Ascending and Descending the Banjo
In my case this means climbing the Banjo: the lowest and, frankly, the most hospitable of the Granite Mountains. I just have to go up to this place where nowhere ever goes. A place where the bobcats, mustang, and pronghorn all go about their affairs without ever having to worry about humans. Even the most determined and experienced hunters never bother to climb more than a third of the way up the Banjo. It simply isn’t worth it. The ascent and descent are treacherous: just one step below true mountain climbing. Quads and Jeeps can’t make it. Few horses have the stamina to make it, either. Game has plenty of places to hide that far up in the mountains. The Banjo is an enormous lump, a Cerrito of hundreds of large hills stuck together at odd angles. The entire mess is crisscrossed with ravines and gullies that run straight down from its top to its bottom. It’s difficult to see what lies a thousand yards ahead of you, and almost impossible to see what’s a thousand yards behind. It contains countless groves with a few dozen trees each, as well as half-a-dozen thick, primordial forests of aspens that have never felt the bite of a settler’s axe.
If a hunter is lucky enough to bag an antelope or a deer under these conditions, there’s still the daunting prospect of taking it back down the mountain on his shoulders or back. It’s an even more discouraging proposition when one also considers the fact that it is impossible to safely descend the Banjo without the help of a spiked walking stick or staff.
The mountain is simply too steep.
For those of you unfamiliar with the local geography, the Granites are a short but extremely tall mountain range located in northwestern Nevada. To be even more specific, they’re located directly behind my ranch. The Granite’s are cold, windswept, uninhabited, and tower up to a distance of over 9,200 feet above sea level. Their only residents are a few homesteads clinging tenaciously to their lower foothills (such as mine). They are impassible in most places. Their only visitors are hunters in the winter, cattleman in the summer, and the occasional masochistic backpacker such as myself.
The lowest and easiest to climb of these mountains is the Banjo. This isn’t to say that it either low or particularly easy to climb. These things are a matter of scale, after all.
Although Tina has gamely hiked up into the Banjo with me before, this wasn’t an urge she felt any particular urge to scratch. It is a hard, unforgiving tick to pull out of your flesh. Climbing that mountain is dangerous, cold, and uncomfortable. You have to have a sort of queer mentality to think that it’s worthwhile thing to do at all. So for companionship I took our boarder collie Snap and Michelle, our McNabb-Collie-Coyote-What-Have-You mutt of a thousand types. Since the Weather Channel indicated that it wouldn’t get any colder than 48-degrees that Saturday night, I decided to askew the use of either a sleeping bag or a tent and “light pack,” bringing just a tarp, a blanket, and a sheet. For a walking stick I borrowed Tina’s cleverly constructed Survival Staff: an easily disassembled metal rod that comes equipped with various different optional screw on tips. For a weapon I took my Henry AR7 Survival Rifle. Not exactly the greatest weapon in the ever created, but it has the twin advantages of weighting next to nothing and being practically indestructible.
As the sun came up above the desert Snap and I shouldered our packs, gathered up Michelle, said goodbye to Tina, and headed out. Yep: you heard me right. Snap wears a pack when he goes camping. Some dogs are capable of wearing a pack and some aren’t. Border collies are one of the breeds that can. In Snap’s case that pack is a harness-saddlebag combo manufactured by a company called Outward Hound. Pretty cute, huh? He can carry about three to five pounds. This generally means dog food for himself and Michelle, some snacks, and maybe some light items.
Before you begin to think that I’m being cruel: Snap likes carrying a pack. It’s a job, and boarder collies as a breed need to have jobs. It makes them feel “grown up” and important, since it’s something they’ve seen humans doing. As an experiment I tried putting the same pack on Michelle, who’s a mutt (and a bit of a ferial mutt at that). She just ran around screaming “Get this off of me! Get this off of me!” then rolled around on the ground and tried to rip it off with her teeth. So it wasn’t much of a success.
This brings me to an interesting digression. Several people whom I deem to be more intelligent and better educated than myself have commented that I tend to assign unwarranted human motivations and characteristics to animals that they could not possibly have - especially to dogs. I’ve given this some thought and have come to the conclusion that these people aren’t looking at the situation correctly.
It’s reassuring to human beings to think that we don’t have precisely the same motivations as, say, a dog. And I’m not suggesting that we are all exactly alike. Dogs and humans have different ways of looking at the world, are motivated by different priorities, and correspondingly have different ways of handling the same situations. As Tina has commented on numerous occasions “Dog smart is not people smart.” BUT – and this is a big but – much of our desire to see ourselves as superior to animals is simply hubris. We ARE animals. Genetically we aren’t even that dissimilar from dogs. I can tell you from living in close quarters with dogs, cats, and (God help me!) starlings now that we all have our particular likes and dislikes. We all have separate personalities. We get cranky and develop prejudices against individuals or groups that we don’t like, get excited by things others don’t understand, and develop peculiar tastes in edible things that don’t appeal to anyone else.
Perhaps most poignantly, we all have nightmares.
