We’ve made it to the desert and we don’t know if we’re ever leaving. The openness, the soundlessness, the disconnectedness, and the freeness have us hooked. It’s amazing that a land so unforgiving can be so captivating. Maybe that’s the beauty of it. With risk comes reward. The desert may be daunting, but it is also heartening. Where some only see a desolate tract; yuccas, red-spotted toads, round-tailed red squirrels, and cacti see a home. Where toughness is not only rewarded but required, organisms still survive and thrive. The Joshua tree may be one of the most beautiful examples of this. A forest of these most impressive yuccas rule the land of Joshua Tree National Park. Growing at elevations between 1,300 and 5,900 feet in the arid Mojave Desert they rise to heights of 40 feet. A symbol of strength. A reminder that life is what you make of it and even in the bleakest of environments prosperity can be achieved.
We arrived at Joshua Tree, the town of Joshua Tree that is, amidst a desert windstorm. With great velocity, tumbleweeds tore through the air as crosswinds hammered our truck, nearly jolting us from the road in which we traveled. An exuberant greeting or a warning to leave, we were not sure. We ventured forward and took refuge in a dried-out lake bed on BLM land (Bureau of Land Management). Here we decided to make camp for the night to ride out the storm and wait to visit the nearby Joshua Tree National Park in the morning. The persistent onslaught from the wind rocking our truck throughout the night made it feel as if we were adrift at sea. Which to have that feeling while parked in a dried-out lake bed deprived of even the slightest amount of water was quite paradoxical. Periodically we would venture from the comforts of the truck and endure the winds long enough to lose ourselves in the glimmering universe that rained down its beacons of light in the clearest of clarity. A desert sky on a cloudless night is a view into the true. All that is and ever was hovers just out of reach in eternal radiance.
We awakened to a new day and new meteorological conditions. The wind may have calmed but our excitement did not. We were high on desert life and ready for exploration. We cooked a breakfast of eggs and coffee and evaluated the land before us. Which after careful assessment, we found was comprised of a few scattered rocks, the sporadically placed prickly pear cacti, twelve or so other lake bed campers, and one black dog licking clean a skillet of egg residue. One thing was missing, though. The Joshua tree, for which a town and a national park have been named in recognition of, was nowhere to be seen. To see them we would have to move, and so we did, to pay a visit to Joshua Tree National Park.
For those that have never heard of, been to, or desired to visit Joshua Tree National Park this segment is for you. You’ve been missing out on one of nature’s great gifts to man. The second you cross over into National Park land you enter a new domain. A desert road carries you up 3,000 feet in elevation through a land of mesas, buttes and boulders that have been dipped in the most vibrant of colors. Speckled on the rocks you will see the outlines of climbers testing their skills. Continue driving and a sign off the road will read Ryan Mountain. From the top of this 5,457-foot mound of granite awaits the perfect desert outlook.
We rose early in the morning to reach Ryan’s summit in time for the sunrise. A choice we were very happy we made. Out of the darkness a glow of cotton candy colored light ignited the sky. Casting down its rays of dye on the red, orange and yellow callous land below made for the perfect scene. A curious jackrabbit even joined us for the viewing from the protection of a decaying Joshua tree. Which pleased us to have another creature to share the blissful moment with. For lunch we pulled off the road and picnicked at an overlook called Keys Views. Another amazing elevated location to look out at the land with its covering of Joshua trees. Here we filled our stomachs with pasta and filled our optic nerves with sights of the Coachella Valley, Palm Springs and a distant mountain in Mexico. The day was concluded with a stroll through the Cholla cactus garden. The Cholla catus is captivating. With all their colors they lure you in close like the songs of a siren. These barbed beauties have a natural haven in Joshua Tree National Park where the Mojave and Colorado deserts meet. An area where all the ingredients come together perfectly for them to thrive.
Joshua Tree was a special place for us and reawakened our love for the desert. But it alone was not enough; we needed to see more! So after four days of serenity in Joshua Tree we loaded up the truck and headed for Death Valley. Death Valley – what an inviting name. It really makes you want to stop what you are doing and drive straight to southeast California. Grab the kids and grandma, honey. A valley of death awaits! In actuality, there is a plethora of life in Death Valley (apart from the tourists), you just need to know where to look. A giant tarantula was part of the greeting party that welcomed us into the park. I just happened to notice the hairy black dot moving across the road in time to avoid making it a flat motionless hairy dot. It even paused long enough for a photo shoot. Here, have a look yourself.
After conquering arachnophobia, we were once again high on desert life. We drove the next few miles across the desert with our heads out of the window and hair/beard flapping in the wind. A move we learned from Apollo to celebrate life. Dante’s View was our first destination which we used to get our bearings of the land we had just entered. The perfect mountain overlook into the barren valley. The landscape is desolate, vacant, and rigid yet oh so beautiful. Not typically the adjectives used to describe beauty but in this case, they fit. We dillydallied around here looking out in amazement until the heat from the sun told us it was time to move on and find some shade. Farther into the desert we drove until we pulled off on a side road to test the climbing power of the Ford Ranger. From here the rugged road led us into a canyon and to a desert landscape like we’d never seen before. For our more senior readers, you may remember Borax, the cleaning solution extracted from the Earth that required a twenty-mule team to haul it from the desert to your laundry rooms. Well the road we travelled is the exact road that these twenty-mule teams used to traverse. A pretty cool piece of nostalgia that any reader from our generation will have no idea what we were talking about.
Death Valley has so much to offer and to see. The only tricky part is that a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle is required to get to a lot of the amazing parts of the park. Typically, I ignore these signs and venture on, but being stranded in the middle of a desert called DEATH Valley made me save these treks for another time. Not to mention, the standard price to tow a broken-down vehicle from the back country of Death Valley will run you about 2,000 dollars. We’ll come back with a proper off-road vehicle next time. There is still plenty of spectacular areas that can be reached with standard vehicles or by foot. There is an area in the park where massive sand dunes can be climbed. The lowest point in the Western Hemisphere is located at an area called the Bad Water Basin where the land rests 282 feet below sea level. And there is an area called The Devils Golf Course that is so bizarre. It’s a field of salt flats that you can walk across. If you listen closely you can hear the Earth snap, crackle and pop beneath your feet. The exact sounds produced by milk being poured over a big bowl of Rice Krispies Cereal.
Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks are impeccable. The perfect desert duo. Only a four hours drive apart from each other, a visit to each is required. From here we go on to more desert. Valley of Fire in Nevada awaits us. Then it’s off to Utah. We’ll talk again once we reach Zion.