If I were to design an escape destination — not so much a Rupert Holmes thing, more of a place where you could go and it’s so different from everything that you’re used to, you’re compelled to turn inward and just pay attention… it would likely look very much like Joshua Tree. It’s not so much quiet as it’s silent. The scenery is otherworldly. It’s warm and dry. And the enormous piles of rocks are composed of a coarse gneiss that just begs you to climb them.
Here’s our short drive from LA. The LA basin is fairly arid, so the scenery really doesn’t change too dramatically as you get into the desert proper, and only once you’re inside the National Park do you find yourself surrounded by these rock formations and suddenly wonder how it’s possible that you’ve driven to another planet.
I would imagine that most people even outside of California are familiar with the eponymous trees thanks to U2. They’re actually a cousin to the yucca plant and grow in just about any western US high desert within a certain elevation band – the interwebs tell me 2000’ to 6000’, but in California you really don’t see them until above 3000’. In fact they make a pretty reliable altimeter when you’re driving up a desert grade and suddenly notice them first dotting and then swarming the landscape. Interestingly, the cover photo of The Joshua Tree was taken in Death Valley, and if you remember, has no Joshua Trees at all. Most of Death Valley is very, very low. Inside the album was where the photo of the band with the actual, or I should say an actual Joshua Tree lived, and they found that particular one along Highway 395 between Death Valley and the Sierras. I read that it’s long since dead, but the spot where it used to stand is littered with memorabilia, much like Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris.
We pulled into our campsite and I believe Tacco’s first words were “uh, wow.” But much more emphatic than that looks in print. More like UHHHHHH — WOW! Which was really the only appropriate response. It’s not a place that inspires wordiness – it’s more of a “Shut up and look around. Breathe. Listen. Now look around some more” type of place.
No hook ups, so we’d be relying on our generator for whatever electricity we needed/wanted, but one of my first thoughts was that I absolutely did not want to turn on a generator in this place. It seemed sacrilegious.
After making quick work of setting up camp, the kids and I got straight to climbing; it would’ve been unthinkable not to. Even Woodsprite couldn’t resist the pull of “ooh, let me just go a little higher,” and by the end of the afternoon we all sported patchworks of little scrapes and scratches on our arms and legs. One of the first times I went rock climbing, my friend / youth group leader (the same one who had such a great experience with pulling his kids out of a year of school and got us thinking of doing it ourselves) informed me that they’re called “rock bites” the first time I drew a little blood. I passed this tidbit onto the kiddos, and it seemed to take the edge off of any blood drawn, though the excitement and novelty of the climbing helped too.
Deciding on a proper supervision level was another challenge. Clearly this was something the kids hadn’t done before, and it wouldn’t be at all difficult to maneuver into a situation that could lead to broken bones or worse. Yet pushing their boundaries was something we wanted to encourage. What’s a skinned knee when you can tell your friends you scaled a two hundred foot rock in the desert? My first few climbs with the kids (particularly the girls) had me hawking them intently, but as they got more comfortable we eased off.
Our campground was a no internet / no cell phone coverage zone, which I’ve mentioned tends to add a bit of tension to the kids’ lives, particularly Keeper’s, but what he found on the second day was that if he climbed all the way to the top of the ridge behind our site, he could see all the way out to (and well past) the town of Twenty-Nine Palms, and was rewarded with two or three bars of 4G. Needless to say he went climbing up there as much as he could after that. We weren’t about to discourage rock climbing, especially in a place like this, but something about scaling a mountain to get a cellular signal and internet seemed off to me.
I found Joshua Tree to be a great place to think. The silence is so total, it almost registers as loud background noise. You perceive whatever tinnitus you’ve developed over the years as something bearing down on you, and only when it’s broken by the faint chirp of a bird two miles away or a kid pleading “but mommmm” inside a tent on the most distant corner of the campground do you realize how little sound there actually was previously.
Something Keeper said on our second morning got me meandering down a somewhat interesting mental path from my perch on the boulder-strewn ridgeline I’d climbed while the rest were going about their morning routines. He asked when we were leaving Joshua Tree for Las Vegas tomorrow and I told him I wasn’t sure – whenever was comfortable. He told me he preferred right now.
I had to suppress my immediate frustration and walk outside to avoid saying something. This is a response I find I’ve had a good bit in the last few months – something about going through significant trouble to attempt to create meaningful experiences for your kids only to have them tell you essentially “this sucks.” Of course as any parent will tell you, “this sucks” can change to “this is the best day of my life” within 15 minutes, and even if it doesn’t, any individual “this sucks” means exceedingly little in the grand scheme.
