The Joshua Tree Epilogue

It’s been 6 months since my trip to Joshua Tree National Park.

Life is very different from what it was before the trip. Even though it looked like I transitioned back into the hum drum pretty well, I didn’t. I don’t think anyone really does after adventures like that. It’s as if your brain chemistry changes. Nothing is the same ever again.

There is the eternal itch to pack up my bicycle and just ride.

To anywhere.

To nowhere.

To oblivion and back with a detour through hell just for shits and giggles.

To ditch everything I’ve built here in the Denver/Boulder area and just disappear on the open road. As much as I love to ride, it’s hard now to get on the beer bike to commute or get groceries because all I want to do when I start peddling, is to keep going.

When I first started biking (instead of buying a car) in March of 2011, it was just a means to and end. To get somewhere I needed to be. To not spend money on something I didn’t need and saving my carbon foot print for flights to far off destinations. It was practical, logical, and reasonable. Never did I think I would love biking, that it would become so intertwined with my contentment. To go longer than a couple of days without biking, I would become mean, moody, and hate the world.

All because of a bicycle.

The beer bike has become more than just a piece of equipment or a means of transport. It’s a symbol of the the ideas I love most in life. Simplicity, hard work, freedom, perseverance, and as the Taoists say, being the uncarved block, or pu.

In Joshua Tree, I found what so many search for. The stillness of inner peace and the contentment of love and being one with the universe. Every time I get on my bike, I feel it all over again. That’s now why I ride and why I will never stop.

To anywhere and nowhere and all points in between, it’s just me and my bicycle.

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Part VI: The 46 Mile Grocery Trip

Do you think I could get another pin into Denver?

Do you think I could get another pin into Denver?

Sunday.

It’s said that God rested on this day. He may be resting, but I’m definitely not.

As I sit in the Park Rock Cafe and charge my phone and GoPro, it slowly dawns on me there are no grocery stores in the town of Joshua Tree with the lonely exception of an organic store. The closest is about 5 miles. The 23-ish miles I just rode to get into town weren’t so bad considering they were mostly downhill. An extra 10 miles and then back uphill to Jumbo Rocks does not sound like fun times.

Note: The signs in the park at Jumbo Rocks says it’s 23 miles to the town. The question once I hit the park entrance was, where does the town begin? Did the town start at the park boundary or some other odd spot on the road? And how many extra miles from the park entrance (if it was 23 to it) would I need to go to find a grocery store? As it turns out, it’s 23 miles to get to the information center right smack dab in the middle of town and next to route 62. Be aware that Map My Ride’s initial route to town takes you on Queen Valley Road which turns into dirt/gravel from pavement, though it knocks off 3 miles. 

You may be asking yourself, why the hell did she leave the park and go into town? Didn’t she pack enough?

Well, yes and no.

What I did not anticipate was the energy being sucked out of my devices from the cold nights (I started sticking them in my sleeping bag at night). However, I had planned on Sunday being grocery/water fetching day. I knew I would only be able to carry so much water so why waste calories trucking more food and water around when I could just hop into town.

If I had known what my first day biking was going to have been, I probably would have loaded up. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t. It was the most relaxed biking day I had the whole trip. Easy cruise into town with one pannier and backpack and hit the coffee shop, the park’s gift shop and organic store (expensive but organic). In addition, I found the post office (I needed stamps for postcards. I don’t buy chintzy souvenir crap. It’s wasted beer money.), the alcoholics’ liquor store, and an overpriced hi-uppie coffee shop.

Hi-uppie: noun. a person that is a combination of hippie and yuppie. They have both sensibilities which create the most annoying mishmash of patchouli/sandalwood, tree-hugging laid-backness with high irritability if their $9 coffee order doesn’t come out exactly the way they think it should as they drive off in a brand new, macked out Touareg with Save the Earth and jam band stickers on the bumper. 

Swiss cheese, a couple of avocados, bananas, and pears, a tomato, an orange, dried papaya, strawberries, two bottles of organic beer, and a second coffee in my system later, I’m headed back up to the park. I figure stocking up on water at the entrance is the better idea since the hill into town looked like it was the worst part of this upcoming 23 miles.

That was the best decision I had made besides waiting until 1:00pm to get moving again.

The trek from town to the park entrance kinda sucks. It’s steep-ish rolling hills all the way (though it looks like one big hill). The upside was bumping into two other cyclists on their way back to Jumbo Rocks that had come into town for brunch. The lady was living in Estes Park, CO, while the gentleman was visiting her from Belgium. We chit-chatted most of the way and they invited me to stop by later that evening for dinner and relaxing by the campfire.

