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Election Week 2020 Hiding In The Desert

Updated: Nov 8, 2020

During the 2016 election, I avoided the noise and camped in the desert east of San Diego's mountains. I had no idea who won the election and found out the results when I stopped by the Lazy Lizard Saloon in Ocotillo, CA. I wrote a short piece about that experience here. Ever since that trip, I'd planned on doing it again in 4 years. The location in 2020 was the same, an old cattle ranching valley called The Potrero. In Spanish, it means a semi-enclosed valley or mesa that slopes up to higher terrain and is used for the pasture of horses and / or cattle. Perfect description for where I was headed. No phone or texts, other than one "I've arrived safely at camp and there is reliable water" message home on Nov. 2nd, then the phone was turned off until I exited on Nov. 6th.

A 'desert rat' and forum member I met introduced me to the area years ago for which I am grateful. The area is rich in cultural Native American history, sometimes the evidence is striking.

More often, the evidence is subtle, like this pottery rim fragment.

Such evidence is a good reminder that western cowboys are not where the story of human habitation begins here. The Kumeyaay were here first, by some estimates for at least 12,000 years or roughly 600 generations. When you camp here, you realize how tough and skilled these people were to make their living.

I backpacked here mainly to clear my head of Covid-19, my job, and election stress. It's important to completely unplug and leave your phone off when you're 'out there'. 5 days and 4 nights, that is long enough to fall into the rhythm of the desert and your own heartbeat, but longer would be better. I brought a journal, which is a good companion, especially when the nights are long. After about half a day, the rhythm of the desert fully-enveloped me. I transitioned from paying attention to a particular bird, then an animal track, a woodrat nest, and watching clouds. The sheer amount of information coming at us when we're 'plugged in' becomes obvious in its absence. No other species bombards themselves with as much information and expectation as Homo sapiens. Our levels of mental illness are directly tied to our separation from nature and how we make a living (or not) in modern culture. A good read on the human condition and one of the most important books on my shelf is Affluence Without Abundance, by James Suzman. It details how we got 'off-track' as a species, using examples from hunter-gatherer cultures in Africa. The 'way back' to healthy human societies would require restoring and preserving large swaths of wild lands now under concrete. It would also require a complete rethinking of 'ownership' in the resource sense. Who owns the spring and its water? Everyone. What do you do when there is a surplus of Jojoba nuts? You share, you don't put them in a 401k. Everyone eats. Everyone literally has 'a job'.

But I digress. Let's talk about shield lichens. These grow on the granite boulders everywhere out here. I thought this particular growth pattern was interesting inside of this boulder alcove. The boulders above protrude over the area where the lichen is absent below.

Some interaction of light + moisture must be responsible for this pattern. Perhaps water pouring off the lips of the boulders above scours the left and right sides of the rock below, preventing growth on those sections? One thing for sure, these lichens grow primarily on the north side of boulders and can be used as a crude compass. The boulder below is multifaceted and you can see a clear dividing line down the middle between the N and W faces.

Besides emptying my mind, another goal was to study animal tracks and sign for an upcoming tracking evaluation. Essentially a two-day field exam to see what you know about the desert and animal behavior. Anything is fair game: tracks of insects, spiders, mountain lions, scat identification, branch marks on the sand from wind action, animal browsing sign, interpreting human behavior based on scuff marks in the sand. It's like learning a long-lost language.

Evidence of mule deer feeding was abundant on Jojoba shrubs. Rabbit browsing was easily eliminated as a possibility based on the height above the ground and woodrats tend to clip off branches more neatly. The jojoba browse here is more ragged in appearance, due to deer having incisors only in the lower jaw. Rabbits and woodrats 'clip' branches much more cleanly. The overall effect of consistent deer browsing on jojoba is that the plants are kept in 'bonsai' condition, very dense.

On my arrival to my chosen camp area (and I camped a few hundred yards away from a spring to let the animals have unfettered water access - no need for me to be right on top of the water for 5 days), I got the big pack off my back and poked around 'looking for stuff'. Saw some movement, which turned out to be a red coachwhip snake hunkered down in some brush.

A herpetologist friend has told me these guys are nasty and will bite, though they're not venomous.

Spent a fair bit of time sitting underneath oaks and sugarbushes on various ridgelines, taking in the views and 'looking for stuff'. Found a feather from a Long-Eared owl.

My days consisted of wandering to various points I hadn't been to previously, to check out different terrain and take in different views. Found some cowboy artifacts here and there.

This thing was incredibly heavy and I liked the hex-bolt modification.

During that walk, I also came upon 'fresh enough' mountain lion tracks to make the nights ahead more interesting. The tri-lobed heel pad is visible on the left side of this track.

The oak trees showed browsing evidence by woodrats, they clip branches for use in their nest construction.

What looks like a random pile of branches is actually the work of woodrats, who 'stage' materials for continued nest construction.

Woodrats also incorporate cholla cactus into the construction of nests, for defensive purposes.

Woodrats also like to peel the skin and consume prickly pear cactus. Jackrabbits eat cactus too, but they are more 'chompers' than peelers.

Cactus wren nest in Mojave Yucca.

Views from and of camp.

Every night the moon rose a little later and its light consistently provided a nightly wake up call. On the last night, at 1:40 am, same thing, bright light ... but this time accompanied by the crunching of gravel underfoot. A Border Patrol agent standing above me with a flashlight! He said he'd tracked me to the spot, and granted, I'd laid down 4 days and nights worth of tracks to / from camp, but the prospect of him having tracked me in the dark (I tried to reproduce his efforts about an hour later, since I was wide-awake!) seemed implausible. But they do take lots of instruction in 'man-tracking'. Very nice guy, was super apologetic for waking me up during his patrol, just wanted to know what I was doing out here. I will be choosing a more-difficult-to-find camp site next time.

Clouds spilled over the mountains on Friday the 6th, the day I exited. I still didn't know the outcome of the election, but I'd soon learn, neither did anyone else. I should have stayed out one more night!

Overall a great trip and I can't wait to get out there again and be a bit more stealthy about it.

Nov. 6th morning. He is still innocent, no idea what happened on Nov. 3rd election night!

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