HIKING & CLICKING (March & April 2017)

Changing the Way We Hike
Wow, wow, wow! Even after 3 months, our heads were still spinning from the many ways that hooking up with the Coachella Valley Hiking Club had transformed our trail experiences. A day didn’t go by that we didn’t say “Isn't this amazing!" and increasingly, for unexpected reasons.

Opportunities & Challenges
Poles 101
Leading several poorly attended hikes for novices created an unexpected opportunity to help others, especially women, substantially improve their confidence on the trails. Unplanned, I gave a “Poles 101” session for 3 people on a Club hike. Clearly, these hikers didn’t know how to maximize their use of poles. I began with the basics, like lengthening BOTH sections of their poles; selecting the best length, particularly for descending; and shortening the straps to reduce fumbling.  

These dainty Parish's Onion felt like a trophy find.
When appropriate, I wove these pole basics and optimal descending gait and posture tips into the other hikes I lead. It was a joy to see one senior woman transformed from an anxious, tentative descender like I had been and had witnessed so many times, into someone who succeeded in actually trotting down the rockiest segments of a steep trail. It was truly amazing to be a part of her rapid transformation over the course of 2 short hikes and to see the joy and relief on her face.

Even Keel
We came back from leading several hikes shaking our heads in disbelief with what had unfolded and simultaneously, being grateful for all of our life experience. One woman abruptly puked on the trail; another was sitting down and putting her head between her knees; and on yet another hike, 1 restless person wanted to dart ahead while 2 of the other 3 with colds, wanted to turnaround and go back, none of which Club rules would allow them to do unescorted.

“Thank goodness I’m taking B3” I thought with a silent chuckle. The anti-anxiety effect that some people experience with the vitamin dampens my reactiveness. Because of it, when 3 of our 4 hikers were on the verge of bolting in opposite directions, I could calmly give and receive information instead of immediately intervening or making a decision. Like often happens when building in a little pause, in that instance, we eventually were back on the trail as a group and 2 women exchanged phone numbers when back in the parking area.

I thought these Desert Sand Verbena were invasive because they grew along sandy roadways.
Our life experience was very reassuring to the puking woman because I’d had a single, similar episode and Bill had had 2. Hers proved to fit the pattern: it was surely some airborne substance that triggered her nervous system to send out an alert via her gut. 

My episode was the only 1 with an obvious noxious substance, which was a tank of pesticides emitting a strong odor near our Mesa Verde campsite. We implemented the remedy with our hiker that had worked for us in the past, which was to quickly move away from the area when one of us pukes for no apparent reason. Our hiker promptly recovered like we had done, and her repeated comments of “I don’t know what happened but I’m fine” were confirmed by her easily completing the remaining 2 hours on the trail in 90 degree heat. 

It was a no-brainer to us early on that our weary woman that eventually resorted to putting her head between her legs was most likely suffering from a lack of sodium. Likewise, it was no surprise when she finally accepted our many offers of Gatorade that she instantly perked up. “It tastes so good” was yet another confirmation. She commented that she’d never liked the taste of Gatorade in the past, which we understood. Twenty-five years ago, our mantra was “If you need it, Gatorade tastes good; if you don’t, it tastes awful.” That resonated with her and we spent the rest of the hike discussing fluids, electrolytes, and the current conflicting views on optimal sodium intake.

In addition to our hike leader episodes, during our first month with the Club, Bill participated in the care of a hiker who fell and had to be air lifted out and a couple weeks later, he helped an unfit hiker that also likely needed a swig of Gatorade. By his 8th Club hike that we didn’t lead, Bill had assisted in the care of 3 ailing hikers. 

Bill’s third intervention was on our last big hike with the Club as followers. Bill had to literally pull an experienced hiker off the trail into the scant shade and say “I’m going to sit here with you and we’ll eat lunch together.” She was having a melt down, declined more polite offers of food and water, and Bill had to forcefully tell her how it was going to be. The hike leader that day ‘forgot’ about lunch, which was the last straw for this woman. After their half hour R&R, she was able to complete the remainder of the all-uphill hike. Once again, we felt like we were getting excellent practice in applying our broad knowledge base when on the trails.

