More photos from the Old Spanish Trail

11 Feb

Here is a series of photos from my arrival at the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, in San Gabriel California. You can click on the photos to make them bigger.


San Gabriel Mission at last! Er…nope.



My sister Ashley walked with me the last 4 miles to the Mission. She lives not far away in Los Angeles. It was great to spend time with her and my brother, Gardner. While ashley and I walked, Gardner drove ahead to the Mission and arranged for us to talk to the curator of the museum there.



The famous bell tower of the Mission San Gabriel. The original bell tower collapsed in the earthquake of 1812, which also did damage to the Mission at San Juan Capistrano, and killed 40 people there. The current bell tower holds six bells and was constructed farther down the Mission’s wall.


Classic California.



Here it is, the last Old Spanish Trail marker.



There are lots of big plants in San Gabriel. The Mission was the fourth to be established in Alta California, by Father Junipero Serra, in 1771. It was the only mission not abandoned after the Mexican government secularized the Missions in 1834. The settlement at San Gabriel is the oldest European settlement in the Los Angeles basin. This cactus could be 200 years old.



Here’s da Man. Junipero Serra was a Franciscan friar, and doubtless a true believer. He suffered throughout most of his life from an injured leg, which was damaged during his initial journey from Veracruz to Mexico City. However, he insisted on walking everywhere, although he was in intense pain. He would also hold a lit candle to his bare chest in the pulpit, in an effort to move the congregation. Doubtless his first attempt was the most dramatic, as his chest hair burt into flame, al la Michael Jackson. The current Pope Francis plans to canonize Serra, which means he will become a saint. The fact that Serra enslaved the native peoples of California, instituted brutally repressive policies of corporal and capital punishment, and thus laid the groundwork for the slave trade along the Old Spanish Trail, is just a small detail that Pope Francis appears willing to overlook. Apparently such behavior is outweighed by Serra’s pyrotechnic exploits.


Here I am with John Fantz, curator emeritus if the Museum at the Mission. Documents and artifacts of incredible value are held in the Museum, including original documents authored by Serra himself. Fantz has been involved in the life of the Mission for nearly his entire life, and all of the Museum’s interpretive notes have been hand-made by him. John took us on a guided tour of the museum and the Mission grounds, and I know we would not have gained as deep an understanding of the history without his help.


Here is a photo of John (circled, 2nd left, middle row) when he was training for the priesthood. He fell in love and got married instead, but he has always had a deep love for the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel.


Interior of the Mission Chapel.



Grapevine, planted at the Mission in 1776. I think this is the oldest grapevine in California.



Urban vs rural footwear.



This is what you do when you walk 395.5 miles. Ahhh…. That’s my brother Gardner on the left, Chookie the dog foreground.


Photos from the Journey, Part 1

8 Feb




Here are some photos I have received from the journey thus far. Perhaps an explanation is in order…

When I left on the trip, January 9, I thought I had all the details covered- the checklists were double-checked, all the loose ends were tied up, and I was sure I was “good to go”.

It was only after we were well on our way, and I saw something I considered photo-worthy that I discovered I had a good news/bad news/good news/bad news situation. The good news: I thought I had remembered to bring my camera. Good job Loch! The bad news: I had forgotten to bring the camera battery. The good news: I called home and my Mom found the camera’s battery and charger, and sent it to me in Las Vegas. The bad news: In fact, I had forgotten to bring the camera, but now I had the battery for it.

So, I wasn’t able to take any photos of the trip. But, luckily, everyone else on the planet has a camera on their phone. So I have lots and lots of photos, better ones than I could have taken, from 3rd party sources. Everyone has generously shared these photos with me, and now I will share them with you as they arrive in my electronic vicinity. Here’s the first wave. Enjoy!

David, Johnson, and Me

From left to right, just so no-one gets confused about who’s who: David Holladay, Johnson the Mule, and myself. We’re standing in front of the Bundy Standoff site at Riverside (Bunkerville) Nevada. One of the Bundy kids was kind enough to “purchase” Johnson when we realized he was not going to be the right mule for the trip. The word purchase is in quotation marks because we actually paid him 40 bucks to take Johnson off our hands.

Below Immigrant Pass


Here we are, just a couple of miles below Emigrant Pass, and about 5 miles northeast of Resting Springs, near Tecopa, CA. Notice that we are both wearing homemade sandals. The Mojave Desert is the driest, smallest, and rockiest desert in North America. Just details it would have been nice to know BEFORE taking the trip.



Making friction fire, Resting Springs

Here we are at resting Springs, near Tecopa, CA. Divid is demonstrating friction fire with materials gathered right here at the Ranch, for Alan Hardt, the Ranch manager. He saw David on television, and was really interested in the primitive skills.

Alan tries friction fire

Here’s Alan helping with the friction fire. He really made us welcome at Resting Springs, and even walked ten miles with us down to Tecopa and onwards towards the China Ranch date farm.

Davis makes fire

David makes fire! I think he used an arrow-weed spindle on a mesquite root fire-board.

silurian lake

Here we are near Silurian Lake, on California Route 127, about 40 miles southwest of Tecopa. You can really see the footwear better in this photo.

