Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The vacation you get

(This is a continuation of the last post, about my trip to Joshua Tree National Park.)

At dawn I packed quickly without making breakfast and began the two-hour hike back to my car.

It was now the third day of my four-day weekend, and I wanted to squeeze in a hike to the Fortynine Palms oasis, where a fault in the rocks pipes water into a valley. The water nourishes a community of palms and other plants and provides a drinking hole for bighorn sheep and smaller animals. The hike up over a ridge into the valley is short but steep and exposed, and when I finally crested the last hill and caught a glimpse of the palms, it brought a smile to my face.

They are huge. I caught a couple other hikers in the last picture, for scale; they are at the bottom-left. I sat there for a long time just listening to the silence, the trickling water and the birds. It gave me chills to feel the hot sun and cold breeze on my skin, looking at a type of plant my eyes associate with the Caribbean. I was thinking about Puerto Rico when the two hikers arrived, the woman recounting a long story, at high volume, about how her mother lost tens of thousands of dollars in a Ponzi scheme.

(On my way back I passed a couple pointing at the rocks and discussing what they might be. "I can help you," I said. "I'm a geologist." This happens sometimes on hikes.)

After the palm oasis, I walked into the backcountry again, off-trail, in search of Samuelson's Rocks. John Samuelson was a Swedish citizen and would-be homesteader in the area during the 20s (his claim was turned down for lack of U.S. citizenship). After he killed two men at a dance in Compton, CA, he was deemed insane and sent to a state hospital, from which he escaped in 1930. He made his way to the Pacific Northwest, where he apparently remained until a logging accident ended his life in the 50s.

During the brief period he lived in what would become Joshua Tree National Park, he carved eight rocks with philosophical and political statements. I wanted to find and photograph all of them.

I parked at a turnoff and, using descriptions I'd found on the internet and the contours on my topographic map, set off to the west to look for the site. After half an hour of walking I came upon signs of an old settlement. Below, the valley in which Samuelson built:

I walked for a bit and quickly found three rocks with carvings. I walked for a bit more -- several hours, in fact -- and failed to find any more. I must be a terrible rock finder. But here are the three I located, with text:




I walked for many hours that afternoon. I walked for many hours overall, covering about 32 miles over the course of the weekend, with about of half that on the previous day. After I got back to my car I went to the Hidden Valley campground and set up camp. It was very nice. It was still very cold.

I had a very special mission to accomplish with the remaining light: I wanted to get sunset photographs of the cholla cactus garden in the south part of the park. It was an hour's drive away, down into the lower-elevation desert, the Joshua trees diminishing until finally they were gone.

This is the cholla cactus. It looks huggable. There were many signs warning to not, NOT touch the cactus, so I was able to resist. In this particular section of the park, along the road, the other vegetation gives way and suddenly it is only cholla. Paths wind among them, and it's very cool to walk through. I got many photographs as the sun disappeared behind the mountains.

As soon as the sun went down, the temperature, which was already quite cold, seemed to drop about 10 degrees. I had just one more stop, which was the ocotillo patch a little further down the road. With the last of the light I pulled over to take this photo of a stunning ocotillo plant that might have been 16 feet high, silhouetted against the purples and blues of the landscape. It's my favorite photo from the trip.

The ocotillo is not a cactus, though it has spines. They might grow and lose their tiny leaves five times a year, dependent on how much moisture the land gets, and will bear red flowers as well. This one had very, very tiny leaves. It was beautiful and I loved it.

I drove back through the park. It was 7 PM and dark. I decided to go for a hike. It was the best way to stay warm short of sitting in the car with the motor running, so I picked a flat little trail that led to an old ranch site. On the way there I didn't need my headlamp, but picked the pale swath of sand out of the night well enough to trot the whole way, until I was a comfortable temperature.

Once there, I turned my headlamp on and swung the beam around, catching a few old rock walls and some structures. I snapped this photo of the remains of an adobe house. The interpretive sign said the bricks were made in part from mine tailings, and had gold in them. I couldn't see any gold.

After a while I realized it was a little silly to try to look at a historic ranch in the dark, so I went back and drove to another trailhead that would leave me out away from the lights of the parking lots and campsites, so I could take some more photos of the sky. The first, below, seems to capture the motion of the earth, but what it actually captures is my having jostled it as I pressed the shutter button.

