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.