My coastal forays complete, I’m now ready to begin the National Park phase of my road trip. I plan to visit four across the next six days, a bug planted by past brushes, the travels of others, and some Ken Burns documentaries. I follow a highway toward Salinas, congested only in the opposite direction, and turn off down a river valley. Here, I get my first look at California agriculture. Dozens of trucks sit parked next to a field, and a flag from Chivas, the Guadalajara soccer team, looms over them. (One suspects that mechanized agriculture would be a far more effective tool to limit immigration than a wall, if that is one’s thing.) It’s a drizzly morning, and the tops of the mountains are wreathed in clouds; to my right, the coastal range is green, while to my left, the range on the other side of the Salinas Valley is that classic California gold. My next destination, Pinnacles National Park, is up in these hills.
Pinnacles is one of the newest additions to the National Park System, a 2013 creation designed to protect a big, dormant volcano that was once down near Los Angeles, but has made its way some 200 miles north thanks to the San Andreas Fault. Its namesake is the set of towering rock formations at the heart of the park known as the High Peaks, where fat fingers thrust their way upward from the earth in an imposing array of jagged ridges. No roads cross the park, and its primary entry lies on the eastern side near Hollister, but I come in from the west through the town of Soledad. Beyond the rocks its greenery is traditional chaparral, a dry and scrubby landscape with stunted oaks and unexpected pockets of life, especially now in spring when the flowers are abloom. My access road is just one lane for long stretches, and pitches its way up through the hills to a lonely visitor center. No rangers are on duty, and a custodian waves me through and just tells me not to freeze. It’s 46 degrees when I park. Some escape from Duluth spring this vacation is turning out to be.
I’m the second car in the lot when I arrive, and I have the first trail I explore, the Balconies Cliff and Cave loop, to myself. At the start it’s a wide, flat trail, but in time it switches back and wanders up a cliff for some respectable views of the main peak and a valley leading on to the other side of the park. It proceeds in the shadow of the sheer Machete Ridge, a popular rock climbing destination. The mist shrouds the high peak pinnacles, and this park, quiet save for the birdsong, has an otherworldly quality, like some land I would’ve imagined as a kid when mapping out some fantasy world in my mind. I descend from the ridge and make my way through a valley that slowly closes in on itself before I cove to an opening in the rock, a gate ajar in front of it. Time to explore a cave. My small flashlight is less than adequate, and I spent a minute trying to figure out how exactly I’m supposed to climb over the waterfall before finding the actual trail somewhere to its left. It’s a tight squeeze up a passage and over scattered boulders, but before long I pop up into the mist again, and slip through another crack between rocks on my way back toward the parking lot, which hasn’t added any cars since I set out.
The next stage of my hike takes me up the floor of Juniper Canyon before it rises up a long set of switchbacks into the High Peaks. It’s a decent prep hike for Angel’s Landing at Zion; while it has few sheer edges, it does offer a substantial elevation gain. Later, in the aptly named Steep and Narrow Section, a thick metal railing is a very welcome addition, both to pull oneself along and to prevent a fall. The climb up into the High Peaks is a reminder of the first rule of mountain climbing, which is that peaks are always higher than they seem to be, but the CCC-era marvels of engineering make it all easy.
Some slight spits of rain start to fall as I reach the top, but it’s a pleasant sensation now that it’s warmed up some and I’ve worked up a sweat. The fog burns off as I make my circuit of the High Peaks, and I’m rewarded with good views in all directions. A small air force keeps watch over the heights, most of them hawks of various persuasions; I would like to think the larger birds in the distance are condors, but I’m in no position to say for sure. The foot traffic picks up some on my way down, and I settle in at a now-sunny picnic table by the parking lot to eat lunch and catch up on my notes.
I return to Soledad to gas up, then head south on The 101 for a spell before breaking east on California 198, which will take me all the way to my destination in the Sierras later this night. Having seen a big ocean and big rocks, I’m now ready for the big trees of Sequoia National Park. The first 40 miles of 198 are along a weaving mountain road reduced to single-lane misery by construction in places. Later, I hit California’s Central Valley: flat, filled with agricultural groves, countless more Hispanic farmworkers, and scattered, dust-choked cities. Nothing in Hanford or Visalia makes me want to stop and look around, so I just drive on, and begin my ascent by the Kaweah Reservoir, a pretty lake marred by a truly ugly collection of houseboats at one end.