Find Orion again in the second one.

I heard some people shutting doors in the parking lot and I turned on the red beam of my headlamp so that they wouldn't trip over me in the dark and wet themselves in terror. But they didn't come out onto the trail, so eventually I wandered back. It was two guys who were going out on a night hike, and we stood and talked about gear for a while. It's a weird thing to have a very friendly, several-minutes-long conversation with strangers without having any idea what they look like. (Or, on second thought, maybe it's not. Blind people do it all the time.)

It felt extremely cold when I got back to my campsite. The weather forecast I'd seen before I left Denver had said this was supposed to be the warmest night, but it absolutely was not. I scrounged around looking for ways to insulate myself better in my tent and settled on taking the false floor out of the car trunk and putting it under my ground pad, assuming the carpet-covered slab of fiberglass would be good for stopping some of the heat transfer between me and the ground. But I still kept waking during the night, the fabric around the cinched two-inch air hole in my mummy bag soaked through with condensation, pulling my arms into the body of my long underwear and turning another quarter-turn, trying a new position. The air felt damp. Sometime in the middle of the night I heard what sounded like raindrops on the roof of the tent.

When my alarm went off at 5 in the morning, I unzipped the tent to see two inches of snow. It happened again! This is the fourth time I have accidentally camped in the snow.

I jumped in the car and drove to Keys View to watch the sun rise. Below, the Salton Sea sits grey in the distance.

It looks so peaceful, doesn't it? In the three seconds it took to snap that picture, the 40-mph frozen wind rendered my gloved hands into unusable claws. I didn't wait for the sun to crest the horizon; I got back in the car. Here are some pictures from my drive back to pack up the campsite.

There were some quails there, and another little bird.

And then I drove back to Palm Springs. I'd seen so many Joshua trees in the previous days that whenever I closed my eyes, their green furriness populated the space behind my eyelids.

Certain things about Palm Springs seemed really nice. For one thing, it was just an hour from a National Park. But just when I began to think about whether it would be nice to live there, I noticed that the majority of inhabitants appeared to be old women with painted faces, big sunglasses and leopard print bags. So, there you go. I love the people of Denver and hate the landscape. What's a girl to do?

To the airport, and to end of the vacation that never was exactly what I planned.

I was a little surprised when I arrived to check in and found that there were none of those little computer kiosks; I had to wait in line behind people checking bags. So I was running a little late when I got to security to find a very long line. But, no use in worrying; everyone else in the airport was in the same boat as I. They stood fretting aloud all around me. I didn't really think all the planes at the airport would take off without half their passengers.

After an hour of waiting in line and a flurry of actual screening, I put my shoes back on and ran to the gate for my Frontier flight. I'd heard that the logjam was due to the fact that, due to weather in New York, three of yesterday's flights had been rescheduled for the same time as mine that day. And two of the TSA agents had called in sick. It was a very small staff at a very small airport trying to handle a very large flow of traffic. At the gate I joined a group of people looking out the windows and saying, "But I don't understand why you won't let us on. It's right there."

And we all watched as the plane taxied away to take off. I was told that the woman at the Frontier counter had said, "I can't do anything for you. You missed your flight. Other people aren't missing their flights."

At the gate 20 feet to our left, Allegiant Air staff were consulting over walkie-talkies, going out and finding their missing passengers and walking them through the security line, waiting to leave until everyone was on board. After 20 minutes, they ushered the last passenger through and closed the door, and finally departed. No, no one else was missing their flights.

It took about half an hour for the Frontier agents to figure out that we were supposed to go back to the ticket counter. Once there, the afore-quoted agent, the scowl never leaving her face, proceeded to rebook everyone on the earlier or the later United flight leaving Palm Springs, without first asking if anyone really needed to get back to Denver soon, or if anyone was traveling together. So traveling companions got split up, and an urgent case got put on the late flight. The agent sent us to the United counter to get things sorted out, where everything became magically friendly and easy. (I say this with some amusement considering my favorite past post, Not meant to be an adventure, where something goes terribly wrong with every single flight of my multi-legged journey visiting three graduate schools around the west. Flying United.)