The main lessons learned by us as newbie hike leaders were that it is a short list of reasons why a hiker usually gets into trouble; it’s relatively easy to decide what the problem is; and implementing the solution in others is extremely difficult. When people feel bad, they don’t make good decisions and if it becomes critical, they have to be told in no uncertain terms what they are going to do. We learned that lesson for ourselves years ago and decided that if for no other reason, that’s why one shouldn’t travel alone by bike. It’s safer if someone else can point it out to you early on when you are crashing metabolically. (Interestingly, the Club’s #1 reason for air-lifting a hiker out is heart attack, which didn’t happen this season).

The non-cedar Pygmy Cedar require very specific soil conditions.
Gaia Games
A nice finale to our engagement with the Club was Bill giving me and 2 other women a 2-session course in the use of his favorite navigation phone app, Gaia. I volunteered him when Jan and Bonnie joined me on our favorite hike halfway to the Palm Springs tram. Most of the Club members were loyal Garmin users, but after experience with 2 different Garmin models and several apps, Bill switched to Gaia for navigation and never looked back. 

Bill had about 10 years of intense experience with navigation tools and any talk of “Maybe I should get a Garmin” had me touting the glories of Gaia even though I didn’t use it. When I heard that comment during our trail lunch, I offered up Bill, who wasn’t yet able to hike post-op, as an instructor to the 3 of us in using Gaia. It would be a triple win: I would finally learn how to use the app, as would Bonnie and Jan who weren’t using any GPS, and teaching us would further consolidate and reframe Bill's storehouse of knowledge about GPS systems.

Bill was his usual gracious self when he learned that I had volunteered his services. A few days later, the 4 of us were sitting around a rickety card table in our RV park party room downloading a hike map after working at a charity hike in the morning. After an indoor session, we looked like zombies staring at our phones while we shuffled around the RV park watching the directional arrows on our phone screens flip when we stopped. That little arrow flipping-phenomena which had been a non-issue for experienced Bill, threw us novices into a tizzy, forcing Bill to quickly learn a little feature on the app to simplify it for us.

After a total of 2 hours with Gaia, the technically challenged zombies were on overload and Bill proposed a trail experience for the previously unplanned Lesson #2. Five days later, Bill had us trudging up the Oswit Canyon wash, making a track on Gaia of our route and dropping a way mark where he stashed a water bottle. We hiked on, Bill answering more questions on the way. The final challenge was to locate the waypoint marking the site of the water stashed in the undergrowth while taking a different trail back to our cars.

Everyone’s confidence skyrocketed during the 2 hour trail session. Bonnie, Jan and I knew that we’d be able to reinforce our new skills on upcoming hikes and Bill was pleased to have been successful in advancing all 3 of us. I was especially satisfied to further one of my passions, which is to increase the confidence of older women on the trails. In the process, we all learned a little bit more about our phones. Bill immediately looked forward to refining his introduction to Gaia with another small group next winter.

Weeks later, Canterbury Bells like this would be 2' high & in big clusters.
A month later, another opportunity for next season loomed large, which would be teaching interested Club members how to augment their Gaia tracks with attached photos and text. The need arose when we participated in one of the Club’s coveted hikes, which is actually a scramble up Rattlesnake Canyon in Joshua Tree National Park. Only one or 2 hike leaders currently can locate the tricky passage ways and the primarily route leader lamented the difficulty others were having in learning the track. Bill accepted my challenge of working out the technical issues for documenting the route and making it available on the Club's Hike Achieves.

“It’s Begun.”

Wow, wow, wow! Halfway through our hiking season with the Club, stunning wildflowers began popping in one’s and two’s. The much anticipated, predicted, and hoped-for Super-Bloom was on. It was a lucky payback for all that unseasonably wet weather we’d practically had to paddle through.

