Conglomerate Mesa by Wano Urbonas
Welcome to what should be wilderness. It was Tuesday, April 20, the day before John Muir’s birthday. Despite a semi-retired pickup truck that protested against shifting into 5th gear, I arrived at the designated meeting spot on Saline Valley Road five minutes early. Tom was there waiting for me, as we shook hands and joked about Verizon disservice. I debated whether or not to lock my vehicle, as I hopped into Tom’s reliable Landcruiser. We had a half-hour of washboard road to handle, as Tom pointed out on a map the Inyo Mountains Wilderness, the Malpais Mesa Wilderness demarcation and, in between, the route that we would be taking towards Conglomerate Mesa.
Unlike the wilderness areas and national park east and west, Conglomerate remains unprotected by federal designations from threats such as industrial gold mining. And since this sliver of desert is relatively unknown, Tom is making it his mission to show folks that this forsaken place is worth saving.
We head first into the outermost section of Death Valley National Park, greet an extended family of Joshua trees, then veer north towards one of many unmarked boundaries between the official wilderness of Malpais and Conglomerate. One alien cigarette butt on the sand delineated our trailhead—a gritty reality check of the human attention this place has received. For the next five hours, eat dust, drink wind. There’s a reason that they coined the region ‘Malpais’—French and Spanish for ‘Badlands.’
With Tom as our human GPS, we set off on a brisk-paced hike up a rocky drainage. The wind swirled and attacked in gusts—yet the rain clouds kept their distance. Occasional Indian paintbrush dotted the desert canvas. I scouted unsuccessfully for any unidentified flying objects. Winged creatures must have hunkered into tree chambers or rock nooks, latching themselves like Velcro, or risk being Wind-Exed to Mexico. Only the rock, sagebrush and pinyon ignored the wind, knowing the whistled tune by heart.
Underfoot, a thin green line turned out to be sub-alpine onion, fresh and pungent. Then, a quick glimpse of a frantic lizard, reacting to our shuffling feet as if we caused a major tremor. A purple flower that I will know the name of the next time I see it. Sometimes we were on a discernable path, but most times we just wandered. Further down the ravine we spotted some lichen pasted to a rock outcrop—a purported synergism of algae and fungus at work. We were not alone.
With deliberate nonchalance, my senior scout led me towards a trace of past civilization—remnants of charcoal mounds blanketed by sand, and what I call ‘Kingsford Kitchens’—hand-built rock ovens that pyrotechnically transformed pinyon logs into charcoal briquettes. Back in the 1860s, they ‘manufactured’ charcoal to feed the smelters at the Cerro Gordo silver mines, several miles to the north.
We break for lunch under a nearby tree well. I inhale my PBJ sandy-wich, while Tom knifes open a can of tuna, sipping the liquid like a fine brandy. Downing bananas for dessert, it’s time to start moving again. Tom’s 70+ year young frame jumps up and lurches forward like an underweight 40 year-old. We stumble upon the tiny tracks of a solitary deer from a rare muddy moment in desert time. Then we spot a lone coyote’s crusty scat. More signs of singles life in this harsh, remote wildness. It’s the perfect place to practice abstinence—from almost everything.
We keep moving, the wind now surging us forward from behind, whether we like it or not. I kneel over a rusted, empty steel can with a soldered bottom from over 50 years ago. I’m dreaming cowboy beans. Getting back up, I am completely lost. Tom motions the way and I follow him. You can sense the nothingness, and taste the wilderness.
We leave this no-man’s land, but I know that I must come back and see it again for the first time. Go experience Conglomerate Mesa. Enjoy the desert solitude, welcome the wind and leave no trace—not even tuna swampwater. After all, badlands are in the eye of the beholder.
Wano Urbonas is a former FOI staffer now living in Montana.