David at Baker

Here’s a photo of David in front of what must be Baker, California’s only claim to fame- a giant thermometer. No, we didn’t cheat. Alan wanted David to teach him the basics of flint-knapping, that is, the art of chipping an arrowhead from a piece of rock. Since I am the only one who needed the ego-gratification of being the first person to walk the Old Spanish Trail since 1848 (did anyone ever walk it? I may be the very first!), David would ride ahead a few miles with Alan, and teach him while I walked. At one point Alan suggested that they run down to Baker (about 17 miles away), and get some fast-food. We all liked the idea, so that is what they did, while I trudged along. It was nice and warm in the desert, as you can see from the thermometer. I am glad we didn’t wait until August to take this journey.

Lastly for this wave of photos, here is a video Dan Baird took of me pontificating about the Old Spanish Trail.

Barstow to San Gabriel Mission: Exercises In Realities

6 Feb

Leaving Barstow

On the 29th of January, I walked out of Barstow late in the day. I had spent my time at the Library, writing the last installment of this blog- then I went over to the Desert Discovery Center, and had a great time chatting with the Center’s non-profit director, an Englishwoman named Jane. She asked me lots of questions and posted a little article about my journey on the center’s Facebook page.

I walked about 11 miles before dusk, and settled into camp alongside the railroad tracks. I had decided to follow the railroad instead of the old Route 66 because it was easier going, and after a long day of walking next to traffic whizzing back and forth, I find my nerves get jangled. However on the railroad there was a lot of rail traffic, with trains thundering back and forth all day and night. As I walked along, I played a game of trying to remember the locomotive’s numbers, and waving to the engineers as the trains went by. A lot of the engineers would toot their horn as they passed by. There are two railroads, the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe, or BNSF, and the Union Pacific. Ostensibly these two companies are competitors, with separate tracks, engines and rolling stock,  but for all practical purposes, it appears to be the same railroad, since they mix up engines and tracks and rail cars in what seems to be an indiscriminate manner.

On the 30th, I walked 24.5 miles, a record for the entire OST so far. I think I was a bit lonely. It had been really wonderful to have both David and Dan as traveling companions, to swap stories and opinions, and to pray together. Alone, I simply had nothing else to do but put one foot in front of the other. As I left the outer limits of Barstow, I expected the desert to reassert itself, but in the upper reaches of the Mohave Valley, the land was very settled, with green alfalfa fields and farmhouses all along the valley. By Helendale,  about halfway between Barstow and Oro Grande,  I saw water in the riverbed as I had expected. In the days of the Old Spanish Trail, the Mojave had carried surface water as far downstream as about twenty miles east of Barstow, or the approximate location of Camp Cady. Camp Cady was located near the famous “Forks of the Road”, where the Old Spanish Trail was met by the Mojave Road, otherwise known as the Garces Trail, which came west from the Colorado River. Groundwater pumping has lowered the water table, and so the river does not have a surface flow below Helendale.

By nightfall, I had reached Oro Grande. The small town is dominated by a giant cement plant on the east bank of the river, and by the former George Air Force Base, now converted to civilian use and called the Southern California Logistics Airport. I could see several 747’s parked along the tarmac above me on the bluff, and a strangely modified DC-10 landed there as I was walking. Later I discovered this was a fire-suppression plane, the largest current such tanker in existence.

On the 31st of January, I got an early start, hoping to reach the crest of Cajon pass by the end of the day. My strategy was to follow the City of Los Angeles power lines through the suburban sprawl of Victorville up to, and over the Pass, and down into what Jedediah Smith called “California”, the fabled land of eternal spring, where 10,000 horses roamed the grassy hills, and where the Spanish Padres had taught the Indians all the better arts of civilization.

Only a mile or so from my campsite, I followed the power lines as they crossed the Mojave River, and over a chain of broken hills that led south-westwards. After a mile or two, I could see that I was not following the proper set of lines, so I cut through a couple of subdivisions and along some concrete drainage channels to the string of power lines that would lead me to the Pass. The steel pylons, called “lightning kachinas” by the Hopi, raised their arms, and like an army of giant Moseses, parted the sea of subdivisions with awesome power. I ghosted between a solid line of identical houses that stretched as far as the eye could see on both sides of the power line right-of-way, thanking the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water for getting there first, and giving me a way to go so easily through the dense developments.

By mid-day, I crossed US 395, and then immediately after, I came upon the California Aqueduct. I had a choice. I could detour about a mile south and cross the Canal via 395, or just a few feet northeast, I could go across a concrete structure that conveyed a wash over the Aqueduct and onwards downstream. I chose the viaduct, but as I approached it, I saw that the walls were too high for me to drop into the viaduct easily. What to do? The walls were about 10 inches thick, so I decided to walk across the California Aqueduct on this narrow ledge, tightrope style.

The Canal was about fifty yards wide, and full of water. There was a slight breeze, and with my backpack on, I was not as steady on my feet as I normally would have been. Still, I pressed forward, and negotiated the crossing without falling in.

Leaving the Desert

Joshua Trees had made their appearance on the north (or west) bank of the Mojave, but north of the canal, they began to dominate the landscape. An old acquaintance also made an appearance at this point, cedar (or juniper) trees. I had not seen one, with the exception of Mountain Springs Pass, since leaving Utah. The cedars were joined in short order by sagebrush, and by scrub oaks. I felt like I was back home in Utah with old familiar friends. Coming up from the desert, the hill that marks the northern edge of Cajon Pass is nothing more than a long, gentle rise. I could sense I was nearing the top of this hill, but other than seeing the San Bernardino Mountains as a backdrop to this easy slope, I had no idea what I would encounter as I neared the crest.

