As I’ve written in past blogs, climbing mountains has become my version of a vision quest. I say that with a deep respect to Native American folklore. Down through the centuries, Indian culture has always held their mountains in great respect. The first ancients to walk this country left their mark around and on those granite sentinels.
In the Palm Springs area, the Cahilla Indians of the Coachella Valley have long spun folk tales centered on the San Jacinto and San Bernardino Mountain chains. Early settlers, explorers, hikers and long distance travelers have often reported feeling the presence of others while alone on the trail. There is a special reverence most of us desert rats feel on those mountain trails.
When I first started hiking in the Coachella Valley I found a trail close to home and a fun Saturday morning endeavor. It’s called the South Lykken Trail and is part of the North and South Lykken Trail that stretches for nine miles. It takes about five hours of moderate hiking to traverse the entire trial. The elevation gain is only about 800 feet and it’s considered a moderate hike by local standards.
Then last season, another trail caught and captured my attention. This one is called the Garstin Trail. That old goat path climbs up over two miles that switch back and forth and practically stumble over themselves in the process. Elevation rises from roughly 700 feet to 1500 feet up Smoke Tree Mountain. The trail rises to a plateau connecting up with the Shannon, Berns, Wild Horse and Eagle Canyon Trails. Even for the most ardent, experienced hiker it can be a gut-sucking, deep breathing endeavor.
Last winter on my last hike of the season, I came upon a granite plateau similar to the one I have often talked about on the Lykken Trail. This new tablet of stone offers up spectacular views up and down the broad expanse of Palm Springs. From this summit near the top of the Garstin Trail one gets a panoramic view of my neighborhood, Indian Canyon, the San Jacinto and Little San Bernardino Mountains, the depth of Palm Canyon and the broad expanse of the community of Palm Springs. To the east, one can see the entire eastern Coachella Valley.
Something magical, almost spiritual, can happen during a mountain hike. It’s a physical as well as a mental challenge. At face value, it can be a day 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…all to put your head in the right place. Call it mindfulness, meditation; the moniker doesn’t matter, the results do.
Another challenging climb is called Murray Peak. Although it’s called a ‘hill’ at 2200 feet on most maps, Murray Peak is, in fact, the highest peak in the vicinity of Palm Springs. It’s been labeled a moderate to strenuous hike with a total distance of almost seven miles and a vertical gain of over 2200 feet. It takes an average of five hours for completion with only a few rest stops along the way. For the seasoned hiker it’s a refreshing walk up the mountain. For us less conditioned souls, it can be a gut-buster and taxiing on the lungs. In other words, a worthy challenge and goal for a seasonal visitor like myself.
The mother lode of all trails in the Valley is one called ‘The Skyline Trail’ or for those in the know ‘C2C’, which means Cactus to Clouds. It’s a ten hour (minimum) mountain climb that travels ten miles uphill for an elevation gain of over 8000 feet. It traverses three eco-zones and can be a killer for the uninitiated, especially in the summer months. Four hikers have died on the trail over the last dozen years from heat exhaustion. No wonder my kids just roll their eyes when I mention a desire to make that climb. ‘No way!’ is all my better half will say.
There’s a culture here among a small group of old goats who work and hike these mountains year round. They care for the trails as an elder does the tribe. They endure scorching summer heat and windy overcast winter days. Most are rail-thin. Their skin looks like weathered copper or dried up old parchment. Most of them are lithe as an antelope. They’re the desert rats of the higher altitudes.
If I do Murray Peak this season, I intend to seek out yet another tabernacle. Not just any mountain plateau but another sanctuary of solitude and comfort similar to the one I found on the Lykken Trail years ago. It’ll be my granite respite for reflection and contemplation. A slab of rock that warms my bottom as well as my soul. An escape for quiet soul-searching amid the shadows of Indian lore and homes of the rich and invisible.
I’ve tried yoga, marathons, and long trail runs. Collectively they can punish the body all the while soothing the soul. My tabernacle is no different. It just takes a longer climb to get there.