Monthly Archives: April 2002

wonderland of rocks – V

the joshua tree entries come to a close with this description of our last days in the wonderland of rocks…

Day 8: it doesn’t get much better
some days unfold like films – there is the plan to go see the film, with maybe a capsule review in your mind, but no knowledge of the beginning, middle, or end. it may be a dud, or it may be one of the most moving cinematic experiences in your memory. you simply don’t know until you see it.

day 8 in joshua tree started like most others – torn oatmeal packets, sore muscles, anticipation of unknown sights. on this last day in the park, we planned an excursion in the wonderland of rocks near our site. willow cove and rattlesnake canyon were our destinations. the blistering afternoon sun had scorched us on previous days, so we decided to hike, sojourn in the shade, then explore as daylight waned.

walking along the white sandy trail, ryan and i pondered the nature of aesthetic beauty, and whether or not uniqueness is a prerequisite. as with the path under our feet, we wandered through philsophical territory that others had surely seen, but that was uncharted for us. it served to distract from a slight funk that had descended on us – maybe it was the impending return to the city, to our lives, to vaguely unpleasant realities like bills and employment uncertainty.

after several miles, the trail started winding through a narrow wash. we crossed paths with a couple near the wash entrance, and as luck would have it ryan was talking about a particularly embarrassing childhood experience, not noticing the presence of others. we laughed, and didn’t see another soul for the rest of the day. the wonderland was ours to play in today.

the sun was reaching its peak, and the shade beckoned like a siren. we climbed to a sheltered rock ledge some 30 feet above the trail, released our feet from their hot leather prisons, and sat down for lunch and a little rest. as the sun made its way through the sky, we entertained ourselves with books, excursions through the rocks nearby, and local flora. our first gift of the day was the discovery of a single wildflower, the only we had seen. it was a good omen.

the worst of the heat passed, and we clambered down and started on our way again. willow cove was the first marker on our journey, a small cove filled with large willow trees, unseen in the rest of the park, but nurtured here by the pools of water that collect in this cove during wetter days. as we passed one of the trees i was startled to hear the strange breeze that blew through its leaves, only to discover it was the sound of thousands of bees, floating among the branches in search of sweet pollen.

we hurried past in an effort to avoid an allergic encounter, and pressed on towards rattlesnake canyon. the guidebook was a little fuzzy about direction, and the trails had degraded to piles of rocks scattered every quarter mile or so to mark your way. we missed the main trail, and wound up bouldering across uncharted territory, rejoining it only after getting slightly lost.

we continued down the wash, watched over by huge stone giants, and eventually found the tributary that led to the canyon. lush greenery filled our sight and brushed our legs and arms, and we soon found why. one of the scarcest treasures in the desert was hiding nearby – water. we felt it on the air before we saw it, and were soon walking through a jumble of boulders that covered small, stagnant pools.

we knew our bounty was nearby, and we soon found a signpost on the trail that marked the entrance to rattlesnake canyon: the skull of a desert bighorn sheep. regardless of whether it was warning or welcome, we continued on into the canyon, encountering bouldering that made our fatigue apparent. the day was fading, and we didn’t want to be trapped in the dark, trying to navigate our way home, so we decided to rehydrate and return.

our turning point was dominated by a rock unlike any other we’d seen. if i were religious, i would say it was a rock worthy of housing the ten commandments. round boulders and jagged rocks abounded in the desert, but this one was different – a slab, 10 feet thick, 60 feet long, 30 feet wide. it had been dropped on the landscape as if by a giant child late for school, a huge book full of lessons on geology and the nature of time.

with a sense of wonder and a growling fatigue, we began our trip home. the journey back went quickly, with only a few missteps and scrapes. we finally found our way back to willow cove along the proper trail. we navigated the fallen trees in the cove, avoided our buzzing friends, and just as we were coming around the last bend, our earlier omen was realized.

a huge desert bighorn sheep, dozing in the underbrush, had not heard us coming until it was too late. he leaped from his resting place onto the trail, not five feet in front of me, ran a safe distance, then stopped and turned his majestic horned head to examine us. we were probably both thinking the same things: ‘will it harm me? why is it here? what is it’s intent?’ in awe we stood, transfixed for a moment, then we scrambled for our cameras in an effort to get digital proof that we had not been hallucinating. after assuring ourselves, we continued on our way and left him to go his.

