I awoke not to my alarm, but to the distant sound of a diesel engine. Excited, I hurriedly pulled on my clothes and scampered down the ladder, grabbing my camera and tripod as I sprinted toward the train tracks. "How lucky was I," I thought to myself, not only was there a train at sunrise, but it was approaching from the east - allowing me to snap a photo of the powerful engines with an orange halo of morning. I took a test shot to get the exposure right.
Even better, I realized, I could take a video! And so, I did. And it was glorious, the horns blaring as the engines powered past. And then, I accidentally deleted it.
Even without the video though, the experience left me energized, and I wandered through the early morning, enjoying the light as it played across the desert, eventually highlighting the hillsides around us.
There were - of course, with time - more trains. Thundering through the valley, these steel beasts of the Union Pacific rolled along the tracks at high speed - traffic and crossings few and far between.
Soon, we too were following the tracks - headed east - towards the historic Kelso Depot. Built in 1923 by Union Pacific to compete with the Harvey House stations on the Santa Fe line, the depot was a spacious two-story building with a waiting room, a ticket office, a telegraph office, a baggage room, living quarters for staff, a billiard room, and a library. A 24-hour eatery would be added later.
Closed by Union Pacific in 1985, it was acquired - for the sum total of $1.00 - by the NPS when Mojave National Preserve was created in 1994. Over the next several years, it was renovated and since 2005 has been the preserve's main visitor center.
We didn't spend much time at Kelso Depot - it was closed due to the public's poor decision-making skills around gatherings, and thus spiking COVID-19 levels - instead continuing south past the Kelso Dunes to Granite Pass and the Granite Mountains.
While my favorite places - at least so far - to hike in the Mojave Preserve have been in the New York and Ivanpah Mountains, I've always found the Granite Mountains - viewed from the south - to be the most stunning. Stretching 10-miles from tip to tail in the southwest corner of the preserve, the name is apt, its entire body constructed of weathered boulders reaching toward the sky. And for the first time we'd experience them up close - our plan, to hike nearly to the highest point via Budweiser Canyon.
It was another ten miles or until the entrance to the canyon, and as we approached, @mrs.turbodb mentioned that a nearby destination might be worth a look. Our previous day of the trip having been the only one that went entirely to plan, I knew that if we took this detour that it would mean foregoing the hike to the top of Budweiser Canyon - the six mile hike, with 3,000 feet of elevation gain, one of the most difficult in the preserve.
Ultimately, the unknown - as so often seems the case - won out, and we turned toward Willow Spring Basin - a three mile hike described as one of the most scenic in the preserve.
Much of the Granite Mountains are contained within wilderness, so we parked at the edge and began our exploration by following the last vestiges of an old road towards Willow Spring. Already, the views to our south - of granite outcroppings in the foreground and the Bristol, Sheep Hole, and Cleghorn Mountains in the distance - fantastic.
Within minutes however, the view to our south was no longer top of mind. We found ourselves wandering into a wonderland of granite - towering hills of handsome boulders surrounded by pointed and steep granitic slopes. We stopped often, and at one point I handed all my gear to @mrs.turbodb so I could climb a formation that called louder than others!
After approximately half a mile, the faint road gave way to an initially wide wash, which we followed further into the basin. Footprints here were plentiful, but they were of quail - not human - hundreds of them taking to the air over the course of the next hour or so, flushed from their habitat by our intrusion. Soon, the wash narrowed and our progress slowed as we hopped from granite boulder to granite boulder, dodging a myriad of pointy plant life.
It was - to say the least - both beautiful and incongruous. How could so much green vegetation survive in this harshly alien habitat? Perhaps the other-worldly nature of the flora was the answer we were looking for!
In under an hour we reached the apex of our journey - Willow Spring. Apparently wet year-round, a flock of quail once again took to the air as we approached, their cries of "Chi-ca-go," crisp and clear as they regrouped further up wash. For a few moments we admired the small spring, soon continuing just a bit higher for a better view of our surroundings.
Baby barrel cactus.
A happy place.
View from a happy place.
