Despite that terrible news, I returned to the area a few weeks later with my friend Tom. Tom is a professional photographer and a veteran of many rugged adventures. He’d hiked to Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon and had just come back from a weeklong backpacking trip in Utah’s Escalante Canyon. Regardless of Tom’s experience, I knew that he was absent-minded and often forgot to bring essential things. Like the one time when he was three hours late meeting me for a hike. When he finally arrived at the Pacific Crest Trailhead, he had forgotten to bring his hiking boots and water.
But Tom had jumped at my invitation to accompany me to the petroglyphs, and I was glad to have him along. At the car we divided things up. We got two gallons of water each. I got the tent and he got the ground cloth. Tom insisted on bringing a professional four-by-five camera and tripod, so he could take some highly detailed pictures of the petroglyphs when we found them. To accommodate the big camera, he chose to leave his sleeping bag in the car. Tom was older, stronger, and more experienced than me, so I was not in a position to second-guess him about leaving his sleeping bag. But I didn’t understand why he couldn’t just bring a regular 35mm camera.
I felt well prepared. I’d spent the previous evening pouring over my USGS map, penciling in compass headings both in and out of Pinto Canyon. I’d noted some obvious geographic references, like pointy volcanic peaks and dry lakes, so we could judge our position visually. The only thing we didn’t have was a handgun, which would have increased my sense of security. Tom and I had talked about it, but we decided that stealth would be the best defense.
We crossed the freeway and headed directly up the ridge. I was mortified by the weight of my backpack. I carried 60 additional pounds with each step and balancing was difficult. It took us an hour just to reach the 100-foot-high ridge above the freeway. It was back breaking, but at least it wasn’t hot. In fact, it was cloudy and there was a chill in the air. The cold weather and the discovery of the child’s dead body had cast an ominous shadow over this outing. As I walked, I had the acute feeling that something bad was going to happen and that we had better get in and get out as quickly as possible. I felt as if we might walk around a bend and right into a dozen desperate immigrants, either lost or being led by an armed coyote. Neither of us had any idea how we’d react if this happened. But as we continued, the land opened up, and it was obvious that we were very much alone.
We stopped often to examine the country ahead of us. There was no trail to where we were going, and the geography changed constantly. We couldn’t follow the compass headings I’d charted because the terrain simply wouldn’t allow it. A high cliff or a mile of high boulders would impede us. Therefore, we used the visual references I’d established. We’d hike toward a tall cinder cone for an hour, then when we reached it, we’d hike toward another landmark farther on. Surprisingly, this vague system worked.
We reached the upper part of Pinto Canyon about five hours after we left the car. We wanted our campsite to be hidden, so we set the tent up in a low area surrounded by mesquite. Once the tent was up and the packs were stowed inside, we hiked on down into the canyon. I had waited over a year for this moment. The inherent danger only increased the rich sense of discovery I felt. The canyon was narrower than I expected, but it was very pretty. There was a rich contrast between the nearly vertical rock walls and the soft, almost sensual sandy floor. The canyon turned so frequently that you never knew what lay ahead. Occasionally, we found small pools of water, and there was evidence that at times much of it had flowed. Tom was carrying his large camera and tripod, and we scanned the canyon walls for the petroglyphs. About an hour later, we came upon them. There were three flat rocks covered with crude drawings, right at eye level. The marks had been made by scratching the top layer of rock off, revealing a lighter colored layer underneath. The drawings were stick figures of men, rectangular grids, and most notably, a tall sailing ship, complete with a mast and furled sail. It sounds stupid, but after waiting a lifetime to see a petroglyph I was unhappy to find a drawing of a sailing ship. Damn! Where were the woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers? A crudely drawn picture of a sailing ship meant that the drawings weren’t more than 400 years old. The artist may have spent time at the San Diego mission and had seen a Spanish supply ship sail into port. It was interesting but not the least bit ancient. Tom shot some photographs, then we headed back to camp.
After dark, we made a small fire, and I made tuna macaroni. I’d been making tuna macaroni since I was in the Boy Scouts. It’s easy to make, and it’s filling. Since Tom had left his sleeping bag behind, he tried to form a bed by using my down jacket and other loose articles of clothing. He took what would have been my pillow and put it under his back. It was bitter cold, and our cheap tent flapped in the wind constantly. As though there wasn’t enough noise, at about 2:00 in the morning a Border Patrol helicopter flew overhead. The agents onboard used a loudspeaker to tell a group of immigrants to stay where they were. Then they landed nearby and held the people until agents with vehicles could arrive. The result of all that activity, combined with Tom’s constant twisting and turning, was that neither of us got a wink of sleep.