At the very least I know that dogs have nightmares. Which must mean that they have anxieties in the same manner as human beings do. At least a couple times each weak I have to wake Michelle up from a nightmare and comfort her. When Snap was younger I used to do the same thing for him. I’ve noticed cats having what I believe to be nightmares. I’ve even God help me noticed the starling having what I think was probably a nightmare. If you’re capable of anxiety, that makes you a person. Which means your motivations can’t be that much different from mine.
In any case, we set out. On the first leg of our hike we walked to where Barker Creek emerges from he ground. When I’m hiking in the desert in summer I judge distances based on locations where the dogs can drink. Though I can (and do) share the water I’m carrying with them, it’s much easier on everyone if we stop at places where they can refresh themselves. Between the oasis that contains Barker Spring and Barker Creek - it’s subterranean brother that flows straight to my property – and the foot of the Banjo are a couple of miles of particularly bleak, harsh, and waterless scrubland. This face of this plateau is occasionally scarred by gullies that lead a hundred feet down to creek beds that are sometimes filled with muddy water. These are a little tricky to transverse but, as I was reasonably certain that one of the larger ones I had explored before had a bit of marsh at its bottom, I decided to try traveling along it so that the dogs would have a constant source of water to drink. This was difficult, as anywhere there is water in the desert there is also abundant life, and in the case of a gully this means thickets and tall grasses that it is difficult to pass through. The dogs – as always overjoyed to be on any sort of adventure – ran up and down the sides of the gully, pausing occasionally to drink or wallow in the thick mud at its bottom. Just as often, however, they ran from one ridgeline to the other like skateboarders in an abandoned swimming pool.
About half way between Barker Creek and the base of the Banjo Snap ascended to the top of a ridgeline, froze, and began yelling at something. Whatever it was wasn’t backing down – and he wasn’t backing down either – so Michelle and I scurried up the slope to join him as quickly as we could. He easily beat me to his side and, freezing in place, also began to stare at whatever it was. Snap stopped barking. They both stared at something silently. But when I finally scrambled to the top there was simply nothing there. I looked out into the ocean of sagebrush and couldn’t see a thing.
“Huh.” I thought to myself. And, like an idiot, I paid it no mind.
We reached the base of the Banjo without further incident and began our ascent. My goal was to reach the three-quarter mark before three in the afternoon so that I could set up camp and still have time to scale to the top where the snows were. Even in June there are noticeable patches of snow on the top of the mountain and, for reasons that I still don’t clearly understand, I wanted to go look at it. But I had never been that high and I didn’t really know what to expect.
So we climbed from grove to grove, pausing so that the dogs could drink while I pumped filtered water into my depleted camel pack. Soon the going got incredibly steep. It would have been entirely impossible without the use of my spiked staff. At first signs of human visitation were relatively common: boot prints along game trails, the odd shotgun shell, or the odd obviously shorn hoof print. But after a while this tapered off a stopped, indicating that we had traveled beyond the first third of the mountain’s face. This was farther up the mountain than I had ever gone. I quickly noticed something at this altitude that had never been obvious from the lower elevations or the valley below. From down below the Banjo appears to be a rounded, undulating collection of hills gradually making its way toward a ridge. But this is an optical illusion. The Banjo is really a series of sheer steps that have the appearance at a distance of being gradual and round. These vertical hillsides are almost unnavigable and completely obscure your view of the plateaus above. You honestly can’t tell what is one or two hundred yards in front of you.
Rounding each ledge is a surprise. Sometimes there’s a small grove of trees, sometimes a stream, sometimes there’s an incredibly beautiful field of purple and yellow wild flowers, and sometimes there is nothing. Nothing but sand and rock.
As I was spending much of the climb literally facing the ground in front of me, I began noticing something else as well. A small plant that looked incredibly like an onion grew everywhere. Plucking one I broke its stem and realized that it smelled like an onion too. It’s root even looked like a tiny onion when you pulled it up, so I decided to run three out of four of the poisonous plant tests. First, I smelled the plant carefully to see whether it emitted the scent of almonds. It didn’t – it smelled like onion. Then, I cut a section of its root open and rubbed it against my skin. Generally a poisonous plant will cause the skin to inflame within about an hour. It didn’t. Then I sliced up a tiny bit of the bulb, put it into my mouth, chewed it thoroughly, and spat it out. A poisonous plant usually tastes bad. Even mild exposure to its contents should make the consumer slightly ill within a couple of hours. Instead, it tasted delicious and I felt fine.
These plants became more and more common until I reached a grove where they substituted for grass, carpeting the ground between the trees to form a wonderful (if oniony) sylvan glade. I got on my radio and called down the mountain to Tina. I asked her to go into our library and see if there was any record of an onion native to this area. A few minutes later she reported back to me that there was a native species called the Aspen Onion that grows in the same terrain as Aspen trees and is completely edible. So, I ate this wonderful tasting plant straight out of the ground during the ascent. It doesn’t store well, quickly becoming rubbery and difficult to eat. But if you stick to pulling them straight out of the ground and consuming them, aspen onions are delicious, filling, and the mountainside is covered in them.
