Joshua Tree and the Mojave: My Inner Dirtbag

When I recently packed for a Vegas work conference, I felt like I was packing for two very divergent parts of myself. I had my roller with my nicest professional clothes: suits, business dresses, heels, nylons, and sensible jewelry. The other bag was my red backpack stuffed with all my camping gear, some random canned goods, and my beloved, but very worn out hiking boots.

For four days I stayed in a room with a view at the Mirage hotel on the 21st floor, worked 11 to 14 hour days, met with clients and attended sessions during the day, networked and hustled over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at night. I played my part tirelessly and got to see a keynote by Ernie Moniz, US Secretary of Energy, and finagle a meet and greet with one of the leading renewable energy journalists for Bloomberg. It was incredibly energizing and a great change of pace after grinding away in the office for so many months.

But after four days I was ready to switch over to my backpack and find my inner dirtbag. Just me, the road, and 5 ½ days to do whatever I wanted. No obligations to anyone, no plans, no timelines, no internet or email. And on my vacation from 21st century realities, I was kind of hoping to figure out which identity felt more “right” – the sharp professional talking shop with people in the renewable energy industry or the shoestring wanderer who has walked trails alone and spent over 8 months traveling South America from tip to tip.

My first morning in the Mojave Desert

My first morning in the Mojave Desert

From my hotel, I took a taxi to the airport rental car center at 5:30pm still dressed in my businessware, rented a Jeep Compass, and headed to the REI about 25 minutes outside the city.  I grabbed gas, groceries, and two giant jugs of water after changing into my jeans and T-shirt. By the time I was fully supplied, it was dark.  The man at the REI store had drawn me a map to the nearby campground at Red Rocks, but when I got there it was full aside from some walk-in sites that you had to maneuver through a construction zone to get into.

With that I figured, “Screw it, I’ll just keep driving until I’m tired and sleep in the car.”

I drove for over an hour before I saw the Cima Road exit and got off the highway. Then drove for 10 minutes, found a dirt road, drove for another 10 minutes until I found a pull out, sat and ate some food from the grocery store deli before pulling out my sleeping bag and curling up in the back of the car.

After a week of complete stress and no rest, I slept hard, but still woke with the sun, Joshua trees surrounding me, and the light playing with the colors of blue and pink on the horizon. Despite the lack of luxury, waking up there was so much more exhilarating and freeing than waking up in my hotel room the previous few days.

I had some granola and tea and drove 30 minutes passed scorched, rugged, redrock mountains on a dirt road to Hole-in-the-Wall.  I cleaned up in the bathroom then explored a bit, with a short hike and scramble of Banshee Canyon, named for the way the wind howls through it. It was early and cool and the birds flew off in droves as I approached their perches on brambles and prickly pear cacti.

From there I made a short stop at the Kelso depot, a surprisingly civilized place in the middle of all this vast desert.  The railroad station, museum, and restaurant now house the history of what’s left of a town the once held 2,000 people.  It could not have been an easy life. The roughness of it was evident in the necessity of having a metal cage out in the open where the unruly we’re jailed and exposed to the elements, both the hot sun and the cold nights, I suppose to reconsider their behavior.

The Kelso town jail cell

The Kelso town jail cell

It was now about 11am and the ranger working the front desk recommended I call Joshua Tree if I was headed that direction.  It was Friday and with no reservation most of the campgrounds would probably be full by the time I got there, which is just what I was told. This is what happens when you really hate planning ahead, especially for trips like this. Fortunately, I’d come prepared and actually hoping to backpack.  Still I zoomed off in that direction hoping to beat the after work rush of people from LA.

I passed by the giant sand dunes and rock formations at the south end of the Mojave Preserve and made a mental note to see them on my way back. The road was so open and flat you could see for miles and miles. I passed many tiny, sunbaked towns and wondered how anyone could live out here without any water or trees – just dust, sand, rocks, cacti, and roads that stretched on and on out to the edge of the horizon.

I made it to Joshua Tree at its West Entrance around 2pm and I was lucky to meet a very knowledgeable park employee, an older guy probably in his late 50’s. He guided me to a great backcountry camp near Willow Hole. While it turned out the campgrounds weren’t full, after seeing the cars rolling in, I’d decided I really preferred to backpack. Sometimes it feels lonelier to be camping in a campground full of families and groups of friends when you’re by yourself and I was seeking solitude anyways.

When I got to the parking lot, it was still really hot, maybe 88 degrees (broiling temperature for Northwesterners like me). I knew I didn’t have to walk in very far and was starving at this point having not eaten lunch yet.  Also I wanted to carry in as little as possible since I was going to have to hike in all my own water.  There wasn’t going to be any on the trail and even if there was, all water in this park is reserved for wildlife – really as it should be.

