And ye shall go into the holes of the rocks, and into the caves of the earth.
"What have we done?"
It was Candlepower. He was standing on top of a flat slab of tan monzogranite, about three feet wide. To the left and the right of him were forty foot deep pits, filled with leg-breaking chuck holes and rubble, if the fall itself wasn't enough to do you in. My buddies Diode, Candlepower, and I were high up in a boulder fall that saddled between two high spires of brown sandstone and quartz. The saddle was about 500 feet above the wash below. We had about three hours of daylight left – then we'd be negotiating this stuff by headlamp or spending the night.
We were in the Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree National Park, to be exact, deep in the heart of a geological zone known as "The Wonderland of Rocks." This isn't something that the local tourist board made up. On the "Indian Cove" 7.5 minute quadrangle topographic map issued by the United States Geological Survey, there was an arc of heavy sans-serif type above a maze of squirming, tight packed contour lines that read WONDERLAND OF ROCKS. It was cold, sunny, and dry.
Why were my comrades and I racing the sun across some of the most literally ass-busting terrain I have ever encountered? Why were we risking compound fractures, blunt trauma, sunburn, abrasion, hostile plant life, and dehydration? We were looking for a cave. A cave named "Oh-Bay-Yo-Yo." I'd read those words in print as well, and I believe everything I read in books and on maps.
Two grown men were following me following my compass and GPS, over rocks and down cliff facings, because there was no path to speak of. They were following me to a cave named Oh-Bay-Yo-Yo, in the middle of a place called the Wonderland of Rocks. If you're thinking that maybe I was thinking I'd been suckered, the victim of an elaborate snipe hunt that had somehow made its way into print, you would be right.
What had we done?
To tell the whole story I will have to go back 2 years
My buddy Ligament: About five foot seven, built like a bulldozer, shaggy black hair, covered in tatts that covered only two subjects – bikes and nuclear power. On his massively hypertrophied right calf was a 1:1 scale tattoo of the chain ring
from a mountain bike's crank. On the equally overdeveloped left calf was a piece of nautical scrollwork that would have been right at home in "Billy Budd
," except for the words PROMPT CRITICAL
– nuclear power talk for an uncontrollable reaction that leads to a meltdown. He was a Navy attack submarine
reactor operator turned bike mechanic. He was a riding buddy of mine, one of my best friends.
Ligament's grandmother, "Mimma" had retired to Palm Springs. She used to work for the Nixon Administration, with Henry Kissinger. Palm Springs and the high desert of California is apparently where much of the former Nixon apparatus is warehoused, like the Strategic Air Command's bomber boneyard in Arizona, the cloudless skies allowing our allies to verify their retirement by satellite reconnaissance. After a week with Mimma, Lig was going crazy and wanted to get out. I drove out from LA with a vague plan that we would take a day hike in Joshua Tree National Park.
I had a copy of On Foot in Joshua Tree National Park by Patty Furbush. This slim volume is the Joshua Tree hiker's bible, containing descriptions of over one hundred day and overnight hikes. The night before, as Lig and I were watching police chases on the tube I flipped through the section on hikes in the Wonderland of Rocks. I had taken a very short loop hike into the southern fringe of the Wonderland last time I had been in the park and I want to really penetrate into the heart of it. The opening line of hike Number 4 Wonderland Connection reads, "This hike passes through the heart of the Wonderland." It sounded perfect, but there was more. The book went on to describe, in broad terms, a "boulder cave" named Oh-Bay-yo-yo. The cave supposedly featured improvements built by locals in the 1940's for use as a wilderness retreat, stocking it with pots, a lantern, and a bible. It was supposed to be difficult to reach, something only achieved by a handful of people every year. A cave? Difficult? I got so excited about this I had trouble getting to sleep that night. What did the cave look like? Was the bible still there? Was there furniture and a crude cookstove, or was it totally wrecked by vandals? I have a cave hangup only to be outdone by pros like Jules Verne (who seemed to work a cave into nearly everything he did), and the vagueness of the description left enormous latitude open for fabulation. Ligament and I lay in the dark talking about what we might find out there – a city of gold, a secret Nazi base, naked Amazon women who rode wolves, their hair bleached blonde and their bare breasts tanned from the desert sun. That last one was Ligament's favorite.
We set out the next morning at seven. We took a bunch of grapes with us and a couple of liters of bottled water. We were wearing shorts, T-shirts and sneakers. I had my Silva compass. We bought a USGS topo map on the way in, at the visitor center. I'd done my best to memorize the directions for the book (why didn't I just bring it with me?). From a planning perspective, as an Eagle Scout, this was not my finest hour. The day broke clear and dry, with the guarantee of heat to come.
