I didn’t plan to go to Joshua Tree on Sunday. I didn’t really plan to go anywhere. I just found myself driving around in my rented Mustang convertible, listening to the radio and marveling that I could fly 2,000 miles from home and still pick up “Jack FM” or “The Eagle” if I chose to do so.
Luckily the car had a CD player.
I headed out of Palm Springs, driving east down Route 10. It was a beautiful day: 75 degrees and sunny. I climbed out of the mountains surrounding the area and found myself in the desert beyond. I took a look at the map and Arizona didn’t look that far away (it turned out to be about two hours away). I was in the mood for a drive and gas in Arizona turned out to be about sixty cents cheaper than in the California desert.
I was pulling out of a truck stop about ten miles from the state line when something caught my eye. I pulled over on a dead end frontage road and got out of the car. Beyond an empty parking lot made of what looked like slag iron, on the other side of a dry stream bed, there was a lone cactus standing in the desert sand. Coming from the Midwest, you just naturally assume that cactuses just infest the West like big spiky dandelions. However, it appears that mesquite is much more common. This was the first cactus I had seen on my trip that wasn’t deliberately planted in someone’s backyard. I parked the car and hiked across the stream bed. The cactus stood about twenty feet tall. It didn’t have arms like a saguaro, but otherwise looked like your typical specimen: it had sharp spines along the serrated vertical ridges and was a light yellow green color.
I took some pictures and figured I had done about as much as I was going to do in Arizona (the Grand Canyon was another four hours away). I headed back into California as the sun was starting to sink into the west. I noticed that the mountains that had looked sort of bleached out of sight in the high noon sun were becoming much more dramatic looking as the sun dipped lower.
I made it to Joshua Tree National Park around 5:30. I didn’t have to pay $15 to get in. They close the ranger stations at 5:00, but they don’t exactly rope off the park. Still, I needed to hurry. The sun sank behind the peaks in the west and I wound my way around the seriously winding roads. The mountains looked flat and purple with no direct sun to give them relief. However after a stretch, I found a place that was still in a bit of sunlight. I climbed a tall pile of rocks and watched one of the most awesome sunsets I have ever seen.
The moon was a thin crescent. It looked like a smile hanging about halfway between the zenith and the setting sun. The sky was an electric orange in the west and the setting sun silhouetted the mountains. There were several mesquite trees highlighted against the backdrop of the fiery sky. As the sun dipped below the mountain range, long rays of light grasped out across the western sky, touching the moon, and splaying out in all directions. I sat on the rocks and watched for what seemed like an hour.
The downside was I lost track of time. I managed to climb down the pile of rocks in twilight with my cameras and tripod in tow. Then, I had to drive out in darkness. This is a white knuckled drive for someone from Illinois. It was pitch black when I finally caught sight of Route 10 in the distance. I stopped to take a look around and happened to glance up.
The stars were so bright, they shone with actual colors. The big dipper was a long question mark in the east. I made out Cephus and Cassiopeia, Orion and Canis Major along with Lepus. I never see Lepus at home in Belvidere; we’re too far north. I could make out the Orion Nebula and the Pleiades in Taurus. The whole sky was ablaze from horizon to horizon. It actually made me feel dizzy, as if I could fall up into the sky.
So, I spent another hour or so just looking at the stars. I felt slightly guilty getting into the park for free just because I missed the daylight. In the end I think this was my favorite visit to Joshua Tree… doubly impressive considering that I didn’t see a single Joshua tree the entire time I was there.