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Worth the Effort | Third Time #1

The Pahranagat Valley and its surrounding wilderness' have been my nemesis throughout 2023. I set out in January - nearly a year ago now - to follow the Pahranagat Trail in search of rock art that I'd discovered through the trip reports of other intrepid explorers. Ultimately - and luckily, quickly - I realized that without more information, I was searching for a needle in a haystack, so I headed east and south - to Utah and Arizona - where I discovered some of the most amazing rock art that I was not looking for.

Strike one.

Determined to succeed - or more likely... glutton for punishment - I hit the internets hard upon my return, searching for any additional information I could find. And, in a stroke of genius - or more likely... desperation - I filed my first (and I can only hope last), Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

That request was promptly denied. Apparently, understandably, and thankfully, FOIA requests do not allow our government to "release cultural resource site location information to the general public. This information is protected under National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), Section 304 (and subsequent DOI regulations and policy)."

I have to say - despite a very small amount of disappointment - I was mostly relieved that finding sensitive rock art wasn't FOIA easy.

Even so, some of my research seemed to lead (me to believe) that I knew were more of the rock art was located, and so once again it was back to the Pahranagat in June where we once again came up empty on the main site I was trying to find. It also turned out to be the trip where the memory card in my camera became corrupted, resulting in the complete loss of all my photos for the entire trip.

The Curse of the Pahranagat was certainly strike two.

And so, just as the year was set to expire, we headed back. This time, I'm armed with more memory cards. And more hints as to the location of a site that I've been trying to see for the better part of a year.

- - - - -

Twenty miles from the Big Rocks Wilderness, I suddenly applied the brakes and executed a sweeping u-turn in the middle of The Great Basin Highway (US-93). This - reasonably - caught @mrs.turbodb off guard, and she was suddenly alert in her seat and asking what was wrong.

Nothing was wrong, I'd just spotted something on the road.

Well hello, little lady.

Aren't you hairy?

I'm coming to get you!

By this point, she was well off the road, and I was just creating a scene.

That little bit of excitement behind us - it was only the second time we've found a tarantula in the wild, the first being a male that wandered into our camp site in the Owlshead Mountains of Death Valley - we began discussing our plans for the remainder of the day. Already nearing 4:00pm - and with sunset just after 6:00pm - we certainly weren't going to have time for the hike that would, hopefully, lead us to the rock art site I'd been searching for all year. However, it did seem as though we had enough time to visit a couple of nearby petroglyph and pictograph sites before heading to camp.

The Big Rocks Wilderness rises up in front of us.

The clouds were really adding to the landscape this afternoon.

Already knowing the location of the two sites we were planning to visit - discoveries we'd made by chance with a bit of wandering the last time we were here - it was simply a matter of remembering the correct series of turns in order to see them again.

It's amazing how different this site looks when the plants are all golden as opposed to in the spring when they are green!

Intricate carvings.

Wandering amongst the rocks, we could hear the rumble of afterburners overhead, our attention momentarily distracted as we searched the blue sky for the source. Naturally we were hoping for a show similar to the one we'd recently experienced , but alas, these iron eagles were nearly playing in the stars.

Interesting choice. Are these guys trying out for the Blue Angels?

Back in the moment, we picked our way amongst big rocks and up small hills until we reached the sun cave pictograph. I'm not even sure how I ever found this place the first time, but I definitely remember the excitement of the discovery.

C'mon now A.R., you know better.

So interesting how the author painted this sun around an existing hole in the rock.

After checking out a few more - but not-very-recognizable - pictographs in the cave, as well as some very faint petroglyphs on the outer surface of the stone - we headed back toward the truck and to a camp site we'd found in the Mecca area on our last visit.

"Paper" beats rock.

Heading into Mecca, named by rock climbers for the plentiful problems that abound.

As we were pulling into camp, an incessant rattle - that I'd been hearing since my adventure to Montana with Mike @Digiratus and Zane @Speedytech7 in October - was enough to get me out of the truck to try and figure out once and for all what was going on. It sounded like a skid plate, but I'd verified multiple times that all the bolts were in place, so I assured my adventure buddy that it must be something else when she suggested the same.

Of course, it was the skid plate.

The rear-most passenger bolt must have been loose for quite some time, allowing the skid plate to rattle but appearing OK at a cursory glance for quite some time. Then, at some point on our way to Big Rocks Wilderness, it fell out, finally obvious enough for yours truly to figure out the issue.

