The Wild Burros of Death Valley

Somehow an hour passes. We’ve been sitting on a dry wash bank watching a pair of wild burros graze the desert valley floor. The dark one – the male – stands out starkly against the land. The grey female is sublimely camouflaged; her coat is a match with the dusty desert. They glance at us periodically, ears pointed in our direction but keep grazing.

I try to think how more than an hour can pass watching burros, burros who take a few steps, graze long minutes, step forward two steps.

This is what always happens with us when we go wandering in a random direction, without a specific destination in mind. On these aimless days we are in no hurry to get somewhere. We’re not even hiking to see “something.” We wandered up into this canyon to see what we can see.

And wild burros are what we see.

The desert is silent. We sit silently in respect to this silence and thinking our own thoughts.

Me, I wonder what the burros are finding to eat out here. There isn’t much greenery. I must look at the plants as we hike back to our campsite, I think. Where will they spend this long evening? Will they bed down together? Are they mates? Do they stay together year round or do they just happen to find themselves together on this hillside? Will they travel together? Look out for one another? Why is the male so dark in colour compared with all the other wild burros we’ve seen in Death Valley? Are burros as sweet and innocent as they appear?

Who knew there was so much to contemplate about burros.

Not only did I spend an hour watching burros in this place nowhere in particular inside Death Valley National Park, I then came back to our campsite to write this about burros.

There was nothing epic or awesome about our all day adventure into this unnamed canyon. We just enjoyed exploring, sniffing the leaves of plants we have never seen before (or smelled). The desert trumpets in this wash have full bladders after the rains and snows that fell a few days ago. We poked our heads into old mine shafts. Admired the clarity of the quartz here.

And as we sat above a dry pour off picking our favourite bits from the trail mix bag and watching burros a flock of chucars flew down canyon, the collective wing beats of fifty birds mimicking the fighter jets that also fly overhead.

As I said, this was not a day filled with epic adventure. It was not a day teeming with stoked emotions. It was a sauntering day. A contemplative day. A day to explore. To delve into the desert, into a canyon and just be.

And it was quite the lovely day.

The Randomness Of Travel

After leaving the Grand Canyon we took random roads to Mojave National Preserve. We do not travel with good road maps so we often travel by suggestions from locals. We have not yet been led astray. We enjoyed a couple of days in Flagstaff, Arizona, which has great coffee shops and an eclectic used bookstore to get lost in for an afternoon. Driving historic Route 66 brought us a few surprises, most adorably the wild burros and the cutsy but touristy town of Oatman.

The randomness of travel is addictive.

We definitely like to keep our plans to a minimum and let curiosity pull us.

Contemplating The Abyss and Condors

A national parks wildlife monitoring employee on the edge of the Grand Canyon’s south rim was wielding telemetry gear which piqued our curiosity. He was listening for condors, one in particular who was nearby but not visible. We were not lucky enough to see one in the four days we spent hiking in the Grand Canyon but it is lovely to hear their numbers are increasing. An ancient bird (a bird which once fed on mastodons) that was nearly wiped out is returning to the skies. And the Grand Canyon this year is celebrating three successful condor nests. Last year they did not have any successful nests and the year before only one. Life for the condor is still precarious – there are only five hundred of them in the world – but hopefully more people will join others advocating for the protection of wild places and give space to wild things.

Keep Wildlife Wild/Enough With The Selfies

Driving out of Zion National Park cars ahead were parked at all peculiar angles, blocking traffic. Doors were left open. More than a dozen people stood in the middle of the highway snapping selfies beside a stunned desert bighorn sheep. In trying to cross the road the ram’s attempt at survival in its rapidly fragmenting habitat was less important to these people than getting that ‘awesome’ selfie shot. I secretly willed the ram to turn his horns upon the tourists but instead he hung his head low in defeat and turned back to the hill he had scrambled from. Without a whisper of gratitude the people jumped back in their vehicles, engines roaring off to the next selfie opportunity.

I was stunned by the lack of concern people showed. Desert bighorn sheep are endangered. Life in the desert is precarious enough they don’t need people chasing them with phones and cameras. Instead of running after wildlife for a selfie, why not simply sit quietly and watch them. Spend a little time just being in their environment, in their presence.

If you’re wondering about this photo, I took this a few years ago when I was hiking in the east end of Zion. The photo is not quite crisp because it was taken with the zoom of my point and shoot camera maxed. I then arced around them and continued on my day and left them to theirs. It’s not a great photo but my memory of that meeting makes up for the shabby photo. A lot of my wildlife photos are subpar and I’m alright with that, even if it means getting less likes).

