– 

 

THE CARETAKER

by M.D. Parker 

 

 

Chapter 1: YESTERDAY

 

He knew where to leave the trail. He had made the hike every week for years. The ageless canvas pack, with its sew marks from the multitude of repairs, rode over his left shoulder. It always felt awkward on his left, but the right shoulder ached more and more with each passing year. He wondered if old age might finally be catching up with him — if only a few decades late.

He paused for one last look behind, verifying that no one was within sight, before he stepped around the rock outcropping and dropped into the wash. The recent wind and rain had brushed the sandy wash smooth, leaving only a graveled whisper of his own tracks from the week before. The rains had been heavier this winter than anyone had expected, but the season was changing. Yet, he could still feel it in his shoulder and the ancient joints that bent his legs. He could smell the damp building in the air, though he didn’t expect a full rain. He felt the humidity crawl across his skin, dampening the pits under his arms. A line of sweat slid down his back and he felt the moistness building high in his crotch. He stopped, wiped his arm across his forehead, and pulled a water bottle from his little canvas sack. One large swallow rolled down his throat before he splashed some onto his thin gray hair. He drank a second time from the bottle before dropping it back into his sack, slinging the pack onto his shoulder, and sidestepping around the scraggly scrub brush.

His arm caught the spines of an acacia bush, and the bush refused to yield. He yanked free from the cat-like claws. He looked down and his eyes widened when he saw the thin drops of red popping through the long white line the thorns had drawn on his bare forearm. He dropped the pack and pulled the handkerchief from his back pocket in one motion. He dabbed his arm as his chest hauled in deep breaths. He sat himself on the dying gray-white log of a fallen Joshua Tree holding the rag tight on his arm. A clicking howl from some distant world met his ears. 

Knowing that the sound was borne of his imagination did little to comfort him as he lifted the rag and looked at the long scratch. He scanned the ground, searching, with frantic haste; no drops had made contact with the sand or rocks under him. He wet the cloth and dabbed it across his arm, wiping away any of the thin blood trails attempting to find a path down his arm to the sand below. The rapid breathing only subsided when he pulled back the rag and found no new droplets forming. He flexed his arms a few times and watched the cut. He had to be sure. Could not risk spilling any of his own blood this close to the boundary. He shoved the damp handkerchief into the front pouch of his knapsack, and waited a few more moments until his breathing had fully returned to normal. 

Following the path of his previous footsteps, he left the dry wash and stepped through a cluster of old rock formations. There, his tracks were joined by another set; prints shaped like the clubs on a deck of cards. It looked like more than one came through. He scanned the nearby tiny caves and crevices, but saw nothing. Coyotes hid well in the middle of the day. As he came through the cluster, the bottom half of the mountainous formation he’d been marching toward came ito full view. The large boulder pile looked more like a giant’s toy blocks kicked about in a temper tantrum, than a proper mountain. This way or that, he thought, jus’ glad I won’t be climbin’ over it. 

On the other side was the fence line. There he would find the posts set in place more than a hundred years ago. ‘No trespassing’ signs that were much younger than the fence, but ancient in their own right, would be tacked to him. Signs that were put there by people who knew not what they should fear trespassing against. His destination, however, was on this side of the mountain, for the signs were not enough to protect those who would disregard the fence’s purpose. He drank a third time from the water bottle.

He found the first stop quickly. Tucked up beside an stunted oak that was infested with the hanging piles of desert mistletoe. The mistletoe’s drab orange color stood in stark contrast to the decaying gray wood of the ancient desert sentry. He stepped around the tree. Careful to avoid a repeat, he reached around the needles of the cactus infested underbrush. Gently he stepped into a prickly pear, pushing it sideways, with his boot. It did not care how the blood was shed,nor its origin. 

Under the shadowed side, a dinner-plate sized flat rock lay embedded in the hard crust of graveled sand. He lowered himself to his knees. He opened the pack beside him and removed the small plastic quart of black paint. He set the container down. He reached in the bag and pulled free a small paintbrush. The bristled head was no bigger around than his pinky finger. He unscrewed the lid on the paint. He took the brush in his hand, and drew in a slow deep breath. A second deep breath followed. His hand steady, he dipped the brush in the paint, and began to trace over the remnants of the flaked color already on the stone. With each stroke he studied his work. His eyes squinted down to make sure each centimeter of the symbol was correct. The off-centered ‘J’ with what looked like fingers to him, hung down from the cross bar at the top. Inside the hook an extra swirl like the keys on those big brass horns he had seen marching bands carry. An additional flared line came off the right side, and he was done. It was perfect. It was exactly as it needed to be; exactly as he had done a hundred times before. He hoped he was right and the rain would be soft, or not come at all. He knew he’d have to change his schedule over the next few days to come back and check it. He knew better than to take chances.

