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Backcountry with 21st-century backup


"Whoso walketh in solitude, and inhabiteth the wood ... into that forester shall pass ... power and grace."

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

But what if I snap my ankle? Or blow a cardiac gasket? Or fall or get stuck on a mountain where I can't go up or down, what climbers call getting "cliffed out"? What then, Ralph Waldo? I won't give a tinker's damn about power and grace then. I'm going to be looking for that orange-and-white rescue whirligig in the sky.

Going solo into the backcountry — or on a sailboat around Catalina, or on a mountain bike in Utah, for that matter — always implies a trade-off, the exchange of safety for reverie. Nearly always, the risk is worth it, and for all the reasons Emerson made a career of. To be alone in big-N nature is to challenge yourself, to fully inhabit the body you were born with, to feel the chill of the absolute run up your spine.

But things can go very wrong. The patron saint of doomed solitary rapture is Chris McCandless, the subject of "Into the Wild," the 2007 film based on the Jon Krakauer book. In 1992, the smart and charismatic McCandless marched into the Alaskan bush desiring nothing more than to disconnect from civilization utterly, a transcendentalist Garbo wanting to be alone. He never walked out.

It's my life's ambition not to be the subject of a Krakauer book. I have kids, a wife, a cat who would miss me terribly. But sometimes, I want to be alone too. Why? Because I have kids, a wife, a cat etc. And so, for my planned six-day solo hike across Joshua Tree National Park, I have armed myself with the latest generation of backcountry electronics, devices that split the difference between the pleasures of being alone and the potential for dying alone — call it "e-survival."

To navigate 75 miles of gorgeous but punishing chaparral in the Southern California desert, I've brought along a Garmin Colorado 400t GPS unit, with which I've electronically marked the water caches I buried earlier in the week while driving across the park. If I fail to find even one of these caches, I will wind up very miserable or worse. Also on my utility belt is an ACR Microfix 406 Personal Locator Beacon. Essentially one big panic button, when activated the unit sends a signal to a station monitored by the Air Force, which in turn mobilizes search-and-rescue resources.

In 2007, PLBs helped rescue 88 people in 38 incidents. Between these two devices, I cannot get lost, and I cannot help but be found.

Finally, I'm carrying the mother of all communications devices, an Iridium 9505A satellite phone. Heavy, expensive but hugely versatile, the sat-phone is the high-tech prayer line, dial-a-deliverance for hikers in a jam. I also have a Solio Classic solar charger for my iPod, which is loaded with U2's "The Joshua Tree." I know. So predictable.

It all adds up to about 7 pounds of hardware and batteries, a small anvil of circuitry in my 40-pound backpack. But there's another burden, and it occurs to me only as I trudge away from my truck, parked at the park's northwestern entrance. In the process of making myself safer, I've changed the experiment, the backcountry experience.

Have I turned soul-searching in the wilderness into mere sightseeing? What would Ralph Waldo say?

Day 1, Black Rock Canyon to Upper Covington Flat

This was supposed to be the easy day, a warmup, a distance of eight miles. Yet the gentle uphill slope that seems so manageable in the orderly 3-D topographic display of the Garmin turns out to be a thigh-killing trudge through ankle-deep kitty litter. My heart is going like crazy. The sun is beating through the crown of my hat. My pack feels as though I'm carrying my own corpse in it.

Garmin users can plot their route on their home computer, then download it to the hand-held device, generating an elevation "profile" for the terrain covered. This information would have been useful in my trip planning because eight miles of uphill exertion equals 16 miles downhill. Unfortunately, Garmin does not yet make Mac-compatible software for its devices.With all its easy-to-sort readouts — odometer, altitude and real-time guidance to way points — the Garmin seems like an utterly vital piece of equipment. Yet I am having a hard time relying on it solely. I frequently stop to consult my conventional map and compass, which, by the way, never need batteries. Advantage: map and compass.

And then there's the Emerson question: Is navigating always about being certain where you are, or is there magic in getting lost and finding your way again, much like life itself? I suppose if you work in the search-and-rescue business, your answer might vary.

For several hours, I slog up the boot-sucking wash, which threads between the rocky, wind-varnished mountains to the east and west.

Finally, mercifully, the tilted sandbox levels off as it crosses the Upper Covington Flat Road, turning downhill past the perfectly named Eureka Peak. The zigzag horizon, the distant peaks of the San Bernardino range, has turned copper. I begin to notice my feet. They feel wet and gritty. Sand from the wash has shipped in over my boot collars.

