Turtlehead Peak – Red Rock National Conservation Area

One day in October 2019, Andrew and I woke up with a hankering for nature.

Vegas had cooled enough to allow for outdoor adventures, and we thought we might enjoy a romp around the sandstone Calico Hills in Red Rock Canyon. The area is a wonderland for bodies itching for a challenge.

Crystal up high in the sky.jpg
No, I’m not an expert rock climber. Behind me is a thin stretch of solid rock jutting out from a larger boulder. I walked to this spot. But it sure makes a good picture!

The day was perfect – the sun perhaps a touch too warm, but the breeze sweeping the edge off the heat with the promise of autumn. We climbed all over everything – scrambling up scalloped sandstone slopes, summiting dramatic outcroppings, tucking ourselves into whimsically-eroded hollows, letting warmth settle over our shoulder blades and soak into our skin.

Then one or another of us got curious about some trails we could see stretching off into the desert, seemingly away from anything worth looking at. Perched atop what seemed to be the most interesting rock formation in miles (and, having driven multiple times through Red Rock’s 13-mile scenic loop, we felt fairly confident in this assessment!), such a well-worn pathway out into nothing struck us as decidedly – well, let’s say unaccountable.

So off we went, across a wide gravelly wash, over a brief cactusy slope, and up to a sign pointing directly away from the nearest parking lot. Turtlehead Peak, it said, 4.6 miles. The indicated trail meandered out into a great, flat expanse of red sand, scrubby bushes, and banded boulders.

Andrew and I followed.

We took it slow, our pace all but aimless. We’d only brought a single water bottle each, so we anticipated turning back out of self-preservation before we’d gotten far. And we weren’t even certain what Turtlehead Peak was, exactly. Obviously some kind of rocky high point. I imagined maybe it was an overlook from which a large, whimsically-shaped boulder would be visible. Perhaps one that looked like a turtle’s head – definitely worth seeing.

As we wound our way through the desert scrubland, we stopped at every vaguely-interesting rock formation. Andrew started naming peculiar boulders in a silly game of free association. The Cranky Dwarf. The Lizard-Goat. The Treasure Cave.

And we climbed, too, when the path took us along large outcroppings jutting from the sand and gravel. We startled lizards and picked narrow ways up and down the sandstone bluffs, keeping an eye on the path below us so we’d continue roughly in the right direction.

At some point, the trail turned less-visible, marked only by large chicken-wire-and-stone cairns maintained by park staff. Only one cairn was visible at a time – when you reached one, you stopped, scanning forward, sometimes proceeding around an obvious-looking corner in search of the next. Once you spotted it, you headed directly to it, trusting that the next would be visible from there.

The way from this point turned steeper, with the occasional scramble over a rock face required. Gone for now was the gentle meandering path. The changing topography only further piqued my curiosity. We dropped our playful, lackadaisical approach.

We had to be close. We’d been hiking for an hour, probably. Maybe. We hadn’t kept track, instead keeping pace using our relative thirst as a timepiece.

But the trail had steepened. A gradual slope, I’ll grant you, but I was learning (as Andrew strode ahead with all the energy in the universe) that gradual slopes wind me faster than just about anything else. I’m out of shape, I thought, as I puffed my way slowly up, shoes slipping on the dusty gravel. My thighs burned and my right knee began complaining. “Oh, you’re fine,” I said dismissively, poking the knee with a sweaty finger. “Stop whining.” My backward way of acknowledging my body’s signals. Naming it without making a big deal of it at first forces me to pay attention.

“Want to turn back?” Andrew asked.

“Now? No.” I stopped to heave a raspy breath into my lungs, arms akimbo, stance wide for balance. “We’re close. I can’t turn back now. The stubbornness is upon us.”

He smiled, expression torn between exasperation and fondness. “Competing with the desert?”

“I’ll be furious if I don’t finish now.”

“Furious!” he said, laughing.

“Absolutely enraged.”

“How do you know it’s close?”

“Gotta be. We’ve been out here forever. Gotta be close,” I muttered, my voice only slightly tinged with mania. I glanced suspiciously across the red-grey landscape sprawled beneath the glassy blue sky, daring it to contradict me. Andrew laughed, took a sip of water, and started walking again.

“We’ve gotta turn back when we finish the water,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah.”

We’d come through the rocky bluffs and started heading further into the desert again, in the general direction of a sharp rocky not-a-mountain-but-definitely-not-a-hill, which now dominated the sky to the north of us. The turtle-shaped boulder I’d imagined – indeed, had become convinced was my goal – had to be around here somewhere. But perhaps the massive face in front of us looked like a turtle from a particular direction. That had to be it. We were headed for a hill, an overlook – definitely – and from that overlook, we would behold the gorgeous view of a turtle-shaped mountain-hill-thing, we would ooh and ahh and rest for a minute and finish our water bottles and head back home. Bada-bing bada-boom, triumph.

And not a moment too soon. The gravelly path had taken on an even sharper grade, and Andrew was outpacing me as I puffed stubbornly, vocally, laboriously onward. He apologized for his speed – it was easier for his body to stride up in one push. That was just fine, I said, sincerely, waving him along with a flushed and trembling arm. I’d be right behind.