A few people rolled in as I was packing up after eating. One guy walked over to me and said, “Oh, are you going camping on the trail overnight?”

“Yep,” I said.

“What do you bring to eat? he asked.

“Stuff that’s light.” I said. “Like quinoa because it needs less water than pasta.” I was pouring part of the contents of a bottle of wine into my leftover Vitamin Water bottle as we talked.

“But you’re bringing wine I see,” he said

“Well, I have my priorities.” I said with a laugh.

I filled out my registration card, shouldered my back, and then headed out to the “Wonderland of Rocks.” Huge, fractured, granite piles were strewn about the landscape and Joshua tree covered the space in between like no forest I’d ever seen — so open and sparse compared to the towering, evergreen woods back home.

Wonderland of Rocks

Wonderland of Rocks

The camp was even closer than I thought. After 25 minutes I was there. It was only 4:30pm at this point so I set up camp and then scrambled around on the granite ridge behind me. I picked my way carefully since I was alone and it was pretty high up. From the top, I watched the sunset behind the San Bernardino Mountains then descended it in the remaining light. I relaxed in my hammock, drank wine, and watched the stars come out before eating dinner and heading to bed.

The next morning I woke up at dawn and started on the trail towards Willow Hole. On the way I saw a Mexican woman hiking out with her father, who was sweating in his long white button up shirt and black slacks. We nodded towards each other as we passed. Aside from that I had the whole place to myself.

The trail curved along through the narrowing passageway in the rocks and eventually led to a seep. Along the way it got greener and greener and there were even flowers here. I saw many birds and bees gathering nectar and food. At one point I thought I saw a great big bumblebee, but when I looked closer I realized it was actually a tiny hummingbird, barely bigger than the tip of my thumb to the knuckle. This little oasis of willows, moisture, and greenery in the coolness of the morning was truly a wonder.

I hiked back and broke camp, passing many people on my way back to the parking lot and ran out of water minutes before reaching it. The burden of water weight would certainly make multi-day backpacking trips here a real challenge. I decided to make a few pit stops in the north end of the park then head to the south end to the other overnight camp the guy at the park entrance had recommended.

The parking areas for the two most popular nature hikes were now a complete zoo. So I passed right on by and drove up to Keys View where you can see north to Palm Springs and the San Gregonio Wind Park and south cross the Coachella Valley to the Salton Sea and even Mexico in the distance. It was a clear day without haze and I was amazed to see the Salton Sea’s bright surface reflecting back at me, a place I had read about but didn’t even realize was right here.

Cholla Cactus Garden

Cholla Cactus Garden

Continuing south I stopped at the cholla cactus garden, which stretches on for miles.  It’s quite a spectacle in the middle of what seems a completely desolate valley.  Rolling mountains surround it and I pulled off to photograph Pinto Mountain. There was a backcountry board here too, but in the midday heat I couldn’t imagine hiking with a heavy pack into all that nothingness to climb one of the most inaccessible mountains in this part of the world.Pinto MountainWhen I made it to Cottonwood Springs I had lunch at the shaded campground picnic area to wait out the hot sun. There were a few people here but not many. The parking lot for the Lost Palms Oasis trailhead had only two cars.  As I set out with my backpack and sloshing water storage bags, I walked briefly with a family hiking with two young girls. As I passed by them I wondered what they thought of me, a woman alone, hiking off into the desert a few hours before sunset.

Despite the time of day it was still quite hot and the trail was slightly inclining and sandy, making the effort even more difficult. After a mile I passed a guy hiking out by himself and that was it.  I knew by park rules I could camp at any point now, but didn’t see anything obvious like I had the night before so I kept going. You could really just see forever across this primordial landscape of giant boulders and emptiness. I could imagine dinosaurs wandering across this backdrop or picture it in a sci-fi movie about a planet discovered in some distant future.

The path went up-and-down and across several washes and was grateful for a few signposts pointing the right direction. The trail wasn’t much more than footprints in the dust and sometimes these led off in the wrong direction. When I still hadn’t found anything after 90 minutes of walking I told myself I had to stop at 5:30pm so that I’d still have some light to set up my tent. I climbed up to some rocks just off the trail to get a sense of what was around here.  The view was incredible looking off to a great canyon in the distance. The rocks seemed to glow in the late evening light.

