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Between a Rock and a Hot Place : Mecca Hills, a Martian Landscape Just Southeast of Indio

<i> Chris Hodenfield is a Los Angeles-based writer. </i>

Sometimes it takes only a few hours to reach the ends of the earth. Sometimes it is absolutely necessary to find such a place and stand at the edge of some mythical Patagonia and make resolutions. That’s what led me out to the Mecca Hills again.

The first time I saw those spooky purple hills was during a raw night in my raw youth. My clearest memory of that journey is that I had found both the best and the worst place in the world to unroll a sleeping bag.

I’d found it while driving through a fierce desert sandstorm. I was on my way south out of Joshua Tree National Monument, on a strange road, getting blasted all over hell and gone. When the wind died down, I pulled over and saw that I had driven into a steep canyon. Among the huge, smooth rocks along the canyon walls, I found a spot where a welcome little chamber had been hollowed out. A perfect hideaway. It seemed a good place to go no farther.

Later in the night, mummied up and trying to sleep, I had time to ponder the existence of the little hollow. It was the wind’s work. The same wind that picked up again and shunted through and turned my impromptu bedroom into a monstrous cathedral

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organ. It was like trying to sleep in the eye of a tornado.

But the payoff occurred the next morning. Crawling out of the hollow rock at dawn’s first light, I found myself in a strange and vivid land. I seemed to have wakened on the planet Mars.

Ten years later, the Mecca Hills looked the same, only different. You could miss the place easily enough, because the location, while only about three hours east of Los Angeles, is roughly between a rock and a hot place. The canyon is constantly tormented by high winds and flash floods. The surreal geologic protuberances of Mecca Hills have definitely not been developed into an official, authorized National Photo Opportunity. Not yet, anyway.

To get there, I drove out Interstate 10 past Palm Springs and then dropped south at Indio on California 111. This road runs through the southern precincts of the Coachella Valley, an inhospitable-looking stretch that in the summertime turns into an inferno.

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The underground waters from the surrounding mountains, however, feed the date and orange groves and provide some reason for living in this glaring torrid zone. When you cut through the small, tough town of Mecca and head toward the Orocopia Mountains, you know without being told that you are driving over the dried shoreline of an ancient lake.

That gone body of water is known to history as Lake Cahuilla, which was larger than the state of Delaware and ranged from what is now Indio down 115 miles into Mexico. When its feeder river, the Colorado, went to the Gulf of California, the lake disappeared. Although this happened thousands of years ago, it looks in places as though it occurred just last week. The Salton Sea, occupying the northern portion of that expanse, came about only in 1905, when the system of canals leading from the Colorado ran amok.

Box Canyon, where years ago I spent that breezy night camping in the rocks, greets you with sheer yellow slabs that rise out of sandy flats. I turned north onto a rough, rocky track called Painted Canyon Road and headed for the heart of the Mecca Hills. It’s a slew of whimsical geography there, with hills like pale lime mud pies dropped from the sky. Early evening was settling on the hills as I drove up, and the ghostly furrows were ripening into wine-red hues.

In other places I have seen brief patches of this kind of wild palette of earth coloration. Zabriskie Point in Death Valley comes to mind. But these hills just go on and on, looking like a vast cosmic playground where the heavenly architects went squishing their toes in the chalky mud and then suddenly left it, letting it harden into these accidental shapes.

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A few campers had set up their tents and trailers in the shadows, and the first campfires of evening were going. The road beneath my wheels turned into a deep sand pit. I sawed away at the steering wheel and tried to keep up the momentum--the first rule for getting through sand. After skating wildly around a couple of turns like a speedboat kicking up dusty rooster tails, I decided to park and walk.

The road had led to a wide sand wash rimmed by high red walls. While the hills are usually empty, holiday weekends bring out the variety of life, and there were a few varieties at large this evening. The most noticeable was a group of eight or so motor homes and trailers drawn in a circle. They were out to ride the range. Little kids bobbled over the ripply hillocks on ATC three-wheelers. Then the wild howl of a dune buggy rose up, and a young couple clutching beer cans flew down the road in a shower of sand and aggression. That would explain the chewed-up quality of the road. Anyway, the place was big enough to lose them.

Far off over the haze of the Salton Sea, the sun dropped below the Santa Rosa Mountains. In the dimming clarity of the Mecca Hills, the milky cliffs glowed a cool moon blue.

One of the truly spooky things about the area is that little canyons angle off from the main wash and twist into the hills, narrowing to just a sandy path. Such paths, cut between walls of rock, eventually shrink to crevices the width of your hand, and you only imagine what lies beyond.