Not wanting to take exactly the same route back, we looped over a low ridge to our west towards an adjacent wash. We could have, I suppose, turned north at that point and continued further into the mountains - the mesmerizing terrain continuing as far as the eye could see - but planning for a short hike, neither of us had brought food or water, so instead we made our way down the wash, continuing to admire our surroundings as we went.
Teenage barrel cactus.
Once we were back to the truck, we had a decision to make - eat lunch here, or wait until we got to Budweiser Canyon? Our plan - since we no longer had time to hike to the top - was instead to search around the mouth of the canyon for some red pictographs that we'd read were in the area. With that in mind, we decided it would be a good idea to head that direction, and I could start looking while @mrs.turbodb prepped our tasty meal.
The trip to Budweiser Canyon took us further west - right to the border of the preserve - before veering north again, into the southwest corner of the Granite Mountains. It was at this turn that we bumped up on the Bristol Mountain Wilderness - an area we've never explored and will need to do a little digging on to see if it's worth a return trip.
From there, it was only a few more miles to our destination at Budweiser Spring, the views alone - both toward and away from the Granite Mountains - worth the trip to what seemed like our most remote destination yet.
It was just before 1:00pm when we turned off the engine and set about our respective tasks, each of us eager to enjoy the fruits of the others endeavor! My hopes and expectations high, I set out in search of pictographs, the only clue I had that they were "among the boulders surrounding the spring at the mouth of the canyon."
And there were a lot of boulders.
In fact, the mouth of Budweiser Canyon was an order of magnitude larger than that of Willow Spring Basin, and by the time @mrs.turbodb whistled to me for lunch, I'd investigated perhaps an outcropping or two, hastily.
And so, as we sat there in our chairs - looking up at the granite and admiring the views - we discussed our strategy. We'd each pick a route, weaving our way through boulders, hunting for what we imagined were little red men on a granite slab. We'd do our best to cover as much ground as possible - a methodical approach.
For 30 minutes we searched. Then 45. Soon, we'd been looking for over an hour. By that time, we'd surely made some discoveries - though none of the Native American rock art variety. We'd found the perfect little cave, that could have been an oven. The inscription of ranchers, slightly less literate some 125 ago. And even a seismometer, "planted" by the University of Texas.
Wind cave or pizza oven?
What say we give it a little shaky-shaky?
I'd be holding back the truth if I said we weren't just a little bit discouraged. At the same time, spending an hour in search of our our prize only steeled our resolve to continue the hunt. After all, we'd eliminated a good chunk of the possibilities, hadn't we?
We hunted for another hour. And then twenty minutes more. Surely, if we wandered up the canyon just a way, we'd find the figures there - gazing down on any passers-by. But no - while the canyon did hold an old mortared wall atop a granite dry fall, and a peek-a-boo view of the moon rising to our east - it did not reveal our ultimate goal.
Eventually, we made our way back to the truck, our afternoon spent in suspense - searching for what, exactly, we still don't know. It could have been that we were only feet from success - a glance this way or that, enough to change the outcome. It was disappointing and thrilling, all at the same time. As good a reason as any to return!
And, our afternoon was not entirely in vain - over the course of our hunt, we gathered several hundred shotgun shells from the mouth of the canyon. All different colors, @mrs.turbodb especially had a splendid time - a real world Easter egg hunt, she laughed!
Don't mind us, just picking up after you again.
A full load of disrespect.
With the afternoon light getting longer, it was time to find camp. We'd spotted a place earlier in the day - closer to Granite Pass - that I'd figured for the perfect location - and so unhurriedly headed that direction, the views ever-changing in the light, calling to us to slow down and enjoy.
We arrived at camp just after sunset, the sky still light and the air warmer than many of the nights before. Setting up the tent and prepping dinner went quickly, and we settled in to enjoy our evening activities, the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter shining bright in the sky above.
It would be our last night in the preserve. After a week of adventure, we had only one more day of exploration before we'd high-tail it home. Keen to make it last, we stayed up later than usual - reading, watching an episode of Long Way Down, and simply enjoying the stars as they sped overhead toward tomorrow.
Finally calling it a night, we crawled under our covers, @mrs.turbodb still unaware of the surprises I had in store for the next day...