Suddenly, I was at the top of the hill, and Cajon Pass revealed itself to me in the most dramatic fashion. The Old Spanish Trail crosses the continental divide, and drops into the San Juan River. The trail crosses the Colorado River in red rock canyons, and crests the many-fanged San Rafael Swell. The passes at Mountain Meadows and Utah Hill and Mountain Spring all have their beauty and majesty, but I don’t think there is any land feature quite so dramatic as Cajon Pass.

The word “cajon” means “box” or “coffin” in Spanish, and I stood on the verge of a stupendous hole in the earth’s crust. The San Andreas Fault created this sudden chasm, splitting the land apart and raising the towering San Gabriel Mountains in unimaginably powerful acts of tectonic force. The sudden drop off, of at least a thousand feet into the fault zone, and the equally sudden incline of towering snow-capped mountains immediately beyond, created a majesty and grandeur almost impossible to describe. I stood on the edge for a few moments, drinking in the splendor, and then I plunged over the edge along twisting roads that snaked down into the canyon. I was in a new world.


Only a few hours before, I had said hello to old plant friends, and just as suddenly, they were no longer with me. Literally within yards of leaving the summit, the flora was entirely alien. Except for the manzanita, oaks, and cottonwood trees down in the wash bottom, I could not recognize any of the plants that surrounded me. They were lush and green, and verdure climbed the hillsides all around me. Many of the plants were in bloom, and green grass ran rampant up and down the hillsides. I had gone from desert to paradise, and I was a stranger in a strange land. I camped that night in the wash bottom, under a cottonwood tree. The air was heavy and moist, and had it not been for the roar of traffic from both the I-15, on one side of the wash , and the thundering  and clanking of the railroad on the other side, I think the wonder of the new environment would have had a much greater emotional impact.

The next day, the 1st of February, I walked out of the canyon along old Route 66, and then I crossed the riverbed and followed I-15 through a string of low hills into the outskirts of the LA Basin. A spell of rain and wind had just ended, and the air was clear. I could see down to the snow-capped eminences of San Jacinto and Hemet peaks, and the system of valleys in between. Ranges of mountains coursed everywhere, all covered with grasslands and forest (and of course, houses, but I was still seeing everything with the eyes of a pioneer). The sudden display of terrain, after the monotony of desert, was a bit disorienting, but after I got my bearings, I was able to see how  the Spanish Trail travelers made their way further down the slope than I was, and across the flats  about where the Ontario Airport is, towards what are now known as the South Hills, and to the Mission San Gabriel.

For a minute, I walked through a tiny section of old California, with olive and orange groves, and quaint little frame houses, before I entered the suburban sprawl west of Lytle Creek.  Now I was walking on asphalt and concrete, and I was doing it in tire sandals with no cushion. In a few miles, my feet were screaming in protest as I slammed them down on the unyielding stone-like surfaces of an urban environment. By five PM, I was done. I could’t walk another step. Concrete was one thing I had not taken an account of. Homemade shoes were not going to work here.

I had reached Rancho Cucamonga, which had once been an outlying branch of the San Gabriel Mission, and now was a sprawl of cookie-cutter houses. Luckily for me, the developers had made provisions for gravel bridle paths, which eased my foot trouble immensely. However, I thought it wise to call it a day. I had travelled 23 miles.

My sister Ashley lives in LA, and I called her for a rescue. We had discussed this earlier, but being the independent type, I had not really thought I would ask for her help. She was happy I had called and said she would battle traffic to reach me and bring me back to spend the night at her house.

Ashley lives in the heart of Los Angeles, in a quaint, artistic neighborhood of 1920’s style bungalows. She operates a cookie company, Action Cookies, and since she had a lot of errands to run the next day, I opted to hang out with her and take a rest day in the hopes that with a little encouragement, my feet would carry me the last 32 miles without failing completely. I met Ashley’s boyfriend, a really wonderful man named Jay, who gave me a pair of running shoes he said didn’t work for him any more. I put them on and said, “It’s like walking on clouds!” Humans have designed shoes that actually fit their urban environment. Back home, where I never walk on concrete, my homemade boots and sandals are ideal. I can feel the ground  through the thin conveyor-belt soles, and enjoy great posture, back health, and balance. But as soon as I put on the running shoes, I knew these were the tools that would bring me success. The padding and cushioning, I could tell had been precisely engineered to protect the foot from the unyielding surfaces of a city.

On the 3rd of February, Ashley drove me back to the place she had picked me up, and I got out to walk as much of the remaining 32 miles as possible. We talked about it, and both of us agreed that I could leave my pack behind at her place. The goal was to walk the Old Spanish Trail, not add unneccessary burdens to the task! Freed from the weight of the pack, and armed with the amazing padded running shoes, I clocked a record-breaking 28 miles by the end of the day.

As I passed from Rancho Cucamonga through the towns of Upland, Claremont, La Verne, and San Dimas, I noticed that each town had its own distant personality. Rancho Cucamonga seemed just a little pretentious, with its bridle paths and new homes, while Claremont seems erudite and polished, because of the University there. La Verne was funky and amiable, with a cozy, 1950’s style downtown. San Dimas I liked the best, because the Town had crafted a rural atmosphere with wooden boardwalks and a pioneer theme complete with old wagons and farm implements. In San Dimas I was gratified to find and Old Spanish Trail marker as well as a bronze statue of Jedediah Smith, on the grounds of City Hall. I was on the right track!

