#TBT My First Trip to Joshua Tree

Nine years, almost to the day, I drove down park boulevard in a snowstorm on my first trip to Joshua Tree.


The day before I sat at my friend Andrews dining room table, penciling out whatever rations I thought might be important for this trip, while he nervously paced behind me brainstorming.

“Teddie Grahams!” He kept asking as I went down the list.

“Sleeping bags… firewood… can opener…”
“YES we can pick up Teddie Grahams. Christ.” I wrote it down.

“You guys might want to chains, a big storm is coming in.”
His fathers voice came from behind, a voice of reason.

Maybe Brandon has chains, he should be here any minute. After all, he IS from Texas.


As we drove up the final hill up into the park we were in the thick of a snowstorm. The huge SUV we had borrowed from Andrews’ Parents drove like the queen Mary on the slick road. Even staying under the 35mph speed limit clouded silhouettes of rock formations would appear as if out of nowhere to our right and left, ghostly apparitions of Monzonite hiding their size and detail in a blur of wet white snow.

I had just only begun climbing outdoors that year, having been the typical gym rat through high school and thinking there had to be something more. Ever the pied-piper for bored youth I would promise stellar weather and good meals to shoe-horn as many of my buddies into a group car and head out camping. Up to this point they had no reason not to trust me, as our trips to Refugio state beach and Cuyamaca had clear skies and all the Teddie Grahams Andrew could eat.

This time, however, I wasn’t a camper. I fancied myself a rock climber, and we were in my mecca. While the boys tried to fit my torn Coleman tent into the cave below the Old Woman I hiked off to the nearest rocks that might be dry, just to slide my fingers over ‘real rock’ and revel in the first real world stage of climbing I had been to. Mount Woodson had nothing next to the Left Ski Track, a style and difficulty that seemed like a foreign language.


Wet holds be damned – I was going rock climbing. Despite the slick, snotty holds and my absolutely dreadful footwork attempts were made on old classics I had gleaned from a guidebook during my job as a theater Projectionist. Realizing right away that ratings of boulder problems in a gym were hardly a yard stick I wandered all over for features, ANY features, that I might be able to get up. I don’t think anything was topped out that day.

The learning curve in winter camping can be ruthless, and that first night in a tent with torn sidewalls was a memorable shiver-cuddlefest as the three of us crammed into a teeny tent I had borrowed from Mom. I wore all my clothes, including a thick leather jacket my dad had given me as a high school graduation present, and spent the wee hours of the night alternating between Brandon and Andrew, whoever would let me snuggle up close and not freeze to death. They didn’t find it as amusing as I did.

The long winter night eventually ended, and I have a vivid memory of separating my eyelids and feeling warm sun melt the ice that had built up on our feet from the tear in the tent fabric. Less than an hour of sunlight had melted almost all of the snow deposited the day before and the morning beamed warm and seemingly friendly.


Rock climbing was now plan B. We set out into the sun-lit playground like school children on recess. No plan in mind, no crashpad strapped to us, we hiked with the sun on our backs due west towards Turtle Rock. The little coves and oasis of flora were awesome pockets of biodiversity, reminding me of summers with the family exploring tide pools on the beaches of Santa Barbara. Small oak and short yucca would be hidden between behomoth boulders, and behind Turtle Rock an unlikely maze of escalated staircase-like talus lead us up onto its Southern shoulder. The desert floor lay out before us, stretching on out like the Savannah. We sat in a makeshift love seat and marveled at the peace from a wilderness of uniform yucca dots.


We went back for lunch, and after scaring mac n cheese I made one last-ditch effort to do some real rock climbing. After all, I was a rock climber, and if I didn’t do some of that here what good was I? Back out West, back to warmth and away from crowds we traipsed looking for any features big enough for our grubby paws to latch onto. I spied a sloping arete, not listed in the guidebook I brought along. It was rough and covered in large grains, typical for East-facing rock.


Desperate for some success I hucked big at the top.

Lessons are hard learned in the desert.Image

With one hand taped up like a mummy it became that much more daunting to find any objective worth jumping on. It didn’t matter much anymore, because my experiences were rich and the sun was warm – anything was success, even abject failure.


My climbing-genes were sated; mom would be proud. I did some rock climbing. After all, she had her first trip to the park a few weeks before with my little brother, climbing Loose Lady with a group of friends from the gym in epic winds. I had to come back with some sort of battle-scars to share at the dinner table.

We went back to camp, traded the crash pad for Teddie Grahams and went to do more exploring.


Most of my first trips to Joshua Tree the majority of the time was spent scrambling, and the few intermittent ‘boulder problems’ were fairly forgettable. I won’t forget that view on top of the Patagonia Pile, after 45 minutes of harrowing gap-jumps and a gravel shower in a chimney. The park was so massive, so intense, and the epic battles we had on its ramparts were but a small fraction of a small portion of a small part of the park. Here was real wilderness, not like the hillsides of San Diego I played on back home. There was no view of the town from the summit, no feeling that we were on an island of the natural world set in a sea of civilization. We were in the thick of it, adventure left and righ, for a thousand yards.


