This past Friday morning, I found myself driving down a dirt road in the Mojave Desert. I was headed for Joshua Tree National Park with a good friend of mine, Kelsey, for a few days of backpacking through the desert. It’s Tuesday afternoon, now, and my lips are still sunburnt.
I’m generally pretty responsible in my preparation for backpacking trips; I usually tell someone exactly where I’m planning to go and when I plan to come back; I’ve usually looked at a map for a few hours and plotted out where I’ll be and what sort of contingencies I should be ready for should something go awry while I’m out there. But, for my most recent trip, I wasn’t, I didn’t, and I hadn’t. I didn’t even know what trail I was going to be on. Someone told me that made it a real adventure. I thought it made me an idiot.
Day 0 – The Night Before the Desert
My lack of pre-trip planning was largely attributable to the fact that I was traveling with a good friend of mine, whom I trust (in this case, quite literally) with my life. As I mentioned earlier, I did an embarrassingly little amount of research into Joshua Tree National Park prior to getting down there. So, I’ll share some of what I now know:
Joshua Tree is located in Southeastern California, framed in by the Mojave Desert to the north, the Little San Bernardino Mountains to the west, and the Colorado Desert to the south. The park is named for the Joshua trees that are native to the area, and covers more than 792,000 acres, with almost 85% designated as wilderness. As a bit of a side note, the designation of land as a wilderness area is the highest level of protection that any of the American land management agencies can give to a place. The term is defined by the National Wilderness Preservation System as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor. Coming from a western culture, where the right to own land is largely considered an inherent human right, finding yourself in a place where humans are supposed to feel like visitors is something outside of anything else I’ve ever experienced.
Planning a backpacking trip through Joshua Tree is a bit of an interesting experience, mostly because people don’t do it. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any sort of natural water source in the park (I didn’t see any while I was there), but even if you did find water, it’d be illegal to collect any of it (the water in Joshua Tree is protected for the wildlife). In addition to hydration considerations, temperature swings of 40 degrees within a 24-hour period are common.
In the days leading up to our trip, Kelsey sent me a text message to inform me that the beef jerky she was making for our trip was marinating (she’s amazing), and she asked me how much distance I felt comfortable covering each day. I told her she was my dream girl (because, even just the concept of homemade beef jerky is wonderful to me) and that I was up for going however far she wanted to go each day. To which she replied: I’m thinking 12-15 miles on days 1 & 3, and 20 miles on day 2.
So, we’re talking about a casual 40 or 50-mile, three-day backpacking trip through the Mojave Desert into the Joshua Tree Wilderness… Dear God, I thought to myself, remembering how miserable it was to run out of water on a three-day, 30-mile backpacking trip into the Saguaro Desert only two weeks earlier.
Day 1 – Upper Covington Flats to Ryan Mountain (~12.5 miles)
If you want to backpack through Joshua Tree or the Mojave, you’ve got to cache water; there’s no way around it. So, our morning started off with stashing a few 2.5 gallon jugs of water in some brush near what we hoped would be the endpoint of our first day of hiking. There was a twinge of anxiety as we drove away from our water that morning: if we get lost and don’t find our water this afternoon, we’re fucked I told myself. We spent the next 45 minutes or so driving – away from our water, away from cell service, and into the Mojave’s desert wilderness.
The only wildlife that’s a persistent threat in the Joshua Tree wilderness area, at least, the only one that I was worried about, are rattlesnakes. If you’re anywhere near an urban center, a rattlesnake bite – while terrifying – isn’t likely to be life-threatening. To put this in perspective: in the United States, of the 6,000-8,000 poisonous snake bites that occur each year, only 5-8 prove fatal. Still, surviving a rattlesnake bite generally depends on receiving a dose of anti-venom within a few hours of the bite. If I provide you with some of the general guidance for handling a rattlesnake bite, you might start to understand how being in the backcountry complicates things:
1. Keep the snake victim calm. Yeah, keeping someone who’s just been bitten by a deadly, poisonous snake seems like something that would be easy…
2. Don’t allow the victim to engage in strenuous physical activity. In a geological area that is defined by its rugged mountains and high temperatures, even walking out without a pack on is strenuous.
3. Don’t allow the victim to eat or drink anything. Because if the snake bite doesn’t kill you, hiking out of the desert, through the mountains, without any water, might do the trick.
While I was getting certified for Wilderness First Aid earlier this year, one of the students asked our instructors specifically about rattlesnake bites in remote areas, and we were told this: If you’re more than a few hours away from civilization, with no access to radio or cell service… Good luck. So, naturally, every lizard that scampered across our path or into a bush was assumed to be a rattlesnake, every rock or log we stepped over was assumed to have a rattlesnake in it, and every time the wind blew and we heard leaves rustling, we were absolutely positive that it was actually a rattlesnake warning us that our ends were near.
Despite the gazillion snakes all around us that were plotting our deaths (yes, there are that many; yes, gazillion is actually a word), and becoming increasingly aware that we would not see any signs of water on this trip unless we found the cache that we’d hidden earlier, our stress levels were relatively low. The trail down from Upper Covington Flats to Ryan Mountain winds through the San Bernardino Mountains, away from the Mojave, with terrain ranging from steep, granite steps to thick, viscous sand. The relentlessness of the sun on that trail is brutal. There is no water; there is no shade. But, still, every time I look up, I’m blown away by the beauty of the mountains that frame the desert all around me.