He replaced the lid back on and dropped it back in the bag. His knees popped as he stood up. He carried the brush in his free hand as he walked to his next stop a few hundred yards away. There he knelt down and repeated the process on an oblong chunk of rock, with a new symbol. Beside the rock an old tin can sat pressed into the coarse sand, its rusted red as dark as venous blood. The metal was so thin he could nearly see through it; just another ghost of the past held to this place. Things die slower in the desert, like me, he thought.

With the touch up paint on what he thought of as the ‘squashed bug’ symbol completed, he tucked away the paint and brush into his canvas knapsack. The paint was nearly empty. He would have to make a drive to the store before he could venture through the eastside. A fresh can of paint would do all the ones he still had left to check and leave enough for touch ups if the rain came harder than expected. As he stood he was happy to only hear one knee pop. The paint had flaked more than he had hoped for. He knew the sigils on the rocks had probably not been doing their job. 

“All fixed up now though,” he said. 

With his water bottle in hand, he slung the bag back over his shoulder and reminded himself, again, that he’d have to deviate from his schedule and come check his work if it did rain hard. He had thought about waiting until after the rain, but he knew it had been too long since he’d checked on these two. He scolded himself for how long he had let them go without being checked. 

“Yup, you’re gettin’ old, Jack.” 

The trip back through the wash and around the rocks slowed him. The afternoon sun was bearing down. That time of the year in the high desert where the days got hot, the nights would freeze your bones, and the wind was as sharp against your skin as if a thousand shards of glass rode upon it. 

It was rare, but it did happen. Those moments in the middle of the day, when an animal more accustomed to the night, would make an appearance. As he rejoined the main trail he was greeted by one of the desert’s oldest residents. Its thin fur matted down. The gray and brown of its coat blended into the rocks and sand under its feet. It lifted its snout and Jack halted. It had found the remains of a hiker’s granola bar. The wrapper held down under one paw as it looked up at him. Its tongue swept across its snout, pulling a crumb between its jaws. Both man and coyote sized each other up.

“You stay back from there. You know better. You know what’s o’er them hills. Go back the way you came old fella, an’ I’ll be goin’ my way. Ain’t no reason for us to be botherin’ one another. Long as you stay away — don’t be disturbin’ him.” Jack held his eyes at a squint, his brow crinkled down. 

He changed up his grip on the water bottle. The coyote did not move. The wrapper under his paw was already coated in dust. Had to be around for a day or two before becoming the scavenger’s midday snack. Man and beast regarded each other for a minute, neither yielding any ground. Jack snapped his feet forward and hiked the bottle up.

“Go on, git outta here! And stay away from there,” he said, his voice raised to a shout. It came out gruff and graveled.

The coyote yielded. It snatched up the remains from the ground and took off at a trot down the path. It retraced its marks along the trail a few yards before darting sideways into the brush. It looked back every few feet until it disappeared into the rocks even farther to the west. Jack watched it until it was out of sight. Then, he drank the last of his water before heading back to the trailhead where the old pickup truck awaited his return. 

The door of the truck squalled in protest as he climbed in. Two turns of the key and it finally came to life. He forced the long granny-shifter into reverse and released the clutch. Jack watched the rearview as he drove away from the trailhead. 

Home tonight, town tomorrow, and check those wards I done as soon as I git the eastside all finished up, he thought. 

He caught the next gear and the fifty year old truck picked up speed. He stopped watching the rearview mirror, but he could still feel that guttural clicking sound echoing somewhere in his memory.

 

Joshua Tree National Park

 

 

 

Trona Pinnacles
near
Ridgecrest, CA

Imagine, if you will, an alien terrain. Towers piercing the endless blue sky. Sharp ridges cutting into the horizon, and stubby tombstones erupting from the soil. 

 

What world is this? A world where Captain Kirk finds god. A planet where those damn dirty apes rule the land. A place where kids can jump over holes as they run away from the villains and find some sploosh for dinner. A place where Wil Robinson is alerted of danger while lost in space. 

These are the Trona Pinnacles, and they are a pretty popular location for Hollywood. The pinnacles have been seen in Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, Holes, Lost in Space and more. 

