Joshua Tree National Park, A Week Later

We were out here just six days ago but are just as excited to see what nature has available for us today. We would be trying to find camping if we had any of our gear as we have things in California, Montana, and somewhere in transit between Manama, Virginia Beach, and San Diego to include most of our dive gear as we’ve bought things to add to our kits and purchased part of the divemaster course that we look forward to pursuing. Anyway, without a larger car or place to sleep we settle for the six hours roundtrip for a taste of seclusion.

We get an earlier start this morning, even after we turned around 20 minutes from the house to get Caleb’s camera’s charger cord that ended up not working — the ocean takes its toll on all things whether it’s salt eating gear or turtles eating jellyfish. Caleb will look for the newest model of Nikon as his favorite little waterproof photo grabber is no longer made in that version or color. Less wind moving the car this time seems to make the windmill portion of our trip seem further from the house but also smaller in total land area. 

Caleb decides that even though the map is in the car and we could add a second stamp to it that we should get the collector’s edition book so that we have another place to feed our need to express ourselves via sticker display. I used to acquire them randomly from parks that have them and brands that we agree with or a free stack from Dad to cover the scratches on my laptop but I’ve been influenced by the #vanlife and the stickers that the lifestyle has inspired. I do drive a Volkswagen now, so my dream of having a van of the same brand seems less far off even as Caleb dreams of his retirement truck. 

We stop more frequently since we have more time for me to photograph trees and for Caleb to read the educational signs along the road. We park behind a car with a child running around and the mom is curious as to if the information center is close or if they missed it. Caleb assures her it’s just a few more miles up the road. Back in the car, I wonder out loud trying to remember our first park experience and not knowing what to expect. I’d have to relate that to an international park when you have to read the pictures because you don’t know the language but most countries are accommodating of a translation of English. 

Then I wonder if perhaps it’s a during-covid concern that they have — that the ranger station will be closed and they’ll be forced to guess their way through the park. I have no idea how it was for the last year and a half, but I heard some parks were trashed in the absence of employees to help hold people accountable because they think the planet is their dumpster. This station though has a desk outside, the counter inside, and a window available as well to keep people spread out — some in masks while in proximity and others not because they’re outside. 

I enter the first stamp and we make our way behind the visitor’s center to hike the Cottonwood Springs Mastodon Peak Loop, just over two miles of trail. There’s an oasis tucked into the valley and I can imagine a small tribe hiding in here to escape the heat of the day, but there’s just tourists going off trail with their tripod and cell phones to experience the drop in temperature that the shade provides and to get pictures of the birds that I can clearly see from the trail. I wish my junior ranger badge came with the opportunity to ticket these people to recover the damage their ignorance causes. 

I understand the detriment my vehicle makes on the environment and the light pollution at night but I would delete their illegal photos and educate them on their responsibility to protect and preserve this land for others to enjoy, just as they could be. Perhaps I’m being too uptight though and we should let people go about at their leisure carving their initials into anything — trees, paintings, and manatees. They can piss on it all, which I wouldn’t even let my dog do because I have respect for things whether they’re mine or not, especially when they don’t belong to me. 

I’m starting to see the older person perspective of life. You grow up, mature, and for some reason expect others to do the same and when they don’t you begin to resent them a little more each time they make an infraction that you see as totally avoidable. But I also realize I’ve made mistakes in life and who am I to judge the seriousness of their offenses against my own. I know this goes across cultures and continents as I’ve met all types on my travels and realize the importance of education in so many ways that are lacking. I want to maintain an open mind and heart towards all creatures and let them express their true nature, regardless of whether that goes against my upbringing because the world doesn’t revolve around me. 

I appreciate the value the desert brings to the patient and curious eyes of those who seek to find its beauty. I’m grateful for the people who deem so much of the planet unworthy of their attention as it means there is more for me to see without crowds of selfie takers. My dad recently noticed that I don’t take many pictures of me in places (or that if I do I don’t post them) and I’m ok with that because I know what I look like and will watch myself age offline as I look back on these photos as the memories fade of the locations I was lucky enough to have seen. 