I ended up backtracking a bit and turning down a wash to find a wider opening to camp. Since I’m not an expert backpacker in desert country, I wasn’t sure how great an idea this was, flash flood danger for example, but there was no chance of rain from what I can tell and I hadn’t even considered putting my rain fly on the night before.

I set up quickly then scrambled up a slope of the wash to watch the sun fade. The colors were amazing. As the light dimmed, I was surprised by how hungry and thirsty I was. I played some mellow music on my phone to keep me company while I cooked up some chili mac and again drank wine under the stars.

With another dawn I arose and climbed up the side of the wash to watch the morning sun set the granite alight. I started up the trail shortly after, marching up and down the channeled landscape. Somehow I got off the trail without realizing it and ended up ducking under and over boulders in a small, side canyon, at one point shimmying on my belly through a narrow opening and at another barely lifting myself over a high point.

Lost Palms Oasis

Lost Palms Oasis

Eventually, I made it to the Lost Palms Oasis, a sudden tangle of green against that vast canvas of yellow. Towering fan palms up to 70 feet high rose above me. Their foliage littered the ground making it difficult to navigate the uneven canyon floor. I had hoped to see the big horn sheep that supposedly make their home here, but they must have been long gone by this point.  I climbed up to a boulder and then saw the actual trail meant to carry hikers down to this place. I took a moment to cool down and soak in the quiet and solitude of having it all to myself before jogging up the main trail.  On my way back out, again, I saw no one until I got closer to the parking lot and Mastodon Peak now dotted with climbers.

I made a quick stop at the campground to get water and brush my teeth.  A large group of hipsters had come after I left the day before and looked a bit ragged.  They had definitely had a bit of a rager the night before, some still not up, others nursing their hangovers with cans of PBR. The bathroom trash was completely overflowing.

I overheard one guy say, “I definitely was in YOLO mode last night. I think at midnight I was saying, ‘Where’s the acid?’” then laughing.

I’m not at all surprised that people come to this place to take drugs and party.  The landscape is completely surreal and the stars are totally unlike what you see in the city. After spending so much time alone, carefully conserving my water, limiting my trash, and being in a space free from signs of humanity, it seemed so excessive and empty and I found myself judging them. But then I thought back to camping trips like that that I’ve been on involving numerous cases of Coors Light, bonfires, and floating the river, and got off my soapbox.

Once in my car I headed back north, stopping at the Arch Rock trail near White Tanks before staking out a campsite at Jumbo Rocks. I noticed it the day before off the road and it looked like the best campground to me. It was sort of emptying out when I arrived and I was a little scared it would be a ghost town that night, but I had had enough of carrying 20+ pounds of water weight into the desert to camp.

Arch Rock

Arch Rock

I found a great site with a picnic table in front and a narrow slot through boulders leading to a private tent site in back. I relaxed for a little while and met my neighbors who were setting up a giant telescope. It was a dad with a son about my age or a little younger and a couple of his friends. They were friendly and invited me to join them later. I was glad to know I wouldn’t be alone that night – or next to a group of party people tripping on acid.

In the afternoon, I did a few short walks and watched the sunset from the Skull Rock trail near my camp. It was the most beautiful of them all. Streaks of yellow clouds across the sky to the west and to the east a great, pink swirl of a cloud thrusting itself up like the stroke of a painter’s brush.

Best sunset ever!

Best sunset ever!

At night I got a much-needed hit of social interaction as I chatted over wine and hot cocoa with my neighbors. Another girl from LA who was camped there alone also joined us. In between taking turns peeking at various globular clusters, we talked about the LA scene, Halloween costumes, climbing, technology jobs, and sexism in the workforce. I felt so lucky to have scored a site next door to the astronomy show and such a fun group. I stayed up way later than I had for the last few days, something like 11pm. What can I say I’m a wild woman!

The next morning was Monday and while I expected the park to be completely quiet, I still got up early hoping to see the big horn sheep at Barker’s Dam.  It was somewhat light out, but still freezing and I shivered as I walked along the path. I found the petroglyphs, but no sheep. Then I finished my visit of the park with the Hidden Valley Trail, named for the natural rock corral once blasted open in one place to house and hide stolen cattle.

On the drive back to camp I attempted to get the best possible Joshua tree selfie along the stretch of road climbing up towards Sheep Pass. The shape and size of them still awed me. It is amazing to think how old these trees are. Those that are only 30 feet high are thought to be hundreds of years old.

Joshua tree selfie!

Joshua tree selfie!

Back at Jumbo Rocks I stretched my muscles in the sun, now stiff after days of walking, broke camp, then headed out the entrance towards 29 Palms. At the visitor center I changed, washed my hair in the sink, and cleaned the dust off my legs in the bathroom. (Super classy, I know, fortunately no one caught me in the act). I then deemed myself presentable enough to go somewhere for lunch as a treat. I had heard the historic 29 Palms Inn had a great restaurant and was really glad I went.

