Blame it on growing up in New Jersey, but I don’t roll down my window when someone wielding 32 ounces of soft drink angrily gestures for me to do so. School hallways littered in the post-fight aftermath of earrings and clumps of hair (both real and fake) imbues one with an illustrative education in fighting dirty. Once satisfied that neither a suckerpunch nor cola bath awaited me outside, I stepped out and indulged the woman, allowing her to spin her tale of how I had backed into her friend’s car.
Given the bells and whistles that modern cars are now standardly outfitted with, hitting another vehicle requires some combination of intent, impairment, or idiocy. The Jeep’s rear camera would uphold my innocence. I had halted my exit of the parking space when she had jumped from the car behind and planted herself in the gap between the two vehicles. Logic tempted me to point to her non-mangled legs as evidence of the void which had not been cleared. Instead, I listened, thinking of the oil pen in my bag which had become illegal the moment we crossed the Colorado state line.
Women are brought up to apologize for things that aren’t their fault. Not wanting to deal with police intervention and the possibility of a possession charge seemed as good a reason to be deferential as any. I expressed my sympathies, seething beneath my placidity (marijuana’s calming capabilities are unexpectedly bountiful). My inquiry as to how she wanted to proceed was met with bewilderment. Finally, she murmured, “I just wanted to let you know.”
Vegas’s Chinatown encompasses a number of Asian cultures, with Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Japanese restaurants interspersed throughout. Quelling the irritation the moronic altercation had fostered in me seemed like too much for even the healing powers of ramen, but as I am happiest when eating, I was willing to give it a try. Monta Noodle House is located in a small, unassuming strip mall storefront. Humble accommodations of this sort almost guarantee a mediocre experience in American restaurants, yet are rarely a barometer of the quality of the cooking in their Asian counterparts. Monta’s spicy tonkotsu was worthy of our rapt attention, and we were happy to oblige.
We secured our new and final rental for the trip, enjoying small talk and a good dose of professional advice from our Uber driver on the way to the rental agency. After a lightning-fast loadout at the hotel, we were ready to head off, but not before allegedly giving the car behind us a love tap. What looked to be a nightmare of an altercation was immediately dispelled as Y got out of the car and charmed the concerned criers of wolf into submission. Adrenaline still slithering through our veins, we set off for lunch at a hole in the wall ramen place, and left fully satiated and happy, several cans worth of green tea closer to zen.
The tight room was abuzz. Two attentive Japanese servers flitted between tables and the line of patrons waiting to be sat. We watched from the counter as the two cooks joked in Spanish while tirelesly churning out dishes. Between slurps we noticed a man at the bar wearing the signature red hat of the latest right-wing mouthpiece. As I watched him order a foreign dish from an immigrant and accept food made by two others I wondered if he even understood that these were the people his America meant to exclude.
The Renegade’s low bucket seats felt almost cartoonish after a month of climbing up into the Suburban, but as we turned onto the dusty roadway of the Mojave National Preserve I was thankful for its off-roading potential. Vegas had reacquainted us with civilization, and we hadn’t realized the immediacy with which we would encounter desert once we left. Joshua trees littered the landscape, the endless sea of twisted limbs a staggering display against jagged mountains.
We were quickly out of Las Vegas and well on our way into the Mojave Desert, California, our 14th and final state and final leg of our trek across the United States. Maybe we were still jangled from our nigh-Jerry Springer moment outside the hotel, maybe we were overly zen after lunch, or maybe we were just used to having a 30-gallon tank, but we went into the Mojave desert on 1/4 of a 13-gallon tank. Never assume things in the desert.
The drive was the tensest eternity of the trip. We made it to Baker to fill up, but only just barely. Aside from courting outright disaster, the drive was full of surreal beauty. A haze set in over the bowl of the desert as a slight wind picked up, whipping down off the mountains and through the rock formations, Joshua trees and scrub. The meditation on beauty devolved into an increasingly gargantuan oh-shit moment with every ‘town’ we drove through. Regardless, we lucked out on how we learned our lesson and made it out, the car rightfully earning the name Camel.
A glance toward the fuel gauge interrupted my enchantment. After our scare in West Texas, we had agreed to stay above 1/4 tank, and I alerted J that I’d be stopping at the next gas station to be safe. Cell reception was nonexistent in this remote stretch, but GPS alerted us to a number of nearing towns. We reverted back to taking in the breathtaking scene surrounding us. A closed general store situated at a crossroads made up the entirety of the town of Cima. Elora was a modest industrial plant of some sort. With the needle moving rapidly lower we came upon the railroad crossing that was the town of Hayden. Our humor was evaporating in time with our gas fumes.