By evening, I had reached Temple City, named after a prominent landowner and developer from the early part of the 20th Century. I was surprised to get a phone call from my brother Gardner. Gardner lives in Orange County, far to the south of LA, but he had decided to conquer the LA traffic to see if he could find me on the Trail.  The amazing technology of GPS-enabled smartphones and roving maps allowed him to locate me and pick me up. By contrast, I was navigating by dead-reckoning with only a 1982 USGS topographic map that didn’t show any of the street names. Basically, I was just heading west and hopping for the best!

Mission San Gabriel Archangel: The End of the Trail

We all spent the night at my sister’s and the next day, the three of us set out for the final four miles of the Old Spanish Trail. Ashley said she would walk with me, and Gardner drove ahead to the Mission to wait for us. Ashley and I walked along, chatting about all sorts of things and reminiscing about old times. The four miles went by in a flash, and suddenly, we were coming around the corner to the Mission. Ashley took photos with her camera as I posed with a statue of father Junipero Serra, and in front of the famous belfry with its six bells.

Gardner introduced us to the Museum curator, John Lentz, who upon hearing my account of traveling the OST, gave the three of us a guided tour of the historic grounds and the museum, which contains interesting displays of mission artifacts, from old hand-forged iron implements to the silk vestments of the original Fathers, imported from the Philipines.

John told us that the San Gabriel Mission was the only Mission in California to not be abandoned after the Mexican government secularized the Missions in 1834. Stubbornly, the Fathers stayed on, and although the fortunes of the San Gabriel Mission went into decline, the complex never suffered the abandonment and destruction that overtook the other  Missions. As a result, the San Gabriel Mission is the best preserved of all the missions in California. We saw grapevines, the oldest in the state, that were three feet thick at the base, and the Mission grounds were home to an amazing variety of beautiful agaves, cacti, figs, and other flowering trees.

And then… well, it was time to go. The ending of any trip, any adventure, has to be an anti-climax. The journey is important; the destination… well, it is but another point on a still longer journey. Later that evening, back in Los Angeles, we burned my battered straw hat in a little fire. It was enough of a ceremony. I think back on the journey I have taken along the Old Spanish Trail- indeed I have walked with ghosts, and they have told me many stories.  The current Old Spanish Trail travelers, the highways, power lines and pipelines, will eventually crumble, fall, and become ruins that future travelers will look upon wonderingly as they too, find the easy path across the land that we know as the Old Spanish Trail. This Trail is not dead. Millions use one portion of it or another unthinkingly as they speed along its course in their automobiles, unaware that they roll across an amazing history. Millions more depend on the gas and electricity that travel its route, a route found by men who knew how to cross immense landscapes, and found again by engineers who unknowingly looked for the easiest path for a natural gas pipeline, and found the Old Spanish Trail. Someday, men will once more need to ride horses across the continent to trade and connect civilizations, and they too, will rediscover the Old Spanish Trail. As they trace their adventures along the route, they will give it their own strange and eloquent name. The rivers will remain, the passes, the rocky canyons; the sagebrush, and the stars. All these things will remain, and others will experience the singing story that is the Old Spanish Trail. It is a living Trail, and one I count myself lucky to have travelled.





Out Into the Desert- Las Vegas to Barstow

29 Jan

Oh, damn! I am at the Library in Barstow, and almost had this blog entry finished when unaccountably, the computer went dead and I lost the entire draft. I’ll have to start over (sigh). This will not be as good of a post as the one I just lost. Sorry.

OK… David and I spent the day of the 17th at the Old Mormon Fort State Park, doing talks and demonstrations. Later, Ashley Hall took us on a tour of Las Vegas, showing us the OST as it crossed the city and the Old Spanish Trail Park, which preserves a section of the Trail and has wonderful interpretive kiosks.

The next day, David and I walked down the Strip, admiring the water features and the general fantastic extravaganza, until we reached Tropicana Street. There we turned west. We were met in the evening by one of David’s extended relatives named Hilda who took us to a hole in the wall restaurant that served delicious authentic food from Oaxaca.

The next day, we walked out into the hills west of the city and by nightfall, I had reached the top of Mountain Springs pass, at about 5500 feet. This would be the highest pass on the journey from Mesquite.

I walked to Stump Springs the next day. This was also called Escarbado Springs, which means “to dig” in Spanish. Here thick mesquite and salt-brush indicated that water was indeed just below the surface.

On the 21st, I walked across the desert until I reached the settlement along the California-Nevada line called “Sandy Valley”. This was little more than a collection of dirt road bulldozed out of the desert, with a few forlorn and tattered trailers parked here and there. Water mains were positioned in the main highway at every intersection, but every one of them had a missing manhole cover. For some strange reason, I was impressed to look into the very last hole before I left this strange settlement. To my surprise, there was a desert tortoise stuck in the hole! I lifted the animal out. Of course, its head and legs were all tucked into its carapace. How long had the poor creature been stuck in there? Was it still  alive? I pinched its legs where I could see them under its shell, and they felt fleshy, not dried out. The tortoise seemed heavy. Maybe it was alive after all. I took it several hundred yards out into the desert and set it down with a little prayer that it would live. Later, I found out that Sandy Valley had a bad reputation as a den for methamphetamine addicts, and that these pitiful souls had stolen all the manhole covers to sell for scrap and pay for their habits.

David and I walked over Immigrant Pass and down towards Resting Springs the next day. My feet were hardening up, and we were able to walk a good 20 miles a day. We were making good time and catching up with our itinerary.

