Piute Springs – A Trek Through Time in the Wild West.

Dear Diary,

How appropriate that on the last day of 2015 we took a trek back in time to the real wild west of old. To a place so far off the beaten path that one feels like they might be intruding on unseen activities going on has they have for a thousand  years.

We continued our quest of following sections of the old Mojave Road. We headed out to explore a place just off the “old government road”.

This road has been used by Native Americans, Spanish missionaries, explorers, Mexican traders, the Pony Express, American Cavalry, miners, and western settlers alike.

All with the same quest; to reach California.

Long before any non-native set foot in the area, legend has that bands of Paiute, Navajo, Apaches, Chemehuevi, and Aha Macav (Mohave) Indians fought for ownership of the most valuable resource in the desert.

Water.

And as we would find out for ourselves, Piute Springs has plenty of it. Cool and fast flowing water that comes up out of the ground only to disappear back into the desert in just a half mile.

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The native Americans used this route to trade with coastal Indians in California. The Mohave “Runners” could cover 100 miles a day in some of the most inhospitable terrain to be found.

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Just trying to hike amid the cactus is challenge enough for this city girl…I can’t imagine running through it for a hundred miles.

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Ok dang it, I’ll just admit that I can’t run a half mile anywhere. Even if someone was chasing me. With a gun.

The earliest recorded non-native traveled this road in 1776 in the form of Francisco Garces, a Spanish Franciscan missionary who would convert the first area native to Catholicism in what is now Hesperia, California.

Francisco Garces would be killed in Yuma just a few years later by natives as a punishment for Spanish settlers violating terms of their treaty.

The Mohave tribe first provided guidance through Piute Spring for Friar Garces into what is now known as Cajon Pass in 1776, and for many more  for the next nearly 100 years until the Mohave and settlers/soldiers/miners became increasingly hostile over what amounted to simple misunderstandings. As a result, Fort Mohave was erected at the Colorado River to keep peace and provide protection for white settlers.

Fort Mohave no longer exists.

Just 22 miles west of the Colorado River however, lies the ruins of what is now known as Fort Piute (originally called Fort Beale after the man that brought camels into the area as a failed experiment).

So off the beaten path we go to find this relic of wild west history. 21st century explorers replete with our spirit of adventure and a well appointed off road vehicle.

God bless GPS. Within just a couple of hours, we had traversed a very rough road (I actually have city girl bruises from foolishly trying to rest my arm on the door while being bounced around like a tournament ping pong) to reach our destination.

We parked the Jeep and equipped ourselves in preparation for going back in time. For peeling the layers of human habitation and walking among the remnants of those intrepids in whose footsteps we were about to follow.

The most obvious and looming is the ruins of Fort Piute, built in 1867 and abandoned in just 6 months.

Fort Piute

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I walked into the fort and as always, am filled with a certain reverence for those who came before me. Especially in a place as harsh as this.

As I looked back at our lone steed parked below and took in the beautiful vista, I thought about how this place had been a flashpoint of violence for generations of peoples.

View from the soldiers quarters room.

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Fireplace

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And I don’t feel alone. I feel as though there are still sentries here.

What looks like a fort is really just a single layer amid many layers of human struggle. Layers of time one on top of the other like an onion. The Indians, the Spanish, the soldiers, the homesteaders, all imprinting this tiny half mile of land with their own blood, sweat, and tears.

Just a few feet from the fort is the snapshot of a layer from 1929. The Smith family lived here and although it is overgrown, I can still see where their home sat.

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Really? They had a regular ole car that managed to carry them to and fro? I’m not feeling so good about my bruises from the Jeep right now. A little wimpy in fact. Nothing new.

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Members of this family still live in nearby Needles, California.

Just east of the Smith home lie the layers of ruins from two failed farms.

In 1928 Thomas Van Slyke homesteaded here to make a go of farming fruit and grapes. He patented the land and subsequently sold it in 1944 to George and Virginia Irwin who attempted a turkey farm. A letter from George and Virgina Irwin to a Mrs. Welsh in 1957 brings this couple to life with their own words…


George and Virginia Irwin to Mrs. Welch, 7/10/1957

This letter was found at a garage sale by Keith Collins.