within two minutes, i spied a younger buck down the trail, standing in the middle of a sandy wash, examining us. he scrambled up into the rocks quickly, not as curious as his mature counterpart (or perhaps more fearful). we caught one last glimpse of him 100 feet up a steep rocky ravine, looking down on us quietly, and then he was gone.

few people see these rare creatures in the park – there are perhaps 50 total within its boundaries – and we had seen two. not only that, but we had been within arm’s distance of one, had exchanged curiosity and wonder with it. how many events had to transpire for us to be at that junction in the trail at that time? a few minutes longer with lunch, a sidetrack down a canyon, a break for 30 seconds of conversation on the trail – any of these things and we might not have seen this graceful creature.

we walked home, high on these thoughts, on the experience, and reached camp more satisfied than on any other day of the trip. it had been one of those rare experiences that we would always remember.

a beautiful sunset brought the day to a close, and after our last dinner of Tastee Bites and cous-cous, we were ready to go home.

Day 9: exodus and decompression
we broke camp as quickly as possible in an effort to avoiding carrying our packs in the heat. as we approached the car, garbage strapped to our backs, cactii waving goodbye, a sense of relief and accomplishment came over us. we had been discussing the trip for weeks, and had pulled it off as planned.

as we left the park, we purchased a few mementos of our experience and gifts for others (cactii, t-shirts, miscellany). a one-hour drive put us back at my uncle’s house in cathedral city, in the throng of activity that is modern society. after showers and some rest we felt fit to join it again.

that night, ryan, ron, jerry, and i went out to a local mexican restaurant, and the decompression began…the Patron margaritas helped, of course.

Day 10: trams and sordid lives
a tramway near palm springs takes visitors near the top of mt. san jacinto, and offers not only a heart-stopping ascent, but stunning views of the valley 8000 feet below. san jacinto merits a return visit, since we were guaranteed that there is a great deal to see there. the myriad campers on their way up to the top seemed to be a trustworthy sign (although the sight of packs made us a bit woozy).

in the afternoon we had a blast at the movie Sordid Lives (a fun romp through texas-style homophobia, cheating husbands, and accidental deaths caused by tripping over false limbs). this segued into a nice dinner party with boyd and some of his friends, after which we fell to sleep, dreams of san francisco fog in our heads.

Day 11: homecoming
anyone who has driven the central valley of california knows that there is little to say about it. the drive went quickly – 8 hours, door-to-door, and we were back.

san francisco was the same, yet different. the comparatively frenetic pace of life, the noise, the lights and sounds – it felt good to be home, but we would always remember our sun-filled days in the wonderland of rocks.

NOTE: Take a look at the Joshua Tree flickr set for the whole story in images.

wonderland of rocks – IV

the joshua tree saga continues…the memories fade so quickly, even with such amazing events.

Day 6: look mummy, there’s an aeroplane up in the sky
after an oatmeal breakfast that tasted surpisingly similar to the one from Day 5, elaine and i scrambled up some boulders behind camp as ryan headed off on his own adventures. it was her last day with us, and she and i wanted to climb and steal a view of the valley before she returned to the hustle and bustle.

bouldering is certainly easier than technical climbing – no gear required, save wits, balance, and one’s ability to override self-preservation instincts. i found out a few things while rock scrambling:

  • rock piles are often bigger than they look or farther away than they seem
  • big rocks stacked on big rocks spawn big crevices ready to swallow climbers
  • even big rocks can tilt and sway under weight – imagine a see-saw but with boulders
  • jumping is often good (or just plain necessary) – ryan’s mantra was simple: “there is no rock. there is no rock.”
  • it really helps to be tall and skinny with arms like a chimpanzee
  • always look two hops ahead

after a few heart-stoppers and some unorthodox climbing technique, elaine and i made it up to the top – roughly a 200-foot gain in elevation, if the topo map is to be trusted. even this small an elevation gain affords a fantastic view. the valley floor from this lookout is really like a vast brown ocean, with majestic rock pile islands jutting from the sand.

