Saturday, January 17 – Vallecito Spring, CA

Up before sunrise, Terry, Peter and I rehydrate a hot breakfast and pack our stuff. We’d arranged to extract our overnight gear with the Scouts, but since they didn’t show last night, we cache our gear off the trail and away from the two-track road.

We finish filling our water bottles, put on our packs and just as we’re ready to start walking, the Scoutmasters drive up. They’re a couple miles off, so we pile into the Scoutmaster’s truck and drive over to their campsite. We’re all introduced, make ready to hike and start off up canyon.

The road markings are all goofy to us. “The Great Overland Stage Route of 1849.” Harrumph! The stages didn’t roll until the mid-1850’s and we left the DeAnza Trail yesterday. If not properly called “The 1847 Mormon Battalion Route” it should be called the “Gold Rush Trail of 1849” or the “Immigrant Trail.” As a joke, someone in the past planted a street corner sign in the desert – “Hollywood and Vine.”

A little after noon, we arrive at Palm Spring, No – not “that” Palm Spring. The Battalion’s Palm Spring is in Carrizo Canyon and in 1847 was a small spring surrounded by palm trees. Someone has manufactured a “replica” spring, collecting the water in a man-made basin. There are some non-native palms planted to simulate what the area looked like long ago. Still, poking around in the underbrush, it’s evident there were a series of small springs here. Lots of salt efflorescence on the ground at a number of locations.

The opportunity for some shade from the sun must have been a welcome experience. It’s fairly warm, strong sun and no breeze. Slightly uncomfortable – but then I’m not carrying a musket, pack (or bedroll for many of the original Battalion) and we have opportunity for all the water we want. We’re not at the end of a 90-mile, limited water, limited food experience.

As I had anticipated, this area, more than any other, excites my imagination. The land is the same. The route is under our feet. The journal entries are very specific and describe what they experienced – no, endured here. Their ghosts are at my elbow, in front of my eyes and I can only shake my head in disbelief over the difficulty. Over the course of years, hundreds of less well prepared and led people must have died following this route. The dream of “easy money”, “GOLD”, and a fool’s paradise must have been a siren song that led many to their death on this trail. It’s a miracle none of the Battalion died here.

They record that they followed the dry wash up canyon. Of course. There’s no reason not to. No boulders. No plants in the way. The sand is fairly firm, so why not follow the obviously easy path?

Today the trail slowly climbs from 600 feet to 1500 feet above sea level. Not a big climb, but for starved, dehydrated animals and men, it wasn’t easy at all. Mountains are piled upon each other, rising to over 5,000 feet within three miles, surrounding the hikers except for the narrow valley ahead and behind.

Back at Cooke’s Wells, the Colonel describes the danger they are in and gives his reasons for pressing forward boldly. There was nothing behind them. They didn’t have the water or the food to linger. They had to push here to Vallecito Spring. We had a great dinner awaiting us. They had almost nothing.

The sun is behind the mountains as Peter and I reach the restored Butterfield Stage Station at the County Park. Denny meets us and drives us forward to Mason Valley where we’ll be camping at the Jenson’s ranch.

We put up three tents and make a small formal campsite. Peter takes one tent, Terry the second and Denny and I take the third.

It’s cloudless, crisp and cool. A little snow from the big Christmas Eve storm is still visible in some of the crags high on the peaks south of us. The Milky Way glows, but we know our time in the wilderness is about to end because we can also see reflected light from some cities intruding into the darkness.

Late in the evening, our son Jonathon drives in from San Diego to spend a few days with us on the trail.

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