I made our weekly big hike towards the tram alone on February 8th and found my first Canterbury bells plant around the 3500’ level. It was more than a month before they started making a timid appearance in the 400’ valley, at which time they were already growing much taller and carpeting some areas of the mountain. 

It was a similar story with the lovely Desert Chicory. I spotted a single plant at the 1700’ level on our neighborhood trail and then weeks later, they were everywhere. Germination and months later, blooming, typically start at the lower and warmer elevations and gradually work their way higher, so it was a head-scratcher when we were seeing the opposite pattern on our nearby Palm Springs trails. 

Desert Chicories were always fun to see on the trail.
Our RV park is situated at the very base of the steep San Jacinto Mountains, which resulted in our Palm Springs microclimate receiving far more rain than neighborhoods a mile away. Likewise, the higher up our mountain, the more rainfall there was. 

Wildflower seeds have large water requirements and we were told that the benefits of additional rain higher on the mountain than in the valley overrode the usual drag of the colder temperatures when it came to triggering this year’s blooms. It flew in the face of the conventional wisdom, but the staggered waves of blooming from higher elevations to lower ones confirmed this unusual pattern week after week on our favorite trail. 

Delightfully, we had some of the best displays anywhere in the region on these south facing trails right out our door. During our Gaia session, we’d trekked up the nearby, low, Oswit Canyon touted as “the” place to see wildflowers but were unimpressed. They were out in quantity, but there were less than half of the species we been seeing on our higher trails. We’d typically see 50+ species on our weekly San Jacinto hikes.

Finicky Flowers
Super-blooming annuals, the most sought-after presentation of wildflowers, are very persnickety: they demand that the annual rainfall, or more, occurs in the winter months in a region where summer monsoons normally dump the bulk of the precipitation. Ideally, there will be significant rain in October and over an inch of rain in both November and December that falls as a single downpour or within 24 hours. In addition, they want to be watered in each of the following 3 months. The Desert Lily's have one more requirement: a soaking rain that penetrates to their bulbs, which are 12-15” below the surface. 

Palm Springs barely got it, Borrego Springs 90 miles to the South got it, and Mojave National Preserve 120 miles to the North didn’t. They all received winter soaking rains but Mojave National Preserve started too late—in December. The Palm Springs area received enough rain for the annuals but the abrupt halt at the end of February was expected to leave the later blooming cacti a bit short of what they needed unlike the Preserve, which was expecting a stellar cactus and yucca bloom. 

The imposing Blue Sage perennial dominated the landscape at the Mojave National Preserve.
The November and December soaking rains trigger seeds to germinate, and then the new plants wait and wait some more in a flat-leafed, rosette phase for the right conditions to bloom. Not every species will go gangbusters in a given great year because they have different needs. Cool, not cold is just right for some; warm but not hot, for others. Timing of the rain, both sequence and duration, is everything when it comes to nurturing these show-offs.

Mojave Preserve did however have an impressive display of less water-dependent perennials in early April. The showy, purple-colored, Blue Sage was new to us along with a couple of species of Golden Bush. I didn't recognize the Turpentine Brooms that were loaded with little fruits but only a few lingering blossoms. I’d seen my previous, single specimen in mid-February in Palm Springs, which was just beginning to bloom. At about 4,000’ higher in the Preserve, I was surprised that the blooming interval for these brooms had come and gone so quickly.

Super-Bloom Politics

Hiking buddies from the Club had made the trek south to Borrego Springs to see the Super-Bloom there touted by the "Washington Post" and the first comments were always about the crowds, not the flowers. Long lines on the roads and at the toilets as well as sold-out groceries and gas made the biggest impression.

Bonnie, who had joined us on our nearly weekly big hike from 400' to 4800’, confirmed my suspicion that the Palm Springs show we were seeing was better because of the greater diversity that resulted from the wider elevation spread.

