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.