Meet the California Professor Who Hiked 500 Miles Across the Mojave Desert

Meet the California Professor Who Hiked 500 Miles Across the Mojave Desert
The North Soda mountain range in the Mojave National Preserve on Aug. 19, 2021, in Baker, California. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Tribune News Service
By Matt Pawlik From Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles–In teaching geology, many professors might crack open a textbook or click through a PowerPoint presentation. Nick Van Buer, an associate professor of geology at Cal Poly Pomona, has something far more interesting to share: stories, videos, and maybe even a few cool scars from his 530-mile hike across the Mojave Desert.

He embarked on the trek earlier this year as a sabbatical project and documented the journey in a YouTube series called “Across the Mojave on Foot.” The expedition took 35 days, over which he climbed the equivalent of two Mount Everests (13 1/2 miles total) across 15 mountain ranges and 20 wilderness areas. It’s an incredibly impressive and unique desert trek.

I had the chance to chat with Van Buer. Here’s what he told me about the expedition.

Why He Did It

Specializing in late Mesozoic hard-rock geology and having a particular interest in the desert, Van Buer wanted to further understand Mojave geology. He collected samples, including some granite pieces he believes represent “the roots of supervolcanoes present during the age of the dinosaurs.” The experience will also benefit his classroom—he’ll be using the videos, which feature tons of fascinating geological interpretation, as part of his lectures. He hopes to inspire future geologists and encourage young people to pursue STEM studies.

The Path

From January to March, Van Buer walked from the Mexican border near Yuma, Arizona to the Sierra Nevada Mountains near the California community of Olancha. He covered up to 31 miles per day, with elevations ranging from -280 to 7,440 feet, and 95 percent of the trip was off-trail (in fact, he saw only three hikers the entire trip). Unlike the Pacific Crest Trail, there’s no defined connecting path—Van Buer calls it the “Mojave Wilderness Route.” He lays claim to the most distance covered using only wilderness areas along the route. “My students call this ‘Van Buering,’” he said.

The Toughest Spots

Though Van Buer planned for over nearly 10 years and has plenty of long-distance desert-hiking experience, the trek was not without some big challenges. “I seemed to have planned this trek with just enough knowledge of my abilities to make it possible, but with enough over-optimism [for it] to be extremely difficult,” he noted. The toughest stretch saw him hike for 16 hours across 31 miles in a part of Death Valley where camping is not allowed. He also had to traverse the rugged Avawatz Mountains while relying on 100-year-old map records. Van Buer even swam across the Colorado River multiple times, and one section had him pushing through over 150 feet of reeds for two hours. That was “the only section of the trip I wouldn’t do again,” he said.

His Supplies

He carried a Garmin inReach for communication and a 70-pound pack. Van Buer’s family and friends resupplied food seven times, but he used 13 natural sources to refill water, including one in which he had to dig more than 3 feet. He cooked his own bread using a technique he learned in the Ladakh Himalaya, throwing the flour right on the coal. (“That is just insane,” he says in his YouTube show, taking a bite of the bread he just made. “Maybe it’s the hunger talking, but this bread is good.”)
What he saw: Crossing “1.8 billion years of geological history” is pretty special on its own, but Van Buer told me the most exciting geological find was in the Panamint Mountains of Death Valley. An effect of the snowball earth, there was the juxtaposition of 635-million-year-old glacial-origin sediment directly below a 10,000-year-old tropical reef environment. It wasn’t all rocks—he saw mining shafts, stone shelters, petroglyphs, and metates (grinding bowls) carved directly into stone. His most beautiful moment was finding a little fern- and moss-covered waterfall in the Avawatz Mountains. “A waterfall is one thing,” he said, “but being surrounded by miles and miles of rocks in the desert makes it truly amazing.”

The Overall Experience

While Van Buer looks back on the hike “more fondly now” than when he just completed it, he told me confidently, “Yes, I would do it again.”
©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Related Topics