Unexpectedly, we made the trek ourselves to Borrego Springs to join a 4 night getaway sponsored by a volunteer organization for which we were doing some trail work. Intended as a social opportunity for us, it was an abysmal failure. I’d also hoped to pick the brains of the wildflower pro’s on their slow-paced, easy hikes but that didn’t happen either. But we did 2 nice hikes on our own, our one-and-only with wildflower books in hand, and made our first bike ride in over 3 months. We did find a few trophy flowers to add to our flower albums and confirmed for ourselves that we’d been seeing a better overall display in Palm Springs.

The Paper Bag Bush itself looked like so many others but the flower & seed sack were unique.
I’d wondered if politics played a part in declaring Super-Blooms when Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley were getting no press and Borrego Springs was. I’d wondered if it took state or federal park officials making the declaration to be taken seriously. Palm Springs was always highly motivated to draw more tourists but perhaps they lacked the credibility to make such a declaration. Regardless, it was clear to me that the best wildflower venues weren’t necessarily the most publicized ones.

It was when at Joshua Tree National Park that my guess that Super-Blooms had at least some political spin on them was confirmed. The botanist leading our wildflower field class said that the Park was indeed experiencing a Super-Bloom but that they didn’t want anyone to know. With all of the budget cuts imposed on the National Parks, they lacked the staff and infrastructure to support an even bigger influx of visitors, so they kept mum about their exceptional flowers.

Mylio Is “The Man"

Mylio is my new buddy that I viewed as a gigantic birthday bouquet from Bill. Bill's “No problem” response to my request for an app to organize our bloom finds electronically with captions quickly changed to “It’s a problem”. Bill spent most of his first post-op weekend evaluating app’s to create our own wildflower reference guide. By the end of the 48 hour period, he concluded than nothing less than the $100 per year professional program, Mylio, would do. Over the next few days, he trudged up the steep learning curve to make it usable. It wasn’t long until the $100 expense looked like a bargain for the function and flexibility it delivered.

Soon, Bill was prompted to resume use of the new, improved, Camera Plus app on his phone to deliver the professional quality, close-ups that we needed but they came at a price. The price was taking—and sorting-- dozens of shots of each flower, not knowing in the bright sun which would be keepers. Each shot was taken with a slight shift in focus to ensure capturing the desired detail. 

A month on, he had over 2500 photos sorted into around 200 albums with a single species per album and not long after that, the count was up to 4,000 photos in desperate need of culling. Our evolving reference guide rivaled the purchased books because we had zoom-able, multiple views of each flower whereas the books only offered a single shot. We quickly learned that to identify plants from photos, you needed close-ups of the flower from several angles as well as of the basal leaves and stem leaves. Amusingly, part way into this project of identifying and documenting over 200 species of flowers, I became exasperated by the inability to zoom and scroll on those invaluable but low-tech book photos.

Super Bloom: Going for the Yuck
Identifying wildflowers is maddeningly difficult. We took little workshops, bought books, flipped through books in stores, scoured online resources, tracked-down the most knowledgable park rangers, and snapped photos of identified specimens on nature trails and in store windows. I felt like a predator willing to do almost anything to name one more anonymous flower. I commonly spent an hour trying to identify a single flower and often gave-up in failure.

The ‘needle in haystack’ challenge of matching our flower photos with published ones was the worst but having the botanical names in a state of flux compounded my woes. DNA studies are throwing novice wildflower fans into chaos because the names are constantly changing. Even for amateurs like us, learning the family, genus, and species name is necessary to dodge the confusion triggered by multiple common names for a given plant. But the accelerating use of DNA analysis has almost made the common names look more stable. Plant families are being broken-up and the assigned family and genus names are being changed. Not all changes are immediately accepted and of course, one’s books don’t update. 

This Narrow Leaf Climbing Milkweed vine was a stunning find at Borrego Springs.
Even without the name changes, identifying flowers is wildly frustrating. Almost every time that I did a protracted identification session, I wallowed in “Yuck,” that groan-producing place that facilitates one’s brain becoming a ’super-ager’. 