Then! It was time to go back through security. By now, however, there were only about ten people in line. ("This is how it usually is," said one of the airport employees.) As I took my hat off, I told a new young friend, "Promise you won't make fun of my hair." I had been camping for four days and my hair had taken on a wild quality, sticky and inconsistently upright, like the pelt of a mentally ill beaver. More than anything -- more than sleep, more than a quick flight, more than a beer -- I wanted a shower. But I would now have to wait till after my new flight's arrival in Denver at 9 PM. Nine hours hence.

Well. When I'd first gotten to Palm Springs, I'd wished I'd had more time to spend in the lovely airport. I was trying to make the best of it. I said something cheerful to the TSA agents, who thanked me for my attitude. (They were remarkably friendly and funny all day, themselves.) On my way out to the parklike outdoor section of the airport, I noticed these for the first time:

They were umbrellas. The sign says, "Please return to any umbrella station in the airport prior to departing." How civilized! But clearly, it was perfectly sunny out. It was also insanely windy. After putting on all the layers I wore while hiking in an attempt to withstand the wind long enough to get some token time reading my book in the great outdoors, I retreated to the terminal. And eventually, I was put on a tiny little propeller plane for Las Vegas. It was lots of fun looking out at the random houses in the desert. Who the heck buys a lot not only hours away from any town, but also from any water, scenery, road that doesn't wash away in a rare rain, or anything to do besides count cacti? Hm. Meth producers, maybe, now that I think about it.

(Also, there was a woman on the plane whose suit jacket, coat, and fedora were each made from a different leopard print.)

So, that is how I made my first visit to Las Vegas, if it counts as a visit. You know, I have heard of the strip in Las Vegas many times, and seen pictures, but somehow I never imagined it as being right next to the airport. But it is.

At the time that I was sitting on the plane taking the above picture, I was thinking, "Ha, I bet they have slot machines in the airport. That would be funny. But of course they don't." But of course they do.

I entered the concourse to the sight of travelers staring at slot machines, lights of every hue flashing about them, their hunched forms haloed by the setting sun. These American angels. And so we come to the final chapter of our story.

I stood with arms folded at the United gate, waiting for the standby list to come up on the screen, the better to judge my chances of getting on an earlier flight back to Denver. There were 37 people on standby.

One of my fellow Frontier refugees, a man from Boulder, appeared beside me. "I asked if I could be put on the list and they said they'd do it for $75," he said.

"They want to charge you $75 for a chance to get on the plane?"

He nodded.

An agent was making an announcement. They were offering a $500 voucher and a night in a hotel for anyone who would give up their seat.

"Wow," I said. "Do you think, if Frontier had managed to book me on this flight, could I have given it up and gotten $500 and a free night in Vegas?"

He shrugged. "I dunno. Probably."

"That would have been amazing."

(If you ever wonder why there are 37 people on standby for your United flight, consider that a Frontier flight somewhere might have left a dozen of its passengers at the gate.)

I had three or four hours until my next flight. We began to talk about our lives in Denver and Boulder and our visits to Palm Springs. He told me about coming on a herd of bighorn sheep while cycling through the park. I told him about my everything, the backpacking in the cold, the thing about how I prefer traveling with friends, but if no one's available I just go by myself.

"Wow," he said. "You're amazing."

I'm amazing? I wanted to tell him, I do it because it's easy for me. Hiking 30 miles is easy, being alone is easy. Nobody knows about the things that I don't do because they're hard for me. Things that involve people and the telephone and sitting still. I began to think about what else I could wander off to do. I was afraid he was going to ask me out. He didn't know how much I needed a shower. I was exhausted. My face and hands were, I was beginning to realize, so sunburnt they were starting to tingle. My hair hurt.

All willpower rendered inert by my exhaustion, I retreated to a bar, where I ate an overcooked burger and fries and drank a beer that turned out to be $9. The entire tab and tip was $30. I had just spent $30 on a lame airport supper, because I was too destroyed to make proper decisions. No. Because Frontier was cruel and heartless and I was supposed to have been back in Denver by 1 PM. My trip was already over budget, because Budget was cruel and heartless. And I had four days of exposure to surprise freezing cold because the Mojave weather was cruel and heartless.

