I was finally in Southern California. It took me a long time to get there. And I don’t mean that in a metaphorical I’d-been-waiting-all-my-life kind of way, I mean my flight was cancelled and my travel delayed by 7 hours. I’d flown south for a much needed break from my gray city life in Portland, and to visit my good friend Shonna who was living in Newport Beach for work. We’d lived together in Portland and she was always my go-to companion for hiking, camping, and general adventuring. I was excited to get out and explore the desert.
Our visit to Joshua Tree National Park came toward the end of my trip, after a magical whirlwind of a weekend in LA (with Backwords co-founder, Matt Kulisch). The drive from Newport was just over two hours and the familiarity of being in Shonna’s truck on the way to a piece of wilderness was comforting. Just as it had felt perfect to be exploring a new big city with Matty, it felt equally perfect to be far away from that big city with Shonna.
It’s hard to explain the surreality of a forest (field?) of Joshua Trees, and equally difficult to capture the sense in a photo. It felt a little like being on a different planet. The trees seemed perfectly spaced, their gnarled arms and balled up fists stretching skyward. We pulled off at the first picnic area after the park entrance to climb on one of the famed boulder piles and evaluate hiking options. We only had one day in the park – everything on that trip was a bit condensed – and we knew we’d be losing our light around five o'clock. We chose a couple small nature trails and drive-by sights, and one longer trail to explore.
Joshua Tree National Park was established as a National Monument in 1936 thanks to the efforts of Minerva Hoyt, a resident of Pasadena, who was passionate about desert plants. It didn’t received designation as a National Park until 1994. At present it is 792,623 acres with 591,624 of those designated as wilderness. Because it’s located at the meeting point of the higher, cooler Mojave desert and lower, hotter Colorado desert, it covers a vast number of environments and ecosystems including dry lakes, sand dunes, mountain ranges, and oases. As we drove farther into the park, we left the boulders behind and found a flatter, sandier landscape.
The Lost Horse Mine Loop Trail seemed to take us through a new scene with every turn. We commented on the constant changes and alternated taking photos of each other with Joshua Trees and other Yucca plants – the cloudy landscape of the Great Basin reaching north in the background. As we rounded the loop back toward the truck, the sky cleared and the sun was just starting to set. The scene was awash in the kind of light that only winter somewhere warm can provide: a buoyant mustard glow. The trees cast sharp black shadows.
We made a few more stops on the way to the north exit. I snapped more photos of boulder formations, and we jogged through the shady parts of a short nature trail – the sun was taking the temperature with it. Our last stop was “The Arch” – aptly named – which was accessed through the White Tank Campground. The campground itself consisted of tent sites tucked in among an enormous boulder field. We wandered and scrambled and eventually separated when my longer legs made a difficult clamber that Shonna couldn’t follow.
I made it back to the truck and perched on a smaller boulder to wait. It was chilly but I was in shorts in December so I wasn’t complaining. It’s an understatement to say I would have liked to have stayed the night. I could have spent weeks out there exploring every crevice, catching up on reading, writing, and learning everything I could about the park. It’s the way I feel every time I escape to smaller and less-travelled parks. The simplicity and quiet that comes with it.
Along with the classic cattlemen, miners, and homesteaders featured in the history of many national parks, it was two women that get mentioned most in Joshua Tree’s story. Our plant-lover, Minerva, who fought to keep the wilderness safe, but also Elizabeth Campbell, a pioneering archaeologist who explored and uncovered the deeper history of people in the park. Humans have occupied the desert there for 5000 years, first in the Pinto culture and then via the Serrano, Chemehuevi, and Cahuilla Tribes. They utilized the myriad resources of the park for hunting, gathering, and the making of goods. Currently about 25,000 people live in Twentynine Palms, the community that abuts the park, and small square homes dot the sides of the road all the way to the entrance.
Once Shonna made it back, we made our way to the Oasis Visitors Center just shy of closing. I started a conversation with one of the rangers the same way I’ve started many ranger conversations: “I (in this case ‘we’) have so many questions!” Namely Shonna wanted to know if you could eat any part of a Joshua Tree (Native Americans used to grind the seeds) and I wanted to know if it had a core similar to a Heart of Palm (indeed it does). We tried to remember all the various questions we’d come up with while the rangers brought out notebooks and maps and binders and various pieces of a tree. They did this all with the excitement of people that have a mass of very specific knowledge, but get very few asking more from them than a map or a hiking recommendation.
As we drove out of Twentynine Palms, singing loudly along to the car stereo, I continued to reflect on the small wonders of Joshua Tree and the perfection of the day. The way that each park I’ve visited offers something undeniably awesome and unique. How my visits to National Parks have always been highlights in my life and of the country I call my home.
As I write this now, it’s hard to move politics, news stories, and rogue park rangers aside. It seems only a matter of time before the protection of these extraordinary places comes into question. I find myself hoping that there are enough people out there like me – and Shonna and Minerva and Elizabeth – that understand the intrinsic beauty of the Parks and the importance of continuing to fight for them. People that will drive hours, even days, to appreciate the wilderness purely because it is wilderness. People that, when given the opportunity, will raise their voices, put pens to paper and fingers to keys, to stand up for letting the wild be wild.