At Resting Springs, we met Alan Hardt, the Ranch Manager. He welcomed us into the Ranch, which he kept in immaculate condition, and we spent the rest of the day resting there. Alan had followed David on television, and David showed him how to make cordage, friction fire, and the basics of flint-knapping. We encouraged Alan to come to Wintercount, the primitive skills gathering held  near Casa Grande by

Alan showed us the actual spring, which gushed about 1 cubic foot per second, an incredible amount of water in the desert. He said he had been monitoring the spring every day for the last 15 years, and it had never varied in its flow during that time. Alan walked with us from the Ranch along the original OST towards Tecopa, where I mailed some letters, and then he accompanied us down the Amargosa Canyon. “Amargosa” means “bitter” in Spanish, and this bitter, salty water is the only flowing river in this region of the Mojave Desert. As we walked along, numerous clear springs tumbled out of the cliffs on the west bank of the canyon feeding luxurious thickets of salt cedar, mesquite, Arizona willow, and arrow-weed.

Five miles down the canyon, and well into what looked like a trackless wilderness, Alan showed us a side canyon, and we turned up  to the west. Soon, we were walking in a jungle of clear streams and date palms. We came out unexpectedly in a beautiful oasis called the China Date Ranch. Here we found a gift shop and a snack bar that served an incredible variety of dates and the most delicious date milkshakes I have ever tasted. All around were dry, barren mountains that did not support even the hardy creosote bush. The China Date ranch is a true gem of the desert.

Alan bid farewell to us here, and David and I continued alone down the Amargosa Canyon. Below the China Ranch, the trail was very poor, and we had to bush-whack through the thick mesquite and tamarisk thickets. We walked on the abandoned railroad grade of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. This railroad had been built in 1907 to bring borax out of Death Valley, and ran until it was torn up in the early 1940’s.\

We passed near the huge Dumont Sand Dunes. From our path along the river, we could see dune buggies by the score crawling over the dunes like ants. The noise sounded like a freeway at rush hour. Scores of big trucks pulling trailers filled with ATV’s and dune buggies passed us on the access road.

We crossed open country until we hit Highway 127 and walked along the highway for a few miles until we again cut cross-country near Silurian Lake to follow the path of the Old Spanish Trail over Red Pass. Here, we intersected a powerline road, which we followed, since the original Trail passed into the Fort Irwin Desert Warfare Training Base. We could see tanks doing maneuvers far off in the distance.

It was now the 25th of January, and we had been on the Trail from Mesquite for 17 days. David had a bus ticket out of Barstow to go to work on the 26th. Our friend Dan, who had walked with us earlier had promised to meet us on the power-line road, but could he find us? Also of concern was water. If Dan didn’t find us, we would be out of water, more than 40 miles from any settlement. David and I agreed that if Dan did not come, we would enter the Army Base and try to get water at Bitter Spring, the historic hole along the Trail. Bitter Spring was about 2 miles inside the military reservation. What would happen if we were caught entering the base? We didn’t know, but water is life, and we knew we would have to do this in order to stay alive.

At the top of a little pass, we found a concrete pad, and in this pad were some holes that had once supported some kind os structure. I looked into one of the holes. Water! I showed this to David, who luckily had just picked up a piece of rubber tubing from the road. We used the tube to suck the life-giving water out of the holes in the concrete.

Just then, a truck came up the pass. It was a line inspector, and he gave us two pints of water when we asked him if he had any. Then, in another five miles, we ran into a survey crew who also gave us water. God was with us, and we didn’t have to go to Bitter Spring after all. In the distance we could see the mesquite thickets and reeds surrounding the spring, so we were confident there was water there.

Dan showed up right on time, and David was able ride with Dan’s Mother to Barstow and make his bus on time. Dan walked with me all the next day. It rained in the night, and all that day, the desert got greener and greener as grass magically sprouted in the moist soil.

The powerline road stretched on across the broad Mojave Valley for fifteen or more miles in a perfectly straight line. We made a record walk that day of 25 miles, and reached the settlement of Yermo by nightfall. There were given Christian hospitality by Barbara and Ed Garvey, who fed us and gave us a place to sleep for the night.

The next day, the 28th, we walked along the railroad tracks to Barstow. Dan left me here. I spent a welcome night in a motel, luxuriating in endless hot water, and hit the road refreshed this morning.

From here on, I have not scouted the OST, so until I reach the San Gabriel Mission, this will be a true adventure. I’ll follow the old Route 66 and the railroad tracks along the Mojave River bed to Oro Grande, and then I’ll cut over to Cajon Pass along another powerline. I will be walking by myself for the first time on this leg of the journey. I have really enjoyed my travelling companions, David Holladay and Dan Baird, and look forward to more travels with them in the future.

Stay tuned for the last segment of the OST!







Back on the Trail: Mesquite to Las Vegas, Jan 9-17, 2015

17 Jan

It’s been a long time since I posted on this blog! Right now, I’m sitting in the lobby of a hotel in downtown Las Vegas. A night’s sleep in a cushy bed, warm water, and a decent meal sitting in a real chair has been a simple remedy for the toll the trail has taken on us. We’re ready to go again! But maybe i should take some time to get everyone up top speed…

If you have been following this blog, you know that I left the Old Spanish Trail in march of 2013 at mesquite, having purchased a mule named Johnson. Personal issues prevented me from making at attempt to finish the OST last year, but everything came together for a chance to make the walk in January of 2015.

