THE DESERT: A Love Story In Three Acts [ACT 2]
The Mojave lit a fire; straight away, I knew I wanted to visit Joshua Tree National Park. I needed more of those freaky trees, more of that eerie quiet, more pastel twilight vistas. After spending most of the spring and summer preparing for an early fall trek up Mt. Whitney, I finally seized the opportunity in October as part of a planned outing to the mystical high desert hippieland of Pioneertown for a friend’s birthday. I woke with the sun that Saturday morning, loaded up the car, and sped across the Inland Empire, U2’s “With Or Without You” on a delightfully ridiculous cycle in my head.
A bit of research led me to breakfast at Crossroads Café, located at the bustling intersection of Highway 62 and Park Avenue.
I use the term “bustling” loosely.
The drive north of Palm Springs had taken an uninspiring turn through the Morongo Valley, where visions of meth-fueled sunlit stabbings danced in my head. Rough dirt roads branched off into tracts of parched nothingness, dilapidated buildings far outnumbering those with intact windows and roofs. On offer along this depressing stretch were tattoos, liquor, beef jerky, bail bonds, Mexican food, and oddly enough, sushi. Yucca Valley, the largest settlement before reaching the actual town of Joshua Tree, was only slightly better, with the standard array of fast food establishments and scattered suburban retail outposts acting as an artificial buffer against the despair.
I had high hopes, then, for Joshua Tree. I cultivated a vision of a free spirit’s dreamland, Topanga Canyon’s desert sister, a tie-dyed mecca offering a swaying hands, flailing dreadlocks “Hallelujah!” in contrast to the rusted-out remains of what lay before. And in a way, it is all of those things—the afore-mentioned intersection is a hemp-wearing, organic-farming, patchouli-scented oasis where tattoos and peasant skirts are as common as climbing shoes and Patagonia puffies.
But that was it. One block on each side of the road, a few scattered outposts on the other side of the street, and then it flattened out once more into a blur of indiscernible beige. I tempered my disappointment at the general lack of stuff and strolled towards Crossroads, hunger in tow. When I ran into the birthday boy and friends at breakfast, I explained that I was going for a quick hike and would meet them back at the Pioneertown ranch in a bit.
One extremely delicious plate of polenta and eggs later, I coasted into JTNP armed with a crappy map and a hike description pulled from a friend’s hiking website, hoping for something more spectacular than the one-stoplight town that gives the park its name. The road wasted no time snaking up from the valley, twisting through sandy boulder fields that quickly gave way to chunky mountains and those eponymous trees.
Six miles past the gate, I reached the brown metal stick on the left side of the road that signaled the rather unmarked trailhead for the relatively new North View / Maze / Windows Loop. I stretched, slathered on sunscreen, tightened my laces and strode up a dirt path flanked by mystical rock temples and spiny wonders in every size, babbling under my breath in constant awe.
Entranced by the desert and her siren ways, double-fisting my iPhone and Canon to catch every little windswept boulder and cottonball cloud, I didn’t know that I was off trail until I nearly stepped off a ledge into a small slot canyon below. I studied it. I studied my map. I studied it. Hmm. Hmpf. This was not the trail.
I backtracked and then I saw it, a thin dirt path leading up through some rather chunky rock formations. Apparently, I was so mesmerized that I wandered right past it, over a rather obvious waterbar, and nearly right into some trouble. Clearly, the desert required a bit more focus, so I slugged some water, adjusted my sunglasses, and focused my way up, up, up until I reached a stupidly beautiful valley, and then I cackled out loud at the sheer magnificence of it all and the sheer insignificance of myself in its midst.
I danced around here completely alone, in giddy, wondrous euphoria for a long time. A long, long time. So long, in fact, that when I checked the time on my phone, I realized that I’d gone maybe just under two miles in an hour’s time, due to my off-trail exploits and rock worshipping, and was due back at the ranch in an hour for dinner.
Not wanting to backtrack and still floating on my desert high, I figured I could complete a small section of the loop, so I stowed the camera gear and picked up the pace, running downhill into a wash, then back uphill along some switchbacks, passing one trail junction for a viewpoint, then another. Suddenly, I found myself at the top of a ridge, gazing down with a bird’s-eye view at the wide desert valley, once again bellowing with joyous, vaguely maniacal laughter, until I realized that the trail just ended. Stopped. Went. Nowhere.
Crap. Crapcrapcrap. I peered back into the valley and caught the grey glint of my car far below, checked my compass (sort of), and picked my way along the ridgeline, figuring the trail must ride along the top for a bit until dipping back down below.
Instead, in my haste to bust booty back to the barbecue, I accidentally left the main trail. From my erroneous perch, I saw the trail ribbon through a valley behind me, and was able to reason my way back to it, suddenly not enjoying my desert adventure as much anymore.
This is the part of hiking that I usually name the “Get Me Off This Mountain” phase of the adventure, except now it was “Get Me Off Of This Godforsaken Sunburned Swath Of Sandy Misery.” I was walking so quickly that it almost qualified as running. I cursed my sense of adventure. I cursed the Stabby Little Asshole Plants along the trail. I found myself fixating on thoughts of rattlesnakes. And tarantulas. And mountain lions.
And so I wandered into the wrong wash twice, backtracked a few times, followed some footprints to a dead end, backtracked a few more times, and almost cried. Then my phone rang and it was the birthday boy, asking me to stop and pick up some assorted meat products for the barbecue. As I ended the call, I laughed at what a freakin’ idiot I had just been in the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and sprinted across the sand with a wide grin plastered on my face, my soul bursting with happiness.