Forming the north central region of Joshua Tree National Park, The Wonderland of Rocks covers several thousand acres and looks like the background of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. The comparison is inevitable. There are huge numbers of Japanese and German tourists that visit the park every year. Maybe the Japanese tourists see a backdrop for enlightenment, the German tourists an opportunity for vigorous exertion. But take an American to the park for their first visit and you can set your watch by it, "This looks like Road Runner!" This isn't a failure of imagination so much as a testimony to the power of a common visual vocabulary. The Wonderland is long ridges and spires of tan monzogranite, everything a variation on tan – brown, khaki, tan, off white. The area was formed out of an uplifted bubble of plutonic rock, cracked by water seeping down through the water table and exposed through erosion. The result is exactly what it looks like, huge stacked blocks of rough stone forming sheer walled canyons and boulder fields. Sandy washes wind back into this tumble of rock, the bottomland home to yucca, cactus, pinyon pine, and Joshua Trees. Before the park was here, the area was homesteaded by World War One veterans. Preference was given to vets that suffered damage to their lungs from poison gas attack, the thought being that the clean dry air would be good for their convalescence. The homesteaders worked 160 acre land grants as cattle ranches, vegetable gardens and mines, the igneous quartz and serpentine geology making for good gold mining.
Hiking in over the rough sand, Ligament made a comment about the map.
"This part of the map is marked green?"
"Yes, this is apparently forested"
We were walking through the Desert Queen Valley, the largest Joshua Tree forest in the world. The trees are a type of yucca, related to the lily family. They grew about thirty feet apart, separated by rough sand. Sand, plant, sand. No ground cover, no leaf meal, no forest floor, just sand-plant-sand. Ligament and I were raised on the east coast. This place in no way approximated our mental image of a forest. The Joshua Trees looked like wireframe models of "real" trees – a trunk, a few simple branches, nothing recognizable as twigs and leaves. The Joshua Trees were primitive and rugged, but you need to have respect in your heart for anything that can survive in such a harsh environment, much live for 600 years.
It was getting hotter. Sand kept making its way into our sneakers. Things got more tolerable as we worked back into the Wonderland's canyons. There was shade. Our shoes were still loaded with sand. We reached a place marked on my map as "Willow Hole." The granite bedrock collected rainwater from the surrounding ravines, supporting a small pond of standing water. There were grasses, bulrushes, and Willow trees. In the middle of a desert, hidden deep in a canyon, was a wetland. Standing in the middle of the pond was a Great Blue Heron, having a drink.
The easy walking was over. Moving east towards the reported location of the cave, the sand floored wash ended and the canyon floor became a tumble of boulders and rock. Some were nonnegotiable monads like scaled up chicken eggs fifty feet high. These footed up against hogback ridges that precluded any opportunity for walking. In among the superboulders were smaller slabs and solids. You made passage by scrambling, jumping and climbing. It was what rock climbers call "Bouldering" – traverses that require some basic rock climbing skills and guts but no equipment.
You run at a mild sloping mass of rock shaped like a flattened playground ball. At the top there's a sheer drop twenty feet down to busted up sandstone boulders the size of compact cars. But there's big hunk of sandstone like a giant arrowhead to your left and it leads to a flat slab that looks like a ten-foot-wide Oreo. Pick your line and jump for it. Keep your momentum up, move fast, and now you're on top of the Oreo. Lower yourself down to the sand below and the walk ahead to the next tumble. Congratulations. You've traveled fifty feet. Keep this up for a mile and a half.
We were starting to get tired out. Making long sprints across the rock, one after the other, my legs started to feel tweeky. I started questioning my ability to land long jumps from rock to rock. I looked back at Lig. He is one of the toughest guys I know, but I could see the exertion on his face.
We were working our way down a canyon to the north, looking for the cave. Ligament moved to a round-topped rock for a better view. Then he fell off the other side of it and out of sight.
I rushed to the top of the stone. Lig had fallen about eight feet down onto a yucca. For those of you who are not familiar with the yucca, every type is a variation on a theme – imagine a pompom made out of sharpened wooden stakes, about three to six feet in diameter. The leaves are very stiff, very sharp, and very capable of cutting and puncturing soft human skin.
Lig was laying on top of the Yucca like it was a beanbag chair.
"I fell on this fucking yucca. Every plant out here wants us dead." said Lig.
"I can see that. Are you ok?"
"Yeah, I'm just bleeding some." Lig rolled off the yucca. His right shin was a mass of shallow puncture wounds and abrasions, all of it bleeding liberally. He took a seat on a nearby rock and I used the last of my water flushing out the injury.
