You can die in the desert. It’s a dangerous place. That sure seems like an unnecessary thing to say, but it’s a fact easily lost amongst glossy national park brochures, with their condensed text on nature interrupted with tiny pictures of bright flowers popping out of cacti and tiny varmint tracks in the sand. I had one of those brochures stuffed in the car door slot as i rode down a rough, desolate road towards a place called “the racetrack”, named after rocks that seemed to be moving themselves slowly across a dry lake bed.
It was my first trip out of LA with a girl I’d been casually dating. You could say we were “taking it to the next level”. I was in typical character, transfixed by the siren song calling from the most isolated spot in the expanse of Death Valley. I had to go there. 30 miles later the road began to deteriorate significantly. Large washouts. Bigger and bigger stones in the way.
My old Subaru Forester has 7 inches of clearance. She was quickly getting out of her depth. But after multiple trips to Yosemite, Zion, and the Mojave that car and I have built up an understanding. Even when I smashed her transmission pan coming up Marshall Peak (loaded down with 5 men and 5 paragliding setups), she still got us to the top with all the warning lights ablaze and stuck in second gear. My sister teases that it’s a lesbian car. An opinion fueled by her empirical evidence up in Portland, Oregon and exacerbated by the knowledge that A) I bought it from a lesbian and B) the license plate says 4MUF. I’m cool with that. Lesbian, straight, bisexual, polyandrous.. as long as she’s honest with me. The worst thing, in a place like this, is for a vehicle to surprise you. You’ve got to rely on it do what it’s always shown you it could do. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Eventually I got stuck on an ascent, deep down that lonely Death Valley road, but I managed to jiggle out of it. When i got shored up on a stone the second time, I got out and took a hard look around me. The upbeat music blasting from my speakers suddenly warped into something tinny and psychedelic as i fully registered the expanse of barren, bone-dry land that stretched out in every direction around us. We had passed no one on the route up. I had maybe half a gallon of water in the back. No signal on my phone. No one was notified to our location. It’s quite amazing how you can go from a carefree good time to the realization that your life is in grave danger. “We could die out here,” I thought. Perhaps it was the same, anvil heavy presentiment shared by earlier settlers making their way west down similar desert routes, absolutely counting on the existence of a spring or a wagon repair that could not go wrong.
“We’re turning back,” I announced decisively. I entirely loath a retreat. I’d rather trailblaze through treacherous conditions on a hike than return the same way. But there’s a thin line between courage and stupidity, and I was one stuck Subaru away from crossing fully over.
The girl, who had subtly voiced a few doubts on our final climb, wisely refrained from reminding me of her prescience. She had been floating the “turn back” idea for a while, but, sensitive to my ego, she praised my strong command of the situation.
“Never again,” I thought as we retraced our route. I imagined walking those wretched miles with a small quantity of water in my hand, traveling by night, hoping to find someone before the morning sun rose and began to bake the desert once more. Would I bring the girl with me or tell her to wait in the car? Stay inside it at night and under it if the sun came up. Write SOS on the roof with stones. What percentage of our water would I leave her if she did stay? Heavy questions I was happy not to answer. I shook my head in quiet self rebuke. Never again.
The Next Time
In Feburary 2014 we began filming season 3 of the Road Less Traveled. I had a brilliant idea for starting the first episode: Drive a 4x4 through the Mojave desert en route from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Between the sand dunes, joshua trees, ghost towns, and abandoned mining operations we were sure to have a solid start to the show. I contacted a few auto companies and Toyota came through with a beastly FJ Cruiser SUV. Switching from my Forester felt like jumping off a pony onto a Belgian draft horse, although you could practically see the fuel gauge swing.
The Old Mojave Road is an eagle feather in any off-road enthusiast’s cap. There are tougher routes out there, but few with such a rich blend of history and scenery. The European pioneers came through the road, and long before that Native Americans used it as a route to the sea. The way passes through dramatic canyons, black volcanic cinder cones, a dry lake bed, and the largest Joshua Tree grove in the world. Challenging a vehicle to not cross will be deep ruts, soft sand, deceptively thin baked crust with sinking mud below, the occasional flash flood, and enough isolation to make a hike out a deadly proposition.
As a crew we astutely understood these dangers. For precaution we followed the FJ with a Range Rover recently purchased by Sashi De, our executive producer. We carried a tow rope, heaps of water, and plenty of survival gear. We charted out all the flowing springs in the preserve and always double checked our location.
The trip passed by without incident. We never got stuck once. It was so easy that for the next week in Vegas a recurring theme in conversation was regret for not pushing our loaner 4x4 harder. We played it too safe.*
Several days later our production was coming to a finish. We had one day of filming left a couple hours north of Vegas in a vast stretch of desert containing just a pinch of tiny communities. On the agenda: A ghost town, a legal brothel, and a final standup for the episode where I typically present some wrap up thoughts straight to camera. Ideally this last segment would be shot by sand dunes near the abandoned junction of a place called Rose’s Well.