It's only about 5 miles from town to the West Entrance. Those 2 red hills are the worst parts. Especially when all you want to do is drink the beer in your pack.

It’s only about 5 miles from town to the West Entrance. Those 2 red hills are the worst parts. Especially when all you want to do is drink the beer in your pack.

Once into the park, the ride was so easy I started singing songs as I biked. The afternoon became cooler yet the sun was still strong and warm. The worst part of the day is 11:00am to 1:00pm. It’s just so horribly hot.

It’s 3:00pm and I’m back to my campsite. After a much needed nap, I take a bit of a walk around on the rocks again. The sun is fading to orange as a large group of spandex-clad cyclists go huffing up the road. I yell out to the stragglers, “Get it!! There’s cold beer at the end!!!” One sits up on his bike, shakes his hands in victory at the air, and with a huge smile on his face yells back, “YES!!!”

The benefit of traveling alone is meeting new people. As I walked the camp roads looking for the biking couple, I strike up conversation with an older couple out for an evening stroll. They’re snowbirds from Canada, as are many of the snowbirds in Joshua Tree and Southern California. According to them, Mexico is too far and it’s warm enough for them here. Huh. Go figure.

The biking couple had moved to another campsite, to which I had been redirected, to let a large group of older hippies all camp together. Apparently, this group comes to JTNP once a year to see each other and party like the good old days. I hope that I’m that kind of bad ass in my 60’s.

The campfire was just starting to roll. It was wonderful to have company for an evening, sharing stories over a glass of wine and pasta. I never appreciated pasta as much as I did that night. They shared stories of how they met doing a trans-American bicycle tour, how small the touring community is (apparently there’s a pair of Portuguese twins and an Irishman that tour a lot), and some tips on touring. They were on a month-long road trip and biking wherever they ended up.

There’s always more good people out there than bad.

I still sleep with my knife close by, just in case. I’m a cute girl… can you blame me?

 

 

Part V: Ryan Mountain and Jumbo Rocks

This one's for you Duzer!

This one’s for you, Duzer!

I love biking in the morning.

The air is crisp as the sun slowly starts to warm me. It’s only 4 miles to Ryan Mountain from Jumbo Rocks Campground. Most people on this Saturday morning are still sleeping. It’s 7:00am and the sun is already making me feel toasty as I pedal. I have a lack of tolerance for crowds when I’m in nature which is why I’m already headed to Ryan Mountain.

Saturdays = crowds.

As I swing into the parking lot, there’s only two cars. Score! I strip off a layer of clothes, long johns and my thermal shirt, and replace the biking plates on my sneakers with the rubber bottom they came with. Yes, I’m weird enough to keep that because I like my stuff to stay nice even though I’m told it’s not necessary, on top of not wanting to sound like I’m tap dancing up the mountain.

Water: check. Nuts and fruit: check. Cameras: check. Excitement: check.

Even after the 34 miles I did yesterday, the old gams feel up to the challenge of the 2.8 mile loop. Wait…that’s it? And only 1000 feet of elevation gain? I guess it’ll be a nice warm up for any other hiking I do today. I couldn’t help but giggle when I read the information sign: The moderately strenuous hike takes about 2-3 hours. Does that include hanging out at the top?

I <3 signs.

Apparently, Mr. Cates never visited Colorado.

About 45 minutes later, I was at the top. That includes all the moments of me fooling around with cameras and taking pictures, admiring the scenery. I’m not a strong hiker back in Colorado, but apparently the drop in elevation has made me into Wonder Woman.

What I found at the top was breath-taking. The 360 almost made me weep. Maybe because it was so starkly beautiful. Maybe it was the odd congruence of this single moment representing my whole life and this spiritual trip that I was biking. Maybe it was the absolute surrealness of the landscape and my imagination saying that dinosaurs should be seen traipsing across the valley.

I vote for option D: all of the above.

Starting on the trail!

Starting on the trail!

I'm a sucker for a cool looking tree.

I’m a sucker for a cool looking tree.

Kinda reminded me of the Flatirons in Boulder.

Kinda reminded me of the Flatirons in Boulder.

At the top! Just a wee bit higher than Denver.

At the top! Just a wee bit higher than Denver.

To the northwest and Hidden Valley.

To the north and west and Hidden Valley, where I was eventually heading.

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To the south and east and Jumbo Rocks, where I had come from.

