Tue, Dec 10, 2013
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Of seven days I had in the desert this trip, today was the only day I'd be hiking by myself. It was a chance to do a longer hike that my partners wouldn't be interested in and an opportunity to get lost in thought for much of the day as I cruised around the Mojave. I had driven in to Blackwater Well the night before, roughly halfway between Ridgecrest and Barstow, just east of the China Lake Naval Center. My primary goal was to reach Pilot Knob, a P1K that I had been eyeing for a few years. Shane Smith had mentioned he'd done this with Granite Mountain, a nearby named summit, and suggested I could probably add Slocum, another P1K, as well. It seemed a stretch when I first started looking at it on the maps, more than 23 miles of mostly cross-country near the winter solstice with minimal daylight. But after the first two days where I realized the cross-country in this part of the Mojave is pretty easy, it seemed this might be easier than I expected. I had driven a few miles past Blackwater Well, to the starting point marked on my GPS that I had hoped to reach to keep it to 23 miles. As it turns out, I could have driven another 3 miles to the fence at the base boundary, but didn't realize the road layout arrangement that would have allowed me to do so. This was not all bad, as I wouldn't have to worry about base personnel noticing my van parked in a conspicuous location. Located where it was, it would be impossible to spot from inside the base. From where I parked, the road forks. An older road heads east. One need only turn north and follow it a short distance before meeting up with an excellent BLM road that continues east towards the base boundary.
I was on my way by 6:45a, just before sunrise with the temperature hovering several degrees below freezing. It would be cold enough all day that I never recall actually sweating with the exception of that portion of my back covered by my pack. Pilot Knob comes into view directly east within a few minutes of starting out. It's possible to make out the road in a very straight line heading for Granite Wells, located at the base of Pilot Knob more than three miles away. Navigation could hardly be easier. The sun rose behind me on Almond Mountain around 7a, and then over Granite Mountain in front of me a quarter of an hour later. As on most mornings of this trip, the sun was a most welcome visitor when it arrived. It didn't do much to warm up the air, at least initially, but the solar radiation penetrating my clothing layers did wonders to take the sting out of the cold air.
Sometime after 7:30a I reached the boundary fence, and ten minutes after that I crossed a dirt perimeter road that follows just inside the boundary. This excellently graded road showed much usage and would be cause for concern - all my previous incursions had been in areas without any significant traffic. As I continued on the older road heading east into the base, I'd keep an eye out over my shoulder for signs of traffic along the better road, and was happy to be soon far enough away to make detection unlikely. In addition to a few old signs found rusting away, I was surprised to find some relatively new signs with the Auto Club of Southern California logo on them. Closer inspection showed these to be historical reproductions - evidently the military takes some efforts to maintain cultural artifacts on its property. Another such sign pointed out an historical grave site, with a third one found at the end of the road at Granite Well.
Past Granite Well the road quickly peters out, but the cross-country is not difficult and it took less than an hour for the final mile and 1,000ft of gain to the summit, almost due east. Just below the summit my attention was diverted by the odds bits of twisted metal I found on the ground. Shane had told me there was a wreckage on the mountain, but I had completely forgotten that tidbit until now. It would be hard to miss the wreckage when approaching from the west, not because there were large, obvious pieces but because it was so spread out over the side of the mountain. Rather than diving into the mountain, it looked like the aircraft may have come in at a low angle before crashing and breaking into pieces. The highpoint was only a few minutes above the crash site - had the mountain been maybe 100ft lower, perhaps there would have been no accident.
It was 8:50a when I reached the summit, a rusting steel survey tower still partially standing over the benchmark. A large ammo box held several register books. The oldest pages were in a glass jar, and the oldest of these I found were from a Rich Gnagy / Barbara Lilley party from 1959. The most recent entry in the newest book was more than two years ago, none other than Shane. As I noted in my register entry, in addition to the cold it was very windy at the summit and my fingers nearly froze during the few minutes my gloves were off to sign my name and snap a few photos. The most interesting summits in the surrounding area, ones that will be on my radar over the next few years, were Robbers Mountain to the northeast and Eagle Crags (a P2K) well to the east. Granite and Slocum were prominent to the south and it was to these I next turned my attention.
I dropped down the south side of Pilot Knob, passing through a most interesting band of layered, white sedimentary rock that made beautiful erosion patterns, sculpted by both water and wind. Below this I found an old road, unused for decades, that I followed for a short distance before turning right for a more direct approach to Granite Mtn. Creosote pervades the region as the most common plant, but there were others of interest including some well-defended cacti and a venerable joshua tree. Making my way through the shallow wash I was following, I crossed another old road and then began making the climb to Granite Mtn from the northeast. A few random ducks/cairns were found on the slope, most likely marking old prospects rather than left by hikers. As the name suggests, the predominantly younger volcanic rock gives way to rough granite. The rock is not particularly hard, much of it breaking easily into smaller pieces and the sand that is ubiquitous through the desert. A little more than an hour after leaving Pilot Knob I had found my way to the summit of Granite Mtn. A register I found here had only the initial entry by Mark Adrian when he left it in 1998. As there was no pen or pencil and I was carrying none, I left it without an additional entry, much as I suspect Shane and others have done earlier. Lower than the other two summits, the views from Granite are plainer and not particularly noteworthy.
