For one of my “experience” trips for the Sierra Club Wilderness Travel Course, I headed out to Joshua Tree on April 27 with 10 others. I feel like I’ve been here so many times but this time was vastly different. First off, a copious amount of beer consumption that couples car camping did not ensue. Instead, we all individually met at a trail head, with 2 gallons of water and gear strapped to our backs and headed off trail to a nondescript area in the middle of the desert. We started off paralleling the road, turned off onto another road, took another narrower, private road and suddenly, we veered off and into the sea of Joshua Trees. It was relatively flat and I felt a tremendous sense of guilt as we trampled over the sensitive desert fauna that miraculously grows in these extreme conditions. Spreading out the group is the tactic used when hiking over meadows or open areas but nonetheless, I held up the rear as I treaded lightly avoiding further damage. Yes, it was 90 degrees and yes, the question “why do I do this” crossed my mind many times but once we got to our rock oasis I was immediately distracted by a big horn sheep skull and forgot all about my griping, momentarily.
The assistant leader Bernie found it as they were scouting for our campsite. Speaking of campsite, I’d be more amazed had I not taken the course, as to how the fuq one stumbles upon this area and calls it camp. And I was amazed, but I know how and I’m not good at the how but my navigation skills improve every time I’m out there using them. It was a near-perfect site for our group and if the bees weren’t swarming all around, it would be perfect. But a prime base for our ascent to Quail Mountain the next day was the objective. We set up, snacked, hiked around, I meditated on top of a large rock further away, while trying to escape the constant buzzing of bees. I wasn’t able to. One lone bee persisted.
Happy hour was upon us and I picked a pile of rocks for us to have it on, just in time for the bees to go to sleep, or wherever they go when it’s near 5:00. I’m always impressed by what people bring to happy hour, as I lay out my sad spread of beef jerky and custom trail mix. We had a chili dip and homemade banana nut choco bread, salamis and gourmet cheese, to name a few. Happy hour usually renders dinner useless but not this time. I ate lots.
The best part of the day happened just after the sun went down. I just love to watch each star and planet gradually appear as twilight gets darker and darker until we are surrounded by noticeable constellations and satellites. I was Letting my imagination go wild as I talked with Seth, a physicist, about aliens and life on other planets. He thinks we are going to start inhabiting other planets because we are going to ruin this one we are on. Moonrise didn’t happen until around 9:30 because of the high mountains around us and several of us stayed up to see it as we sipped whiskey and chocolate liqueur out of flasks.
After a night of strange dreams and intermittent sleep, I awoke to the most beautiful sounding bird I’ve ever heard. I wish I knew the kind of bird because I would find a way to program an alarm clock so I can wake up to that sound every day. At 7AM we got our day packs together to climb 3 peaks, two of which are named Quail Mountain and Mount Minerva-Hoyt, Minerva is more-or-less the founder of Joshua Tree National Park. We hiked in gullies, up ridges, crossing saddles on no distinct trail until we made it to the top of Quail Mountain, the tallest peak in Joshua Tree National Park, standing at 5800 ft.
We signed the register and scoped out the next peak, Mt. Minerva and decided that we wouldn’t climb it because of the heat. We instead were going to climb a third unnamed peak on the way down but missed our turn and just ended up with 1 peak bagged out of 3. We headed back to camp in the same general direction and went through a dried stream bed and found more bones which were awesome! A whole vertebrae and antlers! Once back at camp, we packed up in 30 minutes time and headed out.
Reflective thoughts entered my mind as I was feeling the brunt of the heat. Backpacking feels like it’s destination driven and often times I am put through physical hell as a sacrifice to solitude or a view or a register or the feeling of being so small. The journey is the hard part and it’s demanding, awful and masochistic. I’m amazed by the people that go on these trips. This one couple looked to be my parents age and they totally held their own, going faster than me at most times. They were so sweet to eachother too, Dennis always was looking over his shoulder at his wife and looking out for her. Not in this smothering, annoying way that some couples are capable of but in this deeply loving way that really touched me. Another guy from Long Beach was there named Jose who runs 6 times a week and just got back from the Boston marathon. I found it so disturbing that when he mentioned having just returned from there, no one in our group asked about the bombing. Finally, when it became obvious that he wasn’t going to mention it, I asked him if he was there and he then told us the details of the attack from his vantage point. It’s strange that no one talks about this national tragedy stuff very openly, yet the news is saturated with it. I read an article on that Friday, before we left, about the survivors of the attack and how complicated their injuries were. Some needing multiple surgeries just to take out shards of metal. The tremendous amount of pain these victims are in and how they manage it. Full legs blown off and months of physical therapy needed just to learn to walk again on prosthetics. It sickens me that any person would want to do this kind of harm to others and for what? And these are the reflective thoughts I have as I’m melting away, each step a challenge, clearly carrying more weight on my back then what’s actually there.
What I love most about this whole backpacking thing is that I learn something new about myself every single time. And, of course seeing some pretty amazing scenery. I learn that I need a lot more physical conditioning in order to enjoy the journey more fully. I learn new techniques (girlie) like how to bring a dress to wear in the car for the ride home and that Snickers (hailed as the best trail snack) are useless in the desert because they melt. But for nearly 24 hours, nature unified 11 total strangers and I left myself open to each of them.