Day 56-58: Joshua Tree National Park

Friday (2016-10-21):

Up early. Breakfast sandwich and a poop before we hit the road. Boyd & Juliann (Andrew’s youngest sister) arrive and we pack up Boyd’s SUV. Such a luxurious trip I am in for – camp stove, propane lamp, huge tent, coffee and French press – this is a far call from the basics I have on the road. We hit the road and I shake of the grogginess as we chit-chat for two and a half hours to Joshua Tree National Park. I look up some background info on the park to learn about the natural and geologic history. JTNP is the meeting ground of the Mojave Desert (north) and Colorado Desert (south), showing quite varying plant and animal life across its huge acreage. I will be crossing the Mojave Desert on my way to Flagstaff, so this was a chance to understand what I will be committing to for the next week or two.

It takes a while to find a campsite at Jumbo Rocks, a first-come first-served campground near the Oasis entrance on the north central side of the park. It’s a good thing we left early! We are also lucky to have mild weather with highs in the mid 80’s and lows tonight predicted to be in the 50’s. We set up camp then find a shady spot on the rocks to play King of New York. Afterwards we venture out into the desert just south of the campground. There are no paths here, just a lot of places to walk amid sparse vegetation and congregations of rock. The Joshua Trees, a plant in the Yucca family, are spaced out pretty far, intermixed with small shrubs and other drought-resistant plants that manage to thrive despite the heat and very limited soil – the ground is covered almost exclusively in rock, either in big boulders or coarse gravel.

I love it. You can just go – wherever you want. I try my best to avoid smashing plants underfoot and learn that, while I should be careful to avoid smashing plants, the plants are not exactly defenseless. Everything in this harsh environment is spiky or course and it’s not long before I manage to draw blood as I scratch my leg on a yucca plant. The massive piles of rocks were formed during ancient geologic activity sprouting from the San Andreas fault line to the west and several other faults criss-crossing the park. This is the real draw of JTNP – scrambling and climbing up the many rock formations.

We summit one or two of the hills before stopping and admiring the view. Again, the feeling here is less of remoteness (we are 15 minutes from camp) and more of being exposed. We can see almost all the way to Nevada! While my companions get comfortable atop the outcrop I continue on, winding down the side into a small valley and clambering up the far side. I find a nice lounge-chair shaped rock on top of this small summit and sit down, lean back, and observe the acoustics that allow me to hear my friends across the valley. Besides their soft chatter, the desert is utterly quiet. Few birds, no rustling leaves, just silence. The sun slips across the sky as I drift to sleep, slowly covering me in shadow. I awake cold, with a chilly wind urging me to stand and relocate the sun’s warmth. It’s only in the 80’s right now, which is great, but the sun provides most of the heat – in the shade a warm layer is almost a must.

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From left to right: Boyd, Jules, Scott, and me.

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View from my nap spot. See my friends on top of tht far outcrop? I could hear them clear as day.

Rejuvenated, I scrambled back down, cross the valley, and climb up a fairly steep face to rejoin my friends. We return to camp and teach Jules to play Catan. She picks it up fast and soon we are all loud and whipping insults across the table. I enjoy a beer and after Boyd’s surprising come-from-behind victory we start a fire and roast sausages for dinner. A dessert of smore’s rounds out the night’s food and we return for another round of Catan. Unhappy with my dominance, another game is demanded. Mistake. It goes on forever and by the end none of us really cares anymore. When we finally finish Boyd and Jules call it a night while Scott and I climb atop the rocks behind camp and stare up at an endless night sky. Such a vast sea of stars on a backdrop almost pitch black. At least straight above and to the east – the hazy pollution coming from the developed west reflects lights and drowns out the stars above Palm Springs. We chat about work, life, the future. As much fun as friendly competition over games can be these moments of quiet, sincere connection will be the moments that stick with me forever. We see a massive, long, and bright shooting star. This is perfect.


Saturday (2016-10-22):

Later today we will decide we are not glamping (glamorous camping), but this morning’s breakfast says otherwise for someone who has been eating cold overnight oats every day on the road. Scott fries up bacon, grease shooting everywhere, while Jules cooks potatoes and the leftover sausage form last night. Meanwhile, I cut up the avocado and cheese and Boyd makes coffee. We throw it all into tortillas and cover it with salsa and hot sauce. Shit, it’s almost like being at home!

After breakfast we hop in the car and drive back west to a lookout overlooking the San Andreas Fault with Palm Springs in the background and Mt. San Jacinto looming large in the background. We did not expect much from an obvious tourist stop but the view is stunning! There is a hike a few miles back and we hit the trail around 11:00 for a 6.3 mile loop hike on the Lost Horse Valley trail out to an old abandoned gold mine. It’s a short hike but during the peak heat and at 4,500 feet of elevation. Our water supply is dwindling and there is no shade so we decide to do the out-and-back instead and keep it to 4.5 miles. The mine is fenced off and not particularly exciting, but it was nice to hike out and see some lizards, birds, and a surprising diversity of plants life.

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Viewpoint with Mt. San Jacinto in the background. The small ridge in the valley is the San Andreas Fault.

Back at camp we all find our own spots and nap/lounge in the shade to cool of and regain our energy. All the sun really drains you! We come together later to snack and chat in the shade – Boyd passes around the MJ and, uncharacteristically, join i. Hey, I am in the desert, with friends, on a trip of exploration and discovery. Why the hell not? We laugh and when the chatter dies away we hop back on Catan. Jules wins this one but not before we pause to run out to the rocks form yesterday and watch the sunset over Mt. San Jacinto. It’s not the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen (northern Oregon Coast still wins) but enjoying it with friends over the open desert is incredibly beautiful. As the last rays fade behind the mountains we walk back to camp under a pink & purple sky. The temperature drops but remains comfortable and we build a fire and eat beef & mushroom stew with toast. Tonight’s fire is bigger & hotter than any I’ve experienced in a while thanks to no burn ban and a heck of a lot of firewood.

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Laying down, watching the sunset atop some rocks.

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Look at that face!

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Sunset is actually better looking east, away from the haze above Palm Springs.

Scott & I leave Boyd & Jules the tent as we sleep under the stars. As far as I can remember, this is a first for me (how??). I count 3-4 shooting stars as I the deep black helps me envision the constellations. Eventually I realize that I have been laying flat on my back with eyes closed, drifting off, for some time. Sleep overcomes me.

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The stars were so bright and the sky so black that even my phone could capture the night sky!


Sunday (2016-10-23):

I wanted to wake up for the sunrise this morning but, alas, it did not happen. I realize that riding east I will never ride off into the sunset, but I can watch the sunrise if I hit the road early enough. It’s a possibility too, since I will probably avoid the peak heat in order to conserve water. We clean up quickly and east breakfast at Crossroads, a small restaurant along the highway not to far from the park. By the time we sit through traffic and find out way back to Long Beach I’m a little motion sick from riding in the back seat. I’d love nothing more than to shower and snooze but it is Sunday and football overtakes the living room (my bedroom). Oh, the joys of being a guest!

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