Participant: Tom Mahood
General search area: Revisiting the hellish, deep canyon area westerly of Upper Covington Flat.
Rationale for searching this area:
After I settled down from scaring myself pretty good with my JT67 adventure I got to thinking there must be relatively safe routes to get in and out of that damn canyon. Actually seeing the difficulty of the terrain increased its interest for me as a possible place to search. It could certainly trap an unwary individual in it, and if it did the likelihood of anyone coming upon them would be fantastically low. And there remains a longshot possibility of a ping to the Serin cell tower.
Impressions of Area and Findings:
Considering the difficult terrain, my plan was a modest one. Instead of staying on ridgelines I’d stay in the canyon bottoms. They act as natural funnels for any debris washed down from the slopes above.
Working with Google Earth and topo maps, I found a couple of possible drainages from the easterly rim to the main canyon bottom. If these drainages were passable, something which remained to be seen, my plan was to go down one and ascend up and out via the other. This was contingent upon not coming upon any difficult obstacles, as I resolved to do thing only with the utmost caution.
I was extremely careful this time to correctly hit my entry point and started down the headwater (a strange term for a desert drainage) of my inbound drainage. The landscape was much better than my previous ridgeline trip and I was enjoying the hike, moving slow and looking around. Again, due to the steep canyon walls, I couldn’t see far up the sides.
About a half mile down the drainage I spotted something non-natural in a bush in the ravine bottom. It was a crumpled piece of paper, wadded into a ball. I could see printing on one side but wasn’t really sure what it was. But coming upon it where I did was exceptionally unusual. Seeing any sort of trash in the Joshua Tree backcountry is a very rare event for me, and this was as about as remote a place as I’ve been. I marked the location on my GPS and packed the paper away for further study at home, which I’ll discuss shortly.
Leaving the paper’s location I continued further down the drainage, coming to a side drainage on the south. I traveled up that tributary drainage a short distance, until it reached a point where it went to a very steep angle and I stopped to go back the way I had come. As I turned around to face downhill I could clearly see large populated areas of the Palm Springs community far in the distance. Clearly, had my cell been on I would have been pinging towers like mad.
It became apparent the westerly or southerly facing slopes of these side canyons mostly had good desert views and probable cell coverage. So these could likely be excluded from consideration. The only possibility of a weak Serin connection would only be from a north facing slope, without desert exposure. And then it would have to be in the upper elevations and not far down towards the canyon bottom. This discovery seemed to rule out considerable geography.
I resume my main descent but after only a short distance further I found myself looking over the edge of a 40 foot dry waterfall. Now it wouldn’t have been absolutely impossible to downclimb or go around, but this wasn’t a survival situation and I didn’t need to go forward. I could simply return the way I had come. So I did. The rest of the loop could wait.
Passing back past where I found the paper I was a bit more puzzled. The prevailing winds there are from the west. There doesn’t seem to be a likely source that it could have blown in from, especially considering the existence of a 40′ waterfall in the way. The paper possibly could have been washed downstream, from the rim to the east, but again an obvious source is lacking. There’s no conceivable hiker traffic in this area.
Much better than the previous effort. I’m satisfied I didn’t miss anything in the drainages I traversed, and the drainages were acting as collectors for the surrounding area.
This area seems to lend itself to limited Summer exploration. The ingress and egress is relatively straightforward and the hikes mercifully short. That’s not to say they are easy, but they are short. Thus getting up at an ungodly hour like 4 AM, it’s possible to get in and out of this area before the day’s heat builds to intolerable levels. So far anyway.
And the mystery paper…..Turned out it’s a receipt from the Dollar Tree Store chain. I was able to determine this from the printing on its back. It encouraged the customer to visit a certain website to fill out a customer survey feedback and thus enter a sweepstakes. The side of the receipt where the date and purchases would have been printed was completely faded and blank.
Checking online I found Dollar Tree Stores in both Yucca Valley and 29 Palms.
I also poked around regarding the sweepstakes. There are assorted websites that report on sweepstakes for fans of those sort of things. I was able to determine that this particular Dollar Tree sweepstakes was running at least as far back as July of 2010, where I found a dated online report of it. With Bill’s hike at the end of June of 2010 I can’t exclude the receipt as a possible clue. I also can’t include it to any great extent either. It is….something. The weathering seems consistent with paper out in the elements for that amount of time, considering it was in the bottom of a steep canyon with limited direct sunlight.
I’ve explored a few areas in an attempt to recover any printing on the faded side. The Internet provided a number of tips in that regard. First I tried scanning and enhancing the contrast with various image modification software. No luck. I also examined the surface with UV light and turned up nothing. Finally I tried heating the surface with an iron as that was a recommended method. Again, no results, just blankness.
Making an inquiry to people who really know this stuff, I was directed to an article in a cool journal called “Forensic Science International”. It was on the use of Iodine fumes to recover missing printing on thermal paper. Why that was just what I needed! The only hitch so far is that thanks to the Merry Meth Cookers out there, the DEA has clamped restrictions on the sale of Iodine crystals. So I’m working on that problem and eventually expect to have at least enough Iodine on hand to attempt a print recovery. So that’s a work in progress.
I want to be careful not to overstate finding a piece of paper in the middle of nowhere, even if that middle of nowhere happens to be 10.3 miles from the Serin cell tower. It could be, and likely is, just desert trash. But finding something is always interesting and much better than the usual.
Oh, and it didn’t occur to me to turn over the paper to anyone official for a couple of reasons. First is that it’s not an obvious clue, just a piece of litter in the backcountry. At this point anyway. Secondly, I strongly have the sense that there’s little official interest in this case any longer and passing the paper on would be akin to throwing it away. Seeing as how important a clue as the found bandanna was, and never even tested for DNA, well I’m not going to give up my stinkin’ paper scrap until I’ve had my way with it.
I was able to obtain some Iodine crystals and fumed the receipt as described in “The recovery of latent text from thermal paper using a simple iodine treatment procedure” by Kelly et al in the journal mentioned. Unfortunately I was unable to recover any indications of printing on the front surface. It just seemed too weathered. The creases and areas where I handled it with a forceps became quite pronounced, and the text on the back became more legible but there was nothing else of any use. To be certain I repeated the procedure a second time, also with negative results. However this lack of results does suggest the receipt may have been exposed to the elements for quite some time and appears unlikely to be connected with the Chester’s Puffcorn bag recovered on JT69.
GPS mileage for this trip: 3.0 miles (Slightly less doggy miles)
Cumulative GPS mileage to date: 795.4 miles