Getting desert mysteries right

With the recent fad status of Joshua Tree and the resultant influx of hipsters and fauxhemians, Airbnbsteaders and desert "experts" who don't know much of anything about the desert other than how to shoot selfies, self promote, and rehash other people's stories for the benefit of folks who also don't know much about the desert, I'm worrying more and more about the real history and culture of the desert and whether it will be replaced or reinvented by impostors.

I know I shouldn't worry - it will be what it will be, and presumably the real history and culture will survive somewhere, ready to be uncovered at some point in the future. But as a journalist and historian, no matter what I'm working on, I like to get things right. I feel like it's an obligation I have to the reader (or viewer). I know that's not fashionable, but I'm not following anyone's fashion lead, so I don't care.

Today I was out doing a little preliminary investigation on the topic of Yucca Man, a subject I don't take all that seriously, but will be happy to change my mind if and when I encounter one. That's not to say I don't believe in things like UFOs, ghosts, and the paranormal - I've had far too many weird things happen in my life to disregard them, just that I haven't seen evidence of one myself yet, and I haven't personally met anyone who has. Yet. And while it's not serious history (as far as I'm aware), it definitely is, in some small way, a part of our folklore.

Well, anyway, while I was surfing that vast, apocryphal source of information known as the "internet," I came across the photo above. It was labeled as a photo of Yucca Man in the Hidden Valley Campground of Joshua Tree National Park.

Uh, no. It's in numerous videos and stories about Yucca Man in the desert, including some by people who really should have known better.

You see, this photo, sans Yucca Man/Woman in the background, doesn't look anything like the Hidden Valley Campground. There's too much, and too high of grass, and the roads in the campground lack the thick center strip of vegetation shown in this photo. To be certain, though I have been there many times in person, I reviewed campground photos online and the satellite map imagery of the campground. Nope. Nothing that looks like it there at all. And then, as I explored just a bit more, I found a different version of this image used with stories about Texas.

And that's without any examination of the photo as a likely hoax or whether it was photoshopped.

It seems everyone was perfectly willing, even those who claim to be authorities on the desert, to use the photo as an example of a desert sighting of Yucca Man, whether or not it was even shot in the desert, or whether it was a hoax.

Call me old fashioned and a spoil-sport, but when I do a story, I like to get it right. The more credibility and integrity I can bring to a story, the better. And when you're covering a topic that's out of the ordinary and subject to skepticism anyway, little obvious errors raise larger questions about whether you care about getting the story right at all.

All that said, my own experience with bigfoot goes back to my teenage years in Sunny Valley, a rural community in southern Oregon. Our neighbors who had an 80 acre spread and some cattle (it was there that I was introduced to the gruesome practice of butchering steers, with steamy five gallon buckets scattered everywhere amongst the pools of blood, filled with every variety of bovine internal organs), claimed to have seen bigfoot come out of the forest to drink at their pond.

I never saw anything there myself, but I did have my horse throw me once while we were crossing a meadow. Sundance, my old gymkhana pony, had smelled and/or heard something coming to the edge of the forest that he truly did not want to meet, so he reared and twisted, dumped me, and headed as fast as he could for home. So much for loyalty. And while it could have been sasquatch, it also could very well have been a bear or cougar, as we had those living in the woods around our home. It never emerged from the treeline, so I while I heard some brush moving around, I didn't get a glimpse of what was making the sound.

While I never did see a bear or cougar near our home, I definitely heard a cougar (and chased a lot of coyotes). If you've never heard a cougar screech, well, it sounds a lot like I would imagine a woman screaming at the top of her lungs as someone literally tears her guts out. It's extremely loud and you don't forget it.

We had been at our neighbor's house on our way home when we heard the cougar screech from the direction of our pasture. With our horses and cattle out there, we thought it may be attacking one of them, so I grabbed a good sized stick and ran out there to (hopefully) scare it off. It must have heard me coming, because it took off, leaving our horses and cattle scared but OK. I'm sure I was lucky it left when it did.

The only other time I've run into a cougar in the wild was out here in the desert in Section 6 near Joshua Tree National Park. It was up in the rocks, and I ran after it yelling, "Here kitty-kitty," trying to get a good photo. No luck. A friend of ours who had a house near there used to drive out on Friday nights from Los Angeles to find a cougar asleep on his front porch. I wonder if it was the same one?

But while I've seen a cougar out in the desert, and a bear wandered out to the 29 Palms Inn and the Oasis of Mara a few years back (the diners at the restaurant were reportedly tossing steaks to it), I've never yet seen Yucca Man. And some years back, I asked some rangers at the national park if they'd ever seen it, and they said they'd seen a lot of strange stuff in the park - like a porno shoot up in the rocks, for instance - but no hairy old Yucca Man. I've heard stories of it in the park, and even out near Edwards Air Force Base (and definitely in the Sierra and the San Bernardino Mountains), but if I ever do see it, I hope I get a picture of it so folks can stop using this photo that isn't what they say it is.

Have you seen strange stuff in the desert? Let me know. I've seen a bunch, and I'll be writing about it from time to time. Stay safe!

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