This is not the first time I've lost bolts on the skid plate, so a fix was as easy as digging out the last replacement I had in my kit - a reminder even as I write this that I need to pick up a few more - and threading it in. Easy peasy - the best kind of trouble.

My job done, it was time for a reward - dinner! With light fading fast - the sun now below the horizon - tacorittoes with guacamole were on tap and before long, @mrs.turbodb and I were all bundled up and enjoying a warm meal before heading up behind camp to catch the last light of the day.

Camp in the Big Rocks.

Sunset over the South Pahroc Wilderness.

Knowing that we had an early morning and a full day ahead, we weren't long for the world once the last of the light faded from the sky. Soon, we were brushing teeth and climbing into cold pajamas, shivering our way to warmth under the down comforters that would ultimately keep us toasty through the night.

It was nearly 8:00pm, and we were asleep.

The following morning...

Excited for what lay ahead, I was up bright and early - before sunrise - despite some seriously cold temperatures. Surprisingly, as I climbed one of the mountains of granite rocks around camp - expecting higher elevations to mean even chillier chills - the air around me started to warm. What is this sorcery, I thought, until I realized that we were probably camped in a small depression, and - we all know - cool air settles, with nowhere to go in this case!

Way to go man, a blurry photo of the alpenglow on camp.

To the south, the wilderness unfolded under the warm glow of morning.

Unlike a lot of mornings where I find myself hunting around for various vantage points, on this particular morning I was content to sit atop the perch I'd found and just watch the colors change. I spent half an hour up there, snapping photos now and then, reveling in how lucky we were to be able to get out and explore these places that so few see.

Which reminded me - I had no idea what the light on the petroglyph panel would be like throughout the day, and getting there required a trailless hike with who-knows-what kind of terrain, so it was probably a good idea to get back to camp and going on our way.

I'm not sure it was my whistling or the commotion I made as I stumbled my way back down the mountain that got @mrs.turbodb out of bed, but soon enough - 45 minutes after sunrise - we were packed up and on our way to the trailhead. It was 7:49am.

After donning our packs, making sure I had an extra battery for the camera, and wondering if we were wearing enough clothes, we parked near a seemingly random wash that seemed to go the same direction we were, and got underway.

At this point, we had no idea whether we'd find the rock art we were looking for - our track record for this particular panel clearly less than stellar to this point - so one of us was already mentioning how beautiful everything was as in order to lift my spirits should we not find our prize.

I knew she was right, but dang it if I still wanted the win.

As we slowly gained elevation, I noticed this cool overhanging boulder with a tafoni roof!

The last of the wildflowers before winter really sets in.
Hoary Tansy Aster (Dieteria canescens)

It's hard to describe the mixed emotions that coursed through our veins a little more than an hour later. As we arrived at the spot where we expected to find the petroglyph panel, a combination of elation - it was there (!) - and disappointment - it was covered in the dappled shadow of a nearby pinon pine, eliminating any chance of a photo - battled for our hearts.

I wanted the elation to win, we just needed to figure out how to change nature. You know, because we humans have done such a great job of changing it to this point.

We discussed several options - coming back the following morning, an even earlier departure allowing us to arrive before the sun peeked over the horizon, or hoping for better luck with a return trip later in the day. Ultimately neither of these were great options given the other places we planned to visit, but as I sat there in front of the panel, nature weighed in with her perfect solution. In those few minutes of quiet - just watching the shadow creep across the glyphs - I realized that given the location of the pine and the path of the sun, we'd only need to wait about an hour for the panel to be in full sunlight.

It was in that moment - before I'd even had a chance to see the result - that elation annihilated disappointment.

With an hour to enjoy, we decided to carry on - deeper into the wilderness - to see what we could find. After all, there were numerous boulders, caves, and ridges that would surely provide us with more to explore than we could ever accomplish in our short stints here on earth.

From a nearby ridge, and amazing view.

Not another soul in frame.


An hour later we returned to the rock we'd been searching long and hard to find. And it was glorious.

Third time's the charm.