Not long after we would all go seperate ways as life pulled us to our own center. For Brandon, his passion for knowledge and intelligence put him on a course to teach High School History, trading a thick beard for a bow-tie and spectacles. Andrew is raising a beautiful family and learning the crux moves of Fatherhood.

For myself, it seems almost nothing changed.


These days my trips have more purpose, but though a hundred trips have bettered my understanding of that world of Yucca and Stone little has doused the flame of adventure. My eyes still wide, I make my own future in that desert.



Visiting My Old Friend Stonewall


I guess the earliest memory I have is sitting in the front yard at the old house, my fist balled up in my mouth and the other hand shoved in my diaper.  Mom was walking towards me, and nonchalantly removed my clenched fingers from my toothless gums along with the crushed snail inside.

“You don’t eat snails.”

I vividly remember watching curiously as she wiped my hand across her jeans.  Huh, we aren’t? Why are they so tasty?

For some reason my deep subconscious decided to hold on to that one.  However there are other ‘first memories’ to have – first bicycle ride, fist friend, first snow.  Most of my other ‘firsts’ are maybe more prophetic than pathetic.

I was always out doing something, whether it was scrambling through tall weeds in the back yard or riding a bike path all the way to its end.  Sewer tunnels, local parks, little nooks in model homes my dad was painting, it didn’t matter.  Exploring was the game, finding the micro in the macro and the rare experience that some place offers unique.

Summers we camped at the beach and winters we visited the mountains local to San Diego’s East County.  Growing up in the of the most temperate climates in the world hardly prepared me for later excursions to bigger ranges, but the little Laguna’s in Southern California gave me a slight idea of what mountain wilderness was to look like.  Big black oaks dropped acorns that could be easily stored in Overall pockets and the puny peaks had soft trails that plodded eventually upward.

There was one such adventure, though, and for a six year old it was pretty extreme.  Two grueling miles up a several-hundred-foot ‘peak’ which was capped by intimidating steel railings and stone-carved steps that felt oddly like ascending to the top of a roller coaster.  At the summit of Stonewall Peak were spooky winds, supposed exposure and the inevitable sunset chasing a Mother down the trail with 6 cold ducklings in tow.

Climbing has taken me places I couldn’t dream of, yet at the same time I rarely take the opportunity to take it to the places I had already been dreaming about.  Late fall afternoons in Yosemite and the Sierra, with black oaks and pine forests set among rolling yellow fields, would inspire old memories from my local back country.  I had been treating it like a friend in another county, too close to make plans for but too far away to visit on a whim.

Though the climbing on it’s western escarpment hardly had climbs worth hiking so far to get up, the amazing position up high in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and the opportunity to revisit the area with my Mom and Brother had put the idea in my head.


I had visited the park several times since the Ceder Fire in 2003, once with a few college buddies, another on a trip to Julian for Pie and home-made(ish) maple syrup.  The hillsides no longer hid the view of the summit under a canopy of Oak trees and the floor was carpeted thick with new brush.  The skeletons of ancient Oaks stood charred while being overtaken by a creeping array of Manzanita and Azalea.  It felt a bit like the scene in Planet of the Apes where they find the buried statue of Liberty.  There were hints of what it had been but the whole picture had to be assumed, based off memories and dreams.

The trail climbs quickly through a shallow forest before switching back and up via a fire road to a split.  A few of the larger burnt trees had fallen across the trail and their limbs lay trampled into kindling.  Further on the way was dotted with tall wood fences, appearing more aesthetic than structural, and tall lilacs trimmed neatly made a bit of a path North to the saddle.


The steep railing and carved steps were just as I’d imagined, but a bit of the sting of their exposure was lessened by trips up Sierra giants like Half Dome and The Incredible Hulk.  Still, it was harder to find such position, even in those big peaks.  The little thumb is not the highest of its neighbors but it’s predominance gives a unique, 360-degree view.  No ridges or benches hide the surroundings and views from the desert to San Jacinto Peak are shared with that of the ocean blurred into the skyline.

A local guidebook describes the area as “more than a decent climbing excursion for beginner and intermediate climbers.”  I’d wrapped the railing with my lead line and set us to the floor, right down the main face where I’d peered over as a child, and wondered if I were an intermediate climber.  Well, I guess I’ll see how today goes.


With the time in the day there wasn’t too much climbing to be done, so I guess I’m a beginner again.  There was just too much exploring to do, too many hidden corners to peek around and into.


Once again sunset chased us off the peak, back to the car to be greeted by treats bought from the deli earlier that day.  Maybe if we had skipped the visit to Dudleys Bakery in Santa Ysabel on the drive up more climbing could have happened, but no one felt cheated.  Sometimes it’s good to just stuff your face and go exploring.


(Geek notes – I like Mountain Hardwear soft shells for spots like this where wind and hot alcoves are common, and light weight gear from Black Diamond for big approaches.  The Speed pack in particular held everything really well and didn’t annoy me as much as my other packs, but to each his own.  I’d also recommend a bit stickier approach shoes, if you have them, something like the 5.10’s Mom is wearing ;D Always try new stuff and see what you like!)