But I’ve been really affected by Joshua Tree – it’s getting into my soul in a way similar to how the Redwoods did, and I wanted my kids to open themselves to it too. Realizing something, I paused and asked him whether it was about the lack of internet. “Yes.”
I’m digging through my memories for things I “couldn’t live without” in my childhood, things that I would viscerally miss while on camping trips. TV would be the closest parallel, I suppose, but that wasn’t anywhere near what my kids feel about being off line today. I’m trying to decide if it concerns me, and I think it does.
It might even fall somewhere on that spectrum of dependency that has addiction as an end point. This is not something on which I can speak intelligently, as I’ve been fortunate not to have dealt with addiction significantly, either first or second hand. But it is something I’ve devoted thought to, as I think just about anyone has things in their life that fall somewhere on that continuum, and I’m certainly no exception. There are habits/routines I take comfort in – nothing that I physically couldn’t do without (though a morning without coffee turns into a grumpy, headachy afternoon pretty reliably), but certainly things that I don’t want to give up. Are these dependencies? Possibly.
What I’m starting to notice on this trip, likely as a by-product of it, is that we’re all clinging more tightly to our dependencies. Something about the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of the lifestyle is leading us to crawl back toward familiarity and comfort. There is no real home base to retreat to and reset, just constant motion. I had hoped, during the “imagining the trip” phase, that it would take the opposite tack – that we would shake loose of pretty much everything habitual and try on some new stuff. Early morning exercise. Board games instead of screens. Voracious reading. New hairstyles. Long solo bike rides. Introducing ourselves to strangers. Healthy smoothies for breakfast.
It might still go that direction of course, but not without effort. It won’t “go there,” we’ll have to lead it there. I was hoping to avoid the effort part. Maybe that’s where my kids get it?
Tacco had an interesting response to Joshua Tree on her first day, and I wouldn’t dream of trying to flesh it out as it was deeply personal, and I’m sure she’ll cover it when she writes. I can only say that it was negative – as if there was a negative energy around or something very bad happening. Having experienced exactly the opposite vibe and wanting to bring her with me, I tried to suggest that maybe it was just “one of those bad days,” similar to my San Elijo – Mission Bay downs, and I was quickly (and rightfully) fired the “I KNOW you’re not attempting to tell me how I feel, right?…” warning shot and I went to go climb another rock. Fortunately by the next day it had passed.
Keeper tried another “sleep out in the hammock” night, but the setup was significantly more challenging as we had no trees to tie to, so jury-rigged a system using webbing wrapped around rocks. It worked, but he came in at 2AM-ish, having not gotten much sleep due to his side being pressed against a boulder.
We drove into the main area of the National Park the following morning, after a stop at the Ranger Station to pick up Junior Ranger materials and take in a lecture by one of the rangers about Search and Rescue.
Our hike was fairly short, but spectacular. I’ll let the pictures do the talking here. The kids absolutely loved it.
On our second and last night, all three kids decided they would like to sleep outside, though Keeper abandoned the hammock idea and attempted to set up a bug net-protected bivouac of sorts on a flat area in the rocks above our site. Evidently the thought of seeing all those stars overrode any concerns they had about critters or discomfort. It turns out, however, that a concern about critters morphs into something entirely more pressing when it becomes an actual critter sighting, and in their cases, it can’t be overridden. Just as they were heading toward their sleeping bags, I spotted a tarantula ambling around in the general area, looking for food and companionship likely. I suppose I could’ve ignored him and hoped the kids didn’t notice, but a quick mental calculation led me to deem that option 1) cruel and 2) likely to lead to multiple knocks in the middle of the night from kids wanting back into their beds because they were cold/scared/uncomfortable/thirsty/etc. So I shined the light on him with a “heeeey, check that out!” Keeper, with his self-declared arachnophobia, had seen all he needed to, and made a beeline back to his bunk, accompanied by a quick but emphatic “NOPE!” The girls followed a bit more hesitatingly, although they watched our tarantula friend do his thing with me, just out of curiosity. Mostly he just walked around in a circle, then left.
It was a peaceful night.
Tomorrow we head up to Las Vegas and an RV park that’s pretty much the polar opposite of this campground. I wish we could stay longer, but I have a trip to fly. Joshua Tree has been intense, and provoked strong reactions in all of us. I have a feeling it will age well in our memories.