Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The sweet high desert

This post continues on from this one.

By now I'm driving through the last opalescent light of the day. The road out of Palm Springs takes me through a valley lined with row upon row of ghostly wind turbines and up and over the Morongo Canyon.  I'm chasing the light, and as the sun goes down behind the San Jacinto mountains, it's bathing the canyon before me in ethereal broad strokes.  I'm busting through, pushing on through, while the outside desert air is still and clear and quiet.

Night is falling.  I'm driving through Yucca valley now, along the highway.  The land is increasingly dotted with desert natives, Mohave Yucca, Desert Willow and Californian Juniper, but it's the Joshua trees with their startling, Suess-like appearance, that demand your attention.

I pull off into a suburban side road to pursue a photo of a pair of young Mormons on their bikes on the road to nowhere. I'm entranced with a glimpse into other peoples lives, their dusty gardens lined with sentinel Cypress trees.  I like this place. It's small town America, big car, high desert, seemingly quiet on the surface...

Joshua Trees dot the spacious, dusty suburbs of Yucca Valley.

I make it up the last mile of windy road to reach the gateway to the Joshua Tree National Park.  Only one corner of the sky is pink. I've made it to a late blooming sunset in Joshua Tree. The sky has one more gift for me tonight. That final pink corner lights right up across that big old desert sky, turning it into a spectacular hued playground before finally falling dark.   The desert is as absolutely beautiful as I remember.  It's quiet - oh so quiet - but so alive!

This is the land of jack rabbits and coyotes and I strain to see or hear them, in the end my perseverance is rewarded with a sighting of a little antelope squirrel, running full tilt across the black top, picked out by my headlights as I swoop out of the park.

I need to find accommodation for the night and decide to head on to 29 Palms, to the 29 Palms Inn, based at a different Park entrance, one that I'll enter the park through on the morrow.  Arriving in pitch black, I have no idea where I am or what to expect.  My room for the night turns out to be an adobe cabin looking out to the high desert and a night sky full of glorious stars.   This wee gem of a motel just happens to have a bar, restaurant and band playing beside a fire pit. I sink a few and dive into a lovely evening getting to know the mostly local cliental that are either working behind or hanging out at the bar.  The cast of characters includes a helicopter pilot marine, a woman whose husband is in Afghanistan and a young gay woman.  I couldn't help but ask about what it's like to be gay in a small desert town. Fine, she replied, no problems.  This is a surprise and it makes me happy.

I fall into bed smelling like wood smoke.

The last wash of lights transforms the desert sky over the national park (see below). 

I force myself to wake at 6am to admire the dawn sky and then drift back off to sleep. Later, I grab a hurried breakfast, and take a walk around the Inn. Little did I know that I had stayed at an actual desert Oasis - the Mara Oasis.  Mara, a Serrano word,  means "the place of little springs and much grass." It was the Serrano that planted the 29 palms that surround the spring that gives the town its name.  One for each new baby boy born.  These palms provided the Serrano with food, clothing, cooking implements, and housing.  It's so pretty.

Mara Oasis, 29 Palms Inn.

Morning light through my shower curtain.

I set off for the park. $15 for 7 day access sounds like a steal for me. I'm pushed for time, so it's a whirlwind drive through, with stops to pause and breathe.  The desert is so so quiet, still, seemingly deserted. But I know it isn't.  Three distinct ecosystems meet here. The Colorado desert in the south eastern part, the Mohave to the north and the Joshua Tree to the west make for a rich diversity of plant and animal life including 6 species of rattle snake!  If you look long enough you start to see movement.  A bounding black-tailed jack rabbit.  A road runner. Under a rock is a busy ants nest. Golden eagles hunt regularly in the skies above. 

And then there's the geology.  Sweeping rock formations called Monozogranite populate the park.  I drove on through - luckily for me and my old man's bladder there's a variety of restrooms and camp grounds available for visitors.  I see a truck driver asleep at the wheel of his parked up rig.  I brazenly get close to have a look at his slumber. I move on. 
Truck stop, Joshua Tree National Park. 

Back on the freeways, leaving the desert behind me, I reenter the Los Angeles fray. 


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mastering freeways and desert missions

I'm newly arrived in LA and I have slight culture shock.  It's giddily warm, lush with plants and totally alien.  Grey was the signature colour of my 5 years in London, and now I have the wide pale expanse of Santa Monica beach and the transformative blues of both ocean and sky at my doorstep.  

First things first. One must drive and be brave and ruthless on LA's freeways. No room for tentativeness here. It's the wrong side of the road and I haven't been a frequent driver in England due to (outstanding) public transport and the ease of communal cars (thanks Zip Car!). Do note, that was an rather undisguised wee gripe... more of those to come, because as we know, America is no longer the land of milk and honey.  

I pick up my rental car from Hertz.  I have her for a month. She's a relatively unresponsive 2014 Chevvy, but she'll more than do. I'm very happy to be nestled in behind the wheel again.  Slowly, slowly, I gain confidence on the streets of Santa Monica.  I'm now confident at turning into lanes, automatically watchful for pedestrians and have the hang of first come, first served intersections. 

The freeway beckons.  Now that's a big old step. Six lanes across at 70 miles an hour? I wake one morning with an idea. The only thing that's going to get me on those freeways is a mission. And I know what that is. 

The desert.  Palm Springs.  Joshua Tree. Only 2-3 hours from Santa Monica. 

The trip's a blast. I feel at ease on the freeways.  Although, LA drivers - you have got to check your blind spot!  I stop at the Morongo Indian Reservation and pay a visit to their quiet little museum. Dusty shelves reveal elder stories and exquisite basket craft.  I bump into one of the community's several pastors and she takes me for a walk around the community's teaching garden. I crush black and white sage between my fingers and inhale the scent. All of the plants here have their uses.  For a sample, have a read of this selection of regional ethnobotanical plants

She gives me an insight into how the reservation-built casino has changed the lives of the 1000 or so tribal members.   A huge influx of cash flow into the community means different choices for young people on the reservation.  Very few apparently take advantage of available collage scholarships.  Mulling on this, I thank her for her time and head back out to the freeway, saying 'bye to the elderly cop who allowed me entry. 

I drive on to Palm Springs, but don't stop there.  After a tasty, health conscious lunch at Palm Greens Cafe, I take stock of my remaining daylight hours. I have just enough left to reach Joshua Tree National Park. I want to be in the high desert as night falls. 

Continued here