12.09.2009

Putting Faces to Names: 1

One of my favorite climbing destinations of all time is Joshua Tree National Park. Situated in the high Mojave Desert east of the sprawling supermetropolis northeast of Los Angeles, Joshua Tree was and continues to be a keystone in my 'real' education. Driving the claustrophobic highway at dawn from L.A., navigating the big box stores and strange sprawl of desert towns like Yucca Valley, one is shocked to drive literally 20 minutes into the National Park from town and see not a slow transition into forest or alpine, but an absolutely sudden visual shift.

And how appropriate this is to the incredible earthly moonscape of Joshua Tree: to enter this place is to truly embark on a journey into a mystical land of soft, organic looking rock formations, beautifully idiosyncratic flora and fauna and, undeniably, a place that supports only the most well adapted organisms. Water is scarce, although it is hard to remember this simple fact for all the large plastic containers we readily schlep to the campsite from town. Life is surprisingly abundant in the high desert: oft-huge Joshua Trees, so named by Mormons for their apparent likeness to Joshua in prayer, dance under the sun; numerous cacti and Acacia bushes dot the soil and the rocks; ravens and hawks soar through the warm air by day, while owls and bats hunt through the night; lizards, snakes, scorpions and tarantulas abound; beautiful and rare desert tortoises are a treat to observe, if one should be so lucky; cryptobiotic soil, whose growth is measured in hundreds of years, forms the biomass that is the basis for much of the other plant life; the nimble bobcat, the elusive bighorn sheep and the crafty coyote roam; the squirrel and the kangaroo mouse display their very disparate personalities. All are part of a rather delicate yet prolific cycle of life that revolves around the barely sufficient food and water, more present, perhaps, than in other desert environments, but still precious indeed.

And then there are humans. Climbing in Joshua Tree began earlier, perhaps, than 1950; however, it continued in earnest as the National Monument, as it was previously, became a place for Yosemite climbers and others to winter over. Good temperatures, relative lack of precipitation, free, relatively unregulated camping and freedom in general made the place heavenly. Fast forward to today and the picture changes: regulated camping; National Park status; law enforcement rangers on patrol, their sidearms at the ready. As usual, too many people make for a difficult situation: now that everyone from latter-day dirtbag climbers to 'outdoor enthusiasts' putting around in $40k flex-fuel 'adventure vehicles' to RV-piloting American-cliche couples want a piece of the view, the latter of whom only from the safety of their houses-on-wheels, we all have to play together. But this wasn't meant to be a vituperative outburst about humans and their lack of class, especially since I must include myself, at least in that general category.

I got to Joshua Tree on December 31st, 2000. Knackered from the uninterrupted 22 hours of driving, I collapsed in the sand only to awake hours later to a huge fiasco of a huge bonfire, nudity and general debauchery as about 100 people flirted noisily with the New Year. A few hours and some mind-altering later ("was there something else in that?") I found myself 100 feet up on a rock formation under a crystal clear sky blooming with stars, listening to several rounds of erroneous New Years countdowns. Looking at the ice halo framing the Moon (the 'eye of the universe'!) I couldn't believe the city could still exist a mere half hour away, its machinations hidden by the intervening hills.

Of course now, my naivete tempered by time and 'real' life hammering tirelessly against my consciousness, trips to Joshua Tree are different. But the sheer joy of being in that place hasn't changed a bit. The climbing is superb and the camping, although difficult to feel at peace sometimes while being stalked by the tax collector, still allows the privilege of getting up at first light, finding a high place to sit with a warm beverage and just watching what happens next.

They can't charge you for that.

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