No. I'm kidding you all. I have taken such great care with these two posts, more than any posts I have ever made on this blog, because the experience itself has meant so much to me. There in Las Vegas I was at the tail end of an adventure that had turned out to be one of the most extraordinary trips I've ever taken. And not because of the mishaps, or the aloneness, or the Joshua trees or the palms or the stars. It was because I have never had a trip that was so stress-free. I was smiling when I talked to the rental sales agents, I was patient when it snowed, I was cheerful when I stood in the security line. I went out and had fun in the weather, and when I was in the airport, I tried to make the people around me smile.

I suppose these things happened because I have been trying earnestly to be a more flexible and a more cheerful person. I suppose it worked, for a weekend. And I will have all these beautiful memories of Palm Springs and Joshua Tree for the rest of my life. I hiked in the pitch black, I saw those unearthly trees in the snow, and a meteor streaking past Orion's outstretched arm. I heard silence between the planes. All these things were allowed to happen because for a little while, I allowed them to happen. In terms of practice, this was a success. Now I go back to my regular life, where in a matter of days I will be tearing my hair out over being single on Valentine's Day, again.

I deplaned in Denver long after dark and shuffled to the terminal exit. I wouldn't be in my bed till almost midnight. I had to get up at 5 for work the next morning. And still I stopped before the sliding doors to take one more photo, of one of the new pieces of DIA artwork installed since my last visit. To my addled brain it was a fourth Samuelson's rock.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Joshua Tree

Greetings again, everybody. This isn't really my 100th post in any meaningful way, as I've moved or deleted so many posts from this site since its beginning, but we can pretend.

I visited CA and Joshua Tree National Park a week ago; here is the first of a two-post series on the trip. Joshua Tree was a place on my list of places to visit; it was there because I'd intended to stop there (and many other places) in November of 2010, on the third leg of my road trip around the west, but my car broke down in Denver and the rest is history. But once I get it in my head that I'm going to do something, I tend to keep wanting to do it until I actually get it done, even if that's years later.

I chose Joshua Tree for this particular trip because my back has been hurting so much lately... it's hard to sit for more than half an hour, so I didn't want a trip that would involve a lot of driving. Joshua Tree is just one hour from the airport in Palm Springs, CA.

This was my first time flying somewhere to backpack, which is important because I had to plan a bit differently; you cannot, for instance, bring butane canisters on a plane. As I was putting my stuff together I realized that I might actually be able to go with just my new day pack, strapping my sleeping bag and ground pad and tent to the outside. I tried this and it actually worked. So then I repacked everything for the plane: below, my sleeping bag and some food is in the red bag, and everything else is in the backpack.

(For those who are curious, "everything else" means my stove, pot and spoon; half my food, since I didn't want to waste time in Palm Springs; the tent and ground pad; nalgene and deflated water bladder; extra layers; plus sundries like my alarm clock, headlamp, camera, toiletries, book, and the ever-essential tick tweezers.)

I had a great view of Denver from my window seat. Here is a view of downtown, with Cheesman Park just above the center of the picture (north is to the left). I can see my house from here! Where I live is a little off from the center of the picture.

My view from the same window when landing in Palm Springs was terrifying, and illustrative of the truth that one person's horror is another's paradise.

It was hard to believe what I was seeing. Development after development of golf courses lined by identical mansions sited just feet from each other. My first thought was, "Who wants to spend that much money on a house that looks just like everyone else's, and is so close you could spit into your neighbor's bathroom from your own?" My second thought, as a geologist, was "I'll have to look up when their aquifer is predicted to run out."

For the record... a quick search reveals that Palm Springs homes use twice as much water as the national average, and that the town has sunk 8 inches in just the last 15 years due to removal of groundwater from the pore spaces in the rock and sediment beneath the town. The town supplements with water from the Colorado River, which is now so overtaxed that some years it never reaches the sea. For those of you whose reading doesn't bring you into much contact with news about our water supplies, yes, the west is in exactly as much deep shit as it sounds.

And as someone whose profession involves knowing about ground and surface water, what I saw from the plane made my eyes bug out of my head. It's something like seeing lemmings lined up on the proverbial cliff.

All right, enough about that. The Palm Springs airport also blew my mind, but in a good way. Half of it was open-air, and had so many lovely trees and other plantings and fountains and flowers that I actually wanted to be able to just hang out there for a while after my flight. It was like a park.