Kelso’s few small buildings and visitor’s center looked promising. With the car’s gas light now flashing, we spotted a ranger. She informed us of the nearest station, 30 miles in the wrong direction. We turned North and the needle fell to E.
Thirty miles is a long walk when it doesn’t involve the Mojave Desert, and AAA doesn’t recognize smoke signals. I hoped the inertia of moving at 85mph would give us an extra mile or two when we eliminated our reserves. I resisted braking, instead of releasing the gas early to decelerate on turns. After 22 minutes of hushed distress we caught sight of a gas station, but we weren’t exactly on speaking terms when we got there.
The detour forced us to trade our scenic route for the highway in order to make camp before dark. We drove West into a rogue sandstorm blown South from Death Valley. Cars crawled forward along the highway, pelted by wind and funneling dust. Hollowed houses bordered the artery, their swaying walls amplifying the phenomenon’s eerieness.
Our luck continued when we were able to snag a canceled campsite for the weekend at the Blackrock Campground in Joshua Tree National Park. A trip to town for supplies, dinner and beers had us looking solid for the last camping of the trip. While the campground, at around 100 separate sites, is definitely the most crowded we’ve had, it proved no less relaxing and beautiful. In the morning, after some killer breakfast burritos, we made sure to book Sunday, filling out our schedule and giving us plenty of time to enjoy the park.
We first stopped at the two Northern visitors centers. We took in the history and background at the main center, then were wrapped up in a truly tragic love story between two natives- Carlotta and Willy and the Ghost Dance, told as part of a short walk around the Twenty-nine Palms Oasis. The oasis teemed with alien birdsong, and we marveled at the titanic palm trees.
Coyotes, the animal kingdom’s frat boys, roused us as day was breaking. The desert is known to be an unforgiving place, and the Visitor’s Center proved its reputation well founded. After acquiring some unsettling knowledge bombs about the voracious appetites of ravens and the bowel movements of the kangaroo mouse, we were ready for a stroll around the Oasis of Mara. Here the threat was all human and plaques lining the trail exposed an unsettling account of racism, false accusations, and murder bestowed upon the region’s Native Americans.
Afterwards, we drove into the park to see the Cholla Garden. I’ve never seen a more alien, violent and prodigious cactus. We witnessed no less than two idiots run afoul of them, wandering off trail, one even wearing open-toed shoes. The expanse of the Cholla was mesmerizing, and surprising given its role as second fiddle, or worse yet, viola, to the flora in the rest of the park. We stopped for an obligatory photo at the aptly-named Skull Rock. The structure of this place is like a willful child, slowly dismantling towers we’ve never seen. The results of nature’s ceaseless endeavors are spell-binding.
Joshua Tree is known almost as much for the immense piles of stones prominently scattered throughout the park as for its namesake vegetation. The rock formations attract climbers from all over, and we pulled off to stand in awe of a group slacklining across Hemingway Point. In truth, these mounds are single slabs of quartz. Over millennia, nature has weathered their buckles and cracks into rounded edges, creating the illusion of stacked, smaller rocks. These hills rise from the yucca fields setting a surreal and rugged scene.
Signs caution visitors not to deviate from the path as they enter the cholla cactus garden. Their hooked barbs are notoriously painful and difficult to remove. A quote by J. Smeaton Chase accompanies the warnings, stating:
“If the plant bears any helpful or even innocent part in the scheme of things on this planet, I should be glad to hear of it.”
The striking cacti are an integral part of the desert ecosystem, and grow taller and more densely here than anywhere else.
The trail’s mild congestion didn’t prevent me from getting absorbed in their harsh beauty, though it did seem to empower some to stray from the prescribed path. A woman howled nearby, and we came upon her leaning on her companion, her sandaled ankle covered in quills. Shrieks rang out from another part of the garden. We encountered a group frantically trying to remove an entire section of cactus that had somehow become impaled in the wailer’s arm. I realized the cholla’s value was in protecting the desert against the more inconsiderate of our species, and to do so in a highly entertaining manner.
Further on our route, we drove by a family disembarking from their truck, the father brandishing an ax. We pulled back around, parked and tried to fear them into stopping their march over the hill. The father seemed unimpressed by my rage, inviting me to “do something” when I hollered across the desert that we had his license plate number. I may be principled, but there’s nothing that comes to mind that would compel me to charge a family of three a quarter of a mile into the desert while the head of the family is wielding an ax.
