Hiking In Magnesia Falls Canyon to a Cahuilla Indian Village Site, Near Rancho Mirage, California March, 2012
by Ruth Nolan, "Desert Word Walker" blog columnist for Heyday Books www.heyday.com
The desert is traversed by many mountain ranges, some of them long, some short, some low, and some rising upward ten thousand feet. They are always circling you with a ragged horizon, dark-hued, bare-faced, barren – just as truly desert as the sands which were washed down from them. – John C. Van Dyke, from "The Desert" (1901), a classic of California desert literature
Today, on a perfect, 70-degree day in March, I’ve joined an archaeologist in the Rancho Mirage Cove, near Palm Springs, to explore and hike a mile back into the narrow, steep slot of Magnesia Falls Canyon to an well-used Cahuilla Indian Village site, pah-wah-te. When we reach the village site, we’ll be looking for evidence of longtime habitation: petroglyphs, potsherds, hand-held manos - fist-sized, round rocks that were used to grind seeds and nuts - and milling slicks, which are large, flat stones whose surfaces have been polished by seed and nut grinding to such a smooth pitch that they appear to have been varnished.
And I'm personally grateful for the invitation to join a small group of people, new acquaintances, if not really friends, to do what I love: get outdoors, walk in the desert, enjoy the company, and make the larger connections to earth and ancestors that give a necessary resonance and depth to life beyond my current circumstances, lonely and bereft as they've been in the past year.
Specifically: since my only child and daughter, Tarah, 23, moved to the Seattle area last summer, and the crushing, sudden ending of a new romantic relationship that had seemed, so beautifully after the tragic loss of my longtime love, to be leading me joyfully into a new life, I've been the loneliest I can ever remember being in my life. In the odd and isolating months since then, the desert, my longtime, comforting lifelong home, has suddenly seemed to be a glaring oppressor, filled with empty expanses, too-silent hours, and a far too hostile symphony of sun.
Empty nest, empty heart, empty life, and there's only one trusted antidote for all of that - to walk the desert again and again, as long as it takes, until I arrive somewhere I recognize, maybe memories of places that link me to stories I remember, somewhere I feel part of the human experience, somewhere I can hear, really listen to, a human voice or two. Somewhere there is a sense...of life to share.
And so, here I am on this day, under the guidance of the archaeologist, making my first steps on the faintest, still-visible threads of what was, for centuries, a well-used Indian trail traversing the north-south length of the Coachella Valley desert area all the way from Palm Springs to the Salton Sea, along which a number of village sites were located, it became a route of exploration for California geologist William Phipps Blake, who led the 1862 Southern Pacific Railroad survey team here; then, it formed a vital leg of the famous Bradshaw Trail, which crossed the desert over 100 miles to and from the gold mines along the Colorado River near Blythe; and finally, into the well-traveled, six-lane, multi-desert city road that it is today.
The Rancho Mirage cove is at the mouth of one of the many highly-valued, wind-protected canyons along the western/southern edges of California desert’s Coachella Valley that line the base of the rugged, dry, Santa Rosa Mountains, which jut steeply skyward as high as 10,800 feet from a near-sea level valley floor. It’s not uncommon to spot an endangered Bighorn Peninsular Sheep here: we’re at the border of a federal sheep protection area monitored by the U.S. Department of Fish and Game, and these cliffs are where the sheep are most at home. It feels good to recognize that in what appears to be the loneliest of places, there are creatures that call this land of what appears to be exile their home.
And to my pleasure, I remember that a walk in the desert, however ambient the day may appear, is never without some startling circumstance that, with distilled irony, manages to seem natural and perfectly in place, and today’s hike is no exception. Bighorn sheep and a highly upscale golf resort, dwelling side by side, with a few hikers thrown for a day adventure into the narrow middle of the mix? Hard to believe, but true. We walk along a 100-foot wide sheep and hiker-designated access corridor, past the lavish, 200-acre estate of one of California’s most prolific Bay Area dot.com tycoons – which sports a private, 18-hole golf course and 20,000 square foot mansion and fills most of the Rancho Mirage Cove. On one side of this corridor, trucks of landscapers and maintenance men wave to us as they enter and leave the estate’s gates. On the other side, our archaeologist points out rows of ancient rock mounds, up to two and three feet high, likely placed centuries ago as sun and star alignment markers by those who inhabited the region long ago.
