After Organ Pipes National Park we passed through two Border Patrol checkpoints (we’re good at them by now) on our way to the Sonoran Desert National Monument, and quickly found out there’s nothing there. Oops. I guess that’s kind of the appeal to the wilderness, but we weren’t about to take the Versa off-roading. So we drove on to Phoenix, resupplied, and hammered out our future Utah plans featuring a special guest: Stefan. We’re getting excited to see the big parks there with him but are trying to stay flexible since those places might sill be covered in snow.
Westward! The next day we found a laundromat on the way in Quartzite, Arizona. The town must have had twenty RV parks and we couldn’t see the reason, until a man from Montreal saw our license plate and said “Hey, New York!” That’s enough to start a conversation when you’re traveling. We told him our story and learned his: He was fleeing the Canadian winter in his RV and after enjoying Las Vegas he was convinced to spend a month in Quartzite “for ze big rock festivale,” and he supplemented his Québécois accent with the universal sign language for air guitar. To his chagrin he learned that it was not rock and roll but rather minerals and semi-precious stones that brought people to this corner of the desert each February. He was a laid back guy and a retired jeweler as well so he made the most of it, bought an emerald, and enjoyed himself. He was ready to move on to points North as soon as Spring thawed them out.
We continued on with clean clothes, crossed the border into California and were heading for a possible poolside drink in Palm Springs when we realized it was St Patrick’s Day. Thanks but no thanks. Instead we went to In-N-Out Burger, an exciting first for me. It was fine, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about. We found our Walmart outside Coachella, made our jokes, and hit Joshua Tree the next morning.
Our first impression of Joshua Tree: it was crowded. Cars lined the shoulder of the road and sometimes they didn’t even bother getting all the way to the shoulder. The second thing we noticed was all the flowers.
The National Park straddles the line of two deserts, the Colorado at the lower elevations and the Mojave higher up. The south entrance where we entered is in the Colorado, which was in full bloom. We keep seeing how lush America’s deserts can be, but this was ridiculous. The bajadas (sloping erosion zones from the hills and mountains) were covered in patches of purple and yellow. Even the ocotillo plants, which often weren’t even bearing leaves in the Sonoran, were announcing new growth with vivid red blooms. The brittlebush won for smell, but chia won for weirdness with its extraterrestrial-looking spike balls bearing tiny flowers.
We were disappointed that there was no orientation film at the visitors center, (though they did sell a dvd postcard, go figure,) but we persevered and took a hike at the Cottonwood Spring Oasis. We passed under huge California Palms and got to hills that were jumbles of boxy granite boulders. Of course we climbed the optional spur to the top of Mastodon Peak, and we said “Mastodon” in our best heavy metal voices as we scrambled up.
We also met a couple chuckwalla lizards on the way. Kate took a video of one sunbathing and I guess it didn’t approve because it pooped for the camera. I think she lost some followers because of that.
We took in the eastern side of the park from the car, gaining altitude and reaching the Mojave Desert. We parked at a picnic area called Split Rock for another jaunt through big rock outcroppings. There we got face to face with our first Joshua Tree.
It looked like a yucca had aspirations to be a palm tree. It felt like my In-N-Out experience again for a minute; we’ve been hearing hype about this place forever, it was super crowded, and it was fine but reality didn’t meet expectation. Turns out this tree was a young one and as we found more mature examples of these muppety, Dr. Suess plants I began to understand. My admiration grew as we found more and more of them.
We found Face Rock, which we agreed looked like a face, and headed for Skull Rock. That was the point of the day when the sun started getting to us and we got turned around. The extra mile we did was flat, but under the blazing afternoon sun was still frustrating. We managed to blame poorly designed trail signs instead of ourselves, or each other. We finally made it back to the shady overhang at Split Rock and found the most California sign yet: “This is a cool place, respect it.”
One last stop before camp: Cholla Garden. Cholla are a type of cactus we’ve been seeing different varieties of since Guadalupe, but never in such profusion. The camera really couldn’t capture how many there were.
These were called jumping cholla, because they seem to jump at the unwary passerby to hitch a ride. Segments break off easily and spawn a new plant when they touch down. So all of them surrounding us could have been clones of one single plant. We walked the path successfully without painfully spreading more cholla and went to make camp. We went to sleep super early despite the noisy campground, exhausted from the sun but eager to explore more in the morning.