If you are ever in Joshua Tree National Park, make Ryan Mountain the one trail you definitely hike. Go in the morning. Besides it being beaming ass hot already at 10:00am (that’s when I started my descent) you also beat the crowds. There were tons of people on their way up as I bombed back down the mountain in 30 minutes. Make sure you wear decent sneakers. There’s a lot of gravel/sand on the trail and covering large rock steps. I saw a few people almost go down due to slipping.  Also, the early morning gives you a bit of shade. Once it hits noon, there is zero shade on that mountain. There’s also a false summit so keep hiking until you see the summit marker.

If you’re lucky, you’ll catch some of the big horn sheep hanging out. I did. I heard a pair of Frenchmen behind me (not part of the wildlife in JTNP) so I called them down to where I was and pointed out the 4 sheep just chilling in the morning shade near the summit. After talking with them, my one idea about the French was solidified. If you’re from anyplace in France except Paris, they ask you what you think of the French. The correct answer is: I like the French but Parisians are snobby.

The ride back to Jumbo Rocks was much easier than I was expecting. It was pretty much downhill to Ryan Mountain but that grade wasn’t grueling to get back up. There’s just this one part of the road that looked like I was going uphill yet I was gaining speed without peddling. You’ll find a bunch of spots like that throughout Joshua Tree. It’s the weirdest thing ever and just adds to the mystery of the place.

Back at the batcave, most of the campers were out for the day by 11:00am. Lunch, a quick little nap, and I was ready to explore the rocks. I wore flips flops (should have worn sneakers but it was way too hot) and headed off to see what this Skull Rock was all about.

No lie. It does look like a skull.

There was a dad trying to get one of his kids to be a booger. Good parenting skills.

There was a dad trying to get one of his kids to be a booger. Good parenting skills.

Remember how I had said that the rocks were alive? Well, they are. The rocks in different areas feel a different sort of alive. The ones to the south in Cottonwood and in the Pinto Basin have a quiet giant feel. The ones at Jumbo Rocks practically scream out to you “Come play on me!!!”. Hidden Valley rocks are majestic yet welcoming. And the ones closer to the West Entrance have a very chill hangout feel, kinda like they smoked a lot of pot and are telling each other jokes.

I spent an afternoon/evening exploring Jumbo Rocks and didn’t even see a quarter of what was there. It’s a massive rock labyrinth. Since I was alone and didn’t want to pull an Aron Ralston, I carefully bounded over and around the rocks, finding neat little niches, flowers just blooming, and large happy cacti. Once in a while I would take a break and soak up the heat from the rocks or watch some rock climbers getting it.

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For all the Utica, NY peeps, imagine a statue of the Virgin Mary in the cove…

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As I returned to my camp, the next door neighbors invited me to join their fire for some smores. Hells yes! We spent a pleasant evening getting to know each other. They were a father/daughter combo out on an adventure from Seattle while she took a semester off college. With a belly full of marshmallows, I bade them good night and safe journeys (they were leaving in the morning). I drifted off to sleep with thoughts of my next expedition.

My legs might hate me again tomorrow night…

Part IV: Another Hill Workout at Joshua Tree National Park

The Cholla Cactus. To touch  or not to touch?

The Cholla Cactus. To touch or not to touch?

Zero shade.

It’s almost noon.

Maybe this was bad planning.

But I left at 9:00am…

34 miles shouldn’t take this long.

Deja vu.

I’m trying to get a little bit of shade from the fence while I eat lunch and rest. It’s Friday, day three of my trip, which means I’m on the move to my next campsite at Jumbo Rocks. It’s blazing hot out. I’m wearing the long sleeve USA biking shirt I won in a raffle. I grok why cyclists wear this stuff but it still is one of the worst fashion statements ever.

If I didn’t die getting into the park, then this can’t possibly kill me. Right?

Two small panniers, a small backpack, and all this stuff. Did I buy too much food?

Two small panniers, a small backpack, and all this stuff. Did I buy too much food?

My tent had the soft glow of first light on it. I should start out early just in case. There’s another big ass hill I have to climb to get to the other side of the park but I only have 34 miles to go. Packing up all my gear takes me a little longer than expected due to changing up my original configuration. No more heavy water bottles in my hip pack, only the camel back, food for the afternoon, and cameras.

Regardless of my new packing job, the back tire has gone flat over night. Do I change out the tube? I already fixed this one on the first day, so it should have been good. Take the wheel off…check the tube…no air is escaping it. Huh. Perhaps I’ll just keep checking it as I go.

