Note from Tom: This search trip and writeup is brought to you courtesy of Adam Marsland. Blame any typos on him. But if you think it’s written well I’ll somehow take credit.
Participants: Adam Marsland
General Search Area: Mountains on southeasterly side of the mouth of Smith Water Canyon
Rationale for Searching This Area:
Still the most likely place for Bill to have wound up, and wanted to add some redundancy to previous searches and also further explore an area from previous trip.
Impressions of Area And Findings:
The approaches up Smith Water Canyon are, as has been previously stated, hella steep. The terrain levels out a bit once you get high up. Many jumbled rock formations.
During the search, I was able to make a call from a spot that I think may have a significant probability of being the source of the mysterious Sunday cell ping.
Good in the higher elevations. I kept my eyes open bushwhacking back down, but once darkness fell I was focused on saving my own skin. Coverage after dark, with a headlamp, was surprisingly good (albeit in a very low probability area). The headlamp did a good job illuminating the brush…probably more so than daylight.
Owing to an unexpected trip to Las Vegas and an equally unexpected detour on the return trip south, I found myself in the Joshua Tree area with a little time to kill. I was tired and my feet were aching from the previous night’s wedding gig playing songs I didn’t know for three hours in ill-fitting hushpuppies, but I wanted another shot at the Bill Ewasko search before the summer heat set in and touring commitments would take me physically out of the area for several months. After debating which end of Smith Water I wanted to tackle, I decided to go back over the area on my first trip, hopefully fill in a few spots, and if I was lucky and had enough stamina get back to the open area on top of the mountains where I’d felt the strongest sense that Bill might be nearby on my previous trip.
I parked the car on Park Road to set out just before the ungodly late hour of 4 p.m. I had noted at the park entrance that sundown was at 7:15. I was dubious how much searching I could do before daylight faded (it’s three miles from that point to the mouth of Smith Water), but not being an early riser by nature and living 2 1/2 hours from Joshua Tree, I figured it at least would tell me if I could get any real searching done with that late a start. The answer turned out to be yes, but with a significant increase in the risk level attached to the hike. Don’t try this at home, folks.
I made good time down the various washes toward Smith Water. I made a call out from Quail Wash and it occurred to me that one of the only places you can actually ping the Serin Tower AT 10.6 miles in the area is from Quail Wash. I had been shocked to notice for the first time a large barrel hidden inside a bush that I remembered from my last trip through this area, and reflected that it really is a lot easier to miss something hidden inside a bush then something laying in a rocky area. I mused that, despite all of the traffic through Quail Wash, it wasn’t inconceivable that Bill could still be there, having expired at some point heading north towards Joshua Tree. If he had taken shelter under a large bush, people could have passed within feet of him and never noticed. And there are lots and lots of bushes in Quail Wash. (Not to mention quail, which weren’t present the last time I was here)
I pushed these speculations aside as I headed back into the bowl above the mouth of Smith Water. After taking a quick look at one of the hills I had searched on my previous trip, I decided to angle towards the left (southeast) side of the bowl and try to angle upward towards the high ridge above. I was dubious I had enough time to make it, particularly since, so as to not duplicate previous searches, I tried to take a fairly idiotic path upward. This notwithstanding, I was surprised to note footprints in one particularly sketchy spot. Looking at Tom’s search grid, this appears to have been one of his crew. Shortly after that point I diverged upward and started making my way towards the top of the ridge.
I had gotten most of the way up when I made probably the most significant discovery of the day. In climbing up I had circled around a rocky area from the back and, completing the maneuver, stepped over a low ridge so that after circling south I was again facing north towards the canyon. Upon doing this suddenly I could see Joshua Tree village in the distance. Based on my experience the previous week on the north side of the canyon, I felt pretty certain I could get a call out at that point. I tried it…and succeeded.
