The alarm goes off at 3:57 AM.
I grab my backpack, some water from the fridge, and head out the door. Alex is waiting outside, ready for the trip to the mountains. His Altima, we anticipate, will have trouble on the unpaved roads, so we take my Sorento. The roads quickly empty as we leave town. Rumbling tires and the drone of the air conditioning are the only sounds. The desert is silent.
We turn off the highway after many miles, approaching the trailhead. Eight miles of dusty dirt road brings us to a mining museum on the left and a big gate - quite deliberately padlocked - on the right. A red light blinks on and off: whoever recently built this fortress is keen to discourage trespassing. Alex mutters in frustration, as no one had mentioned such security in all his internet researching the day before. The sun still sleeps, so we cannot see Castle Dome, yet we know it looms not far to the north.
Back on the main road, we decide to head north. The sky lightens and others silently pass us by in their journey through the desert. We come to a border checkpoint (strangely far from any border) and ask the two guards where to go hiking. They point us to King Road, just a few miles north, and mention loads of trails back in the wildlife refuge. The road closure we had discovered previously was news to them as well; however, they said, we could still get to Castle Dome the long way around.
So we try it. A sharp right onto King Road, then a sudden right up an embankment on to a narrow dirt road. We stop to catch the sunrise and the drive for nearly an hour and a half through the wilderness, trees scratching the windows with Alfred Hitchcock musicality as we bounce up and down through the washes and the rocks. I thank God that I was given an SUV as a rental car this time around.
Finally, we come to the trailhead. Walking up the wash as the temperature climbs into the 90s, we find the first cairn: a pile of stones marking the trail to Castle Dome. Alex's internet research says to follow the wash into the canyon, then there's a clear path up to the right and we would be on our way to Castle Dome.
There is no clear path. The first cairn is the only cairn that we ever do find. So, we blaze a trail, scrambling up rocky hills and hoping there are no angry coyotes in the caves that we pass. Up on the ridge, we finally see Castle Dome, some distance away. It's clear now why the internet says the hike is a six-hour trip.
We traipse around, conversing about storytelling and work and vacations as we try and find the least dangerous routes through the mountains. A variety of cacti cling to the hills; small lizards and what might be roadrunners dart around.
Soon, we need to head back to the car, so we walk down into the wash, where the occasional rains unleash torrents of water that carve deep pools in the rocks. The whole way back, we try to see where we went wrong, but never do find another cairn or anything resembling the online trail description.
Three hours driving follows, most of it off-road. Safe home.
"Next time, Castle Dome," says Alex, ruefully. "Next time, we'll defeat you."