The cove narrows and seems to reach an impassable dead-end. There’s a small oasis of several Washingtonian Fan Palm trees that offer shade and a bathtub-sized pool of water used as a drinking source by the Bighorn Sheep that visit here at dawn and dusk, and especially during the searing hot summer months. Several piles of sheep droppings, which are the shape and size of rabbit dung, reveal that the oasis has been recently visited by a small herd of the magnificent creatures. I also notice several sheep tracks, another exciting sign that life does, indeed, survive, if not thrive, in these treacherous hills.
And here, the canyon narrows abruptly, both vertically and horizontally, into a another of the desert's own brand of deadpan, contradictory surprises: we've reached a steep, dry waterfall 75 feet high. Although dry today, in the arid, early March weather, the rock face is lip gloss smooth and very slippery, evidence that water, indeed, has passed through here, with what appears to be voluminous quantities. This is the only route in and out of the canyon from here, and is the first in a series of other dry waterfalls that will also have to be climbed. But I am up for the challenge. I'd rather be here, taking the risk of falling, than to be at my house, feeling like the last person who dropped off the edge of the desert where the old Bradshaw Trail ends: at an abandoned, gutted mine that can no longer be plundered for its gold.
Several hikers decide to turn back, not wanting to risk a fall, but I brave the first waterfall climb, and after that, climbing the others isn’t so bad. I gain confidence and know that, if there is a village site ahead, then there have undoubtedly been many others who have passed through here before me - humans and sheep and probably mountain lions, coyotes, lizards, and snakes - and I feel a certain sense of belonging on a special kind of pilgrimage so easily and often forgotten by contemporary woman and man. And after negotiating an hour’s worth of narrow twists and turns in the sandy wash of the canyon, we arrive at the relief of shade offered against the noon sun and warming temperatures by a huge group of palm trees here: we’ve reached pah-wah-te.
It feels good to rest and listen to the other hikers as they marvel in awe at where we are, of how good it feels to sit in the relief of shade offered by the tall palm trees here. As I run the palm of my hand along the smooth rock face of one of the village site’s milling slicks, and learn that seeds from these palm trees, ground on the slick, was a vital food source for the people who once lived here, I can almost imagine that I hear voices from long ago, the voices and words of others who once passed through here, and perhaps even the voices of those who are yet to come. The voices of those I'm with today mingle with these imaginary, but all-too-real and proven onetime past and possibly future visitors to this site.
And suddenly, what felt like a remote desert hike suddenly becomes a place of life and humanity, full of stories and events, voices marking the passing of life and time, stories whose depth and richness can only be fully known by the ever-staring rock faces of the canyon walls, and above them, the magnificent granite cliffs of this mountain range, and the largest peak of all, described as I a kitch by Cahuilla elder and religious leader Francisco Patencio – born in this region in 1840 – know for sure.
And suddenly, this oasis, this ancient village site, this destination for a day hike for a group of friends and frequent stopping point of bighorn sheep and other desert creatures becomes an extension of home, one illuminated and made all the brighter by the omniscient desert sun, just now cresting for a short while, at mid-day, high noon, high above the steep canyon walls that loom above, before slipping into the shadows towards twilight again. As I look to the highest cliff, there it is: the silhouette of a solitary sheep, poised for seconds at the highest nosebleed heights in a place where arguably, no human has been or will every likely be; it nods its massive head towards us before it whispers its way into invisibility beyond the next ridge, leaving the scent of its heart, the memories of its long voice, on my day. I saw it. I felt it. I know it is alive. As am I.
story and pictures by Ruth Nolan copyright (c) 2012 by Ruth Nolan