Finishing up work early gave me the excuse to go hiking in Joshua Tree National Park on a December afternoon, one more admittance on my annual pass. I threw together a knapsack with insulated vest, 2 QT water, and camera—forgetting food whatsoever—and raced off.
I wanted to go in through the obscure entrance at Black Rock Campground (4000 ft elevation). In a straight line from my house it’s about eight or nine miles to the northeast, but the 2500-ft elevation difference finds you driving up there on Twentynine Palms Highway, squeezing through a gap and arriving in Morongo Valley, which has a lower and step-up tier, and then up again, climbing hard, to Yucca Valley.
This part of the park is different from what most making West Entrance arriviée comprehend with the tomfool heaps of fractured granite and the Joshua trees going berserk for the moon and the slaphappy desert feel.
Looking at the map given to me by a curt ranger in the campground station, whatever her problem was, I decided to do the 6.6-mile Panorama Loop hike. The trail led into Black Rock Canyon through a sandy wash that kept rising. It wasn’t easy going; in fact it was maddening. The chaparral gave way to a unique forest combining pines, oaks, a few impressive juniper shrubs, and plenty of Joshuas, which here are at the southwesternmost part of their range. Where else do you get that mix?
As splendid as it was, I really could have used a fat, crumbly cookie.
Finally, heart-rate maxed, I made the ridge at about 5,100 feet. And I was disappointed. There had been some fine, yes, panoramic views to the west and south. I could see Mt. San Gorgonio, in the San Bernardino range; Mt. San Jacinto, which shelters Palm Springs; and all the way to Mt. Baldy, about 80 miles off in the San Gabriel mountains. Out my left eye, the northwest corner of the Salton Sea was visible in the bottom of the Coachella Valley.
Frankly, were the Panorama name living up to itself, I had expected a view eastward to the park’s interior, into Hidden Valley, for example. I was fooled. But the wonder of not having to climb in sand trumped all. From here on, after tracing a short distance along the ridge on a narrow and firm trail, it was all downhill. The first part was triple-diamond switchbacks with one drop-off on the right a real knuckle-buster. It was a surprise there were no memorial crosses for drib-drabs from Miami Beach who went over. Maybe memorial crosses were in short supply in Miami Beach.
Now I’d joined up with Paul and Kirsten, who overtook me on the last of that tedious climb. Getting through the switchbacks without casualty, we ambled downhill together on the underside of the loop. Whenever I meet Germans, I tell them about going to Ahrensburg, just northeast of Hamburg, to Schloss Ahrensburg, the castle, and demanding my 10 percent. So far, the line has snagged them every time.
What else did we find ourselves talking about? The similarities between German and English words. Rinde in German means bark, while rind in English means the peel of an orange or potato. I know there are pork rinds, too, but I don’t think anyone peeled a pig to get them. Not while it was a sentient being, anyway. Once you get a pig into a parallel universe and the pig thinks itself a cape buffalo, you can help y’self to all the rinds and fritters you want.
We also talked about the French words adopted into English and how that happened. (French people had something to do with it.) And how French is fancy in German as well as English. They heard about Frenched headlamps on cars and how being Frenchified meant being made fancy.
They heard about Joshua trees being the largest member of the yucca family, but when Paul asked why they’re called what they are, I couldn’t remember the Bible story. I changed the subject and said how surprised I was to find oaks up here. And in a completely different train of thought, I recommended they take an architectural tour of Palm Springs. I got the impression they weren’t into architecture.
We said good-bye where the loop rejoined the main canyon trail. I strolled the last 1.5 miles alone. The sun set at 4.44 p.m., so I walked the distance in gathering twilight, overjoyed at going downhill in the sand, feel its support and braking action.
There was silence. The wilderness had cleared my mind. It was impossible to dread. Instead, I could feel right cold. The temperature, which had been 72° F, dropped fast. I put on the vest and relished my smartness in bringing it.
Finally, voices floated over from the campground. Maybe an exchange of dinner recipes? Eschewing the seat heater after reaching the car, I took off for home. Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas in the Aire was cranked louder than usual, and I dug it.
When I got in I peeled off my sandy boots and socks and then had a snack. After dinner, it would be a hot soak for me.