Little Camp of Horrors
by Debbie Miller Marschke
Everybody has them: unforgettable camping trips. Unforgettable because of the locations, timing of the season, or the good company. And then there are the trips that stand out for all time because the trip did not go well. For the rest of our lives, these particular trips are a standard of measurement for all others, “ At least it was not as bad as…”.I’m sure you will be thinking about your favorite horror story as you read mine.
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Steve and I decided to explore the Old Woman Mountains in the Mojave in late April because it was one of the areas we had never been. Map spread upon a table, we decided to aim for Scanlon Gulch and see what the three day weekend presented. Accompanying us in their Jeeps were our friends Scott McClinton and John Nixt. We had intended to explore much more than Scanlon Gulch, but we had such a wonderful time exploring the Gemco and Silverware Mines that we spent most of our Friday and Saturday time in the same area. Structures still remained intact, including a cabin. We located and followed an improved mule trail on foot from the Gemco cabin to the mine farther back in the canyon. Sometimes the trail faded but it was not difficult to pick back up as it hugged the curves of the mountainside. We could have easily stayed there all weekend. It was really enjoyable.
Our wandering nature brought our group out of the canyon along a faint road that looked interesting on Saturday afternoon. After battling the washouts to reach an impassable section, we relented and turned around, not admitting defeat but sick of dealing with the physical labor of road-building that continuing on would involve. Then came the fateful decision: to visit Cadiz Dunes to the south. None of us had ever ventured there so it was not hard to decide to change course. As we approached the dunes, I broadcasted to the team that I was not interested in pitching camp there. I admit that the weather was promising but I lamented that the dunes presented a risk if the weather changed. However, the guys all outvoted me. As we pulled in to the dunes, a campsite was chosen and the wagons circled.
There was a subtle warning sign: no fire rings. No evidence that other folks had camped here. In hindsight, we should have wondered about that. It was a picturesque location, just a stone’s throw from where the dunes began to climb. We nestled in between the sporadic creosote bushes, half dirt, half sand. The bushes were tall enough to block the setting sun and we all relaxed with a beverage. The elevation was much lower here than Scanlon Gulch, something we hadn’t considered. It was hot. After relaxing around, I spotted a desert iguana and took my time sneaking up on him. I successfully snatched him up in my hand and after everyone examined it, I let the critter go. I am now certain that, in doing so, I angered the Gods.
As the sun set, it began to get breezy. When I pointed this out, the guys dismissed my worries, saying that it would probably stop an hour after the sun went down. Well, it didn’t. Early that evening our fire time was not hindered by the breeze. We stared lazily into the fire and let the flames slowly hypnotize us as the light faded. John raised his flashlight and said, “hey, what’s that?” Between our sandaled feet and the fire zigzagged a sidewinder. Everyone snapped to attention, now focused on the removal operation. We were definitely unsettled. I reclaimed my fireside chair, my heart still thumping, when John flashed the light up again, “What’s that?”. The next gladiator came forth, claws bared - a scorpion. I don’t remember how big it was, they all look giant when they come scuttling along like an armored robot, tail wagging. Now I had my feet drawn up under me in the chair while John bashed it with some firewood. I looked around uneasily and now the sand around us had come alive with bugs. There were all kinds of beetles and spiders that had emerged, seemingly from nowhere and marching all over our camp. It was just like an Indiana Jones Movie. Even if these insects were harmless, I was uncomfortable with their numbers. The tent was looking better and better.
I was just about to put on my tennis shoes when John exclaimed again, “hey, did you hear that?” Our eyes darted about, nervous about what was attacking next. I was hoping he was just messing with us at this point. The breeze had increased and the smoke was swirling about. John turned about in chair with the flashlight and shone the beam into the distance. It took some long seconds for us to realize that the huge rolling tumbleweed in the distance was Scott’s tent, with all his gear in it, headed out of town into the dunes. We all bolted from our chairs like starting blocks, racing madly after the tent as it tried to escape. I wore a headlamp, but it didn’t help much and I prayed that I didn’t step on something that would send me to the hospital as we all ran headlong in the night. The Keystone Cops were scrambling in the dark. The tent was pounced upon like a captured beast, and it was dragged ungracefully back to camp where it was restaked and tethered to Scott’s Jeep.
John found another scorpion and that was it, I pulled the plug on the evening to go hide in the tent. As I readied for bed, I was so paranoid that I kept my headlamp pointed directly at my feet. I found more scorpions peppered in with the spiders and beetles. I had never seen anything like this place, it was prolific with creepy crawlers and venomous things. Literally enough to make one’s skin crawl and I hastily kept brushing off imaginary things I thought I felt while I fumbled with my toothbrush. I couldn’t zip the tent up fast enough, but you better believe I made sure it was fully closed. The tent proved to be a reliable encapsulated refuge from the critters, and I finally fell asleep regardless of the nylon slapping in the wind. However, the insults were not over. I woke up in the middle of the night because of a strange tingling sensation on my face. Yes, it freaked me out, but it was only sand. It was really hot and I was sleeping on top of my sleeping bag – completely dusted with sand. The wind was still blowing and the sand blowing close to the ground jetted directly under the edge of the rain fly, where it filtered through the tent’s mesh and sprinkled down upon us. I was sleeping under a giant flour sifter. It was horrible and there was nothing we could do about it – our Jeep is topless. With the full moon above us, it took some time to fall asleep again in our gritty bed with nature’s street lamp full blaze. John won the prize for the most suffering; he was sleeping on a cot without a tent. Once the sand began to blast, he was forced to burrow down into his bag despite the intolerable heat. “ It was a thousand degrees in there” he said. Everything inside our tent had been sand coated (it took me 3 hours later that week to beat it out of the sleeping bags). “You called it.” Steve admitted. An empty victory. A small dune had formed on the windward side of the tent. Our mood was much like that of weary disaster survivors having taken a beating – only speaking when necessary. There wasn’t much point in stating the obvious. This is a great time to point out why many DE leaders perform pre-runs of trips; not necessarily to identify great locations, rather, where NOT TO GO. Scratch Cadiz Dunes off the list of potential camping stops.
Alas the Desert Gods were not finished with us yet – Steve emerged from sleeping in the sand trap to discover he had a flat tire to change. My typical wanderlust had evaporated and I could hardly wait to exit of this nightmare and go home. There wasn’t much dallying in packing up and rolling out. Steve & I hadn’t traveled more than a mile when we realized our friends were not behind us. We found John and Scott immobile and disassembling the air cleaner on John’s Jeep; I could still see Cadiz Dunes laughing behind us. Thus began a series of roadside repairs as the group limped home. Obviously, Laughlin had hosted an Harley Davidson event because we were constantly overtaken by herds of thundering motorcyclists. We competed for available space with them at each gas stop. It took us the entire day to travel home. Thankfully, it is rare that so many adversities converge on the same trip. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, when they are good, they are good indeed…but when they are bad, they are horrid!