Let me tell you some of the ways I’ve been fooled and frustrated by these flowers. There was that charming, bright red, little flower on a tidy, low bush that looked oh-so-identifiable but it eluded me. I searched for hours over several days and finally a “conundrums” page on someone’s blog revealed the answer, an answer the fellow had claimed by revisiting the plant weeks after his first sighting of it. The little red lovelies that we’d both admired weren’t flowers, they were buds, buds of the California buckwheat that explode into big, white pompoms and it was the pompoms that were in the books. 

I was fooled by another white flower’s photo in a book. Our first introduction to the Desert Alyssum in the field was as a ball-shaped, small shrub engulfed in a mass of tiny white flowers. An online reference eventually tipped me off and, sure enough, the plant was in my book but it was shown as a single, spindly stalk with a couple of widely spaced clusters of white flowers. And talking to 3 different Park Rangers at the Preserve about a plump-leafed ground cover yielded what were surely wrong labels for the plant. One was quite certain about the name but it was a complete mismatch with the photos published in books and online.

Only once, at Borrego Springs, did we haul our books with us to ID flowers in the field. Normally, we don’t suffer the extra weight and time requirement of the books but we had expected to hike with wildflower fanciers that day. It was far superior and very satisfying using the reference materials in the field versus trying to identify them at home from photos because there was always one more attribute to evaluate. Scent, texture, sap, secrets under a leaf, or other secondary qualities could only be assessed in the presence of the flower. 

We slowly learned to collect more data while on the trail, but it all took time. Hiking was our first priority and being thorough with the flowers was a huge time suck. On most hikes, we finally hit the point of ‘flower fatigue’ and passed some newbies by rather than take time to photo them. Always intended as “That’s it for today,” we usually relented and snapped a few more at the end of the hike.

Understandably, it was the Silverpuff's seed system shown, not the flower, in my books.
Far less often, there were incredibly lucky finds. The Narrow-Leafed Climbing Milkweed was one such discovery when we had the books with us. Bill was busy taking his usual 25 or so shots of the flower while I flipped through the pages of 3 books. Blam! There it was—a large, glorious photo staring at me that looked exactly like the specimen Bill was capturing. 

Another memorably easy find was the Silverpuff. Over the course of several hours of hiking, we’d seen a half dozen stunning specimens of a geodesic-dome-like seed carrier of which I never expected to link to plant. Even though I had no hope of naming it, I couldn’t resist taking photos along with Bill.

Going through a plant book one page at a time that evening, hoping to find matches for several yellow flowers, the globe’s portrait jumped out at me. The yellow flower of the plant was a blur in the background, with the seed system being featured. There was no mistaking that our experience was typical—that this structure was iridescent and was described as often being spotted from afar. The Silverpuff was one of a few easy finds in our books or online. A dozen or more flowers went unidentified for every easy match I made.

When Does It Peak?
A hiker asked us the question everyone wanted answered, including us, which was “When will the wildflower bloom be at its peak?” The innocent question finally hit me as being ridiculous because there was no single answer. 

We only saw the Scarlet Milkvetch in a single canyon until we traveled to Joshua Tree NP.
After watching the roll-out of the blooms for the previous 6 weeks from 150’ to over 5,000’ through the Coachella Valley where average rain fall amounts more than double from one end to the other, there obviously wasn’t one answer. Different species peak at different times and those times vary tremendously with the rainfall amounts, temperatures, and elevation. And then there were plants with very specific soil and drainage requirements.

As we noodled the question on a 95 degree day on a steep trail, we realized that first the definition of “peak” would need to be established: the number of blooms or the number of blooming plants; the number of species in bloom; and then Bill proposed flower color per square inch. Fortunately, we didn’t have to be the arbitrators on that one. “Bloom photo fatigue” could be a measure for us. On that day, we descended into solid fields of blooming lupines and sand blazing stars and were surrounded by hillsides turned yellow from millions of Brittlebush flowers—maybe that was our peak.

Hunting Snipe?

“Say ‘Yes’ to everything new this season” was our mantra after our initial success with the hiking club and the strategy carried over into wildflower events. A couple of days after arriving in Joshua Tree NP, we spent one day in the field with a retired botanist and the next day, it was a mix of class room and trails with a scientist fascinated by Native American plant use.

