I recently headed over to Joshua Tree, hoping to catch some stars or some snow. Looking at the mountains from the city, there’s more and more snow on the peaks (a good sign for nature!), and that held true the whole drive out. I got my hopes up for this trip, after a wonderful snow a year or so ago, when my poor Honda Civic nearly got blown off the road in a blizzard. And, if there wasn’t going to be any snow, I was hoping to see the stars in the dead desert night. Not even any cell signal to get in the way.
Neither of my hopes came true. The sky stayed overcast the whole evening, and the ground dry. And it was perfect and still and I loved every minute.
I had left LA a bit before 2pm. I was planning to catch the sunset as I rolled into the park. Sunset started that day at around 4:50pm, and the drive time was initially going to be about 2 and a half hours. That put me at the park at about 4:30, which would be just enough time to get through the gate and on to a good sunset-watching spot.
I forgot to factor in time for the required visit to Hadley’s Fruit Orchard. A date shake is a staple after such a long drive – something that two dozen other people thought was a good idea at the same time. Whatever changes are in store, lines are never going away.
Ended up getting to the park closer to 5, the land already fading past purple and into the washed-out colorless landscape of car headlights and the occasional night hiker. As I drove through the main road from the West Entrance (the one past the Visitor’s Center), I could see cars parked every few minutes apart. Little islands of light bobbed out in the desert at different distances from the road – groups of other people that thought a 40 degree night and no light meant for a good time.
I’m glad we all agreed on that.
With no sunset plans anymore, I drove along until I felt called to one spot by the familiar, lumbering silhouettes of rocks. This was a place where I remembered finding an old sprite bottle in the sand, so I felt comfortable that I wouldn’t get lost. The cars leaving the park kept up a steady snake of white lights, another guide in the night.
Every few minutes, the road would clear completely. All was as dark as could be, only a handful of Orion’s belt peeking out from under the clouds. The air was still and blue, foggy in a frosty way. Canopies of Joshua Trees stood above the horizon level like rocks, gaps peeking between them as a new car zipped along.
I brought a few flashlights, though sometimes it felt like they got in the way. My happiest moment was climbing to the top of a chilled rock, maybe a dozen feet in the air. I sat there long enough that my boots stopped keeping my feet warm and my hands weren’t faring much better. The landscape was mottled black twigs over tan, the occasional odd stone a lighter gray in the dark.
I knew what the landscape looked like in daylight, and I knew that particular patch of earth well – and it felt totally different. Space was wrong. Everything felt like a flat image, even though my body knew it could not possibly be as close as I judged it. Ten minutes’ walk, even in the dark, did not leave the road within spitting distance.
Then I heard a single caw of a crow. That’s when it hit me that there hadn’t been any sound, except the sometimes roll of a heavy tire in the distance. No rustle of a creature darting under the brush as I walk by. No wind whispering through cactus spines. No bees, no tapping of lizards.
I’m sure that if I tried hard enough, I’d probably be able to hear the cacti doing their CAM breathing.