The desert is full of things you can’t hold on to — light and heat and sand that slips through your fingers like friendships you once had. But if you’re looking for a sense of permanence, the desert is the place to go.
California’s two deserts — the Mojave and the Colorado — come together at Joshua Tree National Monument, 140 miles east of L.A. If you go there, you’ll see what I mean.
Some of the Joshua trees have been around for hundreds of years and are now nearly 50 feet tall. (They look like overgrown cacti.) But it’s the immovable boulders and massive rock formations jutting up from the desert floor that really make you feel as if nothing ever changes here.
It’s not true, of course. On some of the rocks you’ll find petroglyphs left by an ancient Indian civilization we know little about — experts aren’t even sure if the etchings were a form of writing or just drawings. Even so. Stand in the shade of a boulder, put your hand on its pebbled surface — still cool in the noonday heat — and you’ll know there’s at least one thing you can hold on to.
Climbers from all over the country come here, to the Wonderland of Rocks, to test themselves on innumerable ascents, but you don’t need ropes or carabiners or gymnast’s chalk to appreciate the Wonderland. Although this maze of granite boulders covers 12 square miles, you can get a good feel for it on an easy-to-follow trail of little more than a mile.
But first you may want to get your bearings by driving through this 850-square-mile preserve. Gently winding roads will lead you from the high-desert beauty of the Mojave to the immense low-desert grandeur of the Pinto Basin in the Colorado. To really get the lay of the land, your first stop should be Keys View — if not the highest point in the monument, as least the highest you can get to on a paved road. From here you can see snow-capped Mount San Gorgonio, Palm Springs, and the Salton Sea. On a clear day you can even spot Signal Mountain, just over the Mexican border, 95 miles away.
You won’t get a real feel for the desert, though, until you leave the roads behind. When you can no longer see pavement or campers or even fellow hikers — that’s when you know you’re in the desert.
It’s hot and you’d better carry plenty of water.
On the trail the only sounds you’ll hear are the crunch of rocks under your boots and, if you’re lucky, the wind riffling through your hair. When you stop, and the air is still, the silence is like a ringing in your ears.
Two more things you can’t hold on to: silence and peace.
We felt it on our way to the Lost Palms Oasis. The trail begins at Cottonwood Spring and leads you out past the Mastodon Mine, over rolling hills and through dry washes. It’s four miles to Lost Palms, and before you get there you realize the desert is also full of things you wouldn’t want to hold on to — prickly pear cactus, whiptail lizards, catclaw shrubs, and rattlesnakes. (Not that we saw any rattlers, but you should carry a snakebite kit just in case.) Still, the variety of cactus and birds and other creatures is astonishing.
The Oasis is a cluster of fan palms at the bottom of a deep ravine. It looks like a long way down, but it doesn’t take long (even coming back up). Among the palms, we pass another hiker who says, “What, no pool to dive into?” There’s clearly water here somewhere, but it’s all below the surface.
We sit in the sand, our backs against a sloping chunk of granite, and enjoy our lunch — bananas, grapes, sandwiches, and cookies — in the shade of the palms. A breeze rustles through the ravine. It’s nice here. We decide to let the desert hold on to us for a while.