Perhaps we took too long with the drone shots in the ghost town, or maybe we lingered at the brothel longer than anticipated.** By the time we set out to find those dunes the sun was sagging low over the horizon and shadows were long. Off the two lane country road, a good ten miles or so from the brothel, we swerved onto a primitive dirt road. As I gazed at the drooping sun anxiety swelled up within. If it set we’d have to go back to Vegas and return the next day. If we made it we could wrap the episode then and there. I peeled off the beaten path and drove straight at the dune across the open desert...fast.
As we pulled along the edge of the dune’s sloping sides the sun finally tucked out of view. The crew jumped out with the cameras and set themselves in place. I popped out and did my routine, “Blah blah blah… see you next time on the Road Less Traveled!” We got it! High fives and whoops all around. Invigorated by our last second success, I decided on a victory run up the mountain of sand.
“Hey,” I yelled over my shoulder, “Just come get me up there!”
I was happy as a clam as the FJ approached, plowing up the steep dune. I could see Dante, the cameraman, at the wheel. Our eyes met as the vehicle pulled up to the crest. He was smiling like a kid on his first pony ride. Suddenly the SUV stopped making progress. I could hear the engine revving, see the four tires spinning, and watched as they began to burrowed into the soft sand, bringing the car to rest entirely on its frame.
“Stop Stop Stop” I barked, but it happened so fast.
It was now completely shored up on the sand. We gazed at each other in momentary disorientation as the dim rays of dusk retreated. In 2 minutes it was so dark we couldn’t see your feet.
Again, just as in Death Valley, the gravity of the moment dropped like a lead bomb. There was no preparation for being stuck up on a dune in the dark. No water or food in the car. No flashlights but for our phones, batteries mostly depleted from a full day of work. It was decided we must all get on our bellies and meticulously dig the car frame out of the sand. We might have only one chance to extract it. Further digging attempts would put the Toyota in a sabulous grave. We could soon follow.
After an hour the car was ready. The sand cleared and tumbleweed stuffed under the tires. The keys, burdened with heavy responsibility, changed hands a few times before I took them. With the Sashi and Dante pushing, I eased into reverse and she came out of the sandy chokehold. As with many of our close calls, no filming was done. We were all too concerned with preserving the lives we had made. As we drove back to the warm embrace of civilization we reflected on how quickly a series of rushed decisions led us into the perilous situation. Never again. We would remember that you can die in the desert. It’s a dangerous place.
* The only point of concern was a certain rotten smell that seemed to grow more putrid by the day. Was a dead animal stuck up in the frame somewhere? A little detective work and recollection revealed the culprit: Sashi had placed an open quart of chocolate milk in the styrofoam cooler, wedging it upright in the ice keeping our beer cold. Days later the ice had melted, the quart tipped over, and when the back of the SUV bucked up in the air on the rough road the cooler split like the Liberty Bell. The whole concoction of beer, water, and chocolate milk flooded the back of the vehicle and gear within.
Despite the smell, I sure did enjoy driving our trail-dirty vehicle around Vegas. I finally understood the jacked up 4x4 obsession some men enjoy. When pulling up to a stoplight next to a smaller, cleaner, more soccer-momish SUV I felt like Tommy Lee undressing at an orgy.
** And speaking of orgy.. the friendly ladies gave us an extensive tour of the brothel, pointing out all the spots where they like to "party". Having traveled all over the world I immediately noticed how different the legalized trade appeared, a point I tried to subtly make on the show, although I am not the first to do so on TV or in print.
It's easy for the unfamiliar to erroneously assume LA is one big concrete jungle. The truth is outdoor adventure is more accessible than in most cities. Within 15 minutes you could get from Santa Monica to the Temescal Canyon Loop trailhead, from Hollywood to Runyon Canyon, or from Silverlake to Griffith Park. These are, however, rather popular trails on any given day. The main Runyon loop is in fact about 80% trail and 20% catwalk. If you want to try a little something different give these tracks a gander. Some of these routes take a higher level of agility, conditioning, and balance. Know your limits:
1. Coral Canyon - Jim Morrison's Cave
Park at the top of Corral Canyon Road / Castro Peak Motorway and cut SE along a section of the backbone trail. Just before you get to a large rock spiral you'll notice a plain looking hump of rock off the trail to the left. On the side is the secret "birth canal" opening. Slither through and you are in the cave of Morrison's LSD inspired reveries. How you choose to honor the occasion is a whole other adventure. GPS: 34.080502, -118.749228
Update 6/29/16: There is now a sign saying the cave is officially closed. The sign ironically will guide more people to the spot which was otherwise hard to find. It's also far enough from the entrance for someone to reasonably claim that they approached from a different angle (and didn't see the warning) or thought it was referring to something else (as the whole area is riddled with tiny caves). I definitely did not see it until I already came out!
