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.


Anonymous said...

Personally I agree with the guy in Vegas - you're amazing. I'd give a lot to have a fraction of the courage you have. Tomorrow I will sit at a desk & tackle a work assignment that I know is way above my head, but the idea of backpacking in the snow scares the snot out of me!

Perhaps I'll do it someday. Meanwhile I'll keep reading your blog.

Anonymous said...

I wish I could shrink myself down so you could put me in your pocket to go on adventures with you. I think it would be quite the wonderful experience. And my little tiny blankets would not take up much space.