With another five miles to Slocum, I descended off the south side of Granite, passing through the PK Ranch at the base of the mountain. With a well, water tank and other developments, it appears to have been abandoned decades ago with the structures and wooden corrals in decay. How anyone managed to graze cattle out here is a wonder, an amazing testament to the tenacity of some desert folks (and the tough lining on a cow's stomach). I spent the better part of an hour and a half cruising south across the gently sloped desert floor, going up one side of a slight rise between Granite and Slocum, then down the other side. I started picking up a number of 50 calibre casings that I found periodically in the sand, stopping when I'd collected about 20 because they were getting too heavy for my pants. About a mile south of the ranch I crossed another good road that showed recent traffic - this one comes in from the east and meets up with the fenceline road to the west and would bear watching on my way to Slocum and back.
It was 11:30a before I had reached the base of Slocum and started up. I picked a ridge rising to the summit from the northwest which was easy enough, but really any route via ridge or canyon would probably work equally well. About ten minutes below the summit I found an old prospect marked by a wooden pole, a shallow depression and some bluish rocks that had been extracted. Little must have come of it as there had been no serious development. It was noon when I reached Slocum's highpoint at the west end of a broad summit. Though not indicated on the map, a USGS benchmark was found here, along with some rusty tins and other minor objects. Mark Adrian had left a register here as well, the day before he'd left the one on Granite Peak. Once again no pen, so no additional entries (save one by C.M. in 2004).
At this point I was nearly 9 miles from the car in a straight line, but with easy terrain to negotiate on the return I had little concern about getting back before sunset - not that it would have mattered much if I got back after sunset since I didn't have any pressing engagements that evening. I left the load of casings I'd been carrying near the summit and started down an adjacent ridgeline further west. I had hours of marching across to the desert to get lost in thought, every now and then brought back to the here and now by an odd find. One was an Angry Birds balloon, another was a single aircraft part (oddly, I could find no others in the vicinity), and a collapsed water tank that I had spied from a great distance but couldn't determine what it was until I was almost upon it. I picked up more 50 calibre shells, too, for little more reason than to bang out the sand and dirt to hear the musical tone it gives off when empty. About half a mile from the good east-west road I had crossed earlier, I was suddenly caught off guard by an unmarked white van driving down the road past me. I had expected that I would see any vehicle traveling on these roads from miles away by the dust clouds they would kick up. But there was no dust cloud and no warning at all. If I had been a quarter mile closer I might have been easily spotted walking across the open desert. This had a somewhat chilling effect on me and I was very quickly alert and watching intently for other vehicles that might pass by. I have no idea what would happen should I be spotted, but I imagine the least it would result in was a long drive to somewhere I'd rather not be and it could be days before I found my way back to my vehicle. For the next half hour until I was outside the Navy property, I was constantly looking over my shoulder and in all directions for signs of vehicles. I left my second collection of casings alongside the perimeter road, a few minutes before I was over the fence and back on BLM lands.
There are a couple of roads across the BLM lands that I might have used to return to my van, but they would have taken me a bit out of the way. Since the desert floor was nearly as easy to travel across as a road, I simply continued to make a beeline towards the gap in the Black Hills that I had been using as a reference since leaving Slocum. I passed by Granite Mtn and Pilot Knob once again, both brightly lit in the afternoon sunshine. Between 2p and 3p was the warmest part of the day, warm enough anyway to remove the fleece and gloves I'd been wearing most of the day. It was just after 3p when I returned to the car and I wasted no time taking a lukewarm shower in the fleeting warmth of weak sunshine that I knew would not last much longer. It had taken just over eight hours to cover the 23+ miles, just about the same pace I might have done had the route been all on trail - I was liking this easy desert terrain a great deal!
I had originally planned to meet Tom at Blackwater Well in the early morning, but it was occuring to me now that while this would be an easy arrangement for me, it would make for lots of additional driving for Tom. The peaks we planned to do the next day were to the southeast and with a better look at the maps and Zdon's guide, I realized there was a much shorter approach from the south by SR58. So I spent the next several hours driving back out to US395, south to Kramer Junction, and east on SR58 to the small community of Hinkley. I sent a text to Tom to give him the new meeting place a few miles north of town just off Hinkley Rd. I made myself dinner here while watching a movie in the van, what has become the regular routine while I'm on roadtrips. Not a bad way to spend the cold desert evenings...
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