Joshua Tree was the first National Park I visited on my own. I arrived with no idea what I wanted to do there and very little experience traveling alone. I only knew from traveling alone once that I loved it and from seeing images of National Parks that I wanted to spend time in them. That is the way most things begin for me: a very strong feeling. The details work themselves out, usually after a series of mistakes.
People did ask me questions I couldn't answer, but that happens whenever I begin something new. I also didn’t know what I would do with an English degree, if I was making the right decision going to grad school, why I was moving to California, or what I was going to do in Germany. Even with decisions that affect no one but me, if I don’t have all the answers, I can hear traces of that tone like maybe I haven’t thought about this enough or maybe I’m not really serious. Lucky that as much as I care what other people think of me, I am also the most stubborn person alive.
It’s enough to have your own reasons for doing things. All you have to do is take complete responsibility for making them happen. And accept the consequences, whatever they may be. Taking responsibility actually gives me the confidence to go do whatever I want. But no self-talk will save you from the experience of doing something for the first time, and when I showed up in Joshua Tree three months ago, everything was new.
It did not make sense to me at the time and it still really doesn’t, but I drove only two hours from home and felt like I was in another world. It was an emotional experience that brought to the surface how I felt about myself. It was easy enough to hide at home, but there I was in the desert, and the desert is a weird place.
I adjusted and quickly. The unnerving feeling, the chill that says you have left your comfort zone only followed me halfway to Death Valley the following weekend, and has never returned. Traveling alone is not the emotional experience it was in the beginning, and while I continue to experience more new things than I can ever predict on every trip, that doesn’t seem daunting anymore. Neither does making a fool of myself since I’ve already thrown up off the side of a boat while teenagers watched.
Before this I would have preached that you have to be in the middle of things to see your way through, but I still would have spent my weekend at home trying to craft a plan for world domination. Indeed I have spent enough time trying to do that while having these experiences on the weekends. But when you throw yourself into something, the path starts to form in front of you, and in retrospect the way will look obvious, but at the beginning you have no idea.
This weekend I went back to Joshua Tree, because in February I didn’t know what I was doing, but now I know a little more. This is an experiment in knowing just enough to make it to the next beginning. I haven’t even made it out of the Shire.
Since last time I was in Joshua Tree it was colder than expected and I was very short on time, I didn’t do much more than enjoy the view from my car. So this was like visiting a whole new park.
My first stop was Ryan Mountain. It is less than a two mile hike to the top, but I felt the heat instantly. I didn’t see many people on the trail, but about halfway up, I came across a woman staring at something in the distance. She pointed and said there was a Bighorn Sheep on the next mountain. I was really excited to see one, but I stared for a good minute, blinking my eyes and adjusting my glasses, while she kept trying to describe to me exactly where it was, and I could not see anything. Finally I pretended to see it and continued my hike. The woman followed behind me, but I never saw her at the top of the mountain and I didn’t see her on my way down either. I’m not even sure she was real.
In my hiking adventures so far, I’ve discovered that once I reach a mountain peak, the floor of a canyon, or some beautiful overlook, I don’t like to spend much time there. I always start thinking of the return journey and I can sit there pretending to be in meditation, but really I would rather finish what I started. Ryan Mountain was the exception, I think, because I had the whole thing to myself. I sat there quietly for a long time.
Next I made my way to Hidden Valley, which is not a salad dressing, but a valley that was once completely concealed. Right before the land became protected, a pathway was blown through the rocks. It’s not so much a hike, but a walk. The views, though, they’re even better than Ryan Mountain. It quickly became my favorite place in Joshua Tree.
The next morning I explored a different area that is not connected by road to the rest of the park and hiked to 49 Palms Oasis. You hike up over a canyon wall and into the canyon, seeing nothing but dirt and rocks and lizards as you go, and then you see in the distance 49 Palms looking like they don’t belong. The palms offer the only shade, which was such a relief from the heat.
Before leaving the park, I made a trip out to Keys View, which is an overlook with views of Coachella Valley. There were a lot of cars and a crowd of people near the main railing, but I walked just a little bit further and could sit in almost silence. I much prefer the parks mid-week and off-season when they are nearly abandoned, but it is not hard to find a quiet place in Joshua Tree even on a Saturday afternoon.
I was debating another hike, but because Joshua Tree is so close to me, I want to take my time in exploring it all.