Wednesday July 10, 1957
Box 247 Needles, California

Dear Mrs. Welch;

We have been the owners of Fort Piute or as it is known in the War Department records, Fort Beale, named after Lt. Edward Fitzgerald Beale who made the original survey in the year 1853, since 1944. The property was purchased from Mr. Thomas van Slyke who took a homestead and later patented the land in 1928. Mr. van Slyke told us that the fort was built in 1867 and it was one of six such redoubts that were established along the old Government Road from St.Joseph Missouri to Los Angeles (Wilmington – Fort Drum). This road roughly ran paralell (sic) to the 32 meridian and was surveyed as early as 1847 just prior to the finding of gold in California. After the news of the gold strike activity was increased in making roads across the country therefore these stopping places were established which were near water and were approximately one days traveling time between stops. There have been many articles published about this old Government Road and it would take a small book to elaborate on the history of this road. However we like to pass on any information that we have and we are in a position to refer you to Mr. L. Burr Belden who is the history editor for the San Bernardino Sun newspaper. He has at his fingertip pictures and the full story of this famous trail. May I suggest that you write him in care of the newspaper. I feel sure that he will answer any questions you might have. If you are ever out here near the fort drop in and see us and we will be glad to talk to you about the fort. We live at tne Metropolitan Water District switching station 25 miles west of Needles on Highway 66. As you no doubt noticed the area is replete with Indian writing petroglyphs. These writings are very old and even the Indians who live near here at this present date do not understand them nor can they interpret their meanings. Also there are numerous graves located along this trail and unless one were pointed out they would pass unnoticed.

We hope this information will be of help to you and would be glad to speak to you in person if you are ever out this way.

Sincerely yours,

George & Virginia Irwin

As for the ancient petroglyphs? Yes, they are there providing a deep time layer amid the more recent ruins of the turkey farm. Pet-Mojave-014

The ruins of the turkey farm and the home of George and Virginia (feel like old friends now don’t they?).

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Lastly, I add my own layer in the form of footsteps as we hiked the “old government road” (old Mojave Road) through Piute Springs and back again.

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What an ending.

‘Til next year dearest.

 

 

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Hole in the Wall, Mojave National Preserve California

Dear Diary,

Some of the most memorable trips are those that you decide to take on a whim. This is one of those.

And very far off the beaten path.

In fact, this one is so far off the beaten path I questioned our sanity on the way there. I definitely questioned who in their right mind would want to live in such a harsh and unforgiving environment. But that would be a rhetorical question, because one thing never changes with the desert eccentric (also known as desert rats)…they’re just plain crazy.

My hubby is part of that tribe.

While I pine for the ocean and forests, he is most at home where there is no shade, no water, and temperatures are in the extreme.

This place was no exception.

We recently embarked on a quest to follow the Mojave road.  The road originally created by Native Americans as a trade route between tribes of the Mojave Valley and the Coastal California Indians.

One can traverse this road in 2 – 3 days,  but because of work commitments, we intend to take it in sections.

Hole in the Wall in the Mojave National Preserve was our most recent destination. While it is not technically on Mojave Road, it is a point of interest we didn’t want to pass up. I was as excited as I can get about a remote place within a remote place in the middle of nowhere.

The Mojave Road is noted in green, Hole in the Wall is circled in red.

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Since we were coming back to So. California from celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday in Arizona, it was a perfect time to fit this little side trip into our itinerary.

I noticed this destination was between two places with pretty ominous names…Death Valley and Devil’s Playground. I don’t know about you, but I make it a habit to avoid anything having to do with Death or Devil.

Not my desert rat of a hubby, these kind of places are right up his alley, so off we go to camp between them. The soft creamy center of a Death and Devil sandwich.

Saints preserve us.

While I was busy wondering what he was getting us into, I thanked God it was winter time and not summer. Death Valley became the hottest place in the world on July 10, 2013 when it reached a record 134 degrees. Not hard to understand why it’s called Death Valley. I don’t even want to know how the Devil’s Playground got it’s name.

Upon arrival to the Hole in the Wall campground, I had to admit the campsites are very nice. I was pleasantly surprised that we were the only one’s there. We set up our camp and walked to the ranger station to get a map of the area in anticipation of hiking the next day.