By mid-afternoon, we’d arrived at Juniper Flats, the area where we cached our water supply for our first night. From there, we stumbled through a grove of Joshua Trees toward one of the Park’s large rock formations, where we would watch the sun set, the moon rise, and then fade fastly to sleep beneath the desert’s starlit sky.
Day 2 – Ryan Mountain, The Old Lost Horse Mine, and a Few Thousand Joshua Trees (~15 miles)
There are two distinct and equally strange features that stand out in Joshua Tree: Joshua trees and massive rock formations called “inselbergs”. The Joshua tree itself looks like it’s out of a Dr. Seuss book, with its gnarly, twisted branches and its sharp, pokey plumes of leaves. Joshua trees can grow to be over forty feet tall, and like the Saguaro cactus, they can live to be over 150 years old.
The large rock formations in Joshua Tree are called inselbergs (“inselberg” is a German word meaning “island mountain”). They were formed over 100 million years ago, after magma beneath the earth’s surface cooled and formed large rectangular slabs. Over time, as groundwater filtered below the earth’s surface, the rectangles’ corners smoothed into rounded edges, and centuries of flash floods eventually eroded the ground above the inselbergs, revealing the massive rock formations that are visible today. Some of Joshua Tree’s inselbergs stand more than 230 feet tall.
We started off our second day in Joshua Tree by scrambling up to the summit of Ryan Mountain, one of the peaks near our campsite. The hike up to the top is fairly easy (for anyone accustomed to hiking in the Pacific Northwest), and the view from the top is incredible. After descending, we swung by a few different rock formations to satiate my bouldering cravings, and then we headed off for the Lost Horse Mine to round out a 15-mile day of hiking with our packs.
That night, after we ate dinner, we stood outside our tent and watched the moon rise up over the Mojave. I should probably be taking pictures of this, I told Kelsey. But a part of me didn’t want to. As much as I love photography, there are times when getting the right photo gets in the way of just being there – and as much as I want to share the experiences I’ve had in the backcountry with other people, the whole point is to just be there. So, I left my camera in my bag.
And I stood there: watching the bright, full rays of the moon trace the outline of Ryan Mountain; I watched the way the Joshua trees swayed in the desert breeze. I smelled the sweet, earthy fragrance of the sage plants that grew wild around our campsite, while I shivered in the cold air that had taken over the valley where the warmth of the sun was only a few hours earlier. Having finally found what I was looking for in Joshua Tree, I turned back to our tent, unzipped the door, and crawled into my sleeping bag – not knowing that that night would be the last night of my grandfather’s life.
Day 3 – Cap Rock to Upper Covington Flats (~12.5 miles)
The next morning, we made the hike away from our campsite and back to our car more than an hour faster than we expected: climbing back into the mountains from which we descended two days earlier, back into the Mojave, back away from the inselbergs and the Joshua tree groves that we’d spent the last two days exploring. We were driving away from the trailhead, down a dusty road toward the town of Yucca Valley, when my father called me to tell me that my grandfather had passed away the night before at his home in Gates, Oregon – a small town just outside of the Willamette National Forest.
After I got off the phone with by father, three thoughts passed through my mind in rapid succession, while our SUV bounced along the beaten dirt road, kicking up clouds of dust behind us. First, I thought of my grandmother, and how she and my grandfather were such important catalysts in my National Parks Project and my love of the outdoors. Then, I thought about how glad I was that I’d gone to visit them earlier this spring, to tell them about my plans to visit some of their favorite national parks around the country this year, and to let them know that I’d be taking and sharing photos of my journey as I went. And then, I thought about how poetic it was that I spent the last moments of my grandfather’s life doing something that he would have loved: sitting outside in the wilderness, watching the moon and the stars, exploring the great wide world with only the things I could carry on my back.
My grandfather, Ed, was 92 when he passed away on Saturday night. He was an avid outdoorsman, having hiked the PCT in his mid-sixties with his wife, Alice, who survives him still. Ed was a private, proud man, with a dry sense of humor and a life that was largely dedicated to giving back to the communities where he lived: he spent more than 30 years volunteering with the fire departments in Gates and Sisters Oregon, and he spent the final decades of his life building cabinets for Habitat for Humanity in Oregon. In addition to building all of the cabinetry for each home that he worked on, Ed also crocheted an afghan as a housewarming gift for each of the families he worked with – by his own estimates, during his career as a volunteer with Habitat, he’d built over 400 sets of cabinets and crocheted over 400 afghans.
Ed loved everything about the outdoors, and as a child, I fell in love with his backcountry photography the moment I first saw it. He photographed and documented the things he saw like a true explorer, and came to be something of an encyclopedia on everything from the birds to the various species of mushrooms that he’d come across on hikes. A few years ago, I went on my first and only hike with my grandparents, where I got to see my grandfather in his element – it’s a memory that’s deeply imprinted into my mind.
Though I didn’t have the opportunity to go on any other hikes with my grandfather after that, in some ways, his spirit and the pure joy that he exhibited being outdoors is something that affected me deeply – he’s been with me on every hike I’ve gone on since then, and I suspect that he always will be.