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Trekking Along the Anti-Trail

Hikers venture into local back country to celebrate the first phase of a rugged, unmarked path that will stretch from Canada to Mexico.


MECCA HILLS WILDERNESS — Hall Newbegin and his 50-pound backpack had a little 68-mile walk through the wilderness to reach this desert badland. No big deal for the 33-year-old, single Berkeley resident, who, with an environmental group called Desert Survivors, takes this sort of trip every so often as a getaway treat. This way, though, the trek wasn't just for fun.

On this trip, Desert Survivors was marking the first complete phase of a long-term project--a border-to-border Desert Trail from Mexico to Canada. Since Feb. 3, members from as far away as Kansas have joined two- or three-day relay teams on an inaugural trek of the route through California. By mid-2002, they plan to cover all 656 miles, from the Mexican border through Death Valley National Park, passing along the group's banner on each relay leg.

Newbegin hiked two relay segments before reaching Mecca Hills, just north of the Salton Sea in Riverside County, taking a week's vacation for the cause. "You're carrying this banner," he says, "and the banner is going to make it to the border of Canada some day. That makes it exciting. It makes you feel like you're part of something bigger."

The Desert Trail was dreamed up 30 years ago as an anti-trail of sorts, taking literally the "leave no trace" ethos of the environmental movement. Unlike the Pacific Crest Trail or other long-distance hiking thoroughfares, the Desert Trail will have no signs, markers or constructed paths. Instead, it will be marked only on maps--in guidebooks put together by volunteers--and will be defined by compass bearings and landmarks.

The route crosses animal trails, desert washes, earthquake faults and back-country canyons, via some of the most remote lands in the West. So far, only the California route is finalized and detailed in guidebooks published by Desert Survivors.

In California, even experienced backpackers tend to avoid the desert, says Steve Tabor, president of Desert Survivors. It's hard to rally public support to protect a land that people are afraid of, he says, the dumping ground for prisons, nuclear waste and trash. But the idea of a continuous desert route--the only one of its kind, through pinyon-juniper forests, atop sand dunes, alongside the stomping grounds of wild horses--might be intriguing enough to beckon a new generation of environmental activists to the land. "The Desert Trail fascinates people when they hear about it," Tabor says.

Sometimes, though, people who spot the Desert Survivors' T-shirts and hats--not to mention their bulging backpacks--mistake members for survivalists, or wonder if they have some connection with a "reality TV" show.

Actually, the group's 850 members include longtime environmental activists and hikers in their 80s. Among the dozen diverse participants in Mecca Hills were a single mother of a 3-year-old, a 41-year-old software engineer from Palo Alto with her two teenage daughters, and a Borrego Springs attorney with his 15-year-old son.

For Bill Spreng, a 58-year-old telephone installer from Victorville, the Mecca Hills trip was his 60th in 11 years with Desert Survivors. This time, though, he finally got to walk the official Desert Trail in California, the group's banner in tow, representing the work he and other volunteers did to determine the route. "It feels," he says, "like I'm a pioneer."


The idea for a desert trail began with Oregon environmentalist Russell Pengelly in the early 1970s.

One day, he stood atop Steens Mountain and gazed across the southeast Oregon desert. There should be a long-distance hiking trail through desert lands, he thought, similar to the ones that wind through mountains. He started writing and talking about the idea, and, in 1972, with dozens of supporters, incorporated a group called the Desert Trail Assn. The group began coordinating volunteer efforts to determine a route through Oregon, California and Nevada.

So far, 1,100 miles of the trail has been mapped in California and Nevada. Work continues on mapping the remainder of the route through Oregon and, tentatively, through parts of Idaho and Montana.

Volunteers don't have to get government approval for the route, because they aren't clearing brush or erecting markers on public land. But they did seek advice from public agencies such as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management district in Hines, Ore., which now shows part of the Desert Trail on its area maps.

Another land bureau office, in northeastern California, worked with

volunteers on a section of the trail's guidebook that covers High Rock Canyon, a National Historic Site. The guidebook will help visitors navigate the canyon, which is a four-hour drive from Reno, the nearest metropolitan area, says Roger Farschon, an ecologist in the land bureau's Cedarville, Calif., office. "It provides a lot of good information . . . for people who want to get off those roads," he says. "It's a great service that the Desert Trail Assn. is doing."

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