I’ve never been camping. Well, before this weekend that is. When Elizabeth started talking about doing a weekend trip a few months ago, I put it down on my calendar and didn’t think too much about it. For an indoors, city person like me, there’s a certain trepidation attached to going more than one day without showering, sleeping outdoors, hiking in the desert, etc. It’s not that I’m not up for adventures, I just feel more comfortable having them in the urban jungle than in the mountains or desert.
Before I knew it, the trip had crept up on me and Elizabeth began solidifying our weekend plans. We settled on the weekend of the Lyrid meteor shower, a prime date with plenty of shooting stars and an unobtrusive new moon. This was particularly important because several years ago, we made an ill-fated attempt to watch a meteor shower in Joshua Tree, only to be thwarted by a luminous full moon.
We were scheduled to leave on Friday, so of course I unwisely put off packing until late Thursday night and woke up Friday grumpy and sleep-deprived. After work, I had just enough time to run around collecting the last few things I needed for the trip. Thankfully, Elizabeth had given me an extensive packing list knowing I had no camping experience.
Angela (Elizabeth’s housemate) and I got picked up at their place, piling into the car with Mike, Justin and Andrew, all of whom we had never met before. We stopped for dinner along the way and were greeted by Elizabeth and Laura — who had left early to get a campsite — at Joshua Tree by around 9:30. It was already getting cold, so we unloaded our things and climbed the nearby rocks or gathered around the already-kindled fire pit before calling it an early night.
Saturday morning we woke up at six to get ready and head out for Boy Scout Trail before it became unbearably hot. The day before, Elizabeth and Laura had befriended a kindly and knowledgeable park ranger who gave them some recommendations on trails to take. We decided to do a short seven mile hike to Willow Hole.
After a 20 minute drive, we found the Boy Scout Trail head and began the mild walk along the flat desert trail, passing isolated shrubs of blood orange blooming cactus, lonesome bulbous-armed Joshua trees, sprinting jack rabbits, beaver tail cactus and spiky fanned Mojave yucca.
Mount San Gorgonio beckoned to us (well, to Elizabeth and Angela, at least) in the distance, resting ironically snow-capped above the desert scenery. The morning haze gradually warmed to a deep, vast cerulean and spread from the horizon into the infinite sky.
I was thankful that Elizabeth had recommended carrying several bottles of water. Despite leaving early, I could feel my skin tingling from the UV rays. We reached a fork in the trail and followed the signs to Willow Hole. an unfrequented sandy canyon bounded on either side by a looming wall of rocks.
Stopping every so often to remove the pebbles wedged between my skin and socks, I followed the others reluctantly, relinquishing bits of shade and a brief breeze passing through the canyon until we reached the end of the trail. We scrambled excitedly up the piles of rocks to rest at a shaded vantage point overlooking the bowl of the canyon.
The park literature explains how the softer mountain soil has eroded over the years by the strong desert wind, leaving hard granite rock formations in its wake. I commented to Angela that it looked like God had just dropped them randomly, balancing and sculpting them in a playful game of celestial Jenga. The rocks in Joshua Tree are so unusual and strangely beautiful, surreal and alien.
I could have lingered much longer, enjoying the unexpected outlines of the rock landscape, but we needed to get back to camp before the sun came out in full force. We also had pancakes and bacon waiting for us, prepared lovingly by Andrew over the fire pit on his well-seasoned griddle.
The rest of the afternoon, we spent huddling in and chasing the constantly shifting shade of our EZ-Up canopy. Since most of us were complete strangers to each other, we spent our time chatting and laughing and getting to know each other. I also took a much needed respite to listen to music and read my book (coincidentally and appropriately set in the desert). A couple more friends came to join us in the evening and we took a short walk before dinner, exploring more rock formations and some unusual manmade ones.
Dusk began to settle over the desert, and we shared juicy, sweet, cold watermelon slices as Elizabeth labored over the griddle sizzling with onions and green peppers. These we heaped over bacon-wrapped hot dogs, chicken sausages and spicy Italian sausage, along with a cool cucumber-tomato salad and sea salt kettle-cooked chips.
After dinner, sleepiness spread over us and we sat lazily around the fire until late in the evening. Only after much convincing and rallying were we able to rouse ourselves out of food coma and pile ourselves back into the cars to catch a glimpse of the meteor shower at its peak hour. We chose a spot about half an hour from our camp, far away — we hoped — from people and light pollution.
Blankets strewn across the desert sand, we laid on our backs and gazed into the domed sky. Each shooting star produced oohs and ahhs and an occasional groan from the one or two people who missed spotting it. Occasionally we would fall into a comfortable silence, content to listen to the emptiness of the desert night and stare at the twinkling constellations overhead.
That’s something you miss in the city — the constant reminder of the universe’s vast stretches (and the One who created it) and our undeniable smallness. I closed my eyes as a tepid breeze swept over me. I was exhausted, sweaty, unwashed, but I felt refreshed.