"Burro Bend ... where buggies and bikes do it all night". Just my luck to be stranded in the "Sand Buggy and Motorcycle Capital of the World". To my left, a sun bleached cork board exhibits photographs of mostly human charred remains in pathetic desert death poses. A hand-written sign declares the photo montage "Desert Tragedies". Having hitchhiked from our stranded Alfa Romeo in the heat of the Anza-Borrego Desert, it is our good fortune to have escaped membership in this exclusive club.
On the counter is my worn copy of Afoot and Afield in San Diego County, open to the section on Mud Hills Wash. The page describes the "undulating landscape of mud hills, glistening with chips of gypsum" above which rise Elephant Knees butte. We simply must see Elephant Knees. We start out in the early morning, our destination the sandy plains west of the Salton Sea about 200 feet below sea level. A simple day hike, and we are armed with sunscreen, broad billed hats, plenty of water, and this guidebook in hand. As if foretelling our doom the first chapter begins, "This is the desert at its lowest, hottest, and - to the unappreciative eye - most unfriendly". Wish I had seen that before we started.
I should stop here to tell you that an Alfa Romeo is not ideal for off-roading. My gleaming white Alfa awaits rescue, cracked oil pan dripping the remains of her lifeblood onto tar and gravel. Indeed she bleeds for several miles during our desperate road race back to civilization, but the oil pressure bottoms out before we make it back to the two gas pumps, one phone booth, and small cafe at Burro Bend.
In fact, several miles remain as we trudge along Route 78 searching the horizon ahead and behind us. At this stage a hitch with any vehicle in either direction beats imminent disaster. The speck of a Jeep Wrangler grows near, our frantic waving arms hard to miss on this desolate stretch of road. I now understand the meaning of sheepish as we explain to the kind elderly couple why we are hitch hiking in the middle of the desert during the hottest part of the day, with a depleted water supply and paperback book as our only possessions. The water, which seemed plentiful when we set out on our adventure, is almost gone. And the book, I inexplicably grabbed when we abandoned my beautiful Alfa, a desert tragedy in her own right.
Once safely out of the treacherous heat and sheltered in the dank atmosphere of the Burro Bend Cafe, we do what any thankful wanderer does in such dire circumstances. Call a tow truck, order a double cheeseburger, and a large satisfying ice cold soda. The waitress shakes her head at our idiocy as we place our order for a thick slice of humble pie. We are not the first, nor will we be the last off-roading idiots to pass through the cafe doors. At least we didn't make it onto the "wall of flame".
Fast forward twenty years, and we find ourselves overlooking the Salton Sea from a northern perch atop Keys View, the highest car-accessible peak in Joshua Tree National Park. After a day of intense hiking, we ascend in our rental car to 5,000 feet above sea level. The wind slices through my cotton blouse and khaki shorts, leaving me chilled, but reminiscing about that very different almost-hike from so long ago.
Back in the car, I chuckle as I glance through the park brochure from the Visitor Center, which admonishes visitors to avoid off-roading. I assure you I don't have to be told twice. I know Elephant Knees is below, waiting for us. Someday I will return, and next time I will be ready.
Elephant Knees photo and quotes from Afoot and Afield in San Diego County by Jerry Schad, 1986, Wilderness Press, Berkeley CA
-Originally published 22 December 2012