The COVID-19 virus is spreading out across the globe. It has become a pandemic and is causing major health, economic and social upheavals. Grocery store shelves are empty and a lot of people seem on the verge of panic. California Governor Newsom had just declared that all seniors and those with underlining health issues should stay at home and not go out. Isolation and social distancing are becoming the norm. So what’s an old guy supposed to do in this time of crisis? Go climb a mountain, what else.
As I’ve written in a number of past blogs, mountain hiking has become my own vision quest. For others, it might be a walk in the woods, a stroll along the beach or a quiet spot almost anywhere. This vision quest thing is hardly a new concept. The Indians got it right a long time ago and we don’t give them enough credit for it.
Since the beginning of time, mankind has always had a spiritual relationship with solitude. The first ancients to walk this country found it in their mountains. They left their mark around and on those granite sentinels of the ages. Nothing much has changed over the course of time. Although much of the mythology and ancient teachings associated with mountains has been lost over time, some examples still exist today.
The Blackfeet have their Chief Mountain. The Potawatomi have their Chequah Bikwaki Mountain. More recognizable is Tse’bit’ai (rock with wings.) We call it Shiprock and it’s located in the state of Arizona.
Anglo culture named this fascinating formation after a 19th century clipper ship because of the peak’s resemblance to a ship. Navajo legend believes that ghosts of the ancients are still buried on top of the mountain and must never be disturbed. Navajo police patrol the area to make sure their sacred mountain is never touched.
The Coachella Valley is surrounded by several mountain chains each laced with meandering hiking trails. These old mountain goat routes have imbued certain groups to seek solace, quiet reflection, exercise and release from their daily lives on their rocky trails. From desert rats to trail runners and even novice hikers, those mountains have been calling to us for centuries. The mountains provide a real sense of solitude especially in this time of crisis.
In Palm Springs, aside from the Tramway cable cars, the only way up the mountains is to walk.
Footpaths have cut through, circumvented, and traversed the foothills and mountains around here since the dawn of time. Long before the first whites came into the area, the ancients had been roaming the desert floor and traversing the mountains surrounding the Coachella Valley.
Something magical and almost spiritual can happen during a mountain hike. It’s a challenge to both the physical and mental state of being. Taken at face value, it can be an afternoon of hiking, climbing or finger-probing the rough crags and fissures of the mountain face. On a more spiritual level, it’s an assent into the vaulted realm of oxygen deprivation, aching muscles, sweat-drenched clothing and overall mental exhilaration…if your head is in the right place.
Palm Springs has an abundance of hiking trails for both the casual hiker and serious desert rat. A favorite of mine and closer to home is the South Lykken Trail. It’s part of the North and South Lykken Trail that stretches for nine miles and takes about five hours of moderate work to traverse the entire trial. The elevation gain is only about 800 feet and it’s considered a moderate hike by local standards.
I went up there with my kids about five years ago. Both are more athletic than myself. Melanie runs marathons and Brian eats Fourteeners for breakfast. But I held my own and we had a wonderful view at top.
There’s almost a culture among the small group of folks who hike those foothills and mountains all year round. They endure scorching summer heat and windy overcast winter days. Their skin looks like weathered copper or dried up old parchment. Most of them are skinny as a rail and lithe like an antelope. They’re the desert rats of the higher altitudes.
Following that elite group of desert denizens come another eccentric group of trail runners and new age meditators. They frequent the mountains like others hang out at Starbucks. Finally come the tourists, snowbirds, and occasional weekend explorer (many with families in tow.)
In the spring, the trail is accented with blooming yellow brittlebush and flowering cacti…and at times an abundance of rattlesnakes. These rattlesnakes are usually very difficult to see since their coloration blends in perfectly with the rocks and gravel on the trail. One bite and it’s off to the hospital for several vials of antivenin serum. It’s an expensive proposition at several thousand dollars per vial.
Adding to the excitement of rattlesnakes in spring and fall are slippery rocks, loose gravel, and rough footing. It’s not a climb for the faint of heart. Not quite like the Costa Rican rainforest but not that far from it either. (What I Learned from Howling Monkeys)
It’s as special place as you want it to be. Not exactly like trial running back home in the Minnesota woods but the same kind of methodical, slow easy practiced stroll that is tougher than most long runs. It’s a place to look at the craziness around us and take a deep breath to exhale all the nonsense and access the reality of it all.
Along with one’s dreams and meandering what-ifs, it’s a perfect place to escape inside your head and do some exploring. It’s a place to celebrate old age and hold on to the memories there.
This too shall past. Life is good.
Enjoy it while you can.