Trip reports

This break brought to you by the Mojave Desert (part one)

Hard on the heels of the rainiest October in Olympia’s recorded history (more than a foot of rain, people), I tagged along with Mr. Adventure to La Quinta, California, about 35 minutes south of Palm Springs, where he attended a conference. And while many people fly south in the winter for the golf, tennis, and poolside ambiance, I was looking forward to getting back into the desert.

First stop: Joshua Tree National Park. We flew in a day early to explore this landscape of spiky trees and jumbled boulders where the Colorado and Mojave deserts meet. In spring 1999, we’d camped at Joshua Tree and woke up to snow on the tent, on the trees, on the cacti. A ranger told us half the annual precipitation had fallen overnight. But this was November and temperatures were hotter than average.

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The tumble of boulders that is Mastodon Peak. That’s Mr. Adventure in the black shirt (Lauren Danner photo).

We started by hiking to Mastodon Peak in the southern portion of the park. This easy four-miler includes a fun scramble up the eponymous boulder pile to a sweeping view all the way to the Salton Sea. No Joshua trees in the area, but we passed an old mine site (the park is littered with them) and startled a chuckwalla, whose frantic waddle-run had me laughing for the first time since the election three days earlier.

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How can anyone not chuckle at chuckwallas? (Mr. Adventure photo)

The light was starting to fade, so we headed north to the Arch Rock area and had fun clambering around for a while on rocks turned golden in the setting sun.

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The days are short in Joshua Tree, but the rock stays warm for a long time after the sun dips out of sight (Mr. Adventure photo).

The campgrounds in the park were full during the Veterans Day weekend, so we took a ranger’s advice and headed north of the park to Bureau of Land Management dispersed camping. It turned out to be one of the most surreal camping experiences we’ve ever had, like Burning Man without the art. To get there, you follow a road until the pavement ends, then drive onto hard alkali flats. Pick a spot a few hundred feet from the roadway and set up camp — that’s it.

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BLM dispersed camping: It’s like Burning Man without the art (Mr. Adventure photo)

The flats were enormous, our closest neighbors a football field away. We watched a paraglider circle overhead then land nearby, pack up his sail, and drive off. More people arrived through the evening, but we were so spread out we could hear only faint strains of music and snatches of conversation. I slept soundly and woke to a beautiful sunrise.

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We were the first customers to arrive at the Country Kitchen, but the place was packed by the time we left at 7:45am (Lauren Danner photo).

We headed into the small community of Joshua Tree for a fine road-trip breakfast at the Country Kitchen (get the Denver omelet), then back into the park to hike to 49 Palms Oasis. One of five oases inside Joshua Tree, the native fan palms are tucked into a canyon, first appearing as a splotch of green against the gray-brown desert. Up close, the palms grow tall, providing cool shade for hikers and animals that frequent the oasis for water. We saw desert bighorn scat in the area, but no sheep.

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49 Palms Oasis appears as a haze of green in the distance. Don’t tell the park, but Mr. Adventure counted more than 49 palms there (Lauren Danner photo).

Alas, Mr. Adventure had to be at his conference later that day, so we headed out of Joshua Tree, but not before seeing some of the park’s namesake flora. Joshua trees are slow-growing, prickly members of the yucca family named (legend has it) by pioneers who saw the branches guiding them westward to their new home. Personally, I don’t see it, but then I encountered the trees from an air-conditioned rental car, not a dusty, hot, overland wagon.

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An imposing specimen (Lauren Danner photo)

Before the trip, I knew the one thing I really wanted to see, and probably wouldn’t, was desert bighorn sheep. Ever since I read Ellen Meloy’s incisive, funny Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild, about her year among local desert bighorns near her Utah home, I have been fascinated by these creatures. But “desert bighorn” is almost always precluded by the adjectives “elusive” or “rare” or even “invisible,” so I kept my expectations low.

Imagine my surprise, then, as we were driving down from Big Morongo Canyon on Twenty-Nine Palms Highway (CA 62), and I caught a glimpse of white rump in the alluvial fan below the road on the opposite side. “I think I saw bighorns,” I yelled. “We’ve got to turn around!” That meant going all the way down the slope for another couple of miles, then back up to the Riverside-San Bernardino County Line sign, where by now a couple of cars had pulled off the shoulder.

Mr. Adventure grabbed the camera and trotted across the narrow bridge to get a better look, while I spoke with a Hawaiian-shirted desert denizen holding a camera with a big lens. “I see them here pretty often,” he told me. “You just have to know where to look.” That’s an understatement. Desert bighorns blend seamlessly into their environment. Spot one, look away for a second, and look back — where’d it go? It’s there, but you can’t see it. This time we were lucky. Nine desert bighorns clambered up a seam in the slope, then settled down one by one in the shade. We watched them for a long time, but finally had to get back on the road.

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What, you can’t see the bighorns in this picture? Me either. They are just right and a bit down from the center (Mr. Adventure photo).
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Here’s a closer look. You can see some white rumps and nine desert bighorns in the shady part of the slope. This is one of those “wish we had a bigger zoom” moments (Mr. Adventure photo)

Back in the car, I said to Mr. Adventure, “I’m not sure anything can top this. It’s only the second day of the trip and the one thing I really hoped for happened.” But this is the desert, where the unexpected is the norm. We were just getting started.

Next up: Mr. Adventure’s conference duties run from 7am to 10pm. Whatever will I do with myself?