There’s more color in the park this time but also more trash as I pick up a can and a straw that falls apart as I hand it to Caleb. We need to bring a trash bag with us everywhere we go. It’s one of the reasons we have a spare pocket when we dive — to clean up the laziness of others but at least in the desert the tortoise has to snort the straw in pieces instead of using it whole as nostril jewelry like its sea turtle cousin. 

Each ecosystem is the most efficient artwork of its type — one that can be appreciated for the parts as well as the whole — the cacti and the mountain, the tree and the forest, the coral and the ocean — each doing their part to sustain themselves and working together to help each other create a masterpiece in their entirety. It’s for this reason that I squat down, lean sideways, and stand on my tippy toes to take in each angle of detail or to spy on something shy that’s trying to hide so I can take in the full essence of all the things my mind can’t remember about geologic history, animal science, and plant relationships. 

I stare at a shadow and though I’ve seen a time-lapse of hours and a day, I imagine what it would be like to watch a thousand or ten thousand years go by in a 24-hour video. I could watch an overhead version of one park, then zoom out to a region (county, prefecture, borough), before taking the astronaut’s view of countries progressing through an era and watching their shapes shift. Nature is a magical place that allows the mind to follow these paths, sometimes into your daily routine where it’s hard for others to follow your thoughts as they meander through possibilities and connections yet unknown to them or fully to you. 

What do history, houses, and hounds have in common? They’ve all got untold stories that people can only guess at based on the evidence left behind — a cracked rock, some chipped paint, and a chewed on table allow our minds to fill in the gaps. What a luxury it is to see nature living its truth, even if it is through filtered ideals surviving on man-made edits in a limited environment that is structured more for human ease than it is to ensure its future existence. Meanwhile, I’m sure Caleb is on the lookout for bighorn sheep and avoiding the cacti cushions so conveniently placed along our path. 

The peak is reached and more contemplation is had as we look out on the valley and then into the camera lens for proof we were here. On our descent, we pass Mastodon Mine, just one of the 300 or so in the park’s boundary, that the Hulsey family established in the 1930s and worked on and off for decades. The entrance is now barricaded from humans to protect the bats, but not closed enough to keep them safe from the trash thrown in. It saddens me that I can’t reach in there to remove it. I see the importance of parks putting more ethical plans in place but there’s not a convenient way to enforce them. 

I look at the wood that’s been there almost a century, rough and weathered, and then notice the names carved into the new boards put in place to keep the original structure standing. I could live in a place like this — teepee, hut, cave, igloo, etc. and have a minimal impact on the environment but I (as a collective) have no time to make my own bread, fix my socks, fetch my water, and create electricity enough to keep the fridge running while I type on my computer about limiting some of life’s modern luxuries so that people could have time to explore more of their minds and less of their possessions. 

Luckily for Caleb, I keep a majority of these thoughts to myself (just while we’re exploring) and tell him my second post about Joshua Tree in May will be more about the park and less about my wandering mind, but it seems I got that wrong. Then we come across a Wilson’s warbler and our focus is on seeing the bird through his thorn bush (Lycium andersonii) camouflage as he flitters throughout its branches and I take advantage of the photoshoot moment. I love that Caleb has been with me long enough now to read an opportunity as its happening — such that when I want a picture he knows to move out of frame or grab the wheel. 

We’re driving to our next hike and I see a couple with wood gathered in their arms and shoving it in their large SUV trunk like the trees are collectors’ items and not currently protected under the Endangered Species Act (which I didn’t know at the time). My junior ranger badge might not be on and I might not even have one for this park but that didn’t stop me from luckily being near a red ranger phone that I picked up immediately. It made me feel better that even if they put the wood back perhaps next time they will think twice before destroying something that isn’t theirs. 

Caleb had chosen Hidden Valley as our second major stop of the day, but there was no available parking. Since our last trip the amount of visitors has more than doubled as there are cars parked along the road as well. I choose Hemingway instead, which is mostly for rock climbers but still able to be enjoyed by those of us without extra gear or needed experience. This is a nice finish to the day before we drive a bit out of the way to save 30 cents per gallon on fuel; the price of which continues to rise. That’s the cost of travel, which as an avid adventurer I’m ok with paying more for being frivolous in my explorations. 

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