we soaked up the view, then hopped down the mountain and made the two-hour journey to cathedral city (near palm springs), where my uncle Boyd lives. it was Easter Sunday, and we had been invited to a feast. the pickings were anything but slim – casseroles, eggs, biscuits with sausage gravy, quiches, fruit, chocolate. we consumed enough for three then headed for the airport, slowed slightly by food coma. it was a solid finish to elaine’s adventure, and although she was sad to leave, she also felt exhilarated to have been in joshua tree at all. we were sad that she couldn’t escape the shackles of modern working life for a few more days, but the airplane beckoned.

two hours more and i was back at camp, trying to manage the shock to my senses of running back and forth so quickly between civilization, Sunday brunches with 20 lovable queens singing show tunes, and desert wilderness. i guess i might call it ‘nature shock’ – one of the best kinds of shock to have, i suppose. at any rate, after a quick hike back (laden with water, as always), i arrived at camp; ryan was nursing some sore feet, the sun was setting over the desert, and dinner seemed like a fine idea.

after our repast, ryan and i were sitting, talking, looking up at the blanket of stars spread across the sky. one star was particularly brilliant, dangling above the horizon and twinkling with red and green lights…hey, wait a second, how many stars have you seen with red and green lights? did that thing just move?

we ran through all of the possibilities: commercial aircraft (no), weather balloon (no – that was roswell), lights reflecting from clouds (no – not a cloud in the sky), helicopter (nope – they don’t move that fast), drug-induced hallucinations (no drugs here, officer). it leapt up, down, left, right – like a firefly in the night sky. could we be having a not-so-close-but-equally-startling encounter?

we watched it for an hour, and finally concluded that aliens would not fly with their lights on near major population centers (‘Zorlak! You stupid grex herder! You left the lights on again!’). No, reason dictated that this was likely an experimental military craft of some sort, launched from nearby 29 Palms Marine Air Base. Why they would fly with their lights on was also a minor mystery, but it was all that we could imagine.

i think both ryan and i had odd dreams that night…

Day 7: burger fixes and mineshafts
the stove broke as we were fixing breakfast, and ryan was jonesing for a solid fast-food meal and a cup of espresso. we decided to drive to joshua tree village, grab lunch in nearby yucca valley, then head back for a trip to lost horse mine.

we managed to find a fix for the stove at the local gearhead camping shop. suffice it to say that, after several days in the desert without a shower, people kept their distance in the store. we then made our way to jack in the box, bolted burgers and fries (mmmm – grease), grabbed espresso, and returned to the park to visit the mine.

Lost Horse Mine is in an area of the park with slightly different topography than the wonderland of rocks, and with much bigger joshua trees. the mine is one of the best preserved in the area, with equipment still intact. it was a two-mile hike over hilly terrain, and even though it was mid-afternoon, the heat had not died down measurably. hot and tired, we finally arrived at the mine.

our first thought was, ‘How the hell would you come to build a mine in the middle of these mountains? How did they find the gold?’ amazing. we strolled around the site, looking at the equipment, the rock crusher, the mineshaft, and the leaching pits. they pulled 9000 ounces of gold from this mine over the course of something like 50 years, and then it shut down for some reason. hills that once bustled with intrepid, money-hungry miners were now just a curiosity for tourists willing to hike a few miles.

the hill behind the mine looked promising for a view out over the valley behind it, and who were we to pass up the opportunity? it was spectacular, yet different from the other vistas we’d experienced. a mound of deep brown earth sat in the valley, surrounded by ships of rock – somehow this area seemed more desolate, a place where you would not want to be lost for long.

fatigue was setting in, and it was time to head home – we were both feeling a bit wobbly, and we still had to hike out, drive, then hike into the campsite. the trail back to the car seemed harder than it had on the way in, and all we could think about were the cool beverages in the trunk. random chats about books and star trek distracted us from our aches, though, and we were back at the camp before we knew it.

another dinner under the stars, followed by a repeat visit from our pseudo-alien friends, and we were ready to crash. tomorrow would be our last day, and we needed to make it count.

