One of my favorite things about Joshua Tree is the open skyline. All that juts out of the flat desert are oddly shaped, spiked trees that could be from another planet and piles of roundish boulders. I’ve always believed it’d be a great place for stargazing. A few weeks ago, we finally made it out there not only to camp and climb, but also to witness a rare celestial event.
So cold! Photo by Zach Johnson
We started the trip off with some climbing in the Real Hidden Valley area. I finally led my first trad climb! It was called "Ain’t Nothing But A J-Tree thing,” well-titled and a 5.6 with great gear placements. I was excited, happy and proud. The rest of the day was spent running routes to stay warm. When we made our way to our campsite, we found a rather large group of people happily eating and laughing. We grilled up some Korean barbecue we had prepared for the trip, and a couple of beers later, it was time for a night time bike ride! Yes, during a 30 degree night. I’m not as pleasant as I could be in the cold, and my car isn’t large enough to carry gear AND two bicycles, so we drove to the Hidden Valley Campground to meet up with a most daring and adventurous group of two-wheelers.
The Chasm of Doom. We did it in the dark. 17 of us. It was the most intense and hilarious game of telephone, ever. Claustrophobia is a lingering nemesis. It never fully shows its face, but lurks around the corners making its presence known. Imagine the release of anxiety when I get back outside. I silently rejoice with a deep breath and look up, catching a lungful of frigid air and snow on my face.
The walk back to the car was an eerie and otherworldly experience. Dark, heavy clouds hovered over us as far as we could see. With our headlamps off, it was almost too dark to see the road ahead of us, but we could place our steps carefully, directed by the faint shadows and highlights of trees and rocks. Everything was gray, dark gray and black. Not a car or soul in sight.
“This is what it must feel like to be dead,” I thought. Then I remembered, “I’ve dreamt of this scene before.” But in my dreams I walked alone, aimlessly. Wandered through the rocks and trees and tangible darkness until I saw a human silhouette too far away to hear me. We acknowledge the existence of one another and move on, alone. A silence and emptiness so dense it stifles every sound, like breathing in black silk. Even the figures in the distance can be felt through the thick air. There’s a warm hand holding mine, and I snap out of the memory of my dream. Right. I’m walking back to the car with my partner. We’re on the way to campfires and the night’s merriment. The night was dark and windy, and the Geminids stayed hidden that night.
Night Storms Over Intersection Rock — Acrylic on wood
The next day was all about Skinny Dipping. Not quite the type of skinny dipping we usually think about, but just as awkward and cold. It’s an odd, yet hilarious climb that involves a 5.7 crack start, followed by squirming head first into a thin, irregular hole and out the other side. Finish it off with an easy but unprotected chimney! Just across the rock field, we also climbed Candlabra, one of the hardest 5.10a's I’ve encountered. Thanks, JTree. You never disappoint.
Skinny Dip, 5.7R. Photo by Mark Fiji
Back at camp, we shared some beautifully dark beers and kept warm by the fire. We sang happy birthday and watched the now frequent streaks across the sky. After hours of lingering in lubricated conversation, someone interrupted, “Look!" And there it was! A HUGE ONE. I swear you could see the shape of the burning rock from where we sat. From horizon to horizon we followed the huge white tail, which lasted about three seconds. No meteor came close to being brighter and more awe-inspiring.
Here for Just One — India Ink, digitally colored.
The short but bright burn of the falling rocks made me think of this drawing I made a few months ago. It reminds me that we too, burn bright for a short while. I am inspired to smile more, love more and share as much as I can.
Every trip to Joshua Tree is a different and magical experience, and I hope to have many more this year.