"This is a really super place you've brought me to die, Igloo. I guess it beats being lost at sea in the sub. At least it's warm here." said Lig.
"Don't worry, when the sun sets, the temperature will drop below freezing. I understand hypothermia is a very pleasant way to die."
"Maybe if we're lucky the wolf women will show up and finish us off."
The two of us looked around. My memory of the directions to the cave was growing more jumbled the further we moved into the canyon. The hills were nothing but giant piles of boulders with shadows under them– everything looked like a cave.
Lig was bleeding. We were out of water. All we'd had to eat over the course of the day was bunch of grapes. The cave would keep. We turned around and started the long walk out.
We drove back to Palm Springs, right to an In and Out Burger, where we ordered 2 double cheeseburgers each. It felt terrifically gratifying to eat after running up a several thousand calorie deficit out in the Wonderland. I was amazed at how antiseptically clean everything seemed in the burger joint after just ten hours in the desert.
The Italian half of Ligament's Swedish/Italian genetics had served him in good stead – he just looked tousled, bloody, and dusty. My Anglo-Gaelic self, on the other hand, looked like T.E. Laurence after crossing The Anvil of the Sun. I was sunburned, bad. But that's what you get for being an idiot.
I could discuss my tissue damage with my dermatologist and oncologist when I developed melanoma later. First, the Oh-Bay-yo-yo cave and I had a score to settle.
"Oh sweet mother of god, this burger really is good" said Ligament.
It was time to get religion.
Almost two years had passed since Ligament and I had tried for the cave. A job and the usual assorted bullshit had kept me from trying again, despite a number of trips to the park in the interim. My buddy Diode was coming down from Portland to visit and I had to have something lined up to compete with climbing Mount St Helens, which he had taken me up when I had visited Portland earlier.
I offered a hike into Wile E Coyote country, climaxing in our triumphant location of this cave I had been unable to find. Diode was game.
Diode was always game, and in many ways this formed the foundation of our decade plus friendship. Coder, guitarist, Diode was the genuine product of the Old North State, a motorcycle racer exterior with a Mr. Rodgers demeanor. During college, the two of us had devised as series of challenges called "The Feats of Manhood," which included such insurance nullifying hits at climbing to the top of a high-voltage power tower, crawling through a half mile long sewer pipe in total darkness, and jumping onto the hood of a moving car. Diode and I would find the cave, or get into imminent physical peril trying.
My preparations were meticulous. This would be no California-style Charlie Foxtrot. This would be a drilled down, dialed-in operation that would run like Swiss mass transit. I searched the Internet for additional information on Oh-Bay-Yo-Yo, but came up empty handed. No dice. So I poured over the description in the book, trying my best to match the description of the route to the topo map and my recollection of the site. I carefully plotted the ground track with a map odometer. I gridded out the waypoints and punched them into my GPS. The unit was new since my last sortie. This time I would have satellite guidance on my side. I typed out the description from the book and took it with me, just in case.
I was ready for everything this time. Three liter hydration pack. Three meals worth of food. First aid kit. Survival kit. Compass, altimeter, GPS. Pocket notebook. Sunglasses. 45 SPF sunscreen. Desert pattern boonie hat. Long pants from heavy fabric. Lug soled boots. Shin high gaiters to keep the sand out of my boots. Neckerchief to keep the sun off my white white neck. Taken together, in aggregate, it was a fearsome ensemble that could be FDA-approved as birth control, because there was no way I was going to get laid dressed like this.
Back out the into the Joshua tree forest. In through the wash. Lunch on a high ridge of rock that overlooked the trees and grasses of Willow Hole. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made out of this wheatless bread I had the misfortune of mistakenly buying at the store. The color of the bread was indistinguishable from monzogranite. We reached the conclusion that the bread was quarried in loaf sized bricks nearby.
After lunch, we kept moving. I was mentally prepared for the bouldering this time, and having enough to eat kept our energy up. We made fast progress. I recognized a circular depression formed by wash water from my previous trip. This was where Ligament and I had bingoed and turned back. Diode and I were now in new territory. Clearly Ligament and I hadn't gone far enough. The GPS was ticking down the meters to my guess on the cave's location.
Diode and I were working our way north down a slickrock canyon, so narrow that you could reach out and touch both walls at the same time. Every 10 meters or so a huge boulder would block the canyon, and we were forced to either crawl under or over it. The walls were bleached white from the seasonal water flow. The high water mark was ten feet over our heads. This narrow slot raceway was the watershed for the entire canyon system above. When the rains came, the flow must have been tremendous – and fatal to anyone dumb enough or unfortunate enough to find themselves in that raceway.
