JT55, 10/24/2013

(Note: Written by Adam Marsland)

Date: 10/24/2013

Participants:  Adam Marsland, Anny Celsi

General search area: Slopes and highlands south and east of Quail Spring.

Rationale for searching this area:

JT51 and JT52, conducted by myself and Tom M., respectively, both arrived at the same probable ping site on a slope in the southeast Smith Water Canyon area, just north of a low ridge behind which there is an extensive dead zone leading south to Quail Mountain, thus providing a possible route for Bill to have traversed and then to ping the tower shortly after daybreak Sunday.

Tom has since moved on to a new theory of the source of the ping, but I felt that this spot still fit the known facts the best, and in blundering my way out of the area on JT51, following what seemed at first like the path of least resistance, I wound up in a less searched and increasingly rugged area south of Quail Spring. With night falling on the previous trip, I was not able to search, and in fact in the more rugged areas was so focused on my own survival that I probably would not have noticed Bill unless I tripped over him. Thinking Bill might have selected a similar route for similar reasons, I wanted a chance to get back to that area and make a thorough search of the slopes and highlands immediately south of Quail Spring in daylight.

Impressions of Area And Findings:

There are a lot of rocks.

It was interesting to observe the lightly-searched canyon area roughly midway between Quail Mountain and Smith Water Canyon. The slopes into the canyons near Quail Wash are bad, bad, bad. Very easy to imagine someone coming to grief there…and the slopes get worse and worse the father you go down. Past a certain point, going up is so steep, you are committed whether you like it or not.

Coverage Level:

Excellent. I noted that on previous trips I might have been too focused on scouting the area ahead to fully take in my surroundings at times, so I kept my eyes open and searched any outcroppings or likely hiding places thoroughly. I also had a companion who was as much as a 200 yards away at times, so there was quite a bit more area covered than the GPS tracks would indicate.

Comments:

My fourth time to Joshua Tree to look for Bill, my first time in six months, and also the first time that Tom Mahood’s understandable exasperation, both at the bleak surroundings and at the complete lack of any trace of Bill, started to rub off on me. It wasn’t Tom’s fault; three months on a world tour had left me paunchy and less fit than my last trip out, and I was also psychologically this time more determined to be thorough and, if possible, find something that would shed light on the mystery. And we also, through careful but still faulty orienteering, wound up covering about twice as much ground, much of it outside the planned search area, as I had planned to.

I had a companion for this trip, Anny Celsi, both an old friend and a free-lance stringer for NPR, who thought the search and the crowdsourcing angle might make for a good story. I was glad for the company and for the extra pairs of eyes, though the recording gear made for bulkier packing all ’round.

We got started at 10ish, parking on Park Road in a spot that (I thought) would be easy to find on return, which was important because the cheap GPS program on my iPhone was refusing to work in airplane mode and without a 4G signal to kickstart it. This meant no tracks on the way in, high battery consumption, and also no way to mark the location of the car for the way out. I was able to kickstart the thing once we got to Quail Wash, so at the very least I was able to get usable GPS tracks for the main part of the search, but it did not bode well.

Since I wanted to search southerly of Quail Spring, we made a diagonal swath across the alluvial fan, hitting the old road from Park Blvd. to Quail near Samuelson’s Rock. At that point, a well-loaded, middle aged male hiker passed about 30 yards away, seemingly headed for Smith Water. I had already noted more cars than usual parked on the main road. I indicated to Anny that we should not initiate contact with him, but I did wonder if he might perchance be a fellow Ewasko searcher. The gentleman looked a little like Bill himself. As unnerving as being out here alone can sometimes be, seeing a solitary hiker pass quietly nearby was a little weird too.

After arriving at Quail Wash and getting adjusted, we set out on the search. The original plan was for me to retrace my JT51 route backwards but it took us so long to get underway that instead I decided to just head straight up the steep slopes before us, with Anny heading up the same direction a good distance off. Unfortunately, as much as I had tried to carefully consult with the maps at my disposal, and in spite it being my third trip to the area, I had confused the two ridgelines and we were actually on the next range east. Thus the first and most strenuous part of the hike was fairly useless from a Bill-searching standpoint. We did eventually get more towards the desired area, however it wound up being a less thorough, more sprawling and southerly search than I had intended.

We found lots and lots of bones, most easily identifiable as Big Horn Sheep bones. One set drew my attention as they were larger and actually contained a joint section, but even on the remote chance they were human (which I doubted, and Tom subsequently confirmed), it would be a smaller and more recently deceased person than Bill. At one point while doggedly searching the ridge I heard a telltale rattle and looked up to see an unhappy rattlesnake about three feet away, coiled up and asking me in snake language what the hell I thought I was doing. After a few seconds of stupidly staring at each other he slunk into a nearby bush, and not for the first time I blessed the good situational awareness, combined with inherent laziness, of your average rattlesnake.

Probable Big Horn Sheep bones. For size comparison, boot is size 13.

Probable Big Horn Sheep bones. For size comparison, boot is size 13.