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Distances are deceptive, too, especially when the shapes are heightened by long shadows. Sometimes you can’t tell whether the canyon wall is only 50 feet high or you’re at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

With this in mind I suddenly wished to see the Chinese-box arrangement of the hills from above, from the low-flying seat of an ultra-light plane, perhaps, or from a balloon. Then I noticed, high up on a hill, a man and a woman walking toward me down a narrow ridge.

Their names were Dee and Marlene Lafoon. He was a big fellow with narrowed eyes and something of a gut. His voice was calm and instructive, though, and he had the beautifully cared-for hands of somebody who does precision work. I wondered if he was a surgeon, but he pointed to the telephone company insignia on his cap. He even wore a few tools on his belt.

From a distance, Marlene appeared to be a frisky teen-age girl in short shorts, white running shoes and a next-to-nothing swimsuit top. Later I would find, to my disbelief, that they had both just turned 50. But Marlene Lafoon seemed to say there is no reason a down-to-earth wife and mother can’t present herself to the desert like a frisky teen-age girl.

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I liked them right away.

They have been going on camping trips all their lives, and their parents before them were campers too, and now their own grown children are outdoorsmen. Dee told me of some hideaways nestled in the hills, and he started drawing maps in the sand. The next thing I knew they were offering passage the next morning to a grotto I would never have found on my own.

Bright and early the next morning I was in the Lafoons’ pickup truck as we motored back to Box Canyon Road. The truck eased over the deep sandy wash without a hitch. We got back to the paved road and drove about half a mile toward Mecca until we came to the Coachella Canal, a ribbon of concrete, flowing with water, that runs parallel to the Salton Sea and extends down into Imperial County. It marks the shoreline of the ancient lake. We pulled onto a dirt road and drove along the canal. On the other side, marshy pools of water were trapped in the low areas.

“It’s lush in here,” Dee said in a grateful tone. “Those trees along the wash are nice and green.”

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A long-necked white egret skidded across a green pond. The salt cedar trees were fringed with purplish buds. A hawk stayed poised in a smoke bush until we got too close, and then it soared away.

After four miles, we dropped down off the road and headed up into Hidden Springs Canyon. Nobody else was in sight. As we passed through the series of high, looming canyons, the locale struck me as just the perfect place to get good and lost. I mean, the kind of place where you are writing your last will and testament on the back of your hand when you finally hear the rescuers’ footsteps. No place, in short, to go alone. Or else somewhere to be alone forever.

We stopped at the gate of one narrow canyon and walked up to see Hidden Springs. It was a little oasis, peppered with fan palms. The dates that hung in black strings were mostly seeds encased in hard nuggety skins. Pretty sweet, though. But as I have often found with these wild palms, the trunks were charred. Does someone actually walk to the ends of the earth just to set fire to a palm tree?

We went back to the truck and drove farther up the gorge. Soon we were at the end of the line, with no place to go but up. But there was another way to go. In the folds of the rocks was the narrow mouth of a cave. Dee got out a gas lamp and led the way through the cool blackness.

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We were on our knees, squeezing through narrow tunnels, and then we were walking through a hallway with a sharp pinpoint of light filtering in from a hundred feet above. We scrabbled over a series of walls that led like a staircase up to the open air. There before us was a hollow wrapped in bright, sandy sworls--The Grotto.

More fluid stone shapes. More purple mountain majesties. The walls of the cliff were not hard sheets of granite. Rather, every kind of small rock was embedded in a loose, sandy conglomeration. The San Andreas Fault had pushed up the towering slabs. Then, 10 million years of flash floods and mud rivers had passed through and left behind marine matter and clay stones, now held in a dried, flaky suspension. Where the rains had cleaved through the surfaces, bright bands of ivory and taupe were revealed. Nothing was too solid. Rocks broke loose underfoot and tumbled down the hillside.

When we got to the top of the peak and looked around at the rolling mesas, we could see no real reason this particular canyon should have received such crashing rivulets of color. Perhaps some underground river had burst through here.

What was left were tall, thin spires gone to hazy, heliotropic shades of lavender. One rock was shaped like a bishop’s hat. Around it snaked sharp red chasms. The crazy shapes of the rocks did not seem the work of geologic chance. It was as if we had washed up in a deserted Martian city, with shale faces peering from behind stone windows.

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We sat down on the high, barren promontory and waited for our hearts to calm down. We kept staring at the old weird citadel. If we walked down a hallway and went through another door, there would be more surprises. Where it stops, nobody knows.

I couldn’t imagine what lay beyond the next mountain. But for a while there I could imagine that this grotto was the outer fringe of creation. It didn’t hurt to imagine that.


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