I climb through foothills wreathed in fog, and random rain drops disrupt my new collection of bug carcasses on my windshield. A sign of more ominous weather events higher up? Sure enough: at the park entry gate, I learn that tire chains are a requirement to go any higher than my campground. I could head back to the nearest town, Three Rivers, and rent some, but between that inconvenience and the construction delays of up to an hour in each direction announced by sign boards for higher up on the Generals Highway, I concede my defeat to the Sierras. I won’t get to see any sequoias on this trip.
Still, I settle in for a night in the foothills. Potwisha Campground, whose name I still cannot pronounce, is nestled in the now familiar landscape of California chaparral. It is more verdant than at Pinnacles, with thicker foliage and the rushing Kaweah River right below the sites across the road from mine. The rushing river provides the soundtrack, but otherwise, it’s an unremarkable National Park campground that fills up with people who don’t linger much in the cool evening. After a frigid night, I take a convenient hike up through that lush chaparral, following a path that clambers along a ridge overlooking the Kaweah toward some waterfalls. I flush a bunch of bunnies but otherwise see no one until the tail end of the hike as I return to the campground. Today looks like a clear day, even around the highest visible peaks. Perhaps if I’d pushed it, I could’ve made it up to see the big trees after all. Instead, I turn my attention southward.
The road between Three Rivers and Bakersfield, aside from the monotonous cropland of oranges and olives, is a rather dismal one. Everything is dust-choked and drab, and giant political signs yell their slogans everywhere. Even the wealthier homes look questionable, as if no one is really sure they belong here; the nonexistent flow of the Kern River through Bakersfield suggests that might just be the case. The guidebooks I’d consulted before the trip didn’t have a word to say about Bakersfield, its omission saying all there is to say about this city of nearly 400,000, but the locals are plenty welcoming when I stop for a classic California lunch at an In-n-Out Burger.
My path east from Bakersfield sees a sudden change in the terrain. Gone are the farm fields and chaparral, and the land is dry, mountainous, all covered in some shade of brown. A few stray Joshua trees begin to appear, and after a pause to get ripped off on gas in Tehachapi, I come across the largest wind farm I’ve ever seen. I’ve left California and entered the West.
A road trip across the rural West is a reminder of how much of the American economy still depends on logistics, agriculture, and extraction: practices that are afterthoughts to many city-dwellers. It’s not hard to see why the people who work one set of jobs now seem a world apart from those in the other, and why this is likely to only grow more extreme. The convenience economy of a San Francisco doesn’t require anyone to ever see a roadside fruit stand, a passel of parked trucks beside oil rigs, or the semis groaning their way up the pass on Highway 58 between Bakersfield and Mojave, unless they decide to clog the passing lane at 45 miles per hour to get around the even slower trucks working their way east.
Few forces have had as dramatic an effect on the American countryside as the development of expressways, whether they are part of the formal interstate highway system launched in the Eisenhower era or just a state highway like Route 58, which Caltrans has slowly rerouted around the major towns to allow for free-flowing movement. They resulted in the complete reorientation of rural America, as Main Streets were supplanted by exit ramp strips. Call it transportation-oriented development of sorts: investment follows the major infrastructure projects. But in so many of the towns, it created little new wealth and instead just left a derelict strip in the middle of town, which invited in a sense of decay that broke up a stable, placid small-town existence. The money moved around, but it’s hard to know if the pie really grew.
And if that change hadn’t happened? Well, the crossroads at Kramer Junction gives some clue of what it would look like. This meeting of California 58 and U.S. 395 is, frankly, a gross mess of service stations and dozens of trucks coming together at this lonely stoplight. Five miles later, they finally accelerate back to the speed limit, leaving behind clouds of exhaust in their wakes. Yes, it’s a good thing that we’ve kept this stuff off of city streets. The forces that drive the economy go far beyond the routing of highways.
I continue on the road of the longest travel day of my trip. I pass through Boron (home to the world’s largest Borax mine, and the Twenty Mule Team Museum!), Barstow, then a lonely stretch for many miles to the south into the Lucerne Valley, a hardscrabble hole with more churches than people. Some residences are RVs, others are ruins barely clinging to life, and barring more outward urban march or some new discovery of wealth locked in the ground, one suspects this little pocket will someday join the list of Western ghost towns. Edward Abbey—whose Desert Solitaire is my reading material for this leg of the trip—says people shouldn’t live in these deserts at any scale, and he may be right: how do some of these towns I pass through even exist, if not just as escapes for those who don’t want to be part of the rest of civilization?
