Petting Chipmunks – Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA
Joshua Tree National Park, California, USA
I was suddenly awake. Beams of desert sunlight were streaming through the window whilst dust particles spun lazily in the still morning air. Outside a pink meringue sky, which would later be dotted with whipped egg white clouds, towered above the desert. I was tired; tired from laughing, tired from joking and tired from traveling with people who tested me, challenged me and made each experience something to be savored and remembered. I had to reach deep inside myself for the energy to get through the day. Then, just as I was wondering if I did actually have any energy reserves, my traveling companions were awake and we were already joking. Between the two of them they had enough kinetic energy to power most of the state, I just had to tap into their passion and I, too, was away.
Breakfast was a miserable affair. The pretty receptionist had said it was continental but I had absolutely no idea to which continent she was referring to, the lost continent of Atlantis perhaps? We made do with limp fruit, soggy bread and oat bran (something I had always wondered if people actually ate) and my mind wandered back, trying to crystallize the last few days of road tripping.
I remembered choked freeways, behemoths spraying up water as they trundled to destinations unknown; I remembered the freeway melting away in torrential rain so that the car became the whole extent of our world; I remembered the hopes, dreams and stories we spun as we sped ever southwards. I remembered that sometimes the rain came down in stair-rods and that things outside the car lost both shape and name and that when the rain stopped, shape and name sometimes reconnected and sometimes they didn’t. I remembered that sometimes when the rain cleared the landscape hadn’t changed, it seemed like the car was treading water as a web of dreams spun around the interior. I remembered peering through foggy windows as In’n’Out Burgers, Starbucks, Wal-marts and other torchbearers of the American dream glided past and thinking that these days, with these people, are indeed special times. I remembered scrawling: ‘the language of these mountains is rain’ in my diary and then looking at it and wondering why. And most of all I remembered watching an aspirin sun dissolve into watery clouds and feeling like I wanted to drive forever with these people. Forever and then some…
Once the sordid little breakfast had been fully denounced and consigned to the scrap heap of culinary experiences, we drove, under a massive sky full of promise, to Joshua Tree National Park itself. It was still early on a Sunday morning but already the light was beautiful and intense. It didn’t stream the way normal light does but scintillated and pulsed like it was alive. I imagined it creeping into the deepest, darkest crevices of my soul and driving out my blackest of moods and foulest of thoughts. It was a great morning to be alive.
We had chosen Ryan’s Mountain as our destination. The park guide showed a moderate hike that promised splendid views and the chance for us to stretch our legs and remember what function our lungs served. We had hiked a little the day before and the beauty of Joshua Tree had almost overwhelmed me. The short hike made my nerves jangle in a very seductive way and I felt as though my very soul was resonating in a most erotic staccato. I think I spent half the afternoon walking around with a slack jaw and the other half with my camera pressed to my eye. Obviously the moment hadn’t had exactly the same effect on J. as after I had commented for the 128th time that hour how special this place felt she nodded gently and said, for no discernable reason:
“Philip, you know, I want to pet chipmunks.”
My laugh echoed around the canyon for a long time.
As we hiked, I expounded my theory of deserts. Lacking the eloquence of my traveling companions I tried to explain how the desert made me feel. It went something along the lines of, “The desert is timeless. You can bomb it, start new religions in it, go to war in it, pollute it, try to irrigate it but it never really changes. That makes me feel that nothing really matters at all, and this is so special and significant that I just can’t explain why right now. Deserts always make me think of lust that has turned to love that has turned to a deep and permanent friendship, but I don’t know why.”
My companions took deep breaths of squeaky-clean desert air, looked long and hard at me and shrugged their shoulders.
“No, more like attitude sickness.”
As we climbed higher, I had no breath left but the view more than compensated for asphyxia. As my much fitter companions scurried up the path like mountain goats I was left thinking: well, if this really was my last day on earth (rasp, rasp, pant, pant) I couldn’t possibly feel short-changed. But with much encouragement and the promise of more eye popping vistas at the top, I finally made it to the summit. One small step for mankind, one bloody great hike for Blazdell.
