Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Joshua Tree Diaries: 22-26 December 2012, Part I

My mother and stepfather recently came to Los Angeles to visit. After three days in the city, we drove to Joshua Tree, where we rented a house at the edge of Joshua Tree National Park. Arriving on Saturday, we had lunch at Crossroads, settled in to the house, and then drove out to Pioneertown. Wandering down the dusty roads, we stared out at the burning lavender sunset. Once the sky stopped vamping, we realized how cold we were. It was only 5pm, but Pappy & Harriet's was packed. We put our name on a waiting list for a table, ordered a round of drinks, and took a few seats at the edge of the dance floor. The Shadow Mountain Band was checking sound.

Eventually, the guitar player and leader of the band said, "Well, I guess we might as well play a few songs, since we're here and all... ", and they kicked up a swinging rendition of "Hey Good Lookin'". One or two songs later, we were led to a table at the opposite side of the dance floor, right at edge of the stage. We ate fire grilled steak and catfish, drank tequila and beer, and watched kids and old folks and everyone in between dancing to the music. One song the Shadow Mountain Band played has stuck with me since. It's a traditional, and they did it in a rousing bluegrass style with four- or five-part close harmony:

I’m goin’ up on the mountain / And I ain’t coming down til the morning / I’m goin’ up on the mountain / And I ain’t coming down in chains

My spirit lives inside of me / And all I have to do is set it free / My spirit lives inside of me / And all I have to do is set it free

I’m goin’ up to set my my soul free / And I ain’t coming down til the morning / I’m goin’ up to set my my soul free / And I ain’t coming down in chains

The next morning, we decided to walk up Ryan Mountain to set our souls free. The weather was warm and calm at the house, but when we stepped out of the car at the trailhead, a cold wind pushed hard at us. We gathered our things, eager to get moving and ward off the chill. Several yards down the path, I looked back at my mother as we both remembered walking the trail when I brought her and my aunt Jennifer to Joshua Tree for the first time, in 2008. After passing through huge granite sentries, the trail rose quickly, winding around to the western side of the mountain where the wind gusted even more strongly. Tears ran down my face, and my right ear ached with the pounding wind. I like how the trail snakes around the sides of the mountain. There is a slight descent into a shallow canyon before another gradual ascent to the summit at 5,461 feet.

Ryan Mountain is not part of a range, so the views at the top are something else. The base of the mountain is surrounded by flat washes dappled with Joshua trees and dotted with what look to be piles of boulders but are actually granite hills that were cracked and eroded by geological forces. Out to the north, the great expanse of the Mojave Desert; to the east, hundreds of thousands of acres of protected National Park land, all the way out to the Coxcomb Mountains; to the south and west, dignified Mount San Jacinto; and just beyond the Little San Bernardinos, snow-capped Mount San Gorgonio.

After walking down, we decided to drive over to Jumbo Rocks to find a place to sit for lunch. We thought we might find some shelter from the wind among the enormous granite formations at the entrance to the Jumbo Rocks Campground, but we ended up parking in a campsite and eating our lunch there. Just beyond the campsite, a hill of rocks rose above the outermost edge of the campground. It was irresistible. The fun scramble to the top rewarded us with more sweeping views, this time of the hundreds of adjacent hills just like the one where we were standing. On our way back, we spotted a boulder with man-made hand- and footholds. My inability to get farther than the first level didn't surprise me. I will never be a climber, but Frank made it to the top.

The next morning, we spent a few hours making varenyky for our Christmas Eve dinner and then headed into the park after lunch. We wanted to explore the area known as Wonderland of Rocks, so we chose the Boy Scout Trail to Willow Hole Trail. We began at the southernmost end of the Boy Scout Trail, at a trailhead called Keys West. The flat path rolls out over a wide expanse of chollo cacti, Joshua trees, and yuccas. About a mile and a half in, the Willow Hole Trail bends westward into the heart of the Wonderland of Rocks. The area is designated as a Big Horn Sheep protected habitat. While the Boy Scout Trail continues north, skirting the protected area, the Willow Hole Trail is the only trail that enters the designated wilderness.

Of the three walks we took in Joshua Tree, this one brought us closest to beautiful granite formations. On the Willow Hole Trail, the gigantic rocks rose up above us, creating a kind of natural sanctuary. The sandy ground absorbed our footfalls, and the moderate wind diminished as we walked on. At Willow Hole, the silence and stillness was complete. We didn't stay long, but the feeling there soothed me. Bathed in the vivid blue sky above, I felt like the rocks that surrounded me, all of my rough edges smoothed down by the forces of nature. We walked back out, straight into the setting sun; it was a relief to turn southward onto the Boy Scout Trail again, where we watched the orange light set the rocks on fire as the waxing gibbous moon rose over them.

Back at the house, we sat down to a long Christmas Eve dinner. We snacked on pistachios and then started in with a vodka toast with pumpernickel bread and smoked herring. After that, the borscht, and then holubsti and varenyky. And plenty of wine. We ate chocolates and Christmas cake while we opened a few presents before turning in, looking forward to our next walk. 

Continue to Part II

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