Some places in the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument beckon you with meadows and mossy boulders. Other places — such as the far Santa Rosas — say “Stay Out.” Few people have tramped this forbidding slice of desert that abuts the north end of the Salton Sea on the east and the Borrego badlands to the south.
Distance, dead-end dirt roads, locked gates, and — occasionally — men with guns moat this place. The landmark peak, Rabbit, is one of the toughest climbs in Southern California. So what if your job is to get to know this land in order to write about it? I asked my archaeologist friend Harry Quinn and he said, “You have to find Black Rabbit.”
Quinn remembered years ago meeting an Indian who had trekked the Rabbit Peak area for vision quests. The last he heard, the man lived in a trailer park in Oasis; but no one had seen him recently. So the hunt for the far Santa Rosas turned into a hunt for Black Rabbit.
To get to Rabbit country, you drive out old Highway 86 until you see the Salton Sea. If you pass Travertine Rock, the big jumble of boulders covered with ancient and modern graffiti, you’ve gone too far. Uplifted between the San Andreas and San Jacinto fault zones, the land is cut with canyons, massive alluvial fans, and gullies full of boulders and crumbling rock. Above it all, unspectacular Rabbit Peak rises to 6,640 feet.
Some accounts say the peak took its name from a Cahuilla legend of a white- and red-spotted rabbit that dwells there. Like the better-known mountain-dwelling spirit Tahquitz, the rabbit causes the hills to rumble and shake.
If you don’t recognize Rabbit Peak, you’re in good company. The locals who do know it are mostly a class known as “peak baggers.” For a modest-looking mountain, it offers a climb said to be harder than the Skyline (Cactus to Clouds) Trail. Peak-baggers come up from the Borrego side in a two-day march or struggle up trails marked with white rocks on the Salton Sea side, often descending after dark by headlamp. There’s no water, and one brutal section is called “Oven Ridge.”
It’s an understatement to say this land was important to the Cahuilla Indians. It’s dense with ancient trails, rock shrines, fish traps, petroglyphs, and agave-roasting pits. (The Santa Rosas are equally important to the Peninsular bighorn sheep — probably no coincidence, because where the sheep roamed, Indians followed.)
The most famous Indian who lived here, Fig Tree John (Juan Razón), dressed in a silk top hat and long Civil War coat, with bare feet. He was said to have died at age 135, in 1927. Fig Tree was supposedly chief of lands all the way from Travertine Point to Rabbit Peak, making him, at one time, the king of the far Santa Rosas.
Fig Tree left a lost gold mine near here, as did another famous local: one-legged Pegleg Smith. The two inspired countless fortune hunters who stumbled around the far Santa Rosas in the 1950s heyday of recreational prospecting.
Despite the unforgiving landscape, the area has hardly been safe from human encroachment. Many old Indian fish traps — weirs of stone built to catch fish from ancient Lake Cahuilla — were destroyed when fields were cleared for agriculture. More could be obliterated if developers build a planned 5,000-acre community in the den of the Rabbit.
The search for Black Rabbit was going nowhere. Phone numbers were disconnected. Someone who saw him two years ago at a powwow had lost touch. There was one other person I could talk to, someone who actually has “dirt knowledge” of Rabbit’s domain.
Nine years ago, Jenny Worth of Garner Valley was looking for a place to study rock art for her undergraduate thesis. A fellow archaeologist told her about an old trail out near Oasis. Worth drove through the maze of dirt roads, looking for the elusive trail. Now and then, she’d come to a trailer parked in the shade, knock on the door, and ask directions. Strangers are not welcome there, but Worth offered gifts of pies (she later found that tequila worked better).
When she first saw the trail, she knew she had found the right place. “It’s phenomenal,” Worth says. “When you turn your back on the vineyards and start walking up the alluvial fan, it’s like going back in time.” Along the trail, Worth found excavated pits where fortune seekers had dug for Pegleg’s gold. She found blackened-stone religious shrines and what she has concluded is the largest concentration of petroglyphs in the Coachella Valley.
Over nine years, one marriage, and the birth of two children, Worth continued her forays to Rabbitland without ever seeing another human on the trail. She often camps for several nights, carrying every drop of water she needs. One trip nearly turned fatal when she made the mistake of going in August. When her head started pounding and her hands swelled so much she began dropping things, she knew she had to get out or die. Before she turned back, her GPS unit recorded a ground temperature of 128 degrees.
Worth obviously has a claim to this land, but she doesn’t know Black Rabbit.
It was time to hunt. On a scorching day, Quinn and I drove out Highway 86 and stopped at a gas station, where we asked about a guy named Black Rabbit who used to live out here. The cashier looked at us suspiciously and sent us away.
We drove through the tangle of roads in the vineyards until we came to a shack with a barbecue grill and a cast-off recliner out front. The man who came out to meet us was not smiling, and he carried a rifle. No, he didn’t know Black Rabbit. We had no pies or tequila to offer, so we hightailed it.
The dirt track came to a dead end. Quinn and I got out and looked toward the mountains. The tiny spot we’d studied on the map opened into a huge, wild, folded country. To our left was Travertine Point, the graffiti-patched heap of rock known to early explorers. Also in that direction was the gorgeous blue Salton Sea. We hadn’t found Black Rabbit. We hadn’t even found the trail he walked on.
Days later, purely by chance, Quinn met Black Rabbit’s brother at a garage sale. Now we had the Rabbit’s phone number. I dialed one night around dinnertime, expecting a disconnected line or a reticent mystic. As it turned out, the man who answered was downright chatty.
The object of our hunt — also known as James Black Mountain — is a Tohono O’odham Indian from Arizona who grew up with the Torres Martinez Indians near Oasis. From the late 1970s through the ’90s, he spent days at a time alone near Rabbit Peak, dressed in bib overalls and carrying a poncho made of old GI blankets. He packed only a little water and dried fruit from the (now defunct) Valerie Jean date shop. “I wanted to stretch the spirit as some elders had taught me to do,” he says.
We can never replicate Black Rabbit’s visionary experiences — strange storms, walls of water, piles of potsherds, paths unwalked for hundreds of years. But as long as we have this vast national monument so close to town, we can go questing. “Go out on your own and be led by the spirit, without textbooks or other influences,” Black Rabbit advises. “There’s the horizon. Walk.”
Rock Art of the Coachella Valley
The two types of rock art found in the far Santa Rosas and elsewhere in the national monument are petroglyphs (pecked into the rock) and pictographs (painted on the rock).
The pecked-in art tends to predate the painted version, but you will likely find both forms from different eras in one place — suggesting the places themselves have a charge that spans generations. “If one group considered it magical, everyone else did too,” says Harry Quinn, a local geologist, archaeologist, and paleontologist who has walked much of the desert on archaeological surveys.
The art can date back a few thousand years, or it can be much newer. At places like Corn Springs, along Interstate 10, you’ll find non-Indian rock art intermixed with Native petroglyphs. The original variety is irreplaceable and being lost to time, erosion, development, looters, graffiti, and boorish backcountry behavior. “Once lost, it will never return,” Quinn says.