After crawling over our umpteenth dinosaur-sized boulder, Diode and I arrived at our tagline for the trip: Welcome to the Wonderland Of Rocks. This environment was not engineered for your convenience.
We were there, according to my map and GPS. But there was nothing "there." Actually, there was too much. Under every boulder was a dark space large enough to hide a man, or several men, or a family. What is a cave? To me, raised in the mountains of Virginia, a cave is a naturally occurring hole in the earth, found in the side of a hill. Working from that definition, there were hundreds, if not thousands of candidates here.
The description in the book had mentioned man-made walls of stacked rock. I tried to let my eyes seek out that artificial pattern in the middle of all this organic jumble. We split up, running up to higher ground on both sides of the canyon. We searched for a long time, ranging over the canyon for more than an hour, then meeting back up in a cave that was not The Cave.
"I feel like that goddamned cave is right under our noses" I said.
"I have a strong cave feeling. Yeah, it's got to be close."
The sun was going down. It wasn't going to happen today. The flat area near the bottom of the slickrock was big, several acres. If it wasn't on fire, with naked wolf women jumping up and down outside it shooting off flares, were weren't going to find it.
Fall back and call for reinforcements.
The problem was navigational. I just didn't have enough data
I tried finding Patty Furbush, the author of the book, on the Internet. No go. I tried locating the publisher of the book, in hopes that they could connect me with the elusive Ms. Furbush. Ixnay. I emailed the National Park Service through the Joshua Tree website. I have always figured that sending an email through a major public facing site like this a Hail Mary, more a theater for your own benefit than an actual action that will produce a result. The mail vanished into the black hole of some federal IT system.
A month later, I returned from the movies on a Friday night to find I had a voice mail waiting for me from Ranger Jeff Allstead of the National Park Service.
"Hello Mr. White, this is Ranger Allstead out at Joshua Tree. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. So you want to find Oh-bay-yo-yo, huh? Yeah, it's pretty tough. Last time I was there was about 10 years ago. Site was pretty degraded, so good luck. Here are the UTM coordinates…"
I was elated. I ran downstairs and plotted the cave's location on the map.
I immediately called Diode and got his machine.
"Hey Diode, this is Igloo. I just got the UTMs. We were less than two hundred meters from the cave. Well, guess I'll head out next week and give it another shot."
The next day, returning to the house after an errand, there was a phone message waiting for me. It was Diode.
"White - I'll booked a flight into Burbank for Wednesday. Let's find that goddamned cave."
Diode, Candlepower and I were at the trailhead, suiting up into our birth control gear. I had planned on taking Candle with me when I found out that Diode was also coming down. I figured the more the merrier – a bigger team meant more eyes looking for the cave or an easier time carrying out the wounded.
It was about ten in the morning, cold and windy, the temperature around fifty-five degrees F. We haden't seen another person since we drove into the park – even the ranger check point at the gateway to the park was unmanned. This gave me a good feeling. The fewer people tourists means better vibes.
We had one neighbor in the parking lot, a middle aged guy in a green Dodge Intrepid. He was holding his head in his hands. I kept looking over at him – he never looked up once. He just kept his head in his hands. This wasn't surprising – people in the desert are crazy.
Back through the Joshua trees. Up the wash into the Wonderland of Rocks. At Willow Hole, we ate lunch overlooking the trees. I'd been there enough that I now considered it "our lunch spot."
I took off my sun hat and laid it on the rock behind me. I was going to put on a knit cap I brought with me while I ate, to keep from overcooling. It put on the knit cap and turned around to stow my boonie hat.
It was gone.
There was a light breeze, but nothing that would even ruffle your hair. I looked around the immediate area. No hat. Then I looked for fifty feet in every direction. It was gone, my hat was just gone. I got a spooky feeling. What happened to my hat?
A friend of mine who did a tour in Vietnam told me later, "Boonie hats have a way of disappearing, they just do." I chalked it up as a sacrifice to whatever spirit or force stood between me and the cave, and took it as a good omen. The day was turning overcast, so I put on more sunscreen and hoped for the best.
As we hiked, I told the guys that the thing with my hat kind of creeped me out.
"If we get to the cave and your hat is already there, then I'm going to get creeped out." said Diode.
The way things looked when I plotted the coordinates onto the map, the cave appeared to be tucked into the northern face of a hill that overlooked Oh-Bay-Yo-Yo valley. This was in keeping with my theory that a cave was a hole in the side of a hill, with my speculation being that this cave was a space under a large slab of rock propped against the hill's boulder fall.
