Life-Affirming Danger at Joshua Tree National Park, California

Unprepared but unperturbed, Ben Holbrook explores Joshua Tree National Park, where life is lived dangerously or not at all.

“Do you think there are mountain lions around here?” Sylvie asked with a cheeky grin on her face. “Definitely,” Jennine responded, without even a whiff of hesitation (or humour, for that matter). My eyes started darting around as if I was going to find one sitting casually at the side of the road, perhaps with a gang of mountain lion kittens. I couldn’t see any. But I did see a sign that instructed us to “DRIVE SAFELY!” followed by another that said “CAUTION! ROAD DAMAGED NEXT 5 MILES”. It wasn’t quite in tune with what I’d been expecting ‘Christmas in California’ to look like!

crazy cactus in Joshua Tree National Park
 
I had pictured the desert sun, the clear skies and the vast nothingness, but danger had never crossed my mind. We continued driving, surrounded by apartment-sized motor homes or “RVs” as Ian referred to them. Each one towed what seemed to be an obligatory Jeep. He explained that people came from miles away to hang out in Palm Springs desert and enjoy a dose of winter sunshine. They park their RVs up in a circle and make huge bonfires out of their old Christmas trees. “They drink beer, finish off the leftovers from Christmas dinner and play with their guns.”

“So what’s so unique about Joshua Tree, Ian? What’s the big deal?” Sylvie asked.

I’d first met Ian and Jennine when they invited Sylvie to their wedding in Napa Valley, in northern California. They allowed Sylvie to bring a plus one and I was lucky enough to experience California through the eyes of the locals. There I was in the dusty, sun-swamped vineyards, under the most beautiful, blossoming trees, as they went around the small number of cherry-picked wedding guests Each one offered their deepest and most heartfelt wishes to the new bride and groom: “We’ve been friends for as long as I can remember and I’m so happy to see you and Ian finally tying the knot. You’re perfect together! May your dreams come true and your lives be long!”

My heart began to race as I realised that this wasn’t a chance to say something ‘if you fancied it‘ – no, no, everyone was getting involved – everyone! There were family members that had flown in from the other side of the country: “Ian, you’re such a great guy and we know how happy you make Jennine. Welcome to the family.”

My heart beat so loudly that I was worried it would drown out the people talking. Then, all eyes on me, the random bloke from Swansea in south of butt-f*c*-nowhere – the one that no-one knew or recognised – it was my turn: “Hey guys, it’s been really great to meet you both, and all of your friends and family. Thanks for inviting me. I wish you all the happiness in the world.”

Surprisingly, it had come easily and from the heart. I was genuinely honoured to have been there to share such a beautiful day. The people I met at Ian and Jennine’s wedding showed me just how warm and accepting people in America can be. I’ll never forget it. I really won’t.

Ian grew up nearby in San Diego and spent many of his holidays exploring the desert, so we were keen to get as much of his local knowledge out of him as possible. “It’s the geological formation. There are Jurassic-style trees and rocks that look like God picked them up and threw them down on top of each other in a rage. It’s just very… unique!”

We arrived at “Skull Rock” and took pictures of the crazy boulders that had erupted out of the ground. I couldn’t believe it; even the rocks were reminders of the imminent danger that surrounded us. I attempted a bit of rock climbing but got chicken legs as soon as I saw the rocks balancing on other wobbly rocks over head.

“Isn’t this where they filmed that 127 hours movie? Where the rock falls on the guy and traps his hand between two bigger rocks? Then he has to cut it off with a blunt…”

Ian stopped me: “No, it wasn’t here. But, yeah, be careful.”

The strange rocks at Joshua Tree National Park
 
It was getting late in the day and we started to wonder if we’d have enough time to complete the ‘life reaffirming hike to the top of Ryan Mountain,’ as we’d planned. It was set in the heart of Joshua Tree National Park and apart from the car park and a hole-in-the-ground-toilet (which had been made suitably dangerous by being big enough for a human to fall down into the cesspit below), there really wasn’t much else around.

“We’re good, sturdy hikers. I’m sure we can make it!”

Ian was raring to go and seemed to be immune to the zero-degree wind that was turning us into icicles. It had been so warm in the morning that I was only wearing shorts and a t-shirt (typical Brit). For me, the novelty of being in the sunshine at Christmas time had rendered me incapable of thinking or making any kind of sensible decisions. Jennine had warned me of the dramatic temperature changes in the desert, especially as we climbed the mountain. I’m Welsh, I thought to myself, I can handle it!

Under Ian’s command, we started walking as fast as we could, so that we’d warm up, stopping every few hundred metres to look for rattlesnakes. There were holes in the ground, big enough to fit golf balls in. I asked Ian what might be in them: “Maybe snakes. Rodents. But it could be scorpions or spiders.” I searched his face for clues but there was nothing to make me think he was joking. I stopped poking the holes and moved on. The path quickly became steep enough that I could hear the blood pumping through my ears. I unzipped my wind-breaker and felt the heat and sweat from my body instantly evaporate. I took pictures at every opportunity but quickly found that my hands would freeze if I left my gloves off for too long – they were from the 99p shop back home and I was mightily impressed with their performance (the gloves, not my hands). 

The closer we got to the top the more people we crossed on their way back down. There was a lady wearing chunky hiking boots, a backpack full of supplies and a Antarctic-worthy jacket that covered her from her head to her knees. Only her glasses and wisps of grey hair were visible as she waved her walking stick to say hello. There was a young mother bent down, trying to convince her little boy to keep going. He was about two-and-a-half foot tall and I instantly felt embarrassed that we had been moaning about how tired we were getting. With a gentle nod and a little push, he was off again. My mind turned to all the spoilt little brats I see back home, in the supermarkets, kicking and screaming because their mothers won’t buy them a pack of sweets.  It was the final boost of motivation we needed to drive us up the last few sections. Deep breaths of paper-thin air and hip-wrenching bounds on burning legs.

I don’t know if it was the lack of oxygen or the fact that we wanted to get back to the warm car, but once we got to the top, everything seemed to happen in fast forward.

We ran around and jumped up and down, taking pictures of each other next to the sign that told us we were at 5,457 feet. I even let out a few “I’m king of the world!” lines. No-one laughed. And then we turned around and began our descent back to earth. I was perfectly content, but as if to add a cherry to an already perfectly formed cake, the biggest, fullest moon appeared. The sun was setting and the sky became a tie-died blanket of vintage purples and peachy pinks.  Any notions of danger melted away and the beauty of what lay before us smothered us in warmth. For those brief moments, time stood still and everything was absolutely perfect, just as it was – reaffirmed,  you might say. We sat silently in the car, looking back at Ryan Mountain. Sylvie broke the silence, her words echoing what we were all thinking. “Did that really just happen?”

Celebrating at the top of Ryan Mountain, Joshua Tree, California
 
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