The view from the top
The view from the summit was something special. It looked like some deity with an advanced degree in desert making had made it one a day when He was at the top of his game. Clearly He had started with the easy stuff such as the Atacama Desert and Death Valley before moving onto more serious matters here. Miles upon miles of sun-baked plain, looking like a dusty billiard table stretched across the valley a long away below me. Jagged snow capped mountains shimmered on the horizon whilst slivers of road wandered hopefully from east to west. Birds spiraled lazily above me on thermals in an air as crisp and inviting as vintage champagne. The only sound, rather disappointingly, was from my own rasping.
I climbed onto the top of the cairn and spread my arms wide. I pulled gallons of life-giving mountain air into my lungs and felt more alive that I had for weeks. My traveling companions sat under a Yucca tree and probably wondered if I was a liability after all. Just as I was beginning to feel half capable of describing in words how happy I felt at that precise moment my cell phone bleeped – an old friend who was currently pacing the floors of a maternity hospital back home waiting for his first baby to be born.
“No news yet, mate, think the little one has changed its mind.”
I felt a flicker of regret. It would have been perfect if the baby had been born on this day so that I could always connect two special occasions together in my mind. Sometimes life just doesn’t follow the romantic course I require. However, I added a stone to the cairn just in case the little one arrived before we reached the bottom and, as time was pressing, scrambled off down the path in pursuit of my friends. Each time I looked up from the path and caught glimpses of the view I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
Back at the trailhead (another new word I had learned on this trip), the air was still tantalizingly alive and it crowned the day with beauty. We called friends, just to share the exquisiteness of the day with them, and wondered around taking photographs. Despite the magnificence it was more than a little eerie wandering amongst the Joshua trees at ground level. I saw them as stunted ostriches with mean, hooked beaks just waiting to peck me when I least expected it. Every time I knelt down to capture that perfect shot I could hear them shuffling up to get closer for that killer peck. I was pleased when we were all safely back in the car laughing and joking once more.
My final view of the park was a long tarmac road streaking away into the distance framed by jagged, snow capped peaks. I felt humbled by the view outside and by the people within the car. To travel well you have to be eternally hopeful. You have to hope that you will connect with people in a deep and meaningful way and that places you visit will make your soul soar. But, sadly, you also have to realize that such events are rare. On this day both events had occurred for me. I felt truly blessed as we headed north and sat quietly in the back seat feeling somewhat emotional.
The last entry I made in my diary that night was:
In years to come, when I am away from home, alone and feeling like life is a rather nasty cosmic joke, I shall take out these memories and polish them till they shine. Perhaps I will never feel this good on the road again; perhaps my friends and I will travel along different roads and perhaps I will one day hang up my boots for good. But I will always remember that for at least one day everything was all right in my world and how blessed I was to share it with such inspiring people.
About the Author
Philip Blazdell has been travelling for the last fifteen years and would like to stop now, thank you very much. His travels began when he followed a girl in nice purple pyjamas to Istanbul and got into all kinds of trouble with her parents. Despite marriage proposals in Las Vagas, arrests in Germany and lust in the dust in more than one third-world shit hole he has never looked back. Well, not that much really.
Philip currently divides his time between his home in Middle England, SFO International Airport and some grotty little town in the Netherlands that is best not spoken about in polite company. He constantly worries about using the word ‘awesome’ too much whilst in the USA and dreams of a day when he can go a whole day without resorting to Diet Coke. His greatest ambition is to raise his son to be a much better person than himself and to see Liverpool string a run of wins together. At least one of those, he believes, is possible. He can be contacted, when not bouncing around the world at 32,000 ft: nihon_news at yahoo dot com and his own personal homepage, www.philipblazdell.com, is updated daily.