Yucca Valley, one of three oasis towns just north of Joshua Tree National Park, has a bit more life to it, with 20,000 residents and some well-appointed desert homes. It hardly feels like a portal to a desert park when I drive through, though. The car thermometer comes in at 59 degrees as I enter the park around 3:00 in the afternoon, and there is water on the pavement. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, at least when it comes to the weather.
The heart of Joshua Tree is a savanna of its eponymous yuccas on a high table of the Mojave. Most other national parks have a handful of sights that make them famous: Half Dome and the waterfalls in the valley at Yosemite, a handful of trees at Sequoia, Angel’s Landing and The Narrows at Zion. Joshua Tree isn’t like that. The main attraction is the desert. Every quarter mile or so, a parking area invites visitors to simply stop and wander out into the grove of Joshua trees and pick their way along trails with no names among the cacti, kicking up a wave of dust as they go. As is the case so many times over my time in the desert, Abbey’s take rings true:
The desert says nothing. Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation…Despite its clarity and simplicity, however, the desert wears at the same time, paradoxically, a veil of mystery. Motionless and silent it evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed. Since the desert does not act it seems to be waiting—but waiting for what?
My early arrival gives me some time to explore, and I head for the Barker Dam Trail, a flat nature trail that gives a quick introduction to the park’s ecology. One rock bears a series of pictographs that have received some enhancements from vandals, and at the end of a trail is a fetid little pond that nonetheless was a vital source of life for the early prospectors in the area. Joshua Tree is home to several hundred mines, nearly all of which failed, though a few of the desert adventurers made a decent living for themselves.
As a base for my own decent living over the next two nights, I set up shop at my tent in the Jumbo Rocks campground. Here, I notice my only great error of the trip: I’ve left my ground fly behind at the campground in Sequoia. Thankfully, I won’t need to worry about too much condensation on the ground affecting my tent here. Jumbo Rocks, meanwhile, is about as excellent as a campground of its size and style can be. Its namesake rocks separate all the campsites and make them seem much more isolated than they are, and some scraggly bushes offer additional privacy. People pop up on rocks here and there, once again answering the park’s invitation to explore and hop from boulder to boulder.
Some things one can’t escape in a car campground. Just after nightfall, the site across the way is, very gradually, occupied by three vehicles: first an SUV, then a camping van, and then a monstrous RV that is towing another camper. This can’t be legal, but after about 50 attempts and a forced relocation of the neighboring camper’s vehicle the RV’s driver manages to fit it into the parking spot. But, other than their headlamps occasionally brightening my quiet site, they turn out to be passable neighbors. Even though my evening meanders take me past a few sites throwing full-fledged parties, it still manages to be a fairly quiet place thanks to the maze of rocks.
I make my own explorations of the rocks that evening, first with a half-mile walk over to Skull Rock and back, and then with a clamber up the boulders right behind my site. Joshua Tree’s second great claim to fame, its starry skies, slowly begins to emerge. The daytime clouds are gone now, and the heavens slowly open up. Jupiter is immediately visible in the west, and in the hours between sundown and moonrise, as brilliant a night sky as I’ve ever seen emerges. Even in the darkness, it seems crowded: whether due to proximity to Los Angeles or just something about this latitude, the skies are littered with satellites and airplanes. Ignore the flashy lights, I tell myself, and focus on the more permanent specks that complete their hundred light year journeys in my eyes.
It’s going to be a chilly night in the desert, but I leave my rain fly off: the stars are worth seeing for as long as possible. I cocoon myself in my sleeping bag and wrap myself in excess clothes for insulation, and fall asleep far more easily than I had the night before. I wake with a start sometime in the wee hours and am shocked by what I hear: silence. Pure, untouched silence in the night, not even a breath of wind. I shudder and wrap myself up tighter, but grin in spite of myself as I stare up at the waning gibbous moon.
The sun pours through my scraggly bush early the next morning. I slowly extract myself from my protective casing, then head straight out for a hike before the heat and sun can take their toll. My first destination is Ryan Mountain, one of the highest points in Joshua Tree at 5,457 feet. The trail is 1.5 miles of nonstop climb, though nothing technical, and it’s early enough that parts of the western slopes are still in shade. There isn’t a cloud in the sky, but the chill wind persists. I can get all of the sunburn without any of the sweat. I plow up Ryan Mountain, appreciate the view, and then push down, stopping only to chat with a poor Ohioan who is already struggling with this sudden discovery of elevation even though he’s only a quarter of the way up.
