When was the last time you slept in a tent, on the ground, with naught but a thin pad, even thinner air mattress, and sleeping bag for comfort? If it hasn’t been in the past few years, you may not appreciate the paucity of deep REM sleep that Your Faithful Correspondent experienced during his recent Desert Adventure. The coyotes didn’t bother me; in fact, their howling was rather seductive, sleep-wise. It may have been the rocks under me and the near freezing temperatures that kept me awake, or perhaps the thought of the new king-size bed that My Lovely Bride was enjoying back home without me… In any case, we awakened to a crisp, beautiful desert morning with the sun starting to warm our campsite. After getting our butane stove going and boiling water, we enjoyed a gourmet breakfast; seriously… Starbucks Via instant coffee (tastes just like fresh-brewed) followed by Mountain House freeze-dried “breakfast skillets” actually made a very tasty meal. The skillet dishes had the added benefit of being packaged in foil-lined bags with zip-lock tops, so you can eat them right out of the bags and then dispose of the bags into the trash… the only clean-up required was wiping down our sporks (a spoon/fork combo, designed to save weight).
Lack of clean-up was especially important out in the desert, because there were only five sites to obtain water in Joshua Tree National Park, which covers approximately 1,234 square miles. That is one water source for each 247 square miles. Due to the scarcity of water, there are no flush toilets or showers in any of the campgrounds. I had thought about bringing a hand-operated water purifier in case we found small pools of rainwater amongst the rocks, but the rangers advised that what water existed “in the wild” was meant to be saved for the animals. Made sense to me; surely Wiley Coyote needed a drink more than I needed another Starbucks Via… it did make for problematic personal hygiene, but I figured Liz was an experienced backpacker and could always move her tent upwind if I got too ripe.
As we walked around after breakfast, we saw this sign. My first thought was, “Hey, neat! They might not have water here, but the Park Service provides Wi-Fi. That’s very gracious of them.” Liz didn’t mind being off the grid for a week, but I wanted to check my email for love notes from Suzanne. So, iPhone in hand, I followed the arrow, and found… an amphitheater. Duh….
Our next hike was to 49 Palms Oasis, in Joshua Tree’s Wilderness area. Here Liz is adjusting her trekking poles to the correct length. They would be very helpful in the steep trail ahead. The trail guide warned, “Last year there were five helicopter rescues and 8 carry-outs from the 49 Palms Oasis Trail. Be careful.” We found the trail rocky, but not overly strenuous; the trekking poles were most helpful on the downhills, when we were moving from rock to rock. Without them, you could easily become unbalanced and twist an ankle (or worse).
Cowboys and prospectors stumbled across this relatively lush group of desert fan palms (Washintonia filifera) thriving at the base of a mountain where a small spring, located along a geologic fault line, provides a constant water source. These palms stand 75 feet high and live for 80-90 years. Before Europeans arrived, the Cahuilla tribe lived near here, ate the palm fruit and used the fronds for huts. Coyotes, bighorn sheep, and birds also eat the palm fruit, and help spread seeds around in their droppings.
Along the trail, we met fellow hikers Ursula and Ulrich Niederer from Switzerland. They are a delightful couple who are visiting the US for a month or two. They live in Basel and don’t even own a car; they travel by bicycle and train and rent cars at their destination. They gave us some hints about hiking from hut to hut in the Swiss Alps; this trip is on my “bucket list”, and I hope one day to look up the Niederers in their spectacular homeland.
This was the view on the return leg of the trail. The desert at upper right in the photo is part of the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Training Center, the largest Marine Corps base in the world. It stretches over 998 square miles, larger than some small countries, and has about 8,000 full-time residents. Marines, including our Susan, have trained here since 1953. The terrain includes high desert from 1,400 to 4,500 feet elevation, mountains, valleys, ancient lava flows, dry lake beds, and arroyos (wadis), just the sort of training environment needed in our post-9/11 world. The center is not open to the public, since Marine air and ground units conduct live fire exercises there. Because of the Christmas holidays, there was no training going on while we were at Joshua Tree National Park.
After the 49 Palms Oasis trail, we moved to a more challenging venue, a boulder field guarding a small valley. We didn’t expect to make it to the top, since we had no technical climbing gear or ropes; we just wanted to see how far we could get. The boulders you see here range from 4 feet to 20 feet in diameter, and the climb up can be torturously slow. Going down can be much faster if you slip… Just the day before, a hiker had broken her ankle here and had to be Medevac’ed out. While we didn’t make it to the top, we succeeded in avoiding any injuries.
The access route to this hike was through a sandy arroyo guarded by spiny bushes. Because it had warmed up, this Valiant Hiker had shifted from long pants to shorts, perhaps not the wisest move he had ever made; he is moving quite carefully through the stickers, and his hiking companion was laughing at him as she took this picture… not much compassion there!
Our last hike of the day was on the Boy Scout Trail, which wends its way over mostly flat desert (Danke Gott!) into the mountains on the horizon. It was much easier hiking. But the shadows were lengthening; sunset came around 4:30 PM, so we made a U-turn before reaching the big rocks ahead.
Back at camp, we arrived in time to watch these rock climbers on a 5.11 route. Joshua Tree NP is a world class climbing area. Climbs are rated from Class 1 to Class 5.15. The 5.11-5.15 bracket is described thusly: “The realm of true experts; demands much training and natural ability and, often, repeated working of a route.” Back in my 20s, I did some Class 3 and a couple of 4’s, but have never had the skill level to try any 5 level routes.
My Adventuresome Daughter Elisabeth does rock and ice climbing in the mountains of Virginia, Maryland, and New Hampshire, but I convinced her that we should just hike this trip and not risk any serious rock climbing. Thankfully, she acquiesced. (Phew! That was close…) Here she is by the sign describing the climbing routes she wished Her Old Dad could have climbed with her. Note the heavy jacket, stocking cap, and hands in pockets. It was just sunset and the temps were already in the mid-40s. They were to drop to 35 that night.
Sunset arrived, and we had a quick dinner before the temperature dropped even more. As Liz was heating water for our gourmet freeze-dried lasagna, the surrounding mountains took on an eerie appearance, with Venus brightly shining above the near-black peaks.
We lit a campfire to help combat the cold. It was only partially effective for an hour or so before we had to retreat into our tents, out of the wind. I hoped that this night’s sleep would be better than the last… unfortunately, it was not to be. After reading for a couple of hours, I got maybe 4 hours of sleep, awaking around 3:30 and dozing off and on until 6. (This is getting hard on my old body!) Stay tuned for the final episode of our Desert Adventure in a couple of days!