After several hours of steady climbing, the dogs and I reached a very pretty little plateau that contained a glade and a fast-moving stream. A perfect place to pitch camp: perhaps 400 square feet of wet, soft grass on damp ground surrounded on all sides by healthy, shade-giving aspen trees with a couple of large fallen ones for firewood. The idea behind this venture was to camp in a minimalist style, so I quickly began fashioning a lean-to using fallen branches and a spool of twine I had brought with me. When it was complete I stretched a simple top over the top to give us protection from the wind as well as any sudden rain showers that might occur. Then I dug a pit for a small fire and lined it with stones to help increase the amount of heat it put out.
With our preparations complete, Snap and I removed our packs and the three of us continued our hike to the snow. It was warm out – at least 80-degrees – so hiking without packs was a great relief. Up and up we ascended until we had reached the level of the Banjo that held its choking, primordial forests. We passed entire sections of trees that had been smashed by spring landslides like so many matchsticks. We maneuvered around thickets so dense that that the dogs hesitated to explore them. Finally, after two hours of climbing, we pushed our ways through a thicket of young aspens to emerge onto a field of June snow glistening in the sunlight. Delighted, Snap and Michelle charged ahead, nipping at one another in unbridled enthusiasm as they ran across the field of incongruous white.
Having only two legs to work with I slipped and slid my way after them, trying to steady myself using a combination of my walking stick and the odd stunted tree. All of this was for naught, as Snap tackled me from behind and sent the both of us sliding down the hill in a tangle of snow, branches, human, and dog. Laughing, I regained my feet and the two of us made our way to the center of the field where Michelle awaited us with her tail wagging and brown eyes filled with amusement. Squatting down I made small snowballs which my canine companions ate eagerly, thirsty and dehydrated despite the enormous amount of frozen water surrounding us on all sides. The wind grew still, and with it the forest beneath us. All became quite and serene.
There was a sudden loud “snap” as a branch broke somewhere below us. Both dogs paused, staring intently down into the forest at something I could not see. They did this for some time. They looked worried.
“Huh.” I thought to myself. And, like an idiot, I paid it no mind.
Feeling a bit nervous and foolish by my dog’s skittish behavior I decided to make my way back to our camp for the evening. It was an easy decent, although I got repeatedly sidetracked by my inability to see more than a few hundred yards ahead of me. We ended up in a gully that I had never been in before, with the dogs predictably wandering out and ahead of me. Coming upon its crest, I found them nervously pacing around a boulder. It was a nice-looking piece of stone perfectly placed to give anyone standing atop it great view of the mountain below. It was also covered in fresh urine of some sort. Snap kept sniffing and pacing, sniffing and pacing, whining a bit as if worried about something.
“Huh.” I thought to myself. And, like an idiot, I paid it no mind.
After wandering around for a bit we finally found “our” grove. I gathered firewood for a half an hour or so, then settled down to cool dinner (or, to be more specific, to heat up MRE’s). Uncharacteristically after such a strenuous day, the dogs refused to eat. It grew colder, and colder, and colder, the temperature dropping below the Weather Channel’s promised 48-degrees before the sun had fully disappeared behind the Granites. By 10 PM it was well below 35. The three of us shivered in a clump beneath the lean-to, Michelle lying so close to the fire that I became worried she would actually burn herself. Still, even underdressed in the cold, being the center of a clutch of dogs near a fire has its advantages. I began to mercifully fall asleep.
11:30: “Wake up!” Snap yelled in my ear, and then charged off into the dark yelling. The fire had died down to smoking coals, giving off even more heat than before but no light. Cursing, I called my errant border collie back, and then stocked the fire into a blaze once more.
12:00: After a bit, I began drifting off to sleep once more, only to wake up with a start as Snap barked directly into my ear before vanishing into the night. Annoyed, I yelled until he came back, and then built the fire back up again.
12:30: It happened a third time before I began to understand the pattern. Snap didn’t want to fire to go out. Or, to be more specific, he didn’t want the light produced by the fire to go out.
“There is no such thing as a dog-eating monster.” I scolded him. “Lie down and try to get some sleep.”
13:00 I awoke to what sounded like a ferial housecat shouting through a bullhorn from a few dozen yards away. A dog (and people) eating monster. A mountain lion.
“Dog-eating monster!” screamed Snap, charging into the brush to challenge it.
“Dog-eating monster!” screamed Michelle, who promptly ran in the opposite direction. I fell from my blanket cursing, one foot in the fire as I desperately scrambled about in the darkness in search of my rifle. Finding it at last I hurried to my feet, chambered a round, and peered out into the darkness. I couldn’t see a thing. What the hell was I supposed to do? Shoot randomly into the brush? And shoot one of my dogs?
Shivering from more than just the cold I called them back. Michelle returned first, looking vaguely embarrassed. Snap returned a few moments later looking smugly pleased with himself. I built the fire up as big as I could, and resolved to stay up for the rest of the long, cold night.
And to always listen to Snap when I go camping on the Banjo.