Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Hiking in a place called Cañon Sin Nombre in the Anza Borrego desert. Cañon Sin Nombre means canyon without a name, and yet that’s its name, so you get to contemplate that paradox as you walk it.
I used to hike in the desert a lot when I lived in San Diego, long time ago now. The drive out from the sea-level La Jolla took me over the mountains via Descanso and the now fire-gutted Cuyamaca Rancho State Park (I never want to go back to see it in that state), through Julian at 4000 feet and back down to sea-level, or close to it, at Borrego Springs. The difference in terrain was so stark that it felt like traveling through a wormhole to Earth a million years ago, or another Earth in an alternate universe. The trees had surrendered on the east side of the peaks, leeward from the ocean moisture, and if it was as late as May I could already feel the desert heat ramping as I drove down beyond the pass into quivering air. The land out there was white through the haze. If I stopped at a turnout to look at the view, there was no sound but the ringing in my ears and the thermal breeze rising up the rock wall.
Starting out early was always a good idea when I wanted to do a hike in the desert. It took two hours to get there, so I knew I’d be on the road for four hours, hiking for another three or four — an all-day trip. And by the time I arrived at a trailhead, where parking was usually just a sandy turnoff without a lot of signage, I’d wonder why I was there. The impression the desert made on me at the outset was of emptiness and damage. Something went wrong out here, like a nuclear accident, and what was left was the bones of the world and some hardy plants like smoke trees and ocotillo. Thorned things. Get out of the car into that first waft of heat and you question the risk/benefit of this walk. Still, it’s early enough that you can be back in the AC before things get too brutal, and you head out with a determined step toward the tan craggy hills.
The trail is sand, scuffed with the tire tracks of off-road vehicles. They’ll keep you from wandering off the safe path, which is easy enough to do where the trail’s wide and a little indistinct.
Soon the hills start to edge in and you find you’re being fed into an arid funnel. Spotting jackrabbits that start at your approach, plenty of lizards scattering, and even a tarantula or two walking along with no particular destination. They say lucky hikers sometimes encounter bighorn sheep up in the canyons, but I’d never seen one. Those bighorns will come at you too, so it’s just as well.
More of that surreal quiet in Cañon Sin Nombre, the kind of quiet that underscores how goddamn loud real life is and how you’re always being bombarded with noise and information. Here the facts are stern and silent. Land, sun, distance. The shade of the canyon wall you were making for is gone by the time you get there, the sun coming up to its perpendicular. But the canyon is still narrowing and there’s more shade up ahead. Tempting to touch some of those cacti, the wait-a-minute bush or cat-claw that’ll snag you and not let go. I wanted to brush my finger on a cholla plant one time just to see, and the thing speared me so bad it hurt for a couple of days. I keep my hands in my pocket now when I’m too close to those.
The main attraction to me that day in Cañon Sin Nombre is a box canyon, or slot canyon some people call it, at the end, two-and-a-half miles in. I’d never seen one before, a passage carved into the sandstone by water at some point in the past and cutting all the way from the top of the ridge down to the floor of the canyon. Some of the slots along Cañon Sin Nombre narrow to three feet wide or so, and the only way to get to the top is to climb up the crumbly sandstone walls. I didn’t want any part of that, so I made my way straight through on the main trail toward the box waiting at the end as the payoff. Noticed the trail was losing elevation too, so the walk back would be up.
I climbed onto a stubby outcropping to have lunch before I went on, sucking down half of one of my two water bottles even though my head was saying “save it for later,” like the song. From there I saw some other hikers making their way in, which I never liked to see in the desert — other people. I thought of it as a place to be alone. I needed a lot of being alone at the time, various stresses bugging me, and this idea of silence and isolation was attractive. Me and the planet. I’m the observer. I’m the one who confirms its existence. Solipsistic hiker syndrome, but you can’t really help it when you’re the only one out there.
By the time I got to the slot, the other hikers were just coming out, and a family of three was just arriving behind me. In a place like that it was a crowd. I was just heading into the slot when the family — they told me they were from New Zealand — asked if I knew, was it safe to walk in? From the entrance it looked dicey, the walls of the slot rising up and making it look like you were being trapped. An elevator shaft, a mine that might collapse. I told them it was safe, from what had read, and the view from the top was supposed to be awesome. They were convinced, or the mom and the dad were, anyway.
Their little girl, Sophie, decided — for no reason that made sense to me — that the only way she’d go into the slot was if I held her hand.
The parents shrugged, said they guessed it was up to me, but if I didn’t do it they wouldn’t be going in. Sophie, five years old, was calling the shots.
So the four of us went in, and I held Sophie’s hand the whole way. We were all enamored of how the sun penetrated the depth of this open tunnel, the way the walls were like the walls of adjacent tall buildings and this was an alley to some sunny, surprising garden.
Sophie squeezed my hand as we got up to the top and looked out over the open desert, and then she let go and said thank you.
I said I was walking a little further on before heading back, so the mom and dad told Sophie she’d have to hold Daddy’s hand going through the slot again. Now she was ready, though. I watched them as they went back into the shadows, Sophie twisting to wave at me one more time before disappearing into that hole, which, as it turns out, is the past.
Cañon Sin Nombre. It has no name but its name is Cañon Sin Nombre.