I was so taken with all this partly because of how brown Denver is right now... well, exactly like it is for most of the year... without even any snow to prettify the landscape. The bright flowers brought a big grin to my face.

But I needed to get my rental car. This is where the trouble began.

To help you understand what follows, I'll reveal that I've never had a credit card; I come from a very frugal and financially circumspect family that didn't buy anything it couldn't afford, and I grew up believing debt was bad. As I got older I realized how deeply credit was integrated into the country's economy, and I made a mental note to get a credit card "some time." But there has been a certain amount of foot-dragging on my part due to my not-very-well-tempered disgust over the idea of having fees hanging over my head to use my own money. And up to this point, it'd never been an issue.

I've rented cars with my debit card all my life. For this particular trip, I'd gotten a deal with Budget -- a compact at $15/day, as long as I prepaid the whole thing, which I did. When I got to the counter, they said they'd need to put a $200 hold on my card, since it was a debit card. I said "No problem." They said they'd have to run a credit check to rent to me with a debit card. I was used to this too and said "No problem." They punched it in and told me my credit was too low to rent to me.

I admit that I don't understand exactly what goes into rental car agency practices... I had already paid in full for the rental, they were already putting a hold on my bank account, so I'm not sure why anything more was needed. But there you go. The observer side of me noticed that I was embarrassed to be turned down for bad credit, even though I'd never missed (had!) a payment in my life, so ingrained is the cultural stigma.

They said to try the other agencies. So I tried Enterprise, which had rented to me in Denver just a few months ago. Didn't pass. I tried Dollar and Thrifty; didn't pass. While waiting in line for Hertz I began to wonder what a person does when they have just flown with their backpacking gear to a town in the middle of the desert and can't rent their car, or any other car. I began thinking about who I could call who might have suggestions. This trip might turn out to be a very different adventure than I'd planned.

It's true that you don't always get the vacation you want. You get the vacation you get. I am trying, seriously, to be more flexible in life right now. And while I would like to practice that with, say, something like finding out that the best sushi place in Denver has an hour-long wait and maybe we should go to the best Thai place instead, in reality I know that it's the really difficult situations that are given to us on a platter. You want to learn to be flexible? Here you are. If you can do this one, you can do anything.

Hertz was very friendly and did in fact rent me a car, so I never found out any of the things I was wondering. I had to pay $100 more for the rental than I would have with Budget, but at this point that wasn't something that was terribly troubling to me.

I left the airport making another mental note, no really this time, to get a credit card. It still drives me batty that, in one sense, I was rejected because I have spent my 35 years living entirely within my means (I was told once by a AAA agent that I "had no credit rating," though I'm not even sure that's possible). Hey, I know you sometimes just have to work with the system. But sometimes I think, Oh my God, I'm turning into one of those crazy old men who live off the grid in Wyoming. Except a woman.

I went to the sporting goods store in town and bought a little canister for my stove, and fired the stove up in the parking lot just to make sure it worked, as I did not want to be out in the freezing cold dark in the middle of nowhere when I found out it wouldn't light.

On the way out of Palm Springs is a huge wind farm. I tried to take pictures that illustrated its hugeness, but this was the best I got:

Now, I'd also chosen this trip partly because it was winter, and a trip to southern CA sounded nice. I had been following the weather in Joshua Tree that week and it had been in the 70s. However, by the time I arrived at the park it was snowing, with winds at 20-40 mph.

Whoops. I stopped at the visitor's center to buy a sticker to add to my guitar case, which is plastered with national park memoranda from my 2010 road trip... as soon as I stepped back into the parking lot the wind ripped the sticker out of my hand, and I had to go back in and buy another.

I drove in a ways, parked my car and sat and thought about what I wanted to do. I know from experience that my sleeping bag is pretty good down to 20 degrees, and snow itself is not really a problem (much better for camping than rain is, actually). Wind can make things miserable, but often dies down in the evening. My biggest concern was the simple fact that it was winter and the sun was going to go down at 5:30 and stay down for 13 hours. I was alone. There was no one to sit around a campfire and talk with, and no fires were allowed anyway. What on earth would I do with myself then? When it's too dark to keep hiking, too cold to be outside of a sleeping bag? It's the hours between sundown and sleep that vex me the most when I'm backpacking solo, which is a big part of why I've never gone in the winter before. A key issue is that, as with sitting, if I lie down for more than half an hour my back gets very stiff and often painful, so I can't just lie in the tent and read, even presuming I wanted to read for 5 hours straight. When I sleep I seem to be fine, as the muscles will relax then, but there's no way I was going to sleep for 13 hours.