This would be Lucy’s first camping trip in our posh rooftop tent.

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We hadn’t even gone 50 feet before I noticed that she had already attracted a large chunk of Cholla Cactus in her fur. Cholla cactus is a nasty foe and I try very hard to stay out of it’s way. It’s called the “jumping cactus” because you don’t need to be near to attract a painful hitchhiker.

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With Lucy’s fine hair, it was embedded so deeply that I’m sure we appeared to be performing surgery if there had been anyone there to witness it. Needless to say, I carried her the rest of the way to and from the station.

Such city girls her and I.

I was excitedly waiting to have a campfire. You can’t really have campfires in So. Cali so this was a real treat for me. We cooked our evening meal and settled down to wait for sunset. Now that all sounds pretty standard for camping folk doesn’t it?

Here’s the problem.

California cold

I remember thinking that it would be nice to be in colder temperatures since I had spent most of the summer boiling.

That is until it actually got cold. Silly me.

As the sun went down the temperature dropped accordingly. By the time my hubby started a fire, I was already frozen through and through. Even my butt was cold, and I would have thought something with that much padding would be insulated.

In this photo I am considering actually jumping into the fire (don’t worry, I would have handed Lucy off beforehand). I am totally not joking.

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Evidently, the above applies to California dogs too. Lucy wouldn’t stop shivering until I put her under the blanket.

Needless to say I didn’t sit outside long to enjoy the campfire experience. Forget the smores.

We got into our tent and for only the third or fourth time in my life I could see the condensation coming out of my mouth when we spoke. I would have said I was in hell, but it wasn’t warm enough.

Thankfully we had brought a propane heater (I can’t say we, my hubby had the foresight to bring it). I also had brought my Kelty Ignite 20 sleeping bag, but I wondered about the rating. Is it rated for 20 degrees or for a 20 year old (and not a more “mature” woman). I suspect it was the latter because I was paralyzed with cold.

Even with the little heater going full blast, my hand was too cold to hold my paperback book so I could read myself to sleep.

Thankfully I had brought an extra blanket because the little Walmart doggy sweater I had gotten Lucy was not enough. I wrapped her up and tucked her between our sleeping bags.

My hubby and I laid there staring at each other like burritos in a freezer.

Finally Lucy and my hubby fell asleep with both snoring. I alone laid awake to battle the cold and cacophony of nasal noise. I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I promise you it was not soon enough.

Where I live, I am accustomed to roughly 360 days a year of sunshine, but never have I been so happy and appreciative of it until I felt it warm the tent as it rose.

When I felt I could finally peek outside of our tent without suffering the loss of my nose due to frostbite, I noticed Lucy’s dog water had been frozen solid. Another first for me.

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The arid barren landscape belied how cold it was. I felt like there should be 10 feet of snow on the ground, but with an annual rainfall of only 3 inches a year, I reckoned that doesn’t happen much.

After a cup of tea (oh thank you for being so fast Jet Boil!) and hot oatmeal, we headed out to follow the only trail in the area. The 6 mile Barbour Peak Loop trail would meet up with the short 1 mile Rings Loop Trail, which traverses the Hole in the Wall canyon.

Having learned my lesson when we were stranded by the flash flood in the Grand Canyon just a few months ago, I brought the ten essentials. My hubby had to backpack Lucy since the area was full of a variety of cacti including the “jumping cactus”.

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I remembered what a friend from Nova Scotia said when laying eyes on the California desert for the first time…”it looks like the surface of the moon”.

I would have to agree. And just as inhospitable I might add.

I suspect that the area looks exactly the same as it did 150 years ago when Mojave Indian runners would cover as much as 100 miles a day on foot. With one exception…see those vapor jet trails overhead as I strike a pose?

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They are from maneuvers being performed by aircraft from nearby Fort Irwin (I’m assuming since it’s the closest military base).

One aircraft came so close to us that I’m pretty sure I saw him tell his co-pilot “look at those fools down there.”

The only sign of life was this pesky bull blocking the trail, or was he protecting the only tree?  He was quite large and immediately started to stare us down.