Not far now. I switch on the Garmin to find my first way point, where I've cached a 2-gallon bag of water. The device's little floating arrow guides me to within 3 feet of the rock under which I hid it.

Exhausted, I set up my tent. After a nap and a dinner of re-hydrated beef stew, I call my wife on the Iridium sat-phone. I can't help myself. I miss her.

Day 2, Upper Covington Flat to Juniper Flats

I wake up at 5 a.m. and get on the trail about 6:30 a.m. I use duct tape to fasten my little solar panels to my backpack to power my iPod, which today is devoted to Jack Johnson. It's a perfect day, chilly and clear, with a stark wind out of the east, and as the trail comes to a breach in the boulders, I reach an overlook of the Covington Valley, a vast and shallow parabola of rusty rock and scorched cactus stretching to the northwest. It's going to be a good day.

Hours go by. Like other sustained-heart-rate aerobic exercises, backpacking releases neuro-hormones that, first, bring a rush of mental energy — the brainstorms, flashes of insight and relived conversations that you mutter to yourself like a crazy person.

Then, the lull of repetition, the hypnosis of boots, the trance of the trail. Crunch crunch crunch. This is the time of listening to your body. With every step, physical imperfections I've incurred over 48 years begin to assert themselves. The right foot I broke two years ago is beginning to ache, a slight singing pain. The small of my back, wrenched in the gym 10 years ago, is tightening up, no doubt because of my monstrously overloaded pack.

After 14.7 miles — including a brutal side trip on the Stubbe Springs Loop Trail — I come to my second cache, buried in the hole created by a toppled tree near Ryan campground. After I check in with my wife — I promised, after all — I collapse under a convenient rock shelter and dream of cactus.

Day 3, Juniper Flats to Fried Liver Wash

After two days in the bush, this much is certain: My backpack is killing me. I cull my gear, ditching among other things my tent.

Before I break camp, I spend some time wrapping moleskin and bandages around my feet, which are starting to worry me. Then I check in with home again.

Of all the devices, the sat-phone is the hardest to justify in terms of the wilderness gestalt. Don't people come out here to get away from phones? As soon as I'm connected — the transmission quality is better than that of my cell phone — I feel myself being pulled away from the land, the sky, the moment. I have to find words again.

The unexpected beauty of a sat-phone is not that everybody back home knows I'm OK, but that I know they're OK. It means I can keep playing.

As I shoulder my vastly lighter pack for the day's hike, I feel 10 feet tall. The conditions are exquisite. I storm across the paved road and pick up the trail, heading into a valley between buff-colored granite escarpments.

This is the most magical region of the park, where hugely improbable granite boulder piles have bubbled up through the rolling desert floor in relatively recent geologic times. It's the only place on Earth quite like it. This is Flintstones territory.

Soon the landscape opens up stupendously and then, a little sun drunk, I seem to catch a glimpse of myself, as if from some distant mountaintop, a high-tech ant taking a meandering path through a terrain too big to see or grasp. The scrub is high and sharp here, the vistas surreal. A cool breeze dries the sweat on my face. This is peak experience, backcountry bliss.

More hiking. I have about six miles on the Garmin's odometer when my feet begin to throb. I eat some Advil. By the time I reach the Geology Tour Road, I'm limping. Two hours and three painful miles later, I reach my third water cache, where the trail for Hexahedron Mine snakes into the hills from Fried Liver Wash. I pry off my boots and my wet-with-sweat socks. My feet are bleeding. All of my toenails have worked themselves loose from their beds. Uh-oh.

Sitting on a rock and using my waterproof jacket as a basin, I soak my swollen feet in cool water, but I soon realize I can't go on. After three days and 40 miles, end of story. I feel stupid. I pull on my boots and hobble the several miles up to Geology Tour Road, where I meet, of all things, geologists. I bum a ride with them to the main road.

Before I climb into the geologists' van, I pull out the sat-phone and call my wife. In a few hours, she'll pick me up, her gimpy adventurer. The nice thing about a sat-phone is that you have options short of a full-on rescue. Although I'm in definite distress, I doubt the search-and-rescue guys would have been pleased to find me suffering only from overtaxed, citified feet.

No rescue chopper for me, only a white Honda minivan.

Times columnist Dan Neil surveys the challenging terrain of Joshua Tree park, where he experienced backcountry bliss but ran into unexpected stumbling blocks. - Los Angeles Times