running away into the desert

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SUNNYVALE DR, Twentynine Palms—Maybe that’s something everyone should do at least once: run away into someplace deserted, at least as far as other people are concerned. Something everyone should do at least once. The phrase has been worn through so many times, in so many lifestyle blogs, and I suddenly found myself grasping at the tatters one night at the gates of a formal family function that I’d been dreading for the better part of a year.

We were sitting in our rental car, having driven over 200 miles of boredom along I-5 to be at this event, donning fancy ensembles with tags hidden in just such a way as to force our backs straight in order to maintain the deception, dressy shoes with little to no padding for our bruised soles; the discomfort was palpable in that small space. When I looked over at him, his face turned towards mine, hands gripping the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. It was like reading my own thoughts flash across his eyes. There was no reason good enough, no bar stocked full enough to force ourselves through what was sure to be an agonizing night of strained smiles and forced conversation. We decided to run away.


I chose the desert. Somewhere beyond Little San Bernardino, across the San Andreas, into the grand Mojave and Colorado, past Morongo and Yucca Valley, and if you just stick to CA-62, you’ll find yourself moving back through time towards the little city of Twentynine Palms. Here, we discovered The Sunnyvale Desert Suites Hotel—a virtual vestige of the American frontier off the wide expanse of the main road, hidden behind a few dusty businesses. I noticed that there were older establishments mixed in with a smattering of newer franchises sporting dated logos, probably in an attempt to fit in with the trailblazers.

Spying a covey of Gambel’s quail alongside our car and the occasional Greater roadrunner, darting a long trail of tiny sand prints from under the scattered Brittlebush, I felt a sense of wonder and a hint of excitement settle just beneath my skin. I’d always wanted to hike through Joshua Tree National Park, and at my impromptu suggestion, we just decided to do it. Hell, it was the NPS Centennial and we had our hiking gear on us (because we always do on long road trips). So cheers for spontaneity and escaping suffocating situations. The open road never felt so liberating.

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Just west of the Oasis of Mara, our sunny desert suite was a wonderfully quirky condo-apartment that took a quaint country style and stirred in all the necessary modern amenities, including a kitchenette and high-speed Wi-Fi, thankfully. We rose with the sun every morning; the five or six Western screech owls whistling and trilling outside our window would never allow us a lie-in when there was so much desert to explore. As soon as we finished breakfast, food and plates packed away to prevent ants, we slathered on the sunscreen, readied the first aid kit, and loaded extra water bottles and salty snacks into our backpack. The first stop would be, of course, the Joshua Tree Visitor Center for the usual bearing and pamphlet gathering of a first-time visit.

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Apostle of the Cacti. I was entranced. Minerva Hoyt was an activist and community leader among Southern California’s social elite in the early-1900s. Her interest in desert plants, particularly the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia), developed from her love of gardening—she owned a five-acre garden that became a community landmark in South Pasadena. Hoyt was concerned that increased automobile traffic through the desert was threatening the wild plants and began exhibiting native desert landscapes across the nation in order to educate people about the raw beauty and fragility of these desert marvels, their unique and fascinating adaptations to such a harsh climate. She founded the International Desert Conservation League in 1930 and six years later persuaded President FDR to proclaim Joshua Tree National Monument, later renamed Joshua Tree National Park as part of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, where the Mojave transitions into the Colorado Desert.

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It was hot. Well, it was the desert after all. That doesn’t even begin to accurately describe the dry heat and sand that filled our lungs on every labored inhale during our short hike, but that’s probably all you would have been able to get out of us at the time. Hot. Too hot to talk. I don’t usually wear hats, but I was glad to have one this time. The sun was relentless, and even in late spring, even though we’d started our day relatively early, the temperature had already climbed past barely tolerable—still, not as bad as that mid-summer day near the shores of Alpsee. Bearing in mind that the sun had yet to reach its zenith, we kept our trek short and easy along one of the nature trails, admiring the boulder piles and desert washes near Skull Rock, east of Jumbo Rocks Campground.

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Making a slow circuit, we were able to appreciate the variety of plants and wildflowers spread across the desert canvas, such as the paperbag bush or bladder sage (Scutellaria mexicana), the Beavertail pricklypear (Opuntia basilaris) in partial bloom, the Mojave yucca, Scrub oaks, Junipers, and the park’s namesake, the wild-armed Joshua tree (not a cactus, as I’d previously thought, but a part of the agave family).

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resilient spines

thrust out of the roving sands

in a time of drought

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A tight squeeze along the trail. These boulders are monzogranites that solidified beneath the Earth’s surface about 245 million years ago. Fractures formed when the hard monzogranites were still underground, allowing rainwater to seep downward and etch and shape and round the edges and corners of the rocks. Erosion carried away the smaller particles, exposing the large, oddly-shaped rock formations that now dominate the park’s surface.

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One final shot of that skull and we were ready to crawl under a rock for shade.




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