Thursday, January 20, 2011
Day 163: Chiriaco
Red Cloud Road Exit to Box Canyon Road. 20.1 miles/3149.5 total
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
8:45 a.m. I’ve just locked up the car and shrugged on my vest and am leaving from the parking lot at Red Cloud Road, Exit 182, heading for Chiriaco Summit, where I will take Pinto Road and Box Canyon Road west southwest from I-10, in the direction of Mecca. Today’s walk will be 20.1 miles.
It’s another warm day in the desert, cloudless at the moment but hazy ahead of me. It's predicted to get up to 75.
I'm walking down the decent one-lane dirt road I was on for the last two or three hours of yesterday’s walk. So as not to tempt either fate or Broderick Crawford of the Highway Patrol, I have managed to stay clear of the shoulder of the interstate in my sixty miles of California walking so far. As long as I have pretty good roads like this it’ll be fine. And in a few days I’ll be back in civilization and probably won’t have any more desert trekking for the duration. So I’m getting my fill of it now.
The nearly midmorning winter sun, still far to the south, casts long shadows from the utility poles and the mesquite bushes across the dusty road. To the north is a ridge of mountains, about a mile beyond the interstate. These are the Eagle Mountains. To the south, also about a mile away, are the Orocopia Mountains.
The mountains to the north of the highway on which the full sun is shining are particularly attractive with their multiple colors—chocolate brown with a dusting of pale green vegetation and here and there a lighter peak, more caramel colored. The mountains are making me hungry. Right at the base of these mountains is the Julian Hinds Pump Facility, which raises water from the Colorado River aquifer to a sufficient elevation so that it can flow easily down into the Los Angeles area. From here it’s a tiny set of pipes coming out of the side of a mountain.
An hour and a half into the walk and I’m sweating, and beginning to doubt the prediction that it would only get to 75 degrees today. At 5.1 miles I pull even with the Hayfield Road exit, which isn’t much other than a way to get to that pumping station. But it’s about halfway to the Chiriaco Summit exit, which is the little oasis in the middle of my walk today.
At some point past Hayfield I happen to look into the desert and see a stand of ocotillos that has turned green. The branches of these things are usually a grey brown color, but once in awhile they get leaves on them.
As its name implies, Chiriaco Summit is atop a hill, and the road has been rising very gradually all morning as I near the exit. These last few days of relatively warm weather have brought a little bit of life to the desert, and I've seen several small cottontails darting through the bushes, in addition to numerous tiny lizards. On the road I follow a set of cloven hoofprints, probably of a mountain goat or sheep. I search the nearly hillsides, hoping to spot a live one, but don’t. This little side road I’m on climbs steeply up and down hill for a bit, and then I can see the Chevron gas station sign beckoning me.
At 9.2 miles I walk the hundred yards over to the freeway and find an open spot in the fence to crawl through, and on the other side, by the parking lot of the station, I find an unlocked gate in the fence.
After taking a rest and eating my sandwich and sipping cappuccino, I begin to look around Chiriaco Summit. Across from the gas station and convenience store, next to the restaurant, there’s a shady little shrine to Our Lady of Guadeloupe. She's very heavy duty with the Mexicans. Masses are said here each afternoon at 5:00 p.m.
Next to the shrine is a little monument to the Chiriaco family, founders of this oasis. It says Joseph Chiriaco came from Alabama in 1925 and worked as a surveyor for the water company. That work brought him to this area, known as Shaver’s Summit, where he set up a gas station and general store in 1933. So he pretty much did what Mr. Carr tried to do over in Hell, but it lasted. It was in 1933 that they paved U.S. 60 between L.A. and Phoenix. In 1942 General George S. Patton established the desert training center headquartered in nearby Ft. Young. In 1945 Chiriaco built a memorial to Patton and his men, which has since grown into a museum. In 1958 a post office was opened, and the area was renamed Chiriaco Summit. Joe and his wife Ruth both died in 1996. The family continutes to operate the place, and charges some pretty outrageous prices, I might add, including gas for $3.66 a gallon, which is high even for California.
Sure enough, next to the marker and a small trailer park is the General Patton Memorial Museum. A large bronze statue of him holding a riding crop, with his English bulldog Willie on a leash, stands in front of the entrance. I’m curious, after seeing that statue of Douglas MacArthur back in Texas, whether the sculptor gave him as nice an ass as MacArthur had. But no, Patton has a regular flat old white guy’s ass, as one might expect. I decide to wait until my day off tomorrow to visit the museum, which also has an extensive collection of tanks outside.
For now I head out of Chiriaco Summit into the desert again, crossing over the freeway to the south side to Pinto Road, which is a continuation of the one lane road I was walking on, but is now two lanes of blacktop, running parallel to the highway.
One of the first things to strike me as I leave the oasis is the sight of the first snow-peaked mountain I’ve seen on my walk through the southwest. Obviously there are plenty of them in both New Mexico and Arizona, but I was so far south, and perhaps there had been so little snowfall, that I didn’t see any until just now. I think this is Monument Mountain, over in the Joshua Tree National Park. At 4,834 feet, it is the highest thing in the immediate distance.
For nearly five miles I float down this cracked asphalt road. Since leaving Chiriaco Summit I’ve been going downhill. At 12.9 miles I come up even with Exit 168, where Pinto Road merges into Box Canyon Road. Box Canyon diverges from I-10, heading west southwest while the highway continues more or less straight west. I’ll be on this road for about six miles today, and on my next walk it will take me another 14 or so into Mecca, which is 180 feet below sea level. So it’s all downhill now toward the Coachella Valley.
I’m intrigued by the name Box Canyon Road. I’m sure there are many Box Canyons all over the west, just as there are many Dome Rocks. Having been raised on cowboy TV shows and movies like most people my age, this name is redolent of the western adventures that absorbed me as a kid. Ben Cartwright has to go down to Box Canyon to get those stray cattle; the Lone Ranger captures the bad guys who are holed up in Box Canyon; Sky King rescues a little boy who has broken his leg down in Box Canyon.
Down Box Canyon Road I go, then, past the Orocopia Mountains. More of the same, as far as scenery is concerned. Some plants are flowering in the warm midwinter air. As I walk a family of five on bicycles passes me—a mom and dad and two teenage sons and a daughter. They’ve been brought out here by a company called Big Wheel Tours. A guy drives them out into the middle of nowhere, gives them their bikes and their little helmets, and on down the road they go, with the vehicle following them. They're all jabbering. "Dad, can I ride next to you?" "David, how's your sister doing?" "Honey, what's going on up there?" I imagine that when they get to the bottom of the road, down below sea level, the guy from Big Wheel will put their bikes back on the SUV and they’ll all cram in for the ride back to Palm Springs, or wherever. At any rate, I don’t expect to see them again.
I have a commanding view of the widening valley between Box Canyon Road and I-10 as they continue to diverge. Off in the western distance, almost obscured by dusty haze, is that big old snow-capped mountain. Overhead cirrus clouds mercifully temper the sun a bit. “Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,” as the Bard would say.
Into the second half of the afternoon, I tumble downhill gradually for the next few miles to the motor home.