Day 8
next up…the best day yet, if that’s even possible.

NOTE: Take a look at the Joshua Tree flickr set for the whole story in images.

wonderland of rocks – III

Day 5: astrodomes, creepy rangers and kangaroo rats

that’s the first word that fell from each of our lips the next morning — ouch. spectacular to be in the desert and all that, but sunburns, bruised shoulders, and tired feet often speak loudest in the morning. nature has a way of silencing those whiny voices, though. you tend to forget all of that once you wake up, smell the oatmeal, and realize what brilliant things lay in store for you.

after a typical camping breakfast, we slathered ourselves with miscellaneous radiation-blocking products (mostly Bullfrog, that oily manna from heaven) and made our way down the trail towards the car. on any given day, if we wanted to see other parts of the park, we had to hike out to the car, drive, hike some more and enjoy the sights, drive back, then hike in again. this routine lost its novelty pretty quickly, as you might imagine, since the hike in and out from camp was already 5 miles.

the goal for today was to find some big rocks. of course, they’re scattered all over the park – that’s kind of the point – but these were very specific rocks. one section of the park is especially known for its rock climbing; the whole high-desert section of the park is a mecca for climbers, and thousands come every year to grapple with cracks and tall granite foes. our destination was the wonderland ranch wash and the astrodomes at its source, since these were reputed to have some of the most vertiginous climbs.

after a few u-turns, some noodling over topo maps, and rattling our teeth down a dusty dirt road, we found the wash in question (everything tends to look the same after awhile). near the entrance to the wash are the crumbling remains of a ranch (complete with cave refrigeration system); the ranch was once owned by a long-time denizen of the valley. as we learned from a very-nice-but-slightly-creepy volunteer ranger, the owner had a feud with another nearby desert rat who kept crossing his property. in true wild-west fashion, he laid an ambush for the trespasser, but failed to remember the first rule of ambushes – you’re supposed to kill the other guy. it turned out that he was killed himself, and even though it was self-defense, connections between the deceased and the local frontier justice system sent the survivor to san quentin for 20 years. he was later pardoned, but only after doing a good bit of time. his ranch is still private property in the park, although who knows if anyone still lives there.

but i digress. back to wonderland ranch wash.

it’s hard to imagine water flowing in the desert, but our rain storm and the presence of numerous washes (like the one under our feet) were convincing proof. these washes often navigate twisty rock canyons, and the water they channel leaves behind a zoo of trees, cactii, and miscellaneous flora and fauna.

the hike up the wash was our first real foray out of camp, so we took our sweet time, playing the desert tourists. “ooh, look dear, a cactus!! take a picture. oh, and that rock formation there – stunning!” it really was amazing how much life and beauty can be found in what at first appears to be such a wasteland.

the astrodomes were everything we had been promised – soaring rock faces (200-300 feet high), scattered with crazy people who like to tie ropes to themselves and do spiderman impressions. i’ve seen climbing walls, and even been scared while dangling from them, but this was different. nature’s climbing walls put anything we can manufacture to shame.

we spent hours just wandering, pondering, and bouldering. eventually we started running out of water, and given that our thermostats had been complaining about the scalding heat for hours, we decided to return to the car. cool beverages, stashed in the trunk, are a powerful motivator, and we made it back down the trail in a few sweaty heartbeats.

we stopped at keys view on the way back to the site; an overlook on the western boundary of the park offers a breathtaking vista of the entire palm springs valley. looking out over that expanse makes it clear that joshua tree is high desert – the valley floor is 4000 ft below, and stretches for miles, from palm springs to the salton sea. mount san jacinto (10500 ft) towers over the scene in the distance, and the san andreas fault ripples the valley floor like a vast mineral carpet.

suitably impressed, we ventured home. more driving, more pack mule impressions, and we were back at camp, ravenous enough to eat the first coyote that came along. instead, we dined on Tastee Bites and cous-cous. if there is a five-star restaurant near joshua tree, they would have had a hard time competing with our rock kitchen. it was simple, but after a day you’ll always remember, spent with the priceless people in your world, that meal was fit for emperors.

the kangaroo rats thought so, too. once we started busting out the food bags, we were joined in the kitchen by some of the locals – tiny kangaroo rats that lived in and around the rocks of our camp. they actually look more like mice, and they don’t seem to hop much, but they were a welcome addition to the spectacle. with their bulging iris eyes, they ran in and around our feet, our stove, our bowls of cous-cous, fearless in their quest for food.

moonrise came soon, and sleep beckoned as it had before, and we crashed, ready for rest and the next day of adventure.

