Several times, someone has asked how we navigate. I have a GPS that I have used once. I got it to not get lost in the forested mountains. There I can’t see far and the foliage and terrain is redundant enough to confuse landmarks. I’ve used this devise only a couple of times over the years.
We usually use more primitive navigational means. Where we go is mostly mountainous, or between mountains, with plenty of distinct landmarks. We often use marked trails.
I do use technology to get acquainted beforehand. I get everything that I can find off of the internet. I use Google Maps and then their satellite images to surmise what we might expect. I sometimes use raw hand-drawn maps, and sometimes topo maps.
There is always something else that needs to be done to not get lost, common sense, extra senses, observations, vigilant memories, either on the trails, or bushwhacking.
This will be two tales. The first takes place in the spring, me alone. The second is brief, when DF accompanied.
I will combine the photos of two stories here. You see, I went alone the first time and wrote the story. My photos from that experience were not adequate illustrations. A few months later, DF and I returned, cameras in hand, which made another story and more on this topic of navigation.
The spoiler alert is that in each tale, we nearly got lost wandering in the desert, again, but for our wits.
A Visit Past Terra Sante: The Intro:
I have gone out to Avra Valley to look at some property. The plan is to eventually join the Tuesday night sauna in the Harmonic Chapel, an odd shaped sauna building with rounded pockets to create sound resonance to sing, chant, drum and create music in. It can sound like singing in a shower and if you get the sweet spot, vibrations. It is healthy and fun.
I have arrived early at Terra Santé, an intentional community in Avra Valley, west of Tucson. It’s around noon. With time to spare, I have decided to hike out northwest and explore a place that has had me curious for quite a while. It is new to me. I reasonably assume that it is several miles of similar flora and flat terrain. It will lead me to a distant string of volcanic hills, studded with saguaro.
I have had concerns about several warnings of getting lost out there. It is easy to get off a degree or two and end up wandering and confused through the vast desert. Alone, running out of water, or just ending up miles away and having to backtrack can be dangerous.
A Rest and Evaluation:
I’m starting my story well into my hike. Out here in the desert next to an important wash, a thick band of sand is surrounded by mesquite trees that make their living sipping the water left from when the water flows. I’ve found a nice shady spot with the ground covered green with wild mustard. I sit and rest.
After a serious search throughout my small bag, I’ve discovered that I left my note taking pen at the truck. I do have a smartphone with an app to record my voice with a hiss from the wind in the background.
Mostly, there’s a pleasant breeze about. It has been welcomed all day. Sometimes, it has been windy rustling my hat. At times a twirling funnel could be heard and then felt as mostly waves of refreshment over my body, cooling it with evaporation. There is sand, but I have not had to suffer the sting of one of the towering dust devils.
A storm is supposed to blow in later tonight. The distant clouds to the southeast indicate that.
I think back through the day, making notes, as I sip on my water bottle. I shake the liter bottle and give it a squeeze through its insulating cover. It feels around half empty. This tells me to turn back. I should have enough, if I return on the same route. I want to go ahead and acquire my goal, the saguaro covered hill. It is finally much closer, but to go forward, it will take some serious bushwhacking. I’d need gloves and maybe tools to get through the overgrowth. It is nearly impenetrable. The reeds here are extremely scratchy in the thicket. The washes are deep.
If I have learned one thing about this desert area, it is that it changes often. Fresh bearings must be acquired on each visit.
I might try walking along this thicket and it would thin out, or disappear, but I’ve been out here for three hours and my nude body can feel the temperature change into a cooler late afternoon. I’ve got as much as three more hours back. Yes, it is definitely time to return.
As I mentioned, I’m just about to the feet of the saguaro hills. Now that I know the way, I can get out here quicker, with more water. I’ll leave that exploration to another day.
And So, the Story Went:
Around noon, I park just inside the fence on what is known as “the back 40” of the Terra Sante property. I plan to leave my truck here.
I’m getting out my lunch, when a passerby who is camping nearby, comes up to me. She is asking questions about what I might see and I am able to gather that she would be watching everything including my truck. I find her entertaining. She is obviously new to Arizona, referring to “saguaro” as “sequoia” and expressing several misconceptions, as she asks questions. I really like it out here. People with alternative lifestyles don’t even bat an eye at a naked stranger.
As I gather myself for my hike, I decide to take a small pack with toilet necessities, a warm sweat jacket with a hoodie and a sarong. This is just in case and because I have no idea how far, or what I might encounter. All I really know is that it is mostly State Trust Lands, with some ranching activity. I had been looking at Google Map’s satellite images of the area, but they were a bit old and things change. Also, it had been several months ago. I had seen that there was a two track jeep trail heading off diagonally, if I happen upon it. There should be a few cacti for landmarks, which would help me to get through the scrub with less zig zag.
My impression of this desert is that it isn’t a very pretty one. It is still winter, beginning the early part of Spring. The leaves are not yet back on the trees, which are mostly scrubby bushes.
After closing the gate, I turn north into the State Lands and walk along the cattle fence. I pass the two campsites, which are just on the other side of the fence on the private property.
Very quickly, I come to another fence running east and west, which is blocking me. There are the tracks of one quad with horse and cattle along the fence. I take it west. Perhaps there will be an opening. I come across a cattle pen and some buildings. Rather than intrude nude, I decide to backtrack to a spot in the fence that, due to a wash out, has some clearance to climb under. I have to place my bag under first and then crawl. Nearly lying on my belly, it is a tight spot.
