Saturday, December 29, 2012

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

I awoke to bright pink cotton candy clouds on the northwestern horizon and steely blue ones closer in, a dramatic Christmas Day sunrise. I stayed in bed for a long time, reading and watching the light come up. When my mom and Frank got up, we put away a feast of fruit and oatmeal and eggs and potatoes and spinach salad, and after packing up a bit of lunch, we set out for Black Rock Canyon at the northeast corner of the park. We planned to walk to the top of Warren Peak and then decide on the way down whether to take the roughly three-mile Panorama Loop extension. At the start of the trail, I wasn't convinced this walk would be anything special. But as we continued, the landscape started to take a hold of me. The granite in this section of the park is black and veined with swirling pink, giving lie to the massive heat and pressure put upon the stuff underground so many millions of years ago. Rusty iron and green neon hued lichens spot the surfaces of the rocks, with the occasional yucca or prickly pear improbably bursting forward from cracks here and there.

We walked on, and the path soon began a sharp ascent. Rubble, scree, roots, and fallen branches conspired to make the path into something of an obstacle course, but it felt good to make the steep climb. The view from the 5,102 foot summit was fantastic. A good bit more snow was visible on the peaks of Mounts San Jacinto and San Gorgonio. Off to the south, we were able to see out across the Salton Sea and into Anza Borrego. To the north, we looked out over Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, Landers, and beyond. We signed the register in honor of Humphrey Bogart's birthday and ate some lunch there, perched atop the summit markers. Walking back down the mountain to the trail junction for the Panorama Loop, my mom was ready to call it a day, and Frank wanted to see about getting a coffee in Yucca Valley, so we kept on course, heading back the way we came. The Panorama Loop meets up with the Black Rock Canyon Trail in two places, and when we got to the second junction, Mom had a change of heart. Frank was game, so we took the southeasterly turn onto the Panorama Loop.

Rounding a bend, I heard my mother call out to me. I walked back and found her standing over the spine of a coyote. The bones were picked clean and sun-bleached white, but one small, tenacious patch of brown fur remained on the top of a fragment of skull. A few feet away, I found a couple of jaw bones, the animal's sharp teeth looking somehow both frail and vicious there on the ground. And across the path, I saw a small pile of ribs. Resting so plainly on the side of the trail, I was surprised that I hadn't seen it when I passed just a moment before and was glad my mother had called me back.

Following in the footsteps of a horse that had recently passed through, I imagined that I was transported to another time when people crossed this landscape on foot, on horseback, and with horse-drawn wagons. I thought about the tribes who lived there before the miners came in and disrupted their ways. There is so little that connects us today to the experience of those who lived entirely off the land, depending on nature and their own wits for survival.

Winding through the black rocks, creosote, and chaparral, the trail began to ascend. Before long, I was on a high ridge overlooking the small canyon I'd just come through. I saw my mom and Frank on the trail down below. It was so quiet that I could hear their voices from all the way up there. I kept on until reaching the apex of the hill where I got into a few snacks while I waited for my parents. The sky was overcast all day, and it was getting colder as the afternoon wore on. My mom and I headed down the other side of the hill, leaving Frank to take pictures along the ridge. The direction of the trail at this point confounded me. I started to worry that we'd taken the wrong path, so I was relieved when we saw a small sign reading "PL" with an arrow pointing in the same direction we were already walking. The trail then dipped and turned, and as I rounded the bend, I was confronted by the largest, most perfectly formed Joshua tree I've ever seen. Smack in the middle of the trail, tree must be hundreds of years old. The whole canyon was filled with scrubby pines, bushy junipers, and enormous Joshua trees. I hope to return some time in spring when everything is blooming.

Once we returned to the Black Rock Canyon Trail, the clouds finally started breaking up a little bit, and the sun began to set. The glowing grey of the sky set all of the winter shrubs alight in hues of celadon, gold, and lavender. The clouds broke up even more, giving us one more fiery show of pink, indigo, and purple across the sky. We were all ravenous after walking much farther than expected, and we reprised our Christmas Eve supper.

The next morning's bright dawn in the east was met by a cold, grey storm cloud coming in fast from the west, spitting freezing rain. A full rainbow arched over the town of Joshua Tree down below the house. We locked up and headed for Twenty-nine Palms where we stopped at the Oasis of Mara and the cholla garden before winding down through the Pinto Basin to exit the park through Cottonwood Canyon. Three hours later, I left my parents at the airport and returned to my Culver City home, a world away from that wild desert.

Go to Part I

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