Reflecting on an alien landscape with each step and pausing to absorb in the spirit of the park.
A hot desert wind blew a pair of tumble-weeds down the empty highway that cuts through Joshua Tree National Park. Heat radiated from the tar, forming a convincing mirage of water in the distance, just out of reach. Circling buzzards, silhouetted by the dazzlingly hot sun above, rode the air like morbid kites in the cloudy, blue sky. This scene transported me to the beginning of every cowboy film I've ever watched growing up; except that it was real, and I wasn't Clint Eastwood.
Upon stepping out of my air conditioned vehicle and maneuvering through an excited tourist caravan, sweat instantly began dripping out of every pore. It was July, and this is the desert, after all. Being a social person, I was surprised at how disinterested I was in making small talk with fellow hikers. That type of interaction seemed to contrast with the silent sentience of the stone monoliths in the near distance. I needed to get a closer look; a small path from the parking lot led directly away from the noise and into the quiet brush, where the gateway to an alien landscape beckoned.
Winding through a rough scrub of prickly bushes and large round boulders, the path revealed a magnificent garden of sand stone sculptures, crafted from thousands of years of being blasted by the wind. These smooth, round masterpieces seemed to protrude from the dry earth like giant anatomical structures, skull-like in form. The urge to climb was real, but there are strict rules about this, and there was so much more to explore! A jack rabbit shot across the path ahead, which dipped into a small valley where a grove of famous Joshua Trees stood, hands raised in salutation.
As the sun reached it's apex in the sky, shelter from the intense UV rays became scarce, save for a few larger boulders with outcroppings and a small cave surrounded by strange red and grey trees. Dehydration and heat exhaustion are serious hazards in this climate. Be sure to have at least 2L of fresh water, sun protection, and the common sense to take a break if you're becoming overheated. Since I carried plenty of water and a sammich, it was time to have lunch in a nearby cave. Upon drawing closer, a wonderful surprise presented itself - the walls were covered in Native American petroglyphs!
A regiment of ants scurried about, weaving in and out of cracks in the rock, as they scavenged the ground for food. Watching them was hypnotic, in a sense. Allowing the time to sit back and take in the scenery, the feeling of the smooth rock beneath my hands and sound of the wind blowing through the cave, helped to zero me in on the spirit of the park. This wild emptiness teems with both flora and fauna, and emits a vibe that gives goosebumps. The sun passed its meridian and the heat became more tolerable as I made my way back up the trail.
Pausing to sit quietly and take pictures gave me the opportunity to reflect on this adventure as it was happening, which allowed the finer details to really sink in and remain for future recollection. I am truly happy for doing this, as it has been two years since my last visit! Places like Joshua Tree and our other National Parks are precious because they forge lasting impressions on us. Having fond memories of our own experiences creates a sense of excitement that fuels the desire to share it with our friends, partners, kids, students, or whoever! As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service, let us keep in mind the core philosophy, the purpose, and intention of the values our forefathers had the foresight to preserve, and let us champion the responsibility and privilege of passing this legacy on to future generations.
"Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease." - John Muir, Our National Parks
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