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.
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.