Days 6-7
next up…”look mummy, there’s an aeroplane in the sky”.

NOTE: Take a look at the Joshua Tree flickr set for the whole story in images.

wonderland of rocks – II

in our last episode, we were making our way towards the desert holy grail – joshua tree. nature, it seems, had other plans…

Day 3: it did what?
it rained.

we got our gear together, bought last-minute supplies, made our way to joshua tree, and finally hit the trail head at about 4:00pm. then it started to rain. actually, let me clarify…it poured. this was not some sort of misty southern california excuse for downpour, this was soak-you-to-the-bone-in-about-two-minutes rain. to give you an idea about how unlikely this was, it had rained 0.5″ in Joshua Tree since June 2001. this is not a wet place we are talking about here.

it was an unpleasant thought, the prospect of hiking through rain and mud and pitching a wet camp in the dark (and rain). given our options, and our desire to start the trip dry, we aborted and went back to 29 Palms (just outside the park), deciding to return the next day.

much to our dismay, the Harmony Motel (complete with aluminum siding and zen message boards) had no vacancies, and we were forced to stay at a generic Best Western. after checking in and unloading our gear, we drove down the road a bit and found a Mexican restaurant to put coal in the furnace. we were a bit downtrodden and felt defeated by nature, so a drink seemed like it would help calm nature-rattled nerves. ryan ordered a negro modelo. hmmm…what would i have? a margarita sounded good, but what was this (wine) following the drink description on the menu? i was soon to find out:

ryan: excuse me…are your margaritas with tequila or wine?

waitress: ummm…wine.

ryan: that’s interesting. what kind of wine?

waitress: chablis.

ryan and ryan: (long pause, considering this somewhat unexpected response)

waitress (being helpful): that’s a white wine…

the rest of the evening improved a great deal following this enlightening chat, although that Mexican food did repeat a bit…

Day 4: desert paradises, airports, and coyote serenades
the morning greeted us with a bright sunrise and promises of scorching heat in the desert. we packed quickly and made it up to the trailhead by 8:30am. compared to the events of yesterday, this all seemed a bit too easy. we threw our water-laden packs on our backs, and made our way into the wonderland of rocks. after an hour of hiking, and a little direction-finding, we found our bounty – the camp site.

our site was one ryan had visited in the past on a few occasions with branden. it was about 2.5 miles from the parking lot, nestled comfortably against a moderate rock-pile mountain in the wonderland of rocks. it had a nice flat dirt patch just made for tents, a few big flat rocks nearby to serve as a kitchen, and a lounge for gazing at the stars. we were set, even if it did take us two hours to set up camp (by the end of which ryan was ready to play the lobster in the school play, sans costume – sunburns come easy in the desert, we discovered).

we managed to find about 10 square inches of shade for lunch, then went boulder-scrambling up the rock-pile mountain behind our site. the view of the valley was worth the scramble – joshua tree is like a god’s sand box where big rocks, cactii, and yucca trees are the toys of choice.

i couldn’t enjoy the view for long, because elaine was flying in to palm springs that night, and i had to hike out, retrieve her from the airport, drive back, and hike in again. happy that she would be joining us in our adventure, i made the journey, although the pack seemed a bit heavier when i filled it with water and put it on for the second time that day.

we packed up our gear and hit the trail, although it was slow going since we were both tired. after trudging to the first trail split, guided by a spectacular full moon, i radioed ahead to ryan via our new walkie-talkies (yep – we’re nerds), and asked him to meet us to help carry gear. the walkie-talkies were worth it for just this one call…as we walked into camp, the three of us were being serenaded by a troop of coyotes, out enjoying a moonlight stroll in the valley, just as we were.

after all the hiking and sweating and driving and hiking, there was only one thing left to do. sleep was sweet – we hit our respective tent floors and were out cold, snoring with a fury and happiness that only nature can bring.