My choices were: I could head out into the backcountry right now and make the best of it; I could wait until it was almost dark, hike just a little ways, and camp immediately, sparing myself several hours of exposure to the elements; or I could wait till the next night to go backpacking, spending the first night at a campground where I'd have easy access to my car if I wanted to warm up.

I decided to watch and see if the weather was getting worse or better, and to take a little hike in the meantime.

Here is our first photo of a Joshua Tree, in the snow. The Joshua Tree isn't really a tree, but a kind of branching yucca. (There's another kind of more normal-looking yucca in the foreground on the right, as well as in the background.) Mormon settlers named the tree after Joshua of the Bible, his arms raised in prayer. They're found in the higher-elevation Mojave desert of four states, but our warming climate might mean their disappearance from the park in the coming 50 to 100 years.

It's hard to say what that would mean for the park that bears their name. In 2010 I traveled to Glacier National Park, from which the remaining glaciers may disappear in just 10 to 20 years. However, that park's entire landscape was is the product of glaciers, and their imprint will remain for hundreds of thousands of years. Not so with the Joshua trees.

By 4 PM it had cleared up a bit and I decided to hit the trail. The park has specific trailheads from which to enter the backcountry; at each is a station where you fill out a tag and put one half in the box, keeping the other half with you. I had left my travel plans with Kris, but rangers in the park would also be checking that information if I failed to return to my car.

For my newer readers... yes, I get comments and questions all the time about the fact that I often backpack solo. To read some of my thoughts on the issue, see an earlier post: "In the dark, everything sounds like a bear."

Here I am, ready to set out. It strikes me as I look at this picture that all my clothing is black or dark navy. That's on purpose; when I buy outerwear I always buy the darkest color, because if it's chilly enough to put it on, I figure I might want that extra warmth from the sun's rays. In practice, it hardly ever does anything -- usually I'm chilly because the sun isn't out anymore, hidden either by clouds or the bulk of the earth. But once in a while it's useful, as it was here.

In this lower-elevation section of the park, Joshua trees were rare. I climbed up through washes and gullies until they began to appear. It started snowing again. As the sun disappeared, I was just entering an area where the trail wasn't quite so steep, and the ground was flattening out again, enough to make setting up a tent possible. I took off my pack and found that the valve from my water bladder had been leaking onto my ground pad, and the patch of damp had already turned into ice, though it's hard to tell from this blurry picture.

I can't say I've ever been on a trip where water was already freezing before the sun even set, but I was probably the least concerned I've been about anything on a backpacking trip. I wouldn't have been that way even a few years ago. I would be thinking: Is this bad? How cold is too cold? Will I get hypothermia? What should I do? What if I make a mistake?? I guess worries like that go away with experience.

Actually, for me, almost every kind of worry has gone away while backpacking -- which isn't to say that the danger or fear has gone away. It's the ruminating over danger and fear that has largely gone away, the paralyzing dread of making a mistake and dying stupidly. Now, when something happens that seems like a problem -- if I don't know where I am, or I've run out of water, or I injure myself -- my mind immediately begins working on a plan of action, without draining itself imagining horrible things that haven't happened yet. And this is the most wonderful thing about backpacking, the thing that I wish I could share with everyone who would never consider doing what I do.

The fact that my actions have immediate and real consequences produces a clarity that is tragically elusive in everyday life, but which is wonderful and addictive.

If I'm feeling like I'm getting hypothermic, I can lie there and do nothing and maybe die, or I can get up. Burn those powerbar calories doing jumping jacks until I'm warm, do it every time I start shivering. Set up my stove and make some hot stuff to put in my body. Pile juniper branches over and under my bag for extra insulation. Break park rules and build a fire. But there's no worry in any of this. It's a smooth and often joyful transition from noticing a problem into problem-solving, and it wakes up the parts of being human that are usually asleep in me. I can feel innate strength and competence and aliveness in me that doesn't depend on what I know but on who I am and who every human being is, with the whole-body knowledge that this is what humans are born to do. To see clearly, to act, and to experience. Not to worry, and not to waste our hours in denial or trying to numb ourselves to our own lives.