After that incident Anny and I regrouped in the high, relatively level area just above the long north-south canyon that runs about halfway between Quail Mountain and Smith Water Canyon. This was an interesting area to search. It was further south than I had yet been, a significant (though traversable) barrier to progress if this was the route Bill had taken. For Bill to have come this far south after pinging the cell phone tower was unlikely — it was, after all, almost halfway back to Quail, and this was a distance it had already taken him more than a day to cover (assuming he was injured en route). However, on looking at the map, it does appear that from the canyon area north, we did follow what would have been the easiest topographical route to and from the suspected ping location, so in retrospect, it was still worth a look.

My goal from that point was to head to the theoretical ping location on the slopes of Smith Water, but about halfway there I was perplexed to run across a canyon wash I did not remember from a previous trip. We elected to get in the wash and start down, which proved to be very perilous going. It’s when things begin to go awry with the planned hike that I think one might blunder across Bill by sheer stupidity. Certainly, it was very easy to imagine Bill getting in this same wash, and never getting out of it. We were more fortunate, eventually escaping the rocky, obstacle-laden wash and making our way down the treacherous, steep slopes of the canyon running south from the Quail Springs area that I had gone down (in the dark) on my last trip. As a possible area for Bill to have tried and failed to get down from the mountains, I did want to get another look at this area in the light, so I was glad about that.

I wasn’t glad about much else. The descent was just as bad in the daylight and I had another hiker (and a dying iPhone) to be concerned with. Finally, after much careful negotiation, we got into the canyon area and resumed the same route over the low lying ridge east of Quail Mountain and thence north to Park Blvd. that I had taken on JT 51. I headed to where I remembered I parked my car, and found myself to be nearly a mile off, which had me cursing in the dark, since this has happened every single time I have parked on Park Boulevard (yes, Tom, I will bring a real GPS next time).

My burning desire for a margarita to cool off with was further thwarted as I started up the car and headed up the now-darkened highway to pick up Anny; I could tell by how the car was handling and sounding that I had a flat tire. Sure enough, an inspection revealed this to be the case. We were able to drive on the rim into cell range, and thence to the West Entrance. What transpired then has given me a new theory of the Bill Ewasko case. I now think Bill got out safely, but only was able to call AAA. Bill gave AAA his precise location, which AAA then blithely decided was the address of the Visitor’s Center in 29 Palms. When Bill called back, AAA then chastised him for giving them a bogus address.

OK, maybe that’s not what happened to Bill. But it happened to somebody I know. At least I got to Pappy & Harriet’s…eventually.

This was not a fun day. It was hotter than I expected, and I felt more conscientious than usual. I wasn’t just adding fun lines to Tom’s grid. I really felt that, with all the work that Tom has done narrowing the options, an answer would be near, possibly forthcoming on this very trip. And yet I became increasingly aware that there are just so many places a person could conceivably wind up, even if you have a sense of where they were at one point.

I do have a point of disagreement with Tom about coverage and clearance. I think it’s possible that Bill could be in the area I was looking in, the heavily-searched highlands above the SE mouth of Smith Water Canyon, or even under a bush in the heavily-traveled Quail Wash. All it takes is one nearby feature to be sufficiently distracting, or the surroundings to be arranged in a certain way as to conceal from the searcher. What is eerie to me, though, is the lack of any trace of the man, with the possible exception of a bandana. There’s not a lot of trace of human passage up there. It seems like a water bottle, a note, some scrap, would escape whatever debris field Bill lies in, or would have fallen out of his pocket en route, and would at least give us a new clue to chew on. But there’s just…nothing. Which, perhaps, speaks well of Tom’s new theory that Bill is stuck in a particularly nasty little spot near the Smith Water “Odor location”, since it would be harder for clues to escape from such a dungeon.

On leaving the area, I was so tired, footsore and hot — not to mention sobered by the vast amount of areas that were very unlikely but still conceivably possible for Bill to be — that I contemplated this being my last trip out here. After all, as Tom has pointed out, this is not the nicest area of Joshua Tree to visit. It’s grim and desolate country, not to mention dangerous in the steep areas. But that was before I realized I’d only partially searched the area I had intended to — and that that search didn’t rule anything in or out. In fact, it was completely plausible that Bill could have pinged the phone in the spot I picked out in JT 51, noted Joshua Tree (and possibly Park Road) in the distance, headed south along the easiest terrain, and then expired choosing one of the various bad options to descend from that location. My theory was still totally viable — I hadn’t really proved or disproved anything. I just searched some areas that hadn’t gotten looked at that much.

Arrrgh.

P.S. The America’s Best Value in Yucca Valley was a very pleasant surprise. Too bad we only got to stay there for seven hours or so.

GPS mileage for this trip: 4.81 miles (actual miles covered: 11)

Cumulative GPS mileage to date: 721.7 miles

GPS tracks for this trip in Google Earth kml format

GPS tracks for this trip in Garmin gdb format

GPS tracks for this trip in gpx format 

All search tracks up to JT55 (shown in blue, with 50 meter viewscape). Orange line is 11.1 mile Serin cell tower radius. Black lines are GPS tracks from original search and red lines search tracks since.

All search tracks up to JT55 (shown in blue, with 50 meter viewscape). Orange line is 11.1 mile Serin cell tower radius. Black lines are GPS tracks from original search and red lines search tracks since.

All tracks in SE Smith Water Canyon area showing 50 meter viewscapes. JT55 shown as blue line.

All tracks in SE Smith Water Canyon area showing 50 meter viewscapes. JT55 shown as blue line.