This was significant since judging by my landmarks, I was closer to the 10.6 mile radius and also lower in elevation than the points where I had previously been able to get a call out from this ridge, further to the west. Moreover, I was only a few feet from that low ridge I had just crossed, behind which was ALL lower lying land all out of sight of town. This fit all the criteria for the mysterious Sunday morning ping, since someone could conceivably have traveled from the Quail Mountain area all the way to this point in the dark of the cell tower, cleared the low ridge, and immediately have cell reception. Once I got home and reviewed the location and GPS tracks, this impression was confirmed. If someone traveled all the way north from Quail in the cell phone dead zone, this is the spot they would wind up. And from what I could tell, once there the cell reception would be sudden, and strong. If someone had been trying for three days to get a call out, and they hit this spot…well, I could imagine the battery going pretty fast.
My personal feeling is that this spot has a high likelihood of being the source of the ping. To me, it all fits.
Just to my right at that spot was a tower of rock. Remembering Tom’s theory that Bill’s final cell ping could have come just prior to a fatal fall, I searched the area thoroughly. No Bill.
I continued to head east, aware that the sun was beginning to set, but still wanting to find the level terrain area at the first summit of the ridge I had come upon in my first trip to the area. I had felt, more than anywhere else, that Bill was in that general vicinity; it offered the most places to hang out and take shelter. I could not find it, however, even though I know I was in the area. My sense was that I was just above and behind it My desire had been to search just to the west of that spot, so I struck out for the area that I thought was in about the right place (from what I could tell reviewing the tracks later, I was in roughly the right area). There was a high rocky cliff and an area below where a fatal fall could easily occur, and two other similar spots just yards from me. I scanned the landscape that rapidly dropped away below carefully. Nothing.
At this point, with the sun beginning to set, I had to think about getting back. I decided to bushwhack straight back toward the car, which would take me through the Quail Springs area, an area which I remembered Tom had expressed a desire to search more thoroughly. I knew a dusk bushwhack through unfamiliar terrain was risky (and remembered a comment that the terrain above Quail Springs was particularly steep), but I figured it couldn’t be any worse than Smith Water and I might gain some unexpected insight into Bill’s frame of mind racing the clock.
At first, the terrain was fairly even and I did a good bit of looking around as I went down. I could see from foot and pole prints that previous searches had covered this area, but I did poke around a few rocky spots, including one just south of my suspected cell phone ping spot. As I progressed north towards Quail Springs though, it became apparent that the way down would get steeper and steeper the further I got, and I was still a long way from my destination. As darkness began to fall and the terrain got less forgiving, the hike started to get harrowing. I did start thinking about Bill, conceivably finding himself in a similar situation in a bushwhack gone wrong that fateful Thursday, with that unhappy understanding dawning that the further down you got, the more dangerous it got, and the longer you took, the darker it got. A bad tradeoff, but I kept reminding myself that you’re not REALLY in any danger until you injure yourself, and took proper care as I negotiated the ever steeper descent into the area around Quail Springs. I had a hiking stick; he didn’t. Looking around, it wasn’t hard to imagine how Bill could have gotten himself into an odd spot. After all, the only reason I was where I was was follwoing a line of sight from where I had just been to the arm of a hill that was in line with my car. Otherwise, there was no reason for anybody to be there.
Once I got down (EXTREMELY relieved) into the wash that snaked up into the hills towards the spot I descended, the wash was rocky enough that rather than following it out of my way I kept moving in a straight line over a low hill that separated me from Quail Wash. Right at the point I finally put the last of the mountainous rocks behind me, I came across a half of a jawbone in my path. It had no fangs and human-sized teeth, so I took a picture and some film. Tom later indicated it was probably from a deer or a mountain goat. Not human.
The slog back to the car was, just like last time, brutal. I hit the road nearly a mile from my car and had I not had the GPS track to refer to I would have never found it. Interestingly, once I donned a headlamp to make my way back, I had much better visibility into the brush than when it was daylight. Thinking back on my idle Quail Springs theory earlier, I fancifully envisioned a group of night hikers, dressed in head lamps, walking up Quail Springs doing a lo-tech X-ray of the brush therein. And trudged on.
GPS mileage for this trip: 8.9 miles
Cumulative GPS mileage to date: 685.6 miles