When I first got Johnson, he was skittish, fearful, and suffering from neglect. A good worming and some decent hay and company brought him back to a more amiable disposition, and I worked with him steadily in the round ring and by taking him out on the trial for the next year and a half. Our relationship started off as one of mutual distrust, but over time, it seemed as if he was willing give me the benefit of the doubt. I felt the same. Unfortunately, Johnson had one bad habit- if he really got scared, he would just bolt. Once he started running there was nothing I, or anyone else, could do to stop him. As I worked with him I hoped this would get better over time.

My friend, David Holladay, also volunteered to go with me on the Trail, as far as Barstow. The funds were all in place, Johnson was as ready as he could be, and so, on the 9th on the month, our friend Breck Crystal drove us to the bridge over the Virgin River that separates Mesquite from Bunkerville, and dropped Johnson, David, and myself off.

Within the first two miles, Johnson bolted. It seemed his panniers brushed against a pole, and he went off like a shot, galloping down the streets of Bunkerville. We caught him easily with the help of a few of the townsfolk, and were back on the Trail with only a minimal delay.

We quickly discovered that Johnson walked better if David stayed behind him, so we walked in that formation for a few miles. I started to breathe a sigh of relief- maybe Johnson was going to work out! Cars and trucks didn’t bother him at all, and he strode along as fast as I was willing to walk.

Then suddenly, for no reason that I could see, the big mule jumped. and started off. I had him on a long twenty-foot lead, which I carried coiled up in my right hand. he quickly reached the end of the slack as I tried to brace myself and make him circle around. It was hopeless. he ripped the knotted end of the lead out of my hands as if it was attached to a rocket, and he was off at a full gallop down the road towards the Riverside bridge.

It is a long story to describe the next hour or so, but to make a long story short, we met a Nevada Highway Patrolman named Kelly Bryant, who tried to help us, and a friend of his, Arden Bundy, who was finally able to stop the runaway mule by driving onto the trailing end of his lead rope. The mule, in a strong trot, went tail over teakettle to the ground, but I was glad he was no longer moving.

We straightened him out, untangled the pack and the rigging, and got him repacked. For two whole days afterwards, Johnson was a model mule.

The Virgin and Mormon Mesa

After camping by the riverside bridge, we crossed to the northern bank and followed a powerline road to Halfway Wash. We camped that nigh on the banks of the Virgin, with the 700 foot escarpment of Mormon Mesa looming above us. We met some nice folks who recognized David from his television shows on the History Channel.

The next day, we walked back up the wash, and found the old trial that leads up to the powerline switchbacks. From there, we climbed the Mesa. Pioneers on the California Road had to pull their wagons up this incline by ropes, or worse, abandon all their gear at the bottom of the mesa. We kept an eye out for artifacts, but souvenir hunters have picked everything clean over the years.

At the top of the mesa, we took a compass heading due west, and almost immediately, stumbled upon the original Old Spanish Trail. As in other places where the original Trail can be seen, it can be recognized by a thirty yard wide strip on parallel ruts or tracks. It is always exciting to walk on the old Trail, and here, with no other roads or tracks in evidence, we felt we were actually taken back in time to the heyday of the Trail’s popularity.

Johnson kept his own counsel, but otherwise behaved himself as a perfect pack mule.

David and I discussed what might have spooked him. David finally said that he had poked a cardboard box on the side of the road with hos walking stick.

“I don’t think that mule likes me,” David said.

“No, I bet he doesn’t,” I replied. “He didn’t like me for the longest time. But maybe if you don”t make any sudden movements, he’ll be alright, and he’ll move along with you behind him.”

We reached I-15 by late afternoon. There is one thing about the Mohave Desert that is different than any other part of the OST. The ground is really, really rocky and gravelly. The ground in New Mexico is clay. It turns to choking dust when dry, and horrible mud when wet. The ground in Colorado is black dirt, and the ground in Utah is sandy. This is the general rule of thumb. But as soon as one crosses the Utah Hill, and comes down into Beaver Dam, the ground turns into caliche gravel and sharp limestone rocks, and if anything, as we approached vegas, the surface of the earth only became ever more inimical to the health of our feet, and to those of our mule.

At I-15, we noticed that there was no way around the canyon pouroffs except to get right out on the highway right-of-way. We cut the fence right at the OST marker and walked out on the Interstate shoulder. We walked southwestwards on the northbound side of the highway until we got to the Overton exit ramp, and camped there for the night. Again, Johnson was the very model of a malleable mule.

Here, we were met by Dan Baird, a friend of David’s who runs a primitive skills school in California. He had heard what we were doing and wanted to jopin us for the walk into Las Vegas. It rianed that night, we we were all as cozy as Beduins under our tarps.

Johnson’s Last Run

We started off the next day in high spirits. We walked along the Interstate right of way for two miles until we reached the Glendale exit, and pulled into the gas station there for a cup of coffee and some breakfast, and to fill our water containers for the long pull up California Wash. There were no fences up along the freeway, since that whole section was being renovated. I thought this was a lucky break, but I was soon to be proved terribly wrong. We tied Johnson up in some new green grass, and went to the gas station.

Upon our return, I went to untie Johnson. As I untied him he stepped backwards into a dead bush, and something about that startled him. Boom! He was off like a shot. At first, I thought, “Oh, he’ll get corned by the highway fence…” and then I had a horrible sinking feeling as I realized there was no fence. Just then, we all watched helplessly as Johnson raced up the embankment and careened northbound in the southbound lane of the Interstate.

He ran against traffic for about a half a mile. We watched a s cars and semis stopped to let him go by. A motorist gave us a lift, just as the runaway mule broke over the median and came back towards us in the southbound lane- rand down the bank, and out into open country. Only a miracle, the kind reserved for fools and mules, kept us free from a tragic accident.