Bike is packed with everything for the second time and I’m off on my second long haul of the trip. The ranger station just flipped the “open” sign so it’s 9:00am. The weather is absolutely perfect for biking. A little nip to the air but the sun is nice and warm. Being on my bike again feels great even though my legs are still struggling a bit. They eventually stop complaining and find their groove again.

It’s weird…I can see the road going up ahead of me but it feels like I’m biking down hill. Oh well. It’s beautiful out here! One of my friends said the rocks were alive. From what I can see and feel, I believe him. Their presence pressed on mine, feeling like two goliaths meeting and I was in the middle. I started thinking that they chose to be where they were instead of what geology says. I believed that if I sat long enough, they would start talking to me.

No, I didn’t have any drugs on me. I didn’t even have beer. I definitely wasn’t delusional anymore from my first day.

That’s how alive the rocks in Joshua Tree feel.

See those mountains? I'm headed from them in the Pinto Basin.

See those mountains? I’m headed from them in the Pinto Basin.

Photos can not capture the beauty of the desert. It is raw and unyielding. It beats you down with heat and sun mercilessly. But while you’re trying to hide from the sun under a boulder or next to a fence, it shows you the budding red on the ocotillo or two small lizards that think your backpack and you are the best playground ever. The desert forces you to stop so you can see it’s beauty, otherwise, you miss it completely.

Stopping is what I did a lot of.

Especially after lunch. I had stopped at the Cholla Catcus Gardens (about mile 20 of 34 and at 2200 feet) around 11:00am for lunch and to rest a bit before tackling Wilson Canyon. The Pinto Basin had been a beautiful morning ride but it had taken me down to about 1760 feet and my next destination was at about 4400 feet.

Note to self for next desert tour: Bring an umbrella. Taking a much longer walk in the Cholla Cactus Garden would have been nice if I could have escaped the sun for a wee bit. I had heard that they glow at sunset, but at the end of this day, I would decide that it was a sight for when I return with a car. Hundreds of cacti waiting to make someone into a pin cushion beamed like white angels of death under the blistering sun.

At noon, I started my way up the last 14 miles. I had no idea it was 14 miles, nor that I was climbing 2200 feet of elevation in that one chunk through Wilson Canyon. Which was a good thing. Sometimes knowing what you’re up against is worse than being ignorant of it. Instead of counting the miles down and getting discouraged that I was going a turtle’s pace, I appreciated seeing the landscape or watching the cyclists out for their daily ride bomb the canyon (with a touch of envy of course). I would peddle anywhere from 100 meters to a quarter-mile, stop, drink water, rest for 10 minutes, eat a few nuts or dried fruit, and start again.

Elevation gain? What elevation gain?

Elevation gain? What elevation gain?

My stop by the White Tank Campground was one of those moments that made me think, “Yep…there are definitely strange people out there”. I was alone at a point of interest, resting next to a rock and getting a touch of shade when a guy walks up to me out of nowhere and starts talking to me asking where I was headed and if I was alone. My Spidey sense was on red alert: I’m camping at Hidden Valley (lie). Friends are meeting me tomorrow to tour the park (lie). Not sure which way we’re biking tomorrow (lie). Only here for a couple of days (lie). As we’re talking, I starting nonchalantly rifling through my pack, pulling out a bag of nuts but secretly palming my pocket knife. As much as I believe the world has more good than bad people, I’m not stupid. Maybe he sensed me being slightly stand-offish or it was the presence of another car pulling up but he decided to continue on his way. I noticed his car and license plate, making a mental note of it just in case I saw it too frequently the rest of my trip. He came back for a second and tossed me an orange. Normally, I’d be okay with it, but the top had been plucked off. Hmmm….I think this is turning into a snack for a chipmunk. Stranger danger, kids. Always be aware.

Anyhoots, that was life from noon until 5:00pm when I arrived at the Jumbo Rocks Campground to find the camp sign being flipped to “full”. The next campground was about 6 miles away, I had no clue what the road ahead had in store, or even if that campsite was full too. So I did what made sense. I went in regardless and looked at the campsite tags. Fortunately, there were open sites, the last inhabitants having just left that day.

Legs still wobbly, I decided doing a little walk about the rocks would do my muscles some good and give my brain a little candy by watching the sunset on top of these stone beings.

It was similar to the movie City of Angels, where the angels would all congregate and watch the sunset. Most of the higher rocks had people siting atop them, watching the last rays of the day fade into shades of pink, purple, and night.

Just as the campfires started to roar with laughter and stories, the last rays of my consciousness faded into dreams.

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” ~ Crowfoot quote

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” ~ Crowfoot quote