Because at the top of this particular hill – the one we were currently climbing, I mean, not the imposing rocky mass to our north – I could see a cairn perched just where I’d imagined one would be. I was right. We were all but there, so if Andrew reached it a few minutes faster, what was the harm? I was too out of breath to chat anyway, and I couldn’t hold hands. My legs were so unsteady I needed both arms free for balance.

So, thighs and calves burning, lungs aching, heart pounding, I persisted. I think I can, I think I can, I puffed to myself, half-laughing. The afternoon sun glowed against my damp cheeks, the early-autumn breeze whisking the moisture away. I think I can, I think I can.

And I did. The steep path leveled abruptly, and I took a step or two onto the flattened hilltop, towards Andrew and the cairn, before throwing my exhausted arms in the air and croaking, “Woooooo!”

Andrew grinned. “You okay?”

“Yeah!” I panted, pressing my palms against my low back and stretching backward. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Woo! I’m great. Look at this view!”

My quivering kneecaps and raw lungs made sense now, gazing out over the desert behind us to the south. We’d climbed much higher than I’d realized, and walked much further. The Calico Hills, so dramatic up close, peered placidly from the scrubland far below, stretching lazily away like rumples in a quilt. The white bluffs we’d passed more recently – onto whose path-side summit we’d scrambled like kids on a playground – were far away and barely significant. Las Vegas glittered mysteriously in the distance between two larger peaks. The panoramic view from east to south to west bloomed welcomingly beneath the buoyant sky, the dry red-and-grey-and-orange-banded landscape vibrant in the crisp October afternoon.

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I wrote everything up to this point between October 2019 and February 2020, planning to finish soon and post the complete story – but of course, many things happened in quick succession, and I never could finish. I’m sharing it now – in January 2021 – because I’m too proud of it not to do so, but – spoiler alert – the cairn we’d reached wasn’t the actual end!

After looking over the landscape in awe, I turned and discovered that the path continued past the cairn, sharply up onto the imposing rocky mass before us. This not-quite-a-mountain, it turned out, was Turtlehead Peak, and the goal wasn’t ultimately a cool rock that looked like a turtle’s head. Instead, it was an even grander view from the top of the peak itself.

As this fact dawned on my exhausted mind, I flopped shakily onto a rock and downed the remainder of my water. The fact that this wasn’t, in fact, the end of the trail – I can’t begin to explain my emotional reaction to it. I was half-hysterical with discouragement and full of jaded inner conflict. Some other hikers were coming down the ridge towards us. They were small as lizards moving across the rocks.

When they reached us, we confirmed with them what we’d realized – that the trail went on for a good deal longer, steep, gravelly, thirstily.

“About how much further?” Andrew asked them.

They paused for a long moment, glanced at one another with tired smiles, looked us over, and finally said, “It’s worth it.”

I burst out laughing and said, “That means an hour or more!”

They laughed and repeated what they’d said. “It’s worth it.” They gestured to the magnificent view of the desert before us. “This is nothing.”

“We’ll have to turn back here,” Andrew said to them, shrugging ruefully. “We’re out of water.”

One of the other hikers took off her pack and revealed half a dozen unopened bottles. They handed us each a bottle – we thanked them profusely – and they were on their way.

Andrew and I sat for ten minutes or so, watching them go and looking thoughtfully at the path onward. I’d caught my breath. My stubbornness was recovering.

We decided to continue.

I’ll tell you right now that we never made it to the peak itself. The sun tilted too far into the west and the path – marked in many areas only with spray-painted arrows – was too uncertain to risk hiking in the darkness. And some stretches were steep enough that we were forced almost to rock-climb, and that’s how I learned that Andrew has a strong aversion to heights. (At one point I slipped – my old shoes had virtually no traction – and skidded down into a scrubby bush several yards downhill. I found this funny, but Andrew certainly did not.)

We turned back when we guessed we had enough sunlight to make it back to the cairn-that-wasn’t-the-end. We guessed correctly, and hiked back to the car as sunset turned to gloaming and gloaming turned to twilight and the first stars blinked awake.

But I was thrilled that we’d made the attempt. Each time we paused for breath, we turned to look over the desert, and the view was broader and more spectacular.

The memory is all the more lovely from the vantage of having passed through nearly a year of pandemic conditions. Remembering that the world is wide open in the Mojave – full of ancient sandstone rippling with ancient watery eddies, vast oceans of dry air for the breathing – remembering feels like stretching after a long, cramped sleep.

Keep witnessing wonders, folks. I know it’s been difficult for many of us during the past year, but being open to them truly carries us through sometimes.

Until my next missive (hopefully sooner rather than later)!

Harsh, and Brimming with Life

To begin by saying nature is changeable would be to state the obvious, but I hope my readers will indulge me. Obvious or not, the cycles of nature can’t help but fascinate. And nowhere have they seemed more pronounced to me than in the desert.

Early this March, a week and a half after Las Vegas’ historic snowfall, I and a group of extended family members went on one of my favorite hikes in Red Rock Canyon, just west of the city. Red Rock Canyon consists of a thirteen-mile scenic driving loop off of which twenty-six marked hiking trails can be reached. Each offers something new and special: archeological information, unique rock formations, conservancy initiatives. Continue reading “Harsh, and Brimming with Life”