It was a little, quirky place, but very relaxing with a view from the restaurant overlooking the small pool. After devouring my seared ahi sandwich, I walked the grounds and found the restaurant’s garden, a Cinderella-style, pumpkin-shaped carriage, and true oasis surrounded by palms with turtles swimming in its pond and birds swooping down to peck out seeds from the pomegranate fruits hanging above. The various guest bungalows were brightly painted and had different themes, one was even a houseboat floating on the pond.

29 Palms Inn Pumpkin Carriage

29 Palms Inn Pumpkin Carriage

I could see myself spending a lot of time just reading and relaxing here, but knew I had to start heading back towards the Mojave before long.  I took a different, more direct route this time and found myself climbing up a mountain pass and then whizzing down an open valley floor to salt flats and even a charcoal gray crater looming to the west.

Salt flats and open road

Salt flats and open road

I reached the Kelso dunes two hours before sunset and hiked up them with only the sea of footprints and the swishing of my bare feet in the sand to keep me company. It’s mind-boggling to find this giant wall of sandy peaks in the middle of jagged ridgelines and Joshua tree flatlands. The eye can see on and on and yet you still see nothing, no people or towns, no lights.

Kelso Dunes

Back in my car with the darkness coming on I was debating which dirt road to pull off of to make my final camp.  I’d read about the Mojave Road in the book I had brought. It sounded a bit rough, but said it was largely passable in sections, even in a standard clearance car, so I figured “what the hell?” I had a Jeep and had paid for the extra damage insurance.

In total darkness I found camp and for the first time felt a bit spooked. It was so quiet I could still hear the cars driving by from the paved road miles away. I started to think about coyotes and cougars and people who might come out and mess with me. I drank the last of my wine to calm my nerves and stayed close to my car while I heated some pasta from the night before.

I took a sleep aid that night and when the sun came, put a bandanna over my face to sleep a bit longer. It was my last day and I had almost 8 hours before I needed to be back in Las Vegas at the airport. Once I packed and organized the car, I continued further down the Mojave Road, figuring I was about halfway to the other paved road that crosses through the preserve.

At a turnaround I came across a couple in a rigged up Jeep. They were hiking down from what looked like an old mining site.  I waved and then drove a little ways ahead of them before they came behind me in their vehicle.

Suddenly the road turned to sand and my wheels stopped moving and just started spinning. I jumped out and it wouldn’t budge. They stopped behind me and walked up.

“I think I’m stuck,” I said.

“Did you put it in four?” the woman asked.

“Um…” I said. “It’s a rental. I’m not sure it has it.”  Then I confessed that I was really not experienced with this sort of thing.

Thank God they were there. Within 10 minutes they had pulled their Jeep up around me, attached their towline to my front bumper, run the engine, and hauled my white SUV up out of the sand.

“I’m so glad you were here,” I said as I thanked them.

“We are too,” the man said. “You’re the first person we’ve seen in two days.”

That was when I realized just how screwed I would’ve been without them and how dumb it was to come out here alone, but maybe sometimes the tale and the experience is worth the stupidity. (At least that’s what I like to tell myself when things like this happen.)

Salt flats and open road

Salt flats and open road

I drove in reverse for about a half mile to get back to the turnaround and drove out the way I came in. I had one last stop I wanted to make, Zzyzx, the once glamorous health spa on the edge of Death Valley now turned desert research institute. Despite its current habitation the place still felt like a ghost town. As I walked around the palm encircled pond of Soda Springs and the crumbling bath house, the only sound I heard was the paddling of a few birds making a stop here for direly needed water and the buzzing of a window air conditioning unit in the receiving building. Still a worthwhile lunch stop in terms of bizarre factor.

Later I headed back towards Las Vegas. Now driving this stretch in daylight, I took in the incredible sight of the Ivanpah Solar Facility just off the side of the highway with its three towers each surrounded by a halo of shimmering mirrors.

A few miles later I pulled off to get gas and in true dirtbag style finished my road trip by paying a few bucks to shower at a truck stop. (I figured my fellow passengers on the plane would appreciate it.) And with that I discarded my now very dusty hiking pants and put back on my street clothes. It felt good to be clean and I wondered later as I went through security and eventually made it home to drizzly Seattle which part of myself felt more authentic: the businesswoman or the dirtbag.

I decided that maybe I don’t have to choose.


Inner Dirtbag


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