I have some difficulty incorporating these things into my everyday life. But now you know why I keep going back to the backcountry.

Dinner in the frozen dark at 6:30 PM. Once again, the vacation you get. I was pretty comfortable though. It's odd because, as some of you know, I'm generally freezing if it's below 71 degrees -- but that's if I'm in the office or in someone's home, trying to work at the computer or watch a movie. If I can keep moving I actually stay plenty warm, and my discomfort at cold also seems situation-dependent. When I'm camping, it's as if my body gives up and says, "Okay, I know it's not going to get warmer, so I won't even bother sending discomfort signals to the brain."

After dinner I and read for a bit then did, in fact, sleep for 12 hours, which I didn't know I was capable of. But again, realizing that there was no other option under the circumstances, my body seemed to go back to sleep each time I woke with an easy compliance I wish was available to me in my own bed at home.

At 7 AM it began to get light and I made some oatmeal and hit the trail as the sun rose.

As I hiked upward more Joshua trees appeared. I have read them described as "Dr. Seuss trees" and I agree; walking through the park's landscape, with the fuzzy trees and piles of rounded granite boulders everywhere, was like being in a Dr. Seuss book -- or on a science fiction set. They are weird and goofy-looking things, and it is hard not to have affection for them. (Click on any picture to see a larger version, or a slideshow of the photos from this post.)

Above, that snow occurred during the night; none of the stuff that fell inside the park ended up sticking.

I hiked along the Boy Scout Trail until the turnoff for Willow Hole. Despite being 40-something degrees with 20-30 mph winds, the hike was really pleasant; Joshua Tree has to be one of the most welcoming places to hike I've ever been, with much of the park on a level plain from which granite hills and mountains stick out. Most of the trails stay on the level and wind around and between the heights rather than going over them. It was like taking a stroll through Solla Sollew (my favorite Dr. Seuss book, and incidentally one that carries a message I try to convey in many of my conversations about backpacking and risk).

If you ever visit the park I definitely recommend the trail to Willow Hole. It's very cool; you enter the "Wonderland of Rocks" where naked granite boulders pile on each other in every direction.

This is a good look at the reason why most of the trails stay on the level; from a distance, the rugged hills look scalable, but up close they prove to be made of boulders precariously settled on one another and probably ready to roll at a moment's notice. At a few points I thought about climbing up to get a view, but I'd probably end up doing Aron Ralston (of "127 Hours" fame) several better and needing to amputate each of my arms and legs in order to get free from all the crap that rolled on top of me. (Hm. I'm not sure how that would work.)

However, there are some sections of competent rock that have become attractions for climbers. Can you find the climbers in the picture below?

Here they are, courtesy of a 12x zoom:

There was a classic moment on my hike... I'd been looking at the different cacti I passed all day, especially one that looked like it didn't have any spines. Its pads looked smooth and slightly squishy, like inviting green gel packs. So I touched one. I squeezed it between my fingers and I rubbed the lovely soft, spineless skin. Then I pulled my hand back and notice that I had tiny hairlike spines all over both thumb and finger. Lots of them. Good job! That's why I always bring the tick tweezers.

And here now are some more photos from later that day. Besides the Joshua trees and other yucca, there were also pink-spined barrel cacti, junipers and pinyon pine and their twisted skeletons, and lovely panoramas of greener-than-expected valleys between the great jumbled piles of rocks.

I got to experience a rare thing out there, even for the wilderness, which was complete silence. Anytime the wind died down, that is, and there wasn't a plane overhead, which was almost all the time. The park must be under a popular flight path.

That evening the sky was free of clouds, so I set up my camera to do some night photography. The first shot is one I took accidentally; you can see the track of the red, night-vision-preseving bulb on my headlamp there, as well as the track of a plane. The second is my best shot of my tent beneath Orion. Orion's a winter constellation and I've never gotten a picture of him before -- or seen him at all while camping, for that matter. I also saw a shooting star that night.

That's all for part 1 - I'll have a post on the rest of the trip up soon.