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Canyons are like the crow’s feet
that light the eyes of a smiling face. They encourage
immediate friendship and you want to explore the source
of their amusement. But like all relationships, the exploration
can be a lot of work.
The Canyons of Berrendo, about a hundred
mile round trip from San Felipe, don’t resist easy
friendships. An ordinary pickup truck with under-inflated
tires and a modicum of good luck can make the trip. But
that part of the acquaintance is just the eye of the weather.
The real camaraderie begins when camp is established and
you stand at the mouth of a rift that simply will not
collaborate with your vehicle. It wants more immediate
contact, the personal touch. So with walking stick in
hand you tap and leap across boulders and stones, following
the alluviated rend that winds between the granite fault
blocks that tilt up on either side of you. As you push
onward into the deepening cleft of Berrendo’s smile,
you are greeted by the open hands of blue palms, the nod
of tall grasses and the wink of eddied water that trickles
down from the rising ground under your feet.
There will be a box canyon or two where
Berrendo cradles you in silence. These are nature’s
filters. They arrest the bovine search for sweet vegetation
and invite the intrepid hiker to tiddly-wink their bouncing
backpacks across a series of staggered monoliths. But
soon enough the canyon offers another stretch of sandy
wash and you can afford the interval to wall-gaze and
admire the blue palms that coif the upper ridges.
The going isn’t particularly difficult
if you are only a little goat-footed. A good set of hiking
boots or rock-climbing shoes are highly recommended. There
are some steep rock faces. There’s no worse feeling
than sliding down a boulder on bald trotters toward an
angry braid of dead palm fronds, their shark-toothed ribs
waiting at the bottom to embrace you.
Vegetation in this local canyon is varied.
Dwarf palms, blue palms, cholla, barrel caci, cardon,
aloe, agave, mesquite, palo verde and an assortment of
blooms litter the ravines and upper canyon slopes. The
occasional drainage through arroyos would appear to be
the ultimate spectator’s parade for this wide range
of foliage. Bring along a good camera. They won’t
move if you don’t.
Most mountain ventures are dry-camping
excursions. When there is water it is further up the canyons,
where rocks form a scrimmage line against vehicles. And
although potable water may be only a mile or two from
where you are camping, schlepping it between its source
and your tent on a hot day would probably be a fair analog
to an hourglass. Perspiration would cause you to drain
the canteens in pace with the distance covered and you’d
arrive back at camp with the containers in the same condition
as when you set out to fill them –empty. So it is
a good idea to bring along enough water for drinking,
cooking, dish washing and showers or sponge baths. Two
to three gallons a day per person should suffice.
Of course when there is substantial rain,
dry-camping magically transforms from a curse to a fervent
wish. Arroyos become torrents. Anyone foolhardy enough
to pitch a tent in a wash will quickly be introduced to
the business end of a flash flood and unless their father
was a salmon, the mistake would likely cost them their
life. Spiders don’t spin webs across active drains.
Learn from Nature.
The space/time of canyon terrain is something
that undermines clocks and wrist watches. Night claps
over you like a black bell jar with astonishing speed.
That’s because the western horizon is now a thousand
or more feet in the air. For every degree of stony arc
that eclipses the sun, you have to subtract about three
and a half minutes from your day. This has to be factored
into your firewood equation. If you are a night owl, stockpile
a lot of firewood (collect dead wood, of course –there’s
always plenty on the sides of a large wash). And avoid
building what locals smilingly call gringo fires, conflagrations
that evoke historic city names like Rome, London or Chicago.
Conserve wood with small fires and don’t complain
about the cool nights -simply pull your chair closer to
the flames. No need to make a Parsee ceremony of it.
Bye and bye, after a day’s hiking
and the long darkness of an early sunset, you’ll
feel the irresistible tug of Morpheus on your eyelids.
Trudging to your tent and climbing into your sleeping
bag, you might groggily thumb on the penlight to glance
at your wrist watch. 8:20 PM. Your body’s cryptochrome
proteins, integral to your internal circadian clock, are
being reset to the rhythm of mountain time. You’ve
stepped out of the artificial world of TV tubes, incandescent
lamps and neon signs and have wandered, not so wide-eyed
at the moment, onto one of Nature’s inviolable paths.
It’s not a regression. It’s simply the body
recovering a misplaced memory. A perfectly natural and
painless process, providing the guy in the tent next to
you doesn’t snore.
You’re not likely to encounter
much in the way of four-legged wildlife. Big-horn sheep
and pumas simply don’t want to be handed real estate
pamphlets or have their ears tagged. And they are shy
of cameras, probably because of all the bad movies made
about them. The approach of an unbalanced (in every sense
of the word) biped telegraphing echoes like discordant
canyon whale songs gives them plenty of warning to vacate
the area. You’ll see lots of tracks and feces. Puma
prints the size of a spread hand. But unless you stay
downwind and plant yourself on a plinth for a very lengthly
vigil, your chances of a National Geographic byline are
The upper limits of Berrendo Canyon almost
wholly dodge the influence of horse, spur and cow. Here
wild grasses grow to basketball player height. No beer
cans or cigarette butts tattoo the sand. And the dull
detonation of quails exploding into the air is a regular
event. It is a place where normal human activity is inexcusable,
one of the few ecosystems left that asks only for observation.
Anything else is a transgression, a self-made box canyon
filter that separates us from an incredible natural richness,
just beyond our tools