Rather than head east to the slickrock canyon, down it to the north, and then west again up the valley and hill, I proposed that we just assault over the hill between us and the cave. It would be a high burn approach, but neither Diode or I relished the thought of returning to Slickrock Alley.
We felt like mountain goats running up the mountain. At the crest, we were graced with an amazing view across Yucca Valley. To the west and north, we could see out to the snow capped summits of the Banning pass, San Gorgonio and San Joaquin, over sixty miles away. I held up my GPS unit.
"Ok guys, nearly there. Only 250 meters to go."
Things got sketchy. Long slides down curved rock faces covered with loose, pea sized gravel. Sometimes, our route would take us over to a sheer precipice with no way to descend, and we were forced to traverse west until a path could be found.
150 meters to go.
A long jump down. Then a scramble. My knees began to ache. My quads were getting rubbery. Body jam down a cliff crevice. Maybe this wasn't a smart idea. The wash at the bottom of the hill was getting closer all the time. Still no cave.
The promise of the cave kept suggesting itself to me out of the array of rocks. I kept telling myself, "It's under that shelf. It's around this big pillar. It's between those giant baby heads."
Nothing. We were over the hill, exhausted – and still with no cave. The coordinates must have been wrong. Maybe I transcribed them incorrectly. I checked the unit again. It pointed ahead into the middle of the wash, near a cluster of rocks bedded down in sand and cottonwood trees. Of the many places a cave might be, the middle of a wash isn't one of them.
20 meters to go. I pointed, "That way."
Diode slogged ahead, just to get it over with.
"THE CAVE! THE CAVE!"
Candlepower and I sprinted up the wash in pursuit. Tucked under a twenty foot high boulder was a hollow space with walls of stacked rock and wood, bound together with baling wire. A door hewn together from Pinyon pine logs made a door. We walked all around it. Approaching it from the back, looking down on it from above, it was practically invisible, perfectly camouflaged.
The inside was a boy's fantasy of the perfect hiding spot. The walls blocked the wind, the floor was soft sand. Some logs provided rough seating. There were pot and pans, a grill, and a rough fireplace. In the far corner there was an old trunk.
Candlepower walked over and opened it. Inside there was a registry notebook and a Playboy from May of 1999, with Charlize Theron on cover. In red magic marker someone had written across her breasts DO NOT REMOVE FROM CAVE. It was one of those things that made me think that everyone that reached the cave must have been ok, that two miles of impossible rocks had acted as a karmic filter, like bedrock filtering groundwater on its way to the water table, because the magazine was still there, safe inside the trunk as a kind of treasure for those that made it. The magazine was perfectly preserved by the dry desert air. Inside, there was a pictorial of three very healthy looking gals washing an elephant while they stood naked in an African river. It was a wet, green scene, their bodies covered with riverwater in the light of a setting sun. It was a mental oasis in the middle of the driest place I've ever been.
We were done. It was time to leave. On our way out, I took us up a hanging canyon that threaded back through two sheer walls of stone. It was another boulder scramble, but a good shortcut back to Willow Hole and easy walking. It was also off the beaten path, or what even passed as the beaten path out in the Wonderland. As we made our way up the draw, the rock looked untouched – no abrasions from boots.
Then we saw them – three Desert Bighorn Sheep, a ram and two ewes. They are extremely rare and very endangered in the park. All of the literature warns park goers that the sheep only inhabit the most remote areas of the park and that you should have no expectations of seeing them. The two females bounded off with an ease that was hard to believe, while ram stood watch over Diode, Candle, and I. We closed to within twenty meters, and then he turned and sprang up the mountain and out of sight. Just a short distance away we stumbled across a pagan shrine built around a bighorn skull. The skull was very white, surrounded by five small stacks of white stones and wildflowers. The sheep were a revelation, a surprise, another gift. But this shine wasn't surprising at all, because people in the desert are crazy.
"It really would have been something if we came down here and this skull was wearing your hat" said Candle.
It was getting cold – the sun was setting. We hurried through our long walk out of the canyonlands and back to the car. Clouds were moving across the sky and blanketing out the sun.
In the parking lot, the man in the green car still had his head in his hands, 9 hours later. I waited for a moment, convinced that I had arrived with perfect timing to see him gun his own brains out. Instead, I think we interrupted him. He started the car and drove off. It was too bad that there was no park ranger he could call for a friendly voicemail with GPS coordinates to whatever he was looking for.
It was a dark thought, completely out of step to the euphoria I was still feeling. So I put it aside and though of tall stacks of sandstone and granite and 800 year old trees. I chose instead to think of the relief to come from changing into sneakers, the hot burrito waiting for me down the road, mysteries revealed, and naked women bathing in the river in the warm light of a setting sun.
I never found my hat.