Days 5-11
next up…encounters with creepy rangers, UFO’s, and desert big-horn sheep.

NOTE: Take a look at the Joshua Tree flickr set for the whole story in images.

wonderland of rocks – I

many factors contributed to my recent writing hiatus, not the least of which was a desert camping adventure in joshua tree with ryan (h) and elaine. the techno-weenie in me also found it necessary to upgrade the system i use for online publishing. now that both of these things are memories, it’s time to get on with writing…

California is an amazing world unto itself, with mountains deserts and oceans all within its grasp. after a thousand miles of driving and eleven days away from home, i feel i’ve seen more of its majesty and mystery than i had before. whenever i think about moving away from its comfortable borders, i’ll have excursions like joshua tree to remind me why i call this place home.

the nutshell plan was to drive across the sierra, camp, head to palm springs, enter the desert wonderland of joshua tree, then return home, tanned, refreshed, and perhaps a bit weary. life unfolded with its own plans, not far from our own, and we had a fantastic trip.

Day 1: Sacto, Sierras, and Slocum’s
ryan and i left in the morning and drove across the sierra; we had intentions of visiting the ghost town of Bodie, then camping near Mammoth. fortunately the national park service had our best interests in mind, keeping the campgrounds closed until it gets warmer. unfortunately, the road to Bodie was closed and impassable, presumably due to snow. we decided a Motel 6 in Mammoth was in our future – an oasis to shelter us from below-freezing temperatures at night. after passing through Mono Lake (and being suitably awestruck), we found our bounty and secured a room, bon marche. we grabbed dinner at Slocum’s Bar and Grill, then retired for a night’s rest after devouring topo maps, planning our exploits.

Day 2: Hot Creek, Lone Pine, and Space Invaders
after a stellar breakfast in Mammoth, we headed for Hot Creek, a hot springs nearby. ryan had been wanting to revisit the springs, and who was i to argue? our backs both needed it after too much time spent in front of computers doing what i’m doing now.

the creek was more than happy to oblige – we were in the water within 30 minutes of breakfast, the heat of lava vents caressing our aching backs better than any masseuse. the creek is nestled in a small crevice in the valley floor, hidden from view in a field shadowed by snowy mountain sentinels. it winds its way across lava vents, through large pools and smaller tributaries, and is filled with rock formations that look as if they should be underground, rather than above it. we had an entire pool to ourselves – it was a weekday morning, and we had arrived before the tourbus full of germans and aussies (no joke – they showed up as we were leaving).

this was all precisely what the doctor had ordered, although there’s something slightly disconcerting about being so close to earth’s primordial core – all you had to do was dip your head under the water to hear the gas seeping from cracks in the creek floor. did i mention that people (and countless curious pets) have died at hot creek?

relaxed and ready to push on, we headed south along the eastern sierra, stopping for lunch in Lone Pine. we grabbed burgers at the local hot spot, entertained by the wild west paraphernalia adorning its walls (mostly black-and-white stills from old Hollywood movies). fortunately the road beckoned, otherwise we might have stayed, drank ourselves silly, and sang country karaoke that night until we couldn’t sing no more…

the drive down the eastern sierra was boring – nothing but huge mountains, wild desert, open vistas – the usual shite. as we approached southern california, we began to notice how prominent the power towers were in the landscape. without the normal chaos and confusion of urban landscapes, those power towers become the guardians of the valleys, marching inexorably to a dynamo drummer. when you stop and look (or rather, when a geek who’s played too many video games stops and looks), space invaders comes to mind. the only difference is that those towers come in many shapes and sizes – a zoo of steel and wire erected to power our lifestyles.

and so we entered palm springs, the wind at our backs, space invaders at our side, and windmill generators everywhere in sight. the trip was beginning to look promising.

Days 3-11
stay tuned as ryan and ryan experience the only torrential downpour in joshua tree in recent memory, among other things. our next installment will also feature the arrival of the lovely desert flower, elaine. ;-)

NOTE: Take a look at the Joshua Tree flickr set for the whole story in images.