We finally caught him about two and a half miles away by driving up onto his lead rope. The guy who drove us out there, a highway worker, just shook his head as we thanked him and drove off, leaving us to walk the mule back to civilization.

On the walk back, David and I discussed the situation. We both agreed that Johnson was too spooky to be a safe mule. Only luck, or the ministering angels, had prevented us from being at the epicenter of a tragedy, or even an injury or loss of life. Johnson could not go on. We determined to sell him by the end of the day.

After making about two dozen calls, we finally got in touch with Arden Bundy. We actually paid him 40 dollars to take Johnson off our hands. Arden said he would take him to the Cedar City Auction of Thursday. Johnson, wherever you are, we hope you’re ok, and are glad for the time you were able to spend with us. At least you had one last adventure.

California Wash

The day being long spent, we stayed in the hotel there in Glendale, and lightened our packs to only the most essential items. The next morning, Tuesday the 13th, we started out. The Muddy River bottom appeared to be an impenetrable thicket of mesquite and tamarisk, so we skirted the mouth of California Wash and apprioached from the side, done a two lane paved road that led towards the big power plant. Once in the Wash, we started off at a good pace but soon found the gravelley bottom and the continual braids and divots in the Wash to make for some tough going. David and Dan got separated from me and found the old Las Vegas highway to walk on, and an abandoned gas station- remnant of OST travel in a more modern era. I actually found remnant of the original Trail on one of the sandier side slopes, and felt the old thrill of walking on top of history.

Still, it was tough going. By the time we reached the Moapa Paiute Travel Center, we were all bone weary and ready to drop. We spent a restful night under the protecting arms of a giant mesquite just north of the Truck Stop.

The next day, we cut cross country towards some abandoned water tanks to the south, which we could see far off in the distance. In order to skirt Nellis AFB, we had to angle away from the original Trail, and aim for the PABCO gypsum mine and sheetrock factory. This was the upper end of California Wash, but the terrian was much more level, and we made good time crossing open country. David found two arrowheads, one of which he though might be 6000 years old. The OST has been walked for longer than we can imagine.

We camped that night on a power-line road at a water cache I had made earlier, and got an early start the next day. We stopped at PABCO to refill our canteens and reached the outskirts of Las Vegas by nightfall on Thursday, seven days after leaving Mesquite. We camped there, hard against the perimeter fence of the Air Force Base, in a rubbish pile, overlooking the sea of lights that is modern Las Vegas. Dan left us here. He was a great companion, and we hope he can come back and walk with us some more.

A ten mile stroll down Lake Meade Boulevard brought us to the Old Mormon Fort State Historical Park in downtown Las Vegas. We were welcomed there by the Park staff, and soon along came Ashley Hall, a retired Brigadier general and former City Manager of Las Vegas. Gen. Hall has been restoring all of the OST monuments along the Nevada portion of the Trail, and has taken an active and much appreciated  interest in our quixotic endeavor. Gen. Hall told us all about the history of the Fort and the saga of it’s rescue and restoration. At 72, his energy and dedication to public service is a real inspiration to us.

So, here I am, at the posh (by our standards, decadently so), digs of the hotel, finishing this blog entry. It has been a tough week. The Trail has proven to be rougher and less forgiving than anywhere in the last 800 miles. Things don’t look to get better- only rockier, drier, and more desolate as we press into California and the heart of the Mojave wilderness. Today, david and I are going to spend the day at the Fort I will be talking to the Old SpanshTrail Association members and David will give demonstrations of friction fire and other primitive skills.


Interlude: Sore Feet and Switching Gears

5 Mar

In my last post, I mentioned that the llama’s feet were sore. Llamas are very stoic creatures, and it’s hard to gauge how they’re really feeling. One good sign that they’re not feeling so good is that they don’t want to go anywhere. That’s where I found myself Friday, the 1st of March, as I literally dragged the llamas into a horse arena. I had been directed there by a man named Dan Reber, who said the owner would let me keep the llamas there for a few days. I showed up at the same time as dozens of “duley” pickups, pulling fancy horse trailers. There was a roping competition at the arena that weekend.


A bad photo of a roping team. I am an idiot when it comes to programming electronics. I know there is a way to set a faster shutter speed, but how to get there…

 Friday night with nothing better to do, I watched the roping competition. I’d never been to one before. The gate would open and a little Coriente calf would race out into the arena, closely followed by two ropers, each riding a horse and swinging their lariats. The lead roper would fling his lariat, and rope the calf around the horns. Then the second roper would lasso the calf by the hind feet. The head rope seemed like a real feat of skill, but the way the second roper was able to loop the calf’s hind legs seemed to be a mystical magic trick. I could only watch with amazement, a team would make their catches look easy, Later, I was told that this roping event had a prize payout of over 50,000 dollars. Roping is a big sport.

 The next day, I started asking questions to see how to continue on with my journey.  Did anyone know of anyone who had a mule or a donkey, broke to lead, for sale? Kelby Hughes, the arena owner, took time to help me out, even though he was in the middle of the big roping event. He told me about a donkey rescue service nearby in Scenic, AZ. I called them, but their regulations wouldn’t allow them to sell me a donkey. Then, Kelby suggested I get in touch with Brandy Williams, back up in Beaver Dam. “If anyone can find you a donkey or a mule, she’s the one,” he said. “She can find anything that looks like a horse.”