Life Lived Out Of A Vehicle

Life lived out of a vehicle is pretty ideal until you get sick. At midnight I bolted awake, drenched in sweat. I had to leap out of the 4-Runner and dig a pit beneath a juniper in which to puke into. The Milky Way was twinkling, the near-to-full moon casting shadows in the forest but gripped with a stomach flu I was fixated only on the red dirt in my pit. For five hours back and forth I ran between the 4-Runner to sleep and my pit to get sick – first to throw up dinner, then lunch, then bile once there was nothing left remaining. My fever would ebb while I was outside in temerpatures well below freezing, in little more than long johns and wool shirt. How I wished that evening for four solid walls, a couch and a flush toilet. Instead, I toughed it out and slept away the following day on various benches along the rim of Bryce Canyon.

Imagining Parks Without Roads

After a 26-kilometre trail run across the east end of Zion I spent the following day wandering Zion Canyon. From the campground I hiked the trails and the road, foregoing the shuttle bus to the trailhead of the Narrows. It is quite a fantastic way to experience Zion Canyon and other than the shuttle buses the roads and trails running alongside it are quiet. There is plenty of wildlife and birds to see. Wild turkeys and mule deer wandered in the shade by the river. Great blue herons fished the pools.

What a shame there is a road at all crawling up Zion Canyon. Imagine if it all traffic was cut from Zion Canyon, including the buses and the only way in was to walk or bicycle. The same could be said for Arches National Park, the Island In The Sky in Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon and the South Rim of Grand Canyon.

Ambling canyon country never gets tiring. Life slows when we are outside. Thoughts clarify. Life is simplified. The calm we find outside we cannot replicate elsewhere. And the longer we linger out-of-doors the more of it we yearn for. The harder it becomes to go back to the confines of four walls. The paved roads of the national parks would make excellent hiking trails.

Trail Running Canyons

Until lupus interrupted my life five years ago I was an avid trail runner – when I wasn’t consumed and obsessed with backpacking, that is. I have continued to run but not with any consistency or with the endurance I once held. Instead of celebrating a strong forty-kilometre Sunday trail run I have had to learn to be happy with an eight-kilometre run. This winter, however, I have been felling strong when usually this is when I am at my weakest. Taking time from work to camp and hike in southwest US desert for a few months has done me well – mentally and physically. I have been waking up lately finding myself excited for a run. The other day I felt assured my body was strong enough for a fifteen-kilometre trail run through a canyon. It was half the distance I once considered easy but I haven’t run these distances with any regularity for so long. I won’t lie and say the run was easy. The trail was a steady gradual climb up and ran along a deep sandy canyon wash and over boulders, slickrock and chockstones. A few days earlier I jarred my shoulder in a slot canyon (see previous IG post) and after eight kilometres of running it began reminding me of its presence, reminding me that I was running with a body not quite 100%. Despite the challenging trail run I did obtain that addictive runner’s high that has eluded me since lupus came along. That high kept me floating about happily the rest of the day. I’m still taking it easy, careful not to push myself too much, but this high from running, there’s nothing quite like it.

Sensual Cedar Mesa

Considered an outdoor museum, Cedar Mesa (formally protected under the Bears Ears National Monument) preserves not only exquisite wind and water sculpted red sandstone canyons but also the rich archaeological ruins of the Ancestral Puebloans and the petroglyph and pictograph panels they etched and painted on canyon walls. The arid desert environment has preserved these archaeological ruins, offering hikers a unique opportunity to walk eight hundred years back into history.

We have been here four times over the last four years, spending weeks exploring the canyons, visiting not only the well-known archaeological sites but also wandering aimlessly, stumbling upon more hidden sites.

It is one of the most fascinating, intriguing wild places to wander. But it deserves respect. Tread lightly. Take only pictures. These sites have existed for hundreds of years. Let’s keep it that way. I also encourage anyone who cares about conservation of wild places to read more about the fight to keep the Bears Ears National Monument in its original form.

A Rattle In The Desert

I heard his soft rattle before my eye caught his movement. I was blithely unaware that I was only one step away from stepping on him, a midget-faded rattlesnake. But he rattled his warning then coiled up his body, head up, tongue flicking in my direction to which I responded with an expletive and a few leaps backward. I trudges into the mormon tea and rabbitbrush, ceding the trail to the rattlesnake, giving him ample room to continue on with his day in the sun.

John, being a birding fanatic and from the Yukon where there are no rattlesnakes (or reptiles of any sort), also heard the rattle but looked up into the juniper tree branches wondering what kind of bird could be making such a pretty rattling sound.

Now every time a chipmunk or a whiptail lizard scuttles across the trail my knee-jerk reaction is an expletive and a leap backward. My hope is as I continue to hike in the desert the rattlesnake will settle into my subconscious the way grizzlies have. They are there – and they are dangerous – but I have met enough to begin to understand they do not want any more trouble than I do.

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