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No worries I thought, I have my trusty “loudest whistle in the world.”

I put it to my lips and blew out a disturbingly shrill sound that was so loud I thought the blast might bring down one of those jets.

The only way I knew the bull even heard it was the barely perceptible muscle twitch in his back leg.

Wait a minute, this isn’t supposed to be how it goes. The animal is supposed to run away in fright.

No way, no how. This bull was dead serious about standing his ground. I imagined how easily he could run me down and put one or both of those horns through my spinal chord.

My hubby and I carefully made our way backwards and took an alternate route that gave Mr. Horns a wide berth. I never turned my back on him, but made sure to not lock eyes either.

Lucy however, set a decidedly perturbed look on me that seemed to say, “thanks for assaulting my very sensitive dog ears for no good reason.”

We reached the Hole in the Wall canyon which was easy to spot, since it was riddled with holes.

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We sat at the foot of the canyon entrance in the photo above and ate our packed lunches.

There were interesting sizes and shapes of holes everywhere as we entered the canyon in anticipation of the Rings Trail.

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And finally we were upon it.

My hubby headed up first with Lucy on his back as I brought up the rear. There are 4 or 5 sections of ring loops that are straight up. This is a photo of the first section.

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He made it look so easy I scrambled up behind him. The first section wasn’t so bad. The second section wasn’t horrible either. The third section (I don’t have any photos since I was using both of my hands to keep from plunging into the abyss below me) was an entirely different story.

I put my left foot onto a rock, then found a foothold with my right foot, then another with my left. I realized that the next foothold was roughly half of the length of my body above me. I tried to move upward, but the absence of a thigh muscle prevented me from executing that “step”.

Dammit. I was stuck. I couldn’t go up or down.

I called out to my hubby and said I tried to make the Paul Bunyon step but I didn’t have enough strength in my left thigh muscle to make it happen.

He replied, “You can do it, just do it”.

You know what? Shouting down the Nike brand mantra doesn’t miraculously make my left thigh able to perform a giant leap in mid-air while my right arm tries to support my pear shaped body (in other words, a big butt) by holding onto a ring.

If I could do that, I would already be a medal winning rings gymnast in the middle-aged category of the Olympics (if they had one).

He should know that I already tried my damnedest before I had to admit I was stuck in the first place. How in the heck did he do it with a dog on his back?

Thankfully my Eagle Scout hubby had brought a rope and he was at a place in the trail that he could set down the dog, make a loop in the rope and throw it down to me.

I put the loop around me the best I could with one hand holding onto the ring, while he braced himself against the rocks to pull.

When I said I was as ready as I would ever be, he dragged me up while I did virtually nothing to help since I couldn’t get a foot or handhold anywhere.

By the time I made it up to the landing where he was, I was a sight to behold. My pants had been pulled down as I was drug up, and I sustained a bloody scrape on my knee from getting onto the landing.

Just call me Edmund Hillary.

I was horrified to hear voices coming from below me, I rushed to compose myself before they came into sight, but thankfully they were struggling and not making good enough time to catch sight of me.

That was a blessing for both of us.

I redeemed my pride in a small way by making the next section by myself (it wasn’t hard in other words).

Before exiting the canyon, I rolled up the rope and slung it over my shoulder and walked out like a boss that had actually been rock climbing.

Like this.

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Not from being drug up the rings trail, definitely not like that. Never mind that bloody knee.

The trail took us passed the rangers station where my hubby went to use the restroom (and probably check for a hernia) while I amused myself in the main area where the ranger sat.

He took one look at the rope and the knee, and he knew. He knew.

I blurted out, “you should warn people that the rings trail is no joke. It’s very hard!”

He looked me square in the eye and said, “little kids do it all the time”.

Really? That’s how we are going to play it?

I retorted, “That’s only because they have muscles and joints that are still brand new right out of the box ya know.”

Take that Ranger Smart Aleck.

As my hubby and I walked down through the parking lot and onto the road that lead back to our camp, I noticed a middle aged woman in very fashionable high heeled boots (I presumed they were taking a side trip from Las Vegas) getting ready to take on the rings trail.

Good luck with that.

Until next time dearest.