These otherworldly pinnacles are located just a stone’s throw from Death Valley National Park. The pinnacles are made up of over 500 spires; some as tall as 140 feet. The pinnacles rise from the dried bed of the Searles Dry Lake basin. They vary in size and shape from short and wide to tall and thin. The spires are made primarily of calcium carbonate, and they were formed in Searles lake back when it was an actual lake – between 10,000 to 100,000 years ago.

Searles Lake Dry basin contains samples of at least half of all natural elements known to man….which creates a lovely smell to experience. If you visit, it is probably not your dogs or your spouse pulling their own finger.  

The Trona Pinnacles are located on Bureau of Land Management land, and you are able to camp right up against them. There is no charge to visit or camp at the pinnacles, just don’t forget to bring your Febreze. 


For More Information

Bureau of Land Management

California Through My Lens

 

Abandoned Highway 395
California

Highway 395 in California runs north to south about 100 miles west of Death Valley. The highway runs east of the Northern Sierras with views of the tallest mountain in the continental United States, Mt. Whitney. 

Photo Credit: Wikepedia

Highway 395 is dotted with natural and man-made sites to see, which includes multiple abandoned and “living” ghost towns. 

This high desert has some pretty weird history.

California City

The City of California City was incorporated in 1965 in Kern County, California. Covering over 200 square miles, California City ranks 3rd in land area on the state’s largest cities, but population checks in at barely 14,000.  California City is not a ghost town, but is not exactly what it was created to be. 

In 1958 real estate developer Nathan Mendelsohn bought 33,000 acres of Mojave Desert to build a metropolis city that would rival Los Angeles. What he ended up with was 200 square miles of dirt roads and lots, still waiting to be paved. 

I first learned of California City from a show on the Science channel, What In The World? The show uses satellite photos of weird stuff on our beautiful planet. CalCity can be seen from space as a large city still waiting to happen. 

Photo Credit: Atlas Obscura

Olancha

Historic graffiti marketing on a rock in a nearby abandoned truck stop area.

Olancha is an unincorporated town along highway 395 in Inyo County. It was first established in 1860 when ore was found nearby. Olancha became a full fledged town in 1870 when a post office opened. 

A cabin that is part of an abandoned motel.
The service stop
Olancha Cafe

Olancha’s claim to fame is a small cameo appearance in the Charles Manson saga. In August of 1969 Diane “Snake” Lake, the youngest member of the Manson Family, and Manson’s right hand man, Charles “Tex” Watson were ordered to go stay in the Olancha area by Charles Manson himself. It was only two days after Tex Watson assisted other members of the Manson Family in murdering a very pregnant Sharon Tate and her house guests. Snake was not an accomplice in the murders, and didn’t even know anything about them until they were in Olancha and Tex Watson admitted to her what he had done at Manson’s request. While in Olancha, Snake was arrested for indecent exposure for swimming nude in the motel pool. Shortly after, Snake and Tex left Olancha for Barker Ranch in Death Valley, where the whole of the Manson Family was arrested for theft and vandalism. While in custody multiple members were charged in the Sharon Tate and La Bianca murders. 

The rustic motel Diane “Snake” Lake got arrested for swimming nude?

Dunmovin

Dunmovin is an ghost town in Inyo County, California. Dunmovin was originally called Cowen Station, named after James Cowen, the first homesteader in the area. Cowen Station was a freight station for the nearby silver mining town of Cerro Gordo.

Very welcoming, friendly town.

James Cowen cashed out his mining claims in 1936 and moved away. The name was then changed to Dunmovin, and a post office even moved in and operated from 1938 to 1941. The town consisted of a service station, cafe, and store. Like many other communities along Highway 395, it ended up drying up and blowing away.

This car is for sure Dunmovin.
For those moments when you aren’t Dunmovin.
Please wash your hands. Covids exist.
An abandoned garage.
Mountain Man, you ain’t alone, friend.

While we visited the ghost town in November of 2020, there did seem to be one residence still occupied…but I am unsure if it was a squatter or …? 

This house did have a vehicle parked nearby that looked as though it might run, which had a tRump bumper sticker on it. Then this creepy doll on their fence. It’s a bit weird…and yet..

Fossil Falls Campground

Our temporary residence while exploring Highway 395 was the Fossil Falls Campground, 5 miles south of the Coso Junction. Fossil Falls is a primitive campground with picnic tables and fire rings. There is an old fashioned hand pump for water. Inside the campground are the actual Fossil Falls, which are not falls, but are indeed fossils. The campground is BLM land and the nightly charge is only $6.00. 