2. Tree of Life (AKA Wisdom Tree)
The famous Hollywood sign is on a bit of a mesa. As you trace your eyes to the left you'll be looking at Mt Lee, Cahuenga Peak, and finally Burbank Peak just before it plunges down to the pass occupied by the 101 highway. On the corner of that mesa is a lone tree of mysterious origin which is the only survivor of a grove that burned up in a 2007 fire. This solitary stone pine is now honored by hikers as a place of reflection and reverence both due to the view and the indominatable life-spirit of the surviving pinus pinea. Hoodoos have been erected around the tree and an ammo box is full of musings to which you can add. There is a steep path straight up to the tree, but I came at it from Griffith Observatory, walking over the ridge-line from Mt. Hollywood, past the backside of the Hollywood sign, and finally to the tree.
3. Nazi Camp (Murphy's Ranch)
Wedged in a forested grove near Will Rogers State Historic Park are the scattered remains of a compound with an intriguing backstory which may bring to mind The Man in the High Castle. Although it's a fairly easy hike, this is a fascinating jaunt around a unique piece of history with unsolved mysteries entwined through it. Many hikers seem to stop short of the whole scene so take your time to poke around. Don't miss the abandoned barn (pictured) in the back.
Update 6/29/16: I've heard the authorities have recently been patrolling the area more. If you slip inside anything with a gate on it you are assuming a bit of risk. There are also plans to tear some stuff down, so time may be limited to see it all. Any info on this please post in comments.
4. Mt. Hollywood Summit at Night
Heaps of people climb Mt. Hollywood, looming above the Griffith Observatory, and several Meetup groups do it at night. However, nobody does it late at night. When all of the city is at drinking at a bar or Netflix & chilling you can make this easy climb up the mountain with only the coyotes to keep you company. The stunning matrix-like grid of Los Angeles stretches out through the dark revealing the scope of this mega metropolis. There is so much ambient light from the city that you can do without a flashlight even on a new moon, although i'd recommend bringing a headlamp. On anything close to a full moon a flashlight is completely unnecessary... the whole mountain practically glows. From the top you'll get 360 views to the coast, the valley, the city, and the Inland Empire. Access off Los Feliz by the bear statue.
5. Malibu Creek State Park - Rock Pool to Lake
Wedged in between steep cliff faces in Malibu Creek Park is the fairly popular "rock pool". Because of easy access this spot is rather swamped with casual hikers on any given weekend who unfortunately don't embrace the "pack it in - pack it out" ethos. Thankfully most of this crowd doesn't have the knowledge that my favorite scramble in greater Los Angeles begins right behind them.
Make your way behind the pool by either swimming (a dry bag would be useful) or by bouldering along the rock face on the far side, then continue upstream until you get to a dam. Ascend up the left side of the dam and you're at a serene little lake with floating lily pads. Along the way you'll pass through massive boulders that have fallen into the narrow canyon over the ages, which you can climb over or sometimes under. The rocks have created a few isolated swimming holes along the way. Look closely through the clear water and you'll see giant crayfish. From the lake hike up the hill to your right and connect with a return trail for your exit.
6. Parker Mesa via the Secret Loop Path
Parker Mesa (via Los Liones or Paseo Miramar) is a popular westside route, and for good reason. The sweeping views of the LA bay are worth the effort. But 95% of hikers do this as an out & back. I loathe returning the same way I came so I always sniff out the loops, and I found one here. As soon as you enter the new gateway at the Los Liones entrance you'll notice a concrete drainage to your left. Drop down and up the other side. The trail will now be evident. It cuts level alongside the western spine for a 100 meters or so and then shoots steeply up through some trees to get you atop that ridge. Now just follow the ridge all the way up until emerging directly below the park bench atop the famous Parker Mesa viewpoint. It's a strenuous climb, but you'll make it to the top in about 1/3 the time of the typical direction. Keep an eye out for the Getty Villa emerging directly below you. I like to schedule my hike up to grab sunset at the summit. The descent (along the normal route) can be easily negotiated at night as it's a fairly wide fire road. Just be cognizant of your turnoff onto the single-track near the end that takes you back to Los Liones. If you pop out on the street at Parker Mesa you'll have to backtrack about 5-10 minutes to find the narrower path going down.
7. The Backbone Trail
The big kahuna of LA hikes that few dare stretches over 60 miles of the Santa Monica Mountains from Will Rogers State Historic Park to Thornhill Broome Beach in Ventura County. I've only done the first segment, which is logistically the easiest: Park near Will Rogers, hike to the town of Topanga, and Uber/Lyft back to your car. The rest of this behemoth is more challenging due to its lack of convenient break points and dearth of water sources; however I plan to tackle it in the next couple months. Keep an eye out for the detailed blog post.
Update 6/1/16: The few missing sections of the trail have been acquired. All 67 miles await you.
Update 6/29/16: I've since done a few more chunks of the Backbone using a two car system as Uber/Lyft is not a reliable option and I didn't want to hike back. The trail actually passes right by the Morrison Cave (my first suggestion on this list), which has changed a touch since I was there last.
I'm Jonathan Legg
I went to college, but I still graduated a closed minded young man. The road, however, has been my greatest teacher.. challenging stagnant beliefs, disarming prejudices, and facilitating understanding and appreciation for people different from me. I hope the content on this blog and my shows can bring a sliver of that juju to you.