In my research, one of the contacts I was the luckiest to have found, was someone who was familiar with the panel, and over the course of several conversations - which lasted many months - they shared this background with me, related to the panel:

  • One of the most prominent figures - a large, vertically aligned centipede-like glyph - has 29 horizonal legs on the left and 28 on the right, not including pincers on the top and bottom. Near noon during on the winter solstice, a shadow cast from the nearest southerly boulder aligns with the top of the centipede at about 12:20 PST. As the zenith of the sun rises, it is reasonable to assume that the shadow will align with the centipede legs on dates preceding and following the winter solstice.
  • At the same time - around noon on the winter solstice - there are two stick-bodied zoomorphs at the apex of the shadow, and three solid-body zoomorphs along an angle of the shadow, their positions making them appear to be running down a shadowy-mountainside.
  • The panel is not a public-facing readily seen display. Rather than facing the wide-open valley - an orientation that would allow it to be noticed by those passing by - it instead faces toward a closed space visible only from a limited area, implying that its purpose was a ritual one.

The centipede-like glyph associated with the winter solstice alignment (left).
A small slab - also covered in glyphs - that broke from the main boulder at some point (right).

Familiar symbols, their true meaning always a mystery.

Two deer, a comb, and a dude with earings.

We wondered what the "U" shaped glyph - which looked rather like fallopian tubes - was meant to represent.

A private viewing.

After enjoying the panel for a few more minutes, it was time to head back the way we'd come. As we did, the commotion of a bighorn sheep dashing away to our left - along the base of a rocky ridge - caught our attention as we quickly quieted our steps and hoped to catch a glimpse as we came around the corner. Unfortunately, those bighorns are cut out for this type of terrain, and the one we'd heard was nowhere to be seen.

If you can't see a bighorn, is this the next best thing?

Tiny house with good airflow.

As we neared the trailhead, I pulled out my phone to see if we had coverage. Surprised that I did actually have one bar, I made a quick call to ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮  to see if he was at work nearby - if he was, I wanted to stop by to meet in person and thank him for the various bits of information he'd shared in my journey to this special place. Alas, he was out, but we did have a pleasant conversation for a few minutes - a call that I think he was a little surprised, but very appreciative, to receive - before agreeing that I should certainly reach out the next time I was in the area so we could meet up then. Super cool dude, that's for sure!

And so, after returning to the trailhead and enjoying a lunch of turkey sandwiches and plain tortilla chips - which always taste better than we think they are going to - it was just after 12:30pm when we climbed into the Tacoma and set our sights on a location south of the Big Rocks Wilderness.

In my three trips to the Big Rocks Wilderness, I've driven fewer than half the roads, and hiked only a couple dozen miles. We will definitely be back!

But that's another story. One with its own surprises!





The Whole Story

- - - - -

The 2023 Pahranagat Trail Series


    JOHN D MORAN December 18, 2023

    Thanks for a wonderful adventure and more great photos. From experience I know that even the simplest food can taste much better out in the middle of nowhere than at home. As for that one glyph, human figure with a spiral near the head, maybe a warning that there is a crazy person in the area (LOL) or maybe not. Now I'm just sitting here watching for your next adventure and also for about 5 days of desert rain starting this afternoon (predicted). Not a good time to be out in our soggy/mushy terrain if the rain comes to pass.

    • turbodb
      turbodb December 18, 2023

      As always, I'm thrilled to hear you enjoyed the story and photos John. Desert rain can definitely be a bit of a bummer and make roads a challenge, but it sure seems like we need what we can get across the west these days! Of course, I'd be OK getting that "amortized over time," rather than all in one or two events like we did the last couple years. Still waiting for Death Valley to really open up again! (Not that I'm complaining about exploring other parts of the Mojave that I've neglected for the last few winters in favor of that fabulous National Park! 😉

  2. SonnyR
    SonnyR December 18, 2023

    Your trip reports are excellent and provide a lot of day dreaming material for the rest of us. Thanks for sharing your adventures.

    • turbodb
      turbodb December 18, 2023

      Thanks so much Sonny, it always puts a smile on my face to hear when folks are enjoying the stories. I have to admit that I also enjoy heading back through some of the past trips and reliving them again - always a nice way to escape the doldrums of winter!

  3. Rick Moore
    Rick Moore December 19, 2023

    Love your adventures and beautiful photos!

    • turbodb
      turbodb December 19, 2023

      Thanks so much Rick! Glad you enjoy the adventures and photos; it's always nice to give back a bit, since I feel like I see such great trip reports from others.

  4. Bill Rambo
    Bill Rambo December 24, 2023

    Great read and pictures! Y'all have a Merry Christmas!!

    • turbodb
      turbodb December 24, 2023

      Thanks Bill, hope you and your family have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year as well!

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