"There’s some petroglyphs over in Pinto Canyon," Frank said as he passed me on the trail. Frank Johnson, a handsome 75-year-old man, with flowing white hair and a superb knowledge of hiking trails, is something of a Sierra Club celebrity, and he was leading our hike into Fossil Canyon — just south of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. I was frustrated that a man of his age could outpace me, but I’d never hiked ten miles in the sand before. Frank’s words about petroglyphs startled me because during 20 years of hiking I had never seen one. Now here I was with a dozen tough old Sierra Club hikers who had seen so many as to not give a damn. I knew that they’d protect these historic sites by not giving out their exact locations, so when I finally caught up to Frank again, I was cautious about asking him where Pinto Canyon was.
“Get yourself a USGS map for In-Koh-Pah Gorge,” he said. “Then follow the international border east from Jacumba until you reach Pinto Canyon. The pictographs are located directly under the letter P, where the word Pinto is printed on the map.”
Grateful for the information, the next day I bought the map at Adventure 16 in Solana Beach. That evening, my friend Michael and I examined it. Pinto Canyon was right where Frank had said, about eight miles south of Interstate 8, between the Jacumba Mountains and the Yuma Desert. The small canyon meandered from inside the United States down toward the town of La Rumorosa, in Mexico.
I wanted to get a couple of sturdy friends and hike to the canyon immediately, but a closer look at the map revealed some very rugged terrain. Furthermore, there’d be no water or emergency assistance of any kind available during the hike. We’d have to carry everything we’d need. We’d need at least a gallon of water per person, per day, and more in case of emergency. That meant about 20 pounds of water sloshing around in our backpacks in addition to the camping gear.
Out in the desert, if you run out of water, you’re going to die. The notion that you can satisfy your thirst by cutting into a cactus is mostly fiction. Cacti are tough, covered with stiff needles, and filled with nothing more than warm pulp. So your time out hiking in the desert is strictly limited by the amount of water you can carry. A hiker who gets lost and runs out of water is going to perish. Besides being as dry as a bone, the area around Pinto Canyon has other dangers. Because of the canyon’s proximity to the international border there’s the risk of running banditos, “mules” carrying drugs, or “coyotes” leading groups of migrants into the United States. My hiking buddies and I were capable of traversing difficult terrain, but we weren’t accustomed to running into armed men, or desperate, perhaps even starving people.
But my desire to see these petroglyphs was stronger than my fear, so I prepared for the Pinto Canyon hike by making a dozen or more day hikes in the nearby Jacumba Mountains. As both my confidence and that of my hiking partners increased, we allowed ourselves to hike farther and farther out into the desert.
Patrick Brady accompanied me on one of the early hikes. We met on a Sunday morning at the Coffee Bean in Del Mar, where he and his brothers Raymond and Noel hang out. The Bradys are Irish. Patrick is an artist who runs an apple orchard up in Julian. Raymond and Noel work in construction. They’re tough — the kind of men a little guy like me needs to accompany him in rough country. I was a little worried because it was September and it was going to be hot. But the heat didn’t dissuade Patrick. He and his brothers worshipped the sun. They often drove out to Borrego just to escape the fog along the coast. So a hike out near Ocotillo Wells would be right up their alley.
Patrick and I climbed into the car and got started. We had a long drive. From Del Mar we took the I–5 south to the I–8 east. We drove through El Cajon, Alpine, Pine Valley, Descanso, and Jacumba. Then just past the San Diego county line, we exited the freeway at Mountain Springs Road. The Mountain Springs exit doesn’t go anywhere, but it gives drivers a place to turn around if they have to. The border patrol agents who watch this sector lay a wary eye on anybody who gets off the freeway here. This is a popular place at night, when coyotes load their trail-weary customers into cars for transportation north to Los Angeles and elsewhere.
Patrick and I drove under the freeway and onto a dirt road, which leads to the remnants of old Highway 80. Built in 1926, the foot-thick steel-reinforced road looks as though it was built yesterday. We parked at the end of the highway and put our backpacks on. There was a dangerous descent onto Interstate 8, then a mad dash across it, after which we entered a sandy wash — pristine except for the footprints of a dozen people headed northward. Patrick and I stopped to explore an old abandoned stone structure, which may have been the Mountain Springs stagecoach stop. Inside the old building, we found rusty mattress springs, empty tins, an old cast-iron stove, and lots of mouse droppings. There was absolutely no trash or graffiti inside the old building — a surprise, since we were only 200 yards from a major freeway. On the other hand, it is a testament to just how empty and desolate this country is.
We left the old house and climbed the high, boulder-covered hill behind it. This was my favorite kind of hiking — diverse terrain, places of historical interest, and the possibility of discovery. It was about 90 degrees and I was baking. I was a little worried since Patrick hadn’t drunk any of his water. He was more interested in smoking American Spirit cigarettes. Maybe the nicotine dulled his thirst. Anyway, up near the top of the hill, we saw three huge boulders pressed together. There was a sandy patch between them, with a thin shaft of sunlight streaming down into the center. I wanted to go inside to get out of the sun, but the opening to the room was small. So I got down on my stomach and crawled in like a snake. Inside, I was shocked at what I saw. Sitting near the edge of the room was a huge Indian pot, maybe 16 inches high and a foot in diameter. It had a lateral crack but was otherwise in good shape. I scanned the rest of the room but saw nothing else. Lying there in the sand, I felt as if I had just gone back 500 years. I almost expected a old Indian to pop out. Patrick crawled in after me and gasped. In hushed voices we talked about the irony of finding this old pot here — just a couple hundred yards above Interstate 8. On the busy freeway below, carloads of people raced toward El Centro. But here inside this small cave, we sat with the ghosts of the area’s first inhabitants, a Native American culture that struggled to survive in this rugged and unforgiving country. I finally bummed one of Patrick’s cigarettes and lit up. The two of us blew smoke rings out to the Great Spirit.