I’m thinking that I am clear, but a barb catches me on the lower back. It is always easier with a partner’s eyes to spot mistakes and direct me through what I can’t see. I get upright, grabbing my bags with the distinct sense of the scratch.
As I walk away, I have to spend a few minutes feeling for blood. There is a familiar mushy slip of my fingers. It got me pretty good. I have to spend a little time squishing out the healing juices to clean the wound. Rusty old metal has its own kinds of dangerousness. I could still be lying in the hole under the fence, mumbling obscenities, snagged by my clothing and probably getting scraped in other places, sand down my pants, but I’m comfortably safe and free. I decide to take the small wash north, as it is hard-packed sand and clear of plant growth.
Within a few hundred feet, I stumble upon that jeep trail that meanders northwest directly toward the distant hills. The walking is now easier and I know that I couldn’t be lost along this identifiable route.
It leads me to another cattle fence and then turns north and following along it. I figure that it will be a good landmark to follow and take care of the distance that I must travel north. I can then head straight west at some point, either through the desert, or perhaps I’ll find more trail. I wander miles along this same straight fence. I feel solitude. I watch the desert change back and forth from barren flood plains, to thick growths of several combinations of plant life. With the fence constantly in sight, I am always secure that I won’t get lost. There are a few rooftops of homes about a mile or more to the east. That’s probably where the quads come from. Otherwise, I need to be aware of nothing but my body, wits and the desert.
As I walk, on the other side of the fence, I see a large jackrabbit begin to run away. Those incredible towering ears certainly work well. It appears to have a large white tail, like a white tailed deer that stretches down its back. It is gone before I can grab my camera out of the bag at my waist.
Jackrabbits seem to flourish regionally; I could go years before I’d see one where I live in Tortolita. In my memory, I’ve never seen one with a cotton tail. This one seems to stand as tall as a turkey, as it takes flight. They seem to have a steadiness in their heads and bodies when they take off in caution. It is as if they are prancing with their front legs, the rear legs squat. There is no bounce like a bunny.
The only reason that I am seeing this critter, is its movement. It was far enough away to amaze me that it could hear my purposeful quiet footsteps on the soft desert floor.
The fence, absolutely as straight as an arrow, stretches apparently for more miles as the saguaro studded hills near. Then they become nearly due west of me. There have been several “No Trespassing” signs. Then, as the trail wanders away from the fence again, I noticed that there is no wire connected to it. Now, it is just posts. It had to have been a great deal of effort and expense to build, to just stop. But, within a half a mile more, it does just that. It doesn’t keep anyone out, nor cattle in.
There has been activity and some tall white PVC poles are sticking up in the air, marking a boundary. These will make a good landmark to recognize. I line up two distant mountains for reference; one mountain is my potential goal. I head across the desert to the northwest. Another thing that I know is that a large wash is out here between me and these hills. If I can find it, it will give me an idea how far that I have come and how far to go.
None of the buildings of Terra Sante can be seen in the distance. It is just desert in every direction. I had been told that the large white geodesic dome was a homing landmark, but it disappeared long before this.
The first thing is the discovery of several deep obstacles, as parallel washes.
These require me to walk up or down the washes, until I find a decent crossing point. The slopes are steep and loose, just enough to make climbing out difficult.
This zig zag search is throwing off my bearings. There are four or five of these, each with those deep sharp sides and thick flora from the rains, which combine to be a problem. I have to keep my landmarks in mind, but these are flakey. For instance, mistletoe in the taller mesquite trees would stand out, but it is common enough here, that I find myself having difficulty discerning which glob of the stuff is the one that I am using to remember where I came from.
The steep washes stop giving me their troubles, but seemingly, for good measure, I am given a field of cattail-like reeds.
Fortunately, something has flattened enough of them out, just enough, to allow me to pass. This might be a risky problem during snake season, but today I get through confidently. Another jeep trail appears soon. I gather some sticks and lay them out across the trail, pointing toward where I had just come through the half a mile, or so, of obstacles.
From here, the trail is easy to walk and secure again. In a winding way, I’m heading toward the peak that I had chosen. I pass through fields of low desert flowers watered by the floodplain that these washes have cut through. At one point, I am taken by my senses. It is a particular sense of a vortex. It probably has to do with underground water. Walking a trail, I am not distracted by terrain and keeping direction. This leaves me more open to it, to notice. It is always an interesting experience to feel one.
Not long after, I come across a string of mounds. These are usually ancient farming technics of the ancestors of the natives, or a change made by the Army Corp of Engineers for flood control, or water conservation. I climb up one and see that there is nothing ancient about it. Goffers have drilled holes into the mound, making me have to be careful, so as not to twist my ankle. Way out here, that would be a catastrophe.
It is a dike to keep the wash’s bed from overflowing. I have found the big wash that I saw on the satellite image. From up here, I can stand and survey the distance, reviving my bearings. The wash is dry sand. I cross to the other side and climb up the embankment. Here, I find a wide desert plain with a nice green carpeting. It is easy to navigate.
Two more large Jacks are seen running off in the distance. Once again, they have heard me before I have time to get at my camera.
I eventually come to the scratchy thicket and the aforementioned realizations. Unable to cross through further, I sit and rest in the shade of that tree.
I’ll finish this up with the next story in a few days.
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