Originally an archeologist, the prof’s studies had broadened to plants over the decades. He was so engaged that he was teaching the local young adult tribal people the ancestral arts lost to them. He had samples of the juice from prickly pear cactus fruit, dried strips of young beaver tail cactus pads, and described the many yucca stalk roasts he had done for the public. His commitment to the Native American culture seemed slightly tinged with shaming, which was confirmed for me when I found myself snickering at the sight of him eating peanut M&Ms during the break. It was especially amusing because he never satisfactorily answered my question “But what was their big source of calories?"

This Mexican drug runner 'hitch-hiker' was withered for the day when we found it.
Another “Yes” was venturing out on something short of a snipe hunt. Our botanist for the previous day’s workshop had flapped his arms as vague directionals while saying “Drive 25 miles east of 29 Palms towards Clark’s Pass” and then something about dunes. There in the desert we would be treated to non-native desert cherry or tomatillo plants in bloom. They were remnants of Mexican drug-runner camps from the 1950s and ’60s. It seemed a waste of our precious time and yet it was a “When in Rome...” thing. Apparently botanists go wandering towards an arbitrary bush to see what they find along the way, so we decided to go do what he had done and see what he had found. 

Nothing new turned up from tromping around at the 25 mile point so we drove to the next paved pull-off, which was about 3 miles on. Bill stopped to photo yet another new flower and I headed out. In moments, I found fresh shoe prints in the sand. “At least there is a track to follow” emboldened me in the heat. 

Next, I spotted rusted tin cans interspersed with recent litter, the former fitting with the drug-runners story. Then “Pay dirt!”. I saw a dreaded, invasive Sahara mustard plant brutally pulled up by its roots and cast on the sand to die. It was a recent kill, perhaps only days old. We’d hung out with enough plant people in the last few weeks to recognize the spoils from their passionate but hopeless battle against the marauder. 

Uprooted & withering, Sahara Mustard plants were the 'bread crumbs' I followed.
Anytime I lost the track, I scanned for withered mustard plants and sure enough, their trail lead me to the trophy Desert Cherry. Warned that the blooms faded by 10 am each day, we weren’t surprised to find them withered at 10:30. Nonetheless, we were thrilled to turn our snipe hunt into an exotic find with a special history. 

Once In A Life Time?
The unseasonable uptick of the temperatures into the 90’s on the last 10 day forecast for our 3 month Palm Springs stay was predicted to intensify the wildflower show. We typically would move on to Albuquerque at that time for a month but opted instead to relocate near Joshua Tree National Park for about 2 weeks. There we’d be cooler, the RV rate was half of that in Palm Springs, we could scout and lead hikes for the Club in the Park, and we’d see a slightly different mix of flowers even if they weren’t so bountiful. Our 4 night excursion to Borrego Springs from Joshua Tree would stir even more flower varieties into the mix. It was a good enough plan that our stay extended to 3 weeks, including a drive into Palm Springs on the last day for one more look at the Super-Bloom on the trail to the tram. 

In the Coachella Valley, we'd had lupines, forget-me-nots, and several species of Phacelia lining the trails like low hedges plus dozens of other varieties on banks catching our eyes. Joshua Tree NP lacked the fields of flowers and dense patches of blooms but like in Coachella Valley, it was largely fully-upright flower viewing while walking, which was a perfect fit for our style. Of course, Bill had to crouch to use his special camera app for the gorgeous close-ups, but at least that was reserved for photo-taking and not discovery of belly flowers like in the Death Valley 2015 Super-Bloom.

We felt privileged and lucky to have indulged in 2 full months of an unfolding Super-Bloom in 4 different locations and had to wonder if it would be a once in a life-time event for us. I read that in Arizona, the old-timers as they put it, still speak of the big show back in ’41. Ours wasn’t in that league, but we were on overload as it was. If the hopeful predictions of another wet winter a year from now spurring another Super-Bloom was correct, we’d definitely extend our stay in the region again to wallow in Super-Bloom #2.