I can’t always say why some destinations resonate with me, make me want to return time and again — and others leave me flat. I can, however, propose some theories: I like quiet, natural settings not overrun by hordes of partying spring breakers; I like locations that allow me to hike, bike, fish, rock-climb or actively contemplate my novel; and I, incongruously, like big cities that abound in the arts and burst at the seams with an energy not generally found among bass-filled lakes or atop mountain peaks. That said, I know exactly why I like Southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park: When I’m among its namesake flora and bizarre geological formations, I feel as one with the universe.
Sure, that statement is grandiose, but we all find our “sense of self” in different ways. For some of us, family grants us meaning — for others, faith. Some find comfort in food, and others practice yoga. Work provides a “reason for being” to a few of us, while others find peace by raiding malls. Whatever gets you through the night, as John Lennon said.
I hadn’t, in fact, been sleeping well, my tossing and turning primarily due to a looming deadline for a story that would be difficult to write. The premise was rock-climbing controversies in national parks, and the article would require numerous interviews with park rangers and climbers from across the nation. Then, if I somehow managed to find the
proper contacts in the middle of winter (generally the off-season for climbing, with one major exception), I’d have to describe the intricacies of climbing and define the opinions of the various parties, then try to wedge this information into a limited word count, all in a matter of days. As I said, I hadn’t been sleeping well. Joshua Treeseemed my only hope.
I had visited the desert park — about three hours east of Los Angeles, between Interstate 10 and State Route 62 — for the first time 14 years before, when it was still a National Monument, and the place literally changed my life. As I drove through the unusual landscape, I felt like I was on another planet. The giant yucca that give the park its name splay out in eerie configurations, and the monzogranite rock formations alternately put me in mind of giant ice-cream scoops or
humongous drip-sandcastles. The light at dawn and dusk makes good photographers of all of us, I learned when I developed the film upon my return.
The road touches only a tiny fraction of Joshua Tree, and I found that to best appreciate the park’s unique characteristics, I had to feel the sun-blanched soil under my feet, sidestep the grizzly bear cacti, walk through the shadows cast by the weather-worn rock formations and watch the jackrabbits scurry for cover. The park as a whole was freakishly quiet during my first visit, except for the coyotes howling their haunting challenge at the full moon. I drove around in amazement, and then I saw people inching their way up the rock formations. I stood for hours and watched the combination of outdoor ballet and athletic masochism that is rock-climbing, and within days of returning home I took a rock-climbing course. I was, if I defined the term loosely, a rock-climber.
Joshua Tree is the world’s premier winter climbing area, but its summer is hot, hot, hot (more of the park’s 1.2 million annual visitors pass through in April than any other month). I find the shoulder seasons perfect and the winter still generally comfortable — with cold evenings. I set out in February, hoping to encounter climbers whom I could quote for my story. Instead of the campgrounds on the edges of the park that have water — Black Rock, Cottonwood and Indian Cove — I chose to stay in $5-per-night Ryan Campground, in the heart of the park, where I knew climbers would be camped. If I found myself tied into a climbing rope while nailing down my story, I could call it journalistic diligence. While smiling, of course.
As I struggled to light my campfire that night, a tenter in the next site strolled over and offered me lighter fluid. The fire soon raged, and Yens and I got to know each other. He was from Germany, and he saved his money all year so he could make an annual trip to Joshua Tree — he found the climbing that impressive.
Since I speak no German and since Yens’ English was limited, I began to wonder how long our pantomime could continue. Just as I had this thought, a young gentleman walked into the edge of the firelight and asked if I had a corkscrew. Soon enough, two Swedish women were at this new acquaintance’s side, and the five of us laughed around the fire for hours. Even though I was technically making little progress with the story, I felt my stress melt away.
The next day the young American guy, the two Swedish women and I went for a hike up the small peak we could see from our campsite, Ryan Mountain. I had done the hike before and had found it to be challenging without being grueling or dangerous. Challenging, that is, for a guy who keeps insisting that he’ll soon get his heart in shape but never buckles down and does it. My fellow hikers, it seemed, could have reached the summit without breaking a sweat, while dragging satchels of anvils behind them. I huffed my way to the top, however, and we all took photos and admired the 360-degree panorama from the summit.
I soon continued my outdoors United Nations tour, conducting interviews with international climbers. I didn’t visit the dam, the mine or the oases in the park. I didn’t dwell on the park’s rich Native American or rustling history. And I didn’t climb. The story turned out fine, by the way. And I don’t think I’ve ever had a better time in Joshua Tree.
Joshua Tree National Park, www.nps.gov/jotr. For camping reservations, call (800) 365-CAMP.