Next, I head to Keys View, a drive-up lookout over the Coachella Valley, which includes the town that hosts the music festival and the resort haven of Palm Springs. To the west is a gap in the mountains, and a signboard informs readers that this pass over to Los Angeles is the reason why this valley is so hazy. I can make out the Salton Sea despite the smog, along with a couple of the highest peaks in southern California, including Mount San Gorgonio, which still bears some snow. On the way back down I stop by a couple of the well-named rock climbing spots, including the Oyster Bar and the House of Horrors, to drink in the desert.
My second hike of the day leads toward a place named Pine City (not to be confused with the small town halfway between Minneapolis and Duluth). It’s off the beaten path at the end of a gravel road, and merits only a cursory mention in the park guide. I climb gradually through open desert, the path marked only by rows of rocks on either side, with colorful cacti brightening the way. Eventually, it descends into a wash of sorts populated by a bunch of pinyon pines, by far the largest living thing out here. Further on, a ridge provides a window down to a valley to the north, and while the trail isn’t maintained past this point, I pick my way down a slope and rock-hop for some better views. I come back a bit and settle under a pinyon to guzzle some water and read a chapter of Abbey, who rhapsodizes about the nostalgia and hunger for that which is beyond our reach that lies in the desert. Could there be a better settling? Content, I hike back to my vehicle, meandering to see a few more trees and rocks along the way. I don’t see another soul.
It’s after noon now, and while it’s still a temperate desert day at 73 degrees, it is cloudless, and my skin is starting to bake. I head in to Twentynine Palms, another of the oasis towns just north of the park; down here in the lowlands, the thermometer hits 88. I check out the palm trees around the Oasis of Mara, read the signage on Joshua Tree godmother Minerva Hamilton Hoyt (“The Apostle of the Cacti”), and use this oasis of cell service to inform a few people that I haven’t fallen off some boulder somewhere. My return into the park is disrupted by that scourge of any summer road tripper, the construction crew flagging traffic down to a single lane. Back at my campsite, I find a note from a ranger scolding me for hanging my camping dish towels from a bush to dry. This seems petty, but above all seems sad that rangers are compelled to make daily rounds with form letters to chastise people for their sins. Are we really that bad? I settle under a juniper next to my site for more Abbey. His misanthrope is normally a bit of a turn-off for me, but after a day in his wilderness, it seems more understandable.
After a quick dinner, I head down to the Cholla Cactus Garden, which sits in the transition zone between the high desert of the Mojave and the more barren lowland Colorado Desert. The chollas live up to their reputation as they are set aglow by the setting sun. I make a couple of circuits of the quarter-mile loop, once in each direction: one of the greatest hiking mistakes is not looking back along the way one has come. I wait until driving back to the campground won’t put the sun directly in my eyes, and am rewarded along the way by seeing three coyotes in less than ten minutes. Back in camp, the giant RV people across the way have been replaced by a young pot-smoking couple who have little Christmas lights up in their tent and a hip-hop soundtrack as a backdrop to their conversation. With enough wine, I get it to a point where it fits my mood, and I write in contentment before another night of cold and stars.
This trip features a lot of time to myself, and I’m a rare loner in these campgrounds. I’m glad I’ve traveled this way, as it’s given me no shortage of time to think and clear my mind. I’ve become a proficient long-distance driver, and it’s a very Me way to travel, just pushing on to the next destination, an ambitious itinerary executed as well as I can realistically manage. I’m writing plenty, and going through plenty of good books. Boxes checked, left and right. But at the same time, I’m not exactly pining for another such trip.
Some of my concern is practical. Everything just takes longer when one travels alone, and times when I thought I’d be free to read or write turn into food prep or dishes or setup and takedown, even for someone who has efficient systems for all these tasks. A simple division of labor is one of the best arguments against atomized living that I’ve ever encountered. (I’m aware this is an ironic point coming from a single person who lives alone, but that doesn’t mean I think this is an admirable state of affairs, or that it is the endgame.) But for all my enjoyment of Abbey in the wilderness, I find my wandering to an old favorite essay, one by Jonathan Franzen (whose misanthrope can put Abbey’s to shame) on his trip to one of the Pacific’s most isolated islands in which he concludes that radical solitude is no way to live.
Perhaps I’m too much of a lover of a communal life. Maybe that’s why, for all my writing pretentions, I’ll remain an intermittent blogger, and never a noted conservationist writer, or a Great American Novelist. But for now, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.