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Desert Companion

Finding a needle in the desert

I was hungry. And so ready for fajitas.

“We have to go back,” my companion said. 

I looked at him, standing helplessly next to the parked car, and decided he was crazy.

“It’s a big key,” he said matter-of-factly. “We’ll see it.”

That was true — it was a big, expensive, black plastic lump of electronics. But we’d have better luck at high-stakes slots than we would spotting a lost car key in high desert foothills.          

“We need help.” I ticked off the list: 1) Locate one of the Spring Mountain park rangers; 2) Convince him or her to drive us to the Red Rock casino; 3) Hail a taxi at the casino and head to the Strip; 4) Find a car rental on the Strip; 5) Drive to the Mazda dealership in Henderson; and 6) Replace the car key.

He was already adjusting his backpack.

“It could be anywhere,” I pleaded. “We weren’t on a trail.”

“No,” he said. “We weren’t on a trail.”

That was my fault. I’d made a wrong turn onto a burro track and plunged through the scrub where we’d wandered in the maniacal heat. At one point I’d tripped and fallen into a cholla cactus, a deceptive breed that looks soft, almost furry.

7) Take a desert hiking class. 8) Remove cacti spines from flesh with tweezers.

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“Let’s go.” He marched toward the trailhead with a spring in his step. “We’ll start at the end and retrace our path backwards.”

Now I was certain he was mad. No way could we pick the gully out of open scrub going backwards — you’d need an expert tracker from an aboriginal tribe to do that, one who could pinpoint a smudge of sunblock on a juniper sprig.

9) Order tracking book from Amazon. 10) Watch YouTube hunting videos featuring indigenous tribes.

The only sensible approach was to retrace our steps from the beginning — I couldn’t imagine any other hope of finding the exact spot where we’d scaled the crumbling gully wall on all fours.

“I don’t think it’s in the gully,” he said. “I think it fell after we’d crossed the creek.”

Ah ... the creek. That was about an hour from the end, at about the point when thunder slammed, lightning speared, and the shrill whistle from a ranger’s station reverberated against the mountain slopes. I figured water + lightning = danger, so I’d sprinted away from the creek, down the official state-park trail we’d finally identified amid clumps of exhausted yucca. But the storm moved south, away from our heads.

10) Review safety procedures for desert storms.

My companion was methodically examining every hunk of flora as we shuffled along, nudging the grasses with his toe.

11) Buy metal detector.

“No one has been up this trail but us.”

He was right about that. While the adjacent Red Rock National Conservation Area attracts a steady stream of outdoorsy locals, the more modest Spring Mountain Ranch State Park is often empty. Families barbecue near the grassy field where the one-ton cow Matilda grazes, and they marvel at the spiffy ranch house where Howard Hughes once hung his hat, but few of them lope through the parcel, let alone set off cross-country through the foothills.

“This is the wrong path again,” I announced. “I can’t see the torso boulder anymore.”

12) Leave a trail of sunflower seeds as you go. 13) Learn the exact names of local landmarks.

We reversed, started out again, and once more after that. My muscles ached from an overzealous workout at the gym the day before.

14) Do not set the elliptical trainer at level twelve.

I grumbled along, my eyes dutifully scanning the rocky soil for the darn key. I was tired. Very hungry. I hadn’t topped off my water bottle at the fountain in the parking lot. The cholla spines, lodged in my thigh, pricked with each step. I could feel my irritation rising with the temperatures.

15) Ascertain if creek water is safe to drink. 16) Pack aspirin or mood-elevating supplement in first-aid kit. 17) Bring first-aid kit.

Eventually we returned to the luscious hollow at the creek where we rested, once again, in the shade. The desert has countless unexpected beauties, but perhaps none are more enchanting than its hidden waters. The creek at Spring Mountain Ranch is banked by fern and cottonwood. Several varieties of wildflowers, some as bright as copper pennies, carpet the soil. Coyote and fox, hare and sheep, leave footprints in the mud. But neither the idyllic scene nor the gentle balm of humidity could brighten my mood.

18) Food.

“It’s no use,” I said. “We’re never, ever going to find the key.”

But he was already shambling through the greenery.

“You’re insane!” I listened as the sound of his footsteps faded. Then all I could hear was the hypnotic melody of running water.

19) Learn to identify plant species. 20) Go to REI and spend a fortune on picnic gear. 21) Register at a Zen-do.

“I found it!”  he shouted through a bank of chlorophyll.

I went to look. The key lay in the middle of the path like an abandoned orphan from Area 51, its high-tech bulk clumsily contrasting with reddish fragments of Jurassic sandstone. We stared silently — the moment deserved some respect. Then his hand scooped the key up and shoved it deep in a pocket just as the thunder rumbled above the mountains.

21) Trust the trustworthy.

“No need to run,” he said.

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