Stranded In The Southland

Monday, February 21, 2005

Swimming in the Desert

Well, I thought I'd be swimming in the desert -- the night before heading out to a WTC weekend campout in Joshua Tree, I was awakened by thunder and lightning. Since LA has had something like five inches of rain in the last week, I drove out to the meeting place at 5AM with some considerable trepidation.

To my surprise and delight, I discovered that climbing a few thousand feet and getting into the rain shadow of some big ass mountains can do wonders for the weather (gee, maybe that's why its a desert, eh?). It rained on us on and off all day Saturday, but it never got truly miserable. My fancy breathable rain gear worked perfectly. The rain kept us from doing some rock climbing Saturday, and hurried our lunch Sunday (don't wanna get stuck on the top of a mountain with suddenly-wet rock, do ya?), but it really wasn't too bad.

Joshua Tree is simply amazing. It is full of giant granite boulders sticking up out of a plain of sandy pebbles. The mountains look like huge rockpiles. The vegetation is extremely sparse, so as long as you avoid the sharp cholla cacti and stickers, you can pretty much walk whereever you want on the plains, and then climb up onto these amazing rocks. Yow!

I really got into playing with map and compass in the desert -- it is the perfect place to learn navigation. When I played around with this stuff as a Boy Scout growing up in Florida, it never seemed too useful, since there wasn't much to take a bearing on besides trees and swamps. Out in the desert you can see all sorts of great landmarks, and they are actually useful in finding your way around. I had a great time solving "nav noodles" (finding spots on the map) and in our final treasure hunt.

The treasure hunt was a dash (well, saunter, as we're all pretty-much middle-aged) from a known starting place to a location identified only as the crossing of a couple of bearings to known peaks. I started out confidently, wandered for a bit, and then finally spotted the treasure. Alas, I was edged out in a final sprint by one of my fellow students. :-( Still, it was a blast, and second out of 15 isn't bad at all.

We headed back to camp, and I got ready to prepare my ramen-and-tuna one-pot meal. Hey, it's light, and it should be easy to cook, right? To my surprise and delight, the leaders had brought out the serious car-camping gear, and prepared us a feast! As our fearless leader remarked, "Hey, you guys can practice cooking in your back yards."

We settled in with beer, BBQ chicken, stuffed mushrooms, bean soup, and just tucked it away. After a day of wandering around the desert getting rained on, it tasted amazing. Heck, it was well-cooked -- it would tasted great on a table in a restaurant, but it was really amazing out there. Add in a comfortably-sized bonfire, and it was definitely a fine evening.

To my delight, I slept like a rock, and awoke early refreshed. We headed out for some climbing practice. I'd done a few sessions at a climbing gym a few years ago with my buddy, so I figured I'd be kicking butt. Alas, it turned out to be much tougher than I'd expected.

First of all, those rocks are rough on your hands -- granite is like coarse sandpaper! Then, my boots just couldn't seem to grip. This may be the similar to the way that my digital camera just doesn't seem to be able to compose pictures, which is to say, that it is probably my lack, rather than true equipment problems.

I had a tough time hanging off of tiny handholds, and managed to abrade my fingertips early and often. I didn't come back with quite as much blood as some of my compatriots, but my fingers still hurt today.

After all that bitching, I have to say that the climbing was wonderful. We headed up Rattlesnake Canyon up into the hills. It was amazing to see this stuff from a distance, and then scramble up boulders and around big rocks to get to the top. It's like a dream come true -- so many times I've looked at mountains like this in the distance and wondered what it'd be like to climb 'em, and this time I got a chance to do it!

Yow, so I'm ready to for more trips to Joshua Tree. Hopefully I can recruit some of my pals from the Bay Area, but it looks like it'd be fun to just go on my own, too.