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The blog of Elias & Theresa Carlson

Joshua Tree, California: A Most Excellent Getaway Spot

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We found it odd. The way the chipmunk staggered woozily from the brush like the town drunk in a bad Western. Perhaps he’d nibbled his way into some camper’s stash of peyote. Maybe he was just a little dehydrated. But then we noticed the leg. It dragged lifeless behind him as he crossed the pathway and collapsed, tiny rib cage heaving, at the base of a small boulder.

I looked at Joseph, “Oh man, that’s sad. I wonder what happened to him. I hope some jerk camper didn’t slingshot him for fun.”

We took a few steps closer.

“I think maybe that’s a bite mark,” Joseph said, observing a small gash in the chipmunk’s left hindquarter. We watched as a crimson stain seeped through brown fur.

As the light in the little eyes grew dimmer, the ragged gasps for breath shallower, we looked at each other and knew:

“It has to be a rattlesnake.”

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Everyone needs a Most Excellent Getaway Spot Preferably Not More Than Three Hours Away (MEGS-PNMTTHA). Henceforth referred to as MEGS for the sake of brevity.

For most of my life my MEGS of choice was “The Place” – a rustic cabin on the Eastern side of Washington’s North Cascades, nestled amongst the pines just off a dusty gravel road within earshot of Lost River. It’s the kind of place where you wake to songbirds and pine squirrels to find bucks with velvet antlers off the back porch. For years this patch of forest and river bank has been my escape. A place of rest and restoration, and a vital point of connection to the natural world. Everyone needs a Most Excellent Getaway Spot.

Now, an ideal MEGS carefully blends several attributes into one location. The first of these is accessibility. Your place should be no more than four hours distance by car from your current residence. This is far enough to remove you from the distractions of normal life and makes it the perfect choice for long weekends, or mid-Friday getaways. Second, it must provide access to an outstanding natural area. It doesn’t have to be Yosemite, but it must bring you joy. It can be a lake, a river, an ocean, or a desert. The most important thing is that it be a little wilder, a little freer, and that it inspire you to be the same. It must also be peaceful. You should find yourself slowing down, unwinding, and breathing more deeply in the comfort of your MEGS. And finally, it should accommodate a group of 2-5 comfortably. The reason for this is simple: adventures are often best when shared.

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My first experience with Joshua Tree was at the age of 13 on a month-long road trip from Seattle to San Antonio and back. My parents piled enough camping gear, granola bars, and fruit snacks to supply a family of seven into our big black GMC van and we hit the road. It was the kind of youth-defining All-American road trip that sticks with you for the rest of your life, and while I have several vivid memories from it – shitting furiously, puking, shitting furiously again, then dry-heaving repeatedly over a decrepit toilet somewhere near the edge of the Grand Canyon being a particular gem – one of my favorites occurred in Joshua Tree.

Like most red-blooded American boys I was (am) obsessed with all things scaly. The capture and close examination of any fish, lizard, or snake representing the zenith of my youthful aspirations (an obsession I’m proud to say I’ve not entirely outgrown). I had in my possession at the time a copy of Peterson Field Guides: Western Reptiles and Amphibians which I pored over with the a religious fervor as the family van rumbled its way South. With each passing state – Idaho, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico – I noted the various reptiles that might be found and formulated grandiose plans for their capture.

Of all the reptiles in my book, none captured my imagination like the rattlesnake. Beautiful, deadly, bordering on mythical, there are few creatures an adventurous boy would rather encounter (from a safe distance at least).

On the return trip to Seattle, my parents took us West through New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Our stop in Joshua Tree was brief. More of a drive-through on our way to bigger better things (Disneyland! Yosemite!) than a proper visit. But I’ll never forget the rattlesnake.

It was my brother Joseph who spotted it first, coiled and sleek, in a deep cleft between two large boulders. We marveled wide-eyed from our perch atop the rocks, hearts thrilling with our proximity to coiled death. The snake was unconcerned, brow furrowed in a perpetual scowl, tongue gently flicking the desert air.

Our encounter lasted no more than 5 minutes. But the memory lingers still. For 21 years whenever someone mentions Joshua Tree, the image of that little rattlesnake pops into my head, as clear as the blue sky.

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Which brings us back to the demise of our drunken chipmunk.

“If it’s a rattlesnake, that means he was JUST bitten. Which means it must be nearby.”

Joseph and I glanced at each other and immediately began searching the surrounding rocks and desert shrubs for signs of the cold-blooded assassin. To no avail. After ten minutes we were ready to admit defeat, turning to head back to the main pathway, when I saw it.

It was a small Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake. No more than 2 or 3 feet in length. It emerged from the brush and probed its way methodically up and over a small boulder, delicately tasting the air for the scent of its fallen prey. As we watched in awe, I was struck by the sophistication of the snake’s design; perfectly equipped for its deadly task.

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For more Rattlesnake info visit the California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Joseph and I quickly realized that it was going to take the snake at least another 15 minutes to sniff its way to the chipmunk, which had fallen alongside the main footpath. In the name of safety – both the snake’s and future hiker’s – we decided to intervene. Joseph scooped up the lifeless rodent with a pair of sticks and gently plopped it down a few feet from the snake which quickly located it and began the gruesome yet fascinating process of consuming it.

For the next twenty minutes I was 11 again. We watched with rapt attention as the rattlesnake sniffed the length of the chipmunk, located the head, unhinged its jaw and slowly, inch by inch, swallowed it whole. I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed anything weirder, or more fascinating in nature.

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This remarkable encounter solidified what had become increasingly clear to me over three brilliant days in the high desert: I may have temporarily lost my Northwest MEGS, but until fate or good fortune finds me back amongst the pines Joshua Tree will make for a fine substitute.

If you live within driving distance, or if you’re road-tripping through Southern California, a night or two under the innumerable Joshua Tree stars will be well worth your time. Just make sure you come prepared.

A few quick tips on that note:

  1. Bring lots of water. This is the desert, there is no running water in the campgrounds. I’d recommend 1 gallon per person per day. That will probably be more than you need, but that’s OK.
  2. Bring portable shade. Joshua Tree is incredible during the first few hours of the day, and the last few. But during the high heat of midday it can be witheringly hot. We pack a large tarp which we string up wherever we can. Or you can look for shady slot canyons where you can get in a bit of bouldering in the cool shadows provided by the rocks.
  3. Bring lightweight breathable desert attire during the day, and a few warmer layers for the night. You’ll want as few clothes on as possible between 11-3 and you’ll probably want long pants and a warm jacket once the sun goes down.
  4. Bring appropriate footwear. Cacti, sharp rocks, and rattlesnakes abound in JT. This is not flip-flip country. Good sturdy tennis shoes or an appropriate outdoor shoe of some kind are a must.
  5. Bring firewood. There’s nothing better than roasting marshmallows or drinking beers by the fire beneath the starry night sky.
  6. Bring a camera. Desert sunsets are unforgettable. The harsh flat colors of the daytime retreat with the sun and a world awash in pastels – oranges, minty greens, purples, and blues – emerges from the dust.

Whatever city, state, or country you find yourself in, I encourage you to discover your own MEGS. Find yourself a little patch of forest, a favorite stream, or perhaps an entire mountain range, and make it yours. To quote the poet of The Sierra, John Muir,

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.

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