Square in the middle of the park, there was nary a whisper of cell reception. We took as much information down as we could and set off looking for a Ranger on our way out of the park. We stopped at a vista, hoping to catch a Ranger, instead catching nothing but the spread of Coachella Valley. Just shy of 5 o’clock and closing time at the Main Visitor Center, we were able to tell Ranger Brett about the culprit. He was quickly on point, and you could tell he was keeping the same anger I felt just below the cool composure of the khaki. With any luck, the law enforcement officials Ranger Brett radioed caught that piece of human garbage. The roads in and out of the park being incredibly finite and well away from where we spotted him, the odds are good the police blotter had some good news.
We grabbed some Bohemians in town and returned to our campsite. We toasted our new-found careers as crime-fighters and I Frankensteined a cocktail together to enjoy by the firelight while dinner sizzled away. Laughter beneath the stars ensued, and as the night air cooled, we happily retired to our little blue tent.
A neighboring campsite’s disgruntled baby joined the morning symphony of coyotes, though its audible displeasure at being awake was rapidly courting competition. We started breakfast but were distracted by rustling in a nearby yucca. A preening squirrel stopped his ritual, watching us watch him with unsettlingly discernible annoyance. He climbed atop the yucca, less concerned with evading a raven’s beak than our indecent prying. We had paid our cantankerous moods forward, thus completing the circle of life.
The Barker Dam trail led us through a sandy crevice in the rock into a valley with a pristine lake. We hopped from boulder to boulder along the shoreline until reaching the dam. A cattle trough from the plot’s days as a ranch was still visible through marshland teeming with reeds. From there, the trail led back into the desert, but we were amazed by how far-reaching the effects of the water were. Diverse plants and shrubs stretched out on either side in lush green patches. Butterflies danced between flowering bushes. Our survey was disrupted by the singing of a sweat-drenched young man cutting perpendicularly across the path ahead. Dressed only in jeans, he veered off, glistening across the desert in search of an Incubus concert.
The next day we drove back into the park to see the Barker Dam, a relic of the region’s cattle-ranching past. We enjoyed a leisurely hike through the desert, the serenity interrupted only by a fucking dreadful group of self-involved young professionals networking in the middle of the desert and a singing, shirtless, long-haired man who emerged from we know not where. Y immediately called him Peyote Vision Quest Man, and we marveled at his perpendicular crossing of the trail, heading off towards a massive hillock of boulders. We eventually lost sight of him but took heart in the knowledge that when last seen, his 90s alt-rock looking self was headed in the general direction of the road. We left the park and grabbed burgers and giant, sweaty 22oz beers at a local spot bedecked in mining artifacts and other ephemera, just across from the main entrance.
Quirky flourishes abound in the city of Joshua Tree, a testament to its thriving art scene. Houses are uniquely shaped and designed using nontraditional materials. Metalwork sculptures grace the yards. Landscaping and water features skew towards the eccentric. Chainmail and gemstones beckoned us into a gallery featuring an unanticipated take on the taxidermy trend. A gilded rabbit cuckoo clock was particularly fetching, and would have made a nice addition to a home, were we in possession of one. The whimsically disturbing paintings of another artist adorned a back room. His work was skilled, but his decision to go by Michael (spelled Mykl) somehow made him more ridiculous than the artist bedazzling animal heads.
Full and happy, we checked out a gallery, one of the dozens in the region. This particular gallery was featuring was I can only term as Glam Taxidermy. Swakorski crystal, high-gloss enamel, metallic paint, pearls, beads, glitter- it was if someone had hunted down part of Ziggy Stardust’s private menagerie and bolted their heads to equally extra backplates.
The neighboring site’s miserable baby had been replaced by a miserable couple by the time we returned. I attempted to write, but their conversation grew heated, and with J distracted by a phone call with his parents, I decided to crack a beer and embrace the show. She confronted his cheating, which he vehemently denied. Belongings were thrown from the car to the picnic table. I became aware that should she leave him, he would have no reception to call a car, making for an interesting conversation with the ranger. Their inaction grew boring and we set to building our final fire.
Our cultural yen satisfied, we headed back to drink some beers and enjoy the peace of an emptied campground on a Sunday evening. The peace was interrupted by the evening’s entertainment of a couple having a noisy breakup and makeup across the way. Popcorn-worthy, but ultimately unfulfilling, despite wandering off twice after nearly driving out of the park without him, she did not become The One That Got Away. The setting sun and mystical power of the Joshua Trees were much more captivating. We let the fire blaze, watching the shadows play off the massive cluster of yucca next to our tent, its twists and spirals rendering it a whirling dervish moving imperceptibly slow.