Air Force to the Rescue

A “Lost in the Woods” story with a happy ending, thanks to the U.S. Air Force. No photo credit or byline on the dramatic picture and story in the Mojave News, although both deserved one. What’s really impressive is the amount of government resources from county sheriff, NPS and Air Force put at the disposal of some young woman with an injured ankle. I’m amazed at the tech advances of recent years and the accompanying cultural changes. Back when I was in my 20s, if one of us had injured an ankle while hiking with three buddies it would never have occurred to us to call for government assistance and wait for rescue. The casualty would have been expected to cowboy up and make it back to the trailhead with the help of his friends.

Death Valley

I’ve found some temporary escape from house arrest by looking back over old notes on past travels. I posted notes on a trip to colorado 8-10 some time ago, and I want to add Death Valley to the archive as one of my favorite memories. I had been looking forward to a return trip this spring but the Park Service, like the BLM, decided visiting our “public lands” is hazardous to our health.

Bad Juju

Little early for Halloween chills, but there’s a great piece in DesertUSA on “Desert Shamans and Sorcerers.” Reading about the evil Tahquitz makes me want to visit his canyon sometime, or maybe just watch for him strolling the streets of Palm Springs. The Cahuilla roamed the desert west of the Colorado River, but their beliefs differ only in detail with the Navajo and Apache as well as the more settled Pueblo and Hispanic people farther east. All believe in witchcraft in one form or another.

 

Suspended

The backcountry search for Barbara Thomas, who disappeared in the Mohave National Preserve 11 days ago, has been suspended,  S&R teams working with K9 units, members certified in cave searches, rope climbing and desert terrain combed the area yesterday but found no trace of the missing woman. “Detectives from the Specialized Investigations Division have assumed the investigation,”  according to the Sheriff’s Department.

 

Still Missing

The search for Barbara Thomas, missing since the afternoon of July 12, is still underway, but chances she is still alive somewhere out in the Mojave are now vanishingly small. Another strange story, this one from the California mountains, offers a sinister alternative template to her disappearance. Found after missing for four days, the woman claims she got lost fleeing from a man brandishing a knife. I’ve been wandering the mountains and deserts of the Southwest for better than 50 years, more often alone than not, and I’ve had some unsettling encounters with strangers. While I can’t say I ever felt seriously threatened, the world (and esp California) seems to get crazier by the day. Personally, I feel more comfortable carrying a pistol when I hike (more for snakes, feral dogs and rabid animals than for two-legged predators). Unfortunately, that’s not a legal option in CA, with its restrictive gun laws.

Missing in the Mojave

I try not to post on back-country misadventures too often, since the plot lines are so often drearily familiar. But every once in a while one comes along sufficiently out of the ordinary to attract my attention. Such a one is this report from California. Search continues, but air temp is around 104 today, the ground underfoot is 20-30 degrees hotter than that, and shade is minimal to non-existent. If the missing woman has been out there for more than 72 hours with no water and no clothing to speak of, her survival chances are slim. What’s puzzling is that she’s no feckless German tourist, but a local resident who should have been aware of what that desert is like this time of the year. Unless she’s no longer entirely compus mentis (in which case a responsible adult should have been keeping a closer eye on her) it’s hard to understand why she would go hiking in mid-afternoon, without a cell phone, any water, or any covering but a baseball cap, hiking boots and a black bikini. I pray she survives to tell her story.

The Abandoned Rifle

New developments in a story that stretches not just five years but more than a century into the past. In November 2014, Park Service archeologist Eva Jensen was doing a field survey in Great Basin National Park. I’ve accompanied archeologists on these walkabouts and I was amazed at all the things they could see at a glance – sherds scattered in what they call an “Oops! site,” the charcoal bed of an ancient hearth or the remnants of a rock shelter — that I would have missed completely. Soldiers accompanying Apache scouts had the same reaction to their guides’ uncanny ability not just to see the terrain but to experience it with all their senses.

Others have certainly hiked the ridge Jensen was scouting – there’s no place in the West a man has yet to set foot on, so far as I can tell. But she was the first in decades to spot a rifle leaning up against a juniper trunk. The cracked and weathered stock and rusted barrel blended perfectly with the tree, rendering the old gun all but invisible.

It’s an 1873 model Winchester, manufactured in 1882. Buyer and any subsequent owners are unknown, as is how it came to be where it was discovered or even how long it rested there before Eva Jensen’s sharp eye spotted it.

The ’73 Winchester was the AR15 of its day, “The Gun That Won the West.” Its rapid rate of fire and accuracy (at least at short ranges) made it the favorite weapon on both sides in the Apache Wars. It may have been a lever-action Winchester that cost Domingo Gallegos not just his wife and baby girl but his life. I believe Nana and his warriors rode down to Rancho Cebolla that day not because their Navajo guides had boasted of Domingo’s marksmanship but because they told Nana of his gun.

News stories don’t specify the caliber of the Great Basin find but it was probably chambered for the powerful .44-40 cartridge. That was scarce in Mexico, and the need to resupply was an important factor driving the Apaches to raid north across the border.

According to the news reports there was one bullet left in the Great Basin gun. The empty magazine might explain how the rifle came to be left behind. It was not dropped or lost on the trail but left neatly propped up against a tree trunk.

You don’t forget a ten-pound, yard-long weight. You’ll notice it’s missing before you’ve gone a hundred yards. I believe even a man suffering from dehydration, hunger, hypothermia or heat-stroke would keep such a valuable possession with him until the last extremity. Not to mention its value as a defensive weapon even with just one bullet, a good Winchester was worth around $40 or $50 used, which was a lot of money in those days.

I presume the Park Service archeologists made a very careful survey of the surrounding area, looking for harness or bridle hardware, spent cartridges, buttons and buckles, or any human remains. If so, nothing was found.

Imagine a man propping his rifle against a tree and walking off, never to return. Why?