 This was Saturday, the 2nd of March. I didn’t have anything else to do, so I hitch-hiked back up to Beaver Dam, and knocked on Brandy’s front door. Brandy answered, gave me a cup of coffee and got on the phone to see what she could find for me. As it turned out there wasn’t much out there in mules or donkeys for sale. “What about EZ-Boots?” she asked. I didn’t know what an EZ Boot was, and Brandy told me it was a rubber boot that goes over as horse’s hoof. Maybe they made one small enough to fit on the llama’s foot.

 So on Sunday, off we went to Cal-Ranch in St. George. “We” included myself, Brandy, Brandy’s husband Ronnie, and their kids, Jonna, 15, Gavin, 7, and Tristan, 6. Ronnie is a long-haul truck driver, and one of the nicest guys anyone would want to meet. Both Brandy and Ronnie make it a priority to help out anyone they can.

 We bought two EZ Boots, to see how they would work, and in the process, decided we might be able to make llama boots, if the EZ Boots weren’t the answer.

 Back at the Williams spread, we put the EZ Boots on Jasper, who is more mellow than Chalcy about having humans mess with his feet. He shook his foot and the EZ Boot flew right off. It was back to the drawing board, literally, to see if we could make some llama boots.

 After taking a tracing of Jasper’s foot, I was able to fashion a boot out of a piece of trucker’s tarp and a piece of rubber mat from a horse trailer. I slipped the boot over Jasper’s foot, and taped it on with vet tape. It stayed on. Even after walking him around for a while, the boot stayed put. Success!

 Monday morning, I said my goodbyes to the Williams clan, and took off with high hopes. The llamas started off ok, but all too soon, they slowed to a crawl. I could tell that even though the boots protected Jasper’s feet from the gravel, his feet were still too sore for him to want to go anywhere. In five hours, we barely walked three miles.


Ronnie and Brandy William


So, just before I crossed the Virgin River on the Bunkerville Road, I had to make a go-no go decision. If I decided to limp along at this snail’s pace, we could travel maybe eight miles a day, and I could keep my fingers crossed that the llama’s feet would heal as we went. But  what if their feet got worse, instead of better? The further I went, the harder it would be for someone to come and rescue us, in the event they couldn’t go on at all, especially once I climbed atop the Mormon Mesa, just down the trail. It just didn’t seem to be a risk worth taking. I called Brandy and said, “If you’re not too sick of me, I think we’ve got to come on back.”  Within two hours, Brandy was there with a horse trailer to pick us up. 


We were surrounded by llama admirers when school let out. If you look closely at jasper’s feet (foreground, bottom of photo) you can see his booties.

So now the plan is to find a mule or a donkey to continue the journey. Brandy said, “Why not wait until Thursday, and go with me to the auction in Cedar City? We’re sure to find a good mule or donkey up there that will work for you.”

 “I don’t know enough about mules to even know what to look for,” I said.

 “Don’t worry about that. You’ll be with me, and I know horses and mules. We’ll get the right one.”

 So, that’s the plan right now. In the meantime, I’ll make myself useful around here, cleaning corrals, horse pens, and whatever else I can to make a contribution. Because of the delay, I don’t think I’ll be able to continue on to California. My work as Water-master in Boulder begins in April, and I need to be back before the irrigation season begins. So, I’ve scaled down my goal this year to make it through Las Vegas. It is only another 100 miles, and if I can find an animal that can make some tracks, I can reach the Blue Diamond summit in a week and a half.

 I want to make a plug for Brandy and her horse business. She really does know her stuff, and all you have to do is call her and tell her what sort of horse you want, and she’ll find it for you, no problem. She and her crew are accomplished horse trainers, farriers, and know every aspect of the horse business. You can find more about Brandy Williams by clicking here.

Right now I’m hopeful and a little nervous too. Hopeful than we can continue on our way and make it to Las Vegas. Nervous because I have some real desert to cross, and I’ll be doing it with a type of animal, and an individual animal, I haven’t worked with before. The good news is that in terms of total real isolation, it isn’t actually there. The route of the Old Spanish Trail will cross under I-15 on the way to Las Vegas, and nowhere along the route of the original trail will I be more than ten miles away from that freeway. It will be nice to know there are thousands of people speeding along, just over the next ridge, as I tackle this next stretch of the Old Spanish Trail.



Photos: Parowan to Mesquite

4 Mar

Spec house nightmare or faux rock nightmare? Here’s to hoping the housing market picks up.



…and the other extreme. Empty land for sale past Iron Springs, Utah.



After Iron Springs, the country starts to open up. Looking out across the Escalante Desert.


Looking up Holt Canyon towards Mountain Meadows. Pretty lotsa cold!


Road at the bottom of Holt Canyon. Are we out of the snow yet?


Gullies in Mountain Meadows. The Meadows was almost entiely eaten up by gullies like this.



Looking back toward the Markagunt Plateau, known to the OST travelers as the “Wasatch Range”.


Memorial at the Men and Boys massacre site, Mountain Meadows. There is another, more interpretive memorial up the road, but this one is short and to the point.


Some of the many people who stop and ask me about my journey. From left to right: Jaclyn, Mikayla,Diana, Chalcy, McDuff, Jasper, and Judi.


Joshua trees once I started down the Utah Hill (old Hwy 91), toards beaver Dam, Arizona.


Open spaces, Old Hwy 91. just across the Arizona State line.


Cory Christensen, in front of his school bus, Beaver Dam, AZ


The Virgin River near Littlefield, AZ


Resting at the Roping Arena, just north of the Nevada line.