night.” This moment illustrated this perfectly. Observing the stars in such a glorious display in a remote area, does initially evoke a feeling of lostness. The universe becomes so immense. You seem so small. What you witness is so immense that you feel but nothing, lost in the great immensity of what is. But Matthew Parker, as well as myself, know that we don’t remain lost. What’s most reassuring and comforting is that, amidst feeling lost in the great order of things that exist in the universe, we are found! We have been sought out, we are accounted for, by the great Almighty God and Creator of the immensity before us.

It is no wonder early peoples and cultures, whether it be Native Americans or any group of people across the sea on this earth, spent such a great amount of time pondering the sky and trying to derive meaning from it. It is just so astounding when it is untouched by the light of civilization. It is no wonder early people and societies were so spiritual. I would find it a challenge to the human psyche to observe such wonder and not believe in a spiritual realm or a creator. Can you imagine living out in the desert and this being your view every night, or living out on the Great Plains and this being a constant entertainment for the mind? Think of the men out at sea, nothing but the ocean and these great heavens above you. 

Sadly, most of human society has lost reverence for the night sky. If you live in a city, you can’t see its wonders at all. It becomes easy to be consumed by you, yourself, and your own immediate surroundings. You fault the opportunity to put yourself into perspective. And you lack the beauty which calls you back to the Creator. Even those who live rurally may miss out on the powerful impact of the full night sky. Instead, people find themselves inside in front of their television sets, seeking entertainment, when really the night sky is the more noble form of entertainment, for it engages not only the senses, but the mind, and the spirit. 

But you know people are afraid of the dark. I don’t say this because of what we playfully think: of monsters, and bears, and things that go bump in the night. No, people are scared primarily of their own thoughts, the condition of their own souls, and the night sky is a reminder of the greatness and eternity we are all a part of. 

Get outside! Don’t be scared of the dark. Face your thoughts, face the eternity before you, and find your place in the order of things. 

This was night one of my camping road trip. Tomorrow I’d explore more of the Mojave National Preserve and return to my favorite National Park-  Death Valley!

Read my previous entry here: All My Friends: Reflections from the Desert

Check out my book Still, Calm, and Quiet, here:

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