Rusty exploring Fossil Falls Campground with his sniffer.

There were many more places to visit along Highway 395, but our little travelling family had a bit of a tragedy in the area. Our very loved, and very missed yellow lab, Milo, passed away while we were in the area. He took ill very suddenly. We traveled over 100 miles to get to the nearest veterinarian clinic, and they were hopeful, but things took a turn for the worse. We spent the rest of our visit in the area in mourning…and to be truthful, we still are. Our “pets” are our family. They are our soul mates. Their love is unconditional, and they make us better humans. 

Milo. The cherished saint of dinnertime.
Best Buds, Milo and Rusty
The coolest kids ever.

Rest in peace, my Milo love. We love you. 

 

 

Camping inside the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge

Virgin Valley Campground is a free campground in the middle of Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in northern Nevada. The campground is first come, first-served, and you can stay up to 14 days. There are about a dozen spaces to set up camp in, and most have a picnic table and a fire pit. Pets are welcome, and much to my delight, there is also a Little Free Library on site! 

Virgin Valley Campground. I was delighted to find that purity was not a requirement to camp. Sorry about the lack of a beautiful sky, but 2020 was being all 2020. 
The smoky skies are due to someone failing to rake their forests all along the west coast, and therefore turning California, Oregon and Washington into an inferno.

But the real gem here? The geothermal warm springs that have been piped into a pool in the campground. There is also an open bathhouse with hot showers. There are no hookups, but potable water is available. 

Not quite skin melting temperatures, but lovely anyway.

Virgin Valley is a great base camp for exploring some of the 900 square miles of wildlife habitat inside the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is home to a variety of birds, butterflies, snakes, lizards, rabbits, deer, wild horses, bighorn sheep and more.

Wild horses, Couldn’t drag me away, Wild, wild horses, Couldn’t drag me away – The Rolling Stones
Pronghorn

Make sure to bring all your supplies with you, because there is not a whole lot of shopping nearby. About 30 miles east of the campground is the small Denio Junction, which has a bar, and a small convenience store/gas pump/bar/motel. Winnemucca is the closest town with grocery stores, and it is about 130 miles away.

We got plenty familiar with the drive to Winnemucca and back, due to a broken motorhome door. Then we bought the wrong shit to fix the door. We had to make the drive three times over three days for various annoying reasons. After all that quality time trying not to get irritated and bite each others’ heads off, we finally managed to get Matilda’s door back in shape.

A neighbor dog completely appalled at the Mr.’s ability to make up swear word combinations on the fly while working on…anything.

After all the frickin’ door fun, we wanted to move down the road to find a new view out our newly fixed front door. We were looking for a little more seclusion and decided to try out off-grid camping along the Bog Hot Springs Road, which runs alongside the (aptly named) Bog Hot Springs. You can find Bog Hot Springs Road off of highway 140, about 10 miles west of Denio Junction.

Dry camping along the Bog

Being under-educated on Hot Spring etiquette, I was only slightly alarmed by the old man baring his wrinkly, pale ass right in front of me. And by “only slightly alarmed,” I mean VERY red-faced. Apparently, clothing is optional. It seems to be a popular theory that soaking in the 111℉ geothermal hot springs while naked is good for your body…and the hot springs. The claim is that soap and detergents in your clothes are bad for the springs and the natural algae that only grow in them. It was a pretty steady flow of people coming and going. Some just stayed for a few hours, and some camped along the hot springs like we were. It did seem that most of the people we came across were polite and friendly…at least I think so. I avoided eye contact and admired the horizon quite often. 

The hot springs…and the horizon
This pump is used to get water from the springs and spray the roads and brush nearby. A bit more helpful than the slacking forest raker.
Hippie Heaven

While we did not participate in the naked soaking, we did soak; shorts and tank tops are welcome too. The temperatures were in the 90’s during the day, so most soaking was early morning or in the evenings. It was relaxing…and, well…boggy. The floor of the hot springs is super thick, sandy mud that WILL squish between your toes (and probably other things).

Oh! Henlo! Crusty Rusty here! They tried to trick me into a bath, but I’m too stinkin’ smart for them.
Matilda enjoying the view of the horizon

When the time came to get back on the road, we headed down the familiar road to Winnemucca to restock Matilda, and wash all the mud from our clothes, dogs, car, motorhome, and selves. 

But our drive to Winnemucca was interrupted by a flat tire on our tow car because we are disaster magnets. We managed to get the tire fixed quickly and headed south toward Austin, Nevada and Stokes Castle. 

See you there in the next blog post!