Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Joshua Tree (June 3-6, 2021)

To tell you the story of our most recent trip to the desert, I have to rewind back to March 25. It was on that day that Christina and I found out that we'd be able to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and after looking at the calendar and doing a little math, we realized that we'd achieve near total immunity by mid-May, and could finally plan an activity that allowed us to get out of the cocoon of our home and into the world again. We made reservations for a trip that very day, perhaps to give us a tangible light at the end of the tunnel we'd been in along with the rest of the world. It had been over two years since our last vacation of any kind... the previous Joshua Tree trip in May 2019. Getting back to the desert and its spacious, natural beauty seemed like the perfect way to get a change of scenery and to start easing back into the public world as the pandemic restrictions began to lighten. Also, since she and I share a birthday in early June, the timing couldn't be better.

Thursday June 3
A little background: I had visited Joshua Tree and other locations in the Mojave Desert going back to when I was a kid growing up here in Southern California, but it was in 2010 that Christina and I first visited the area together, and I fell in love with the place. We'd taken a bunch of trips there since, going back at least once a year (or more) before the pandemic essentially locked the world down for most of the past 15 months.

When we started to book this adventure, we were slightly dismayed to discover that our friend Carrie Yeager had apparently sold the Desert Lily Inn and the accompanying rental cabins where we'd stayed at each of our previous trips... likely a casualty of the pandemic, though we're not sure about the details. Regardless, we felt weird booking a trip to the same spot with new owners, so we started exploring our options. I ended up finding a new cabin in the same local area via Vrbo. The rental property was called Joshua Tree Gardens, and the photos and reviews all looked stellar.

The couple of weeks leading into our vacation were completely hectic work-wise, and by the time Thursday June 3 rolled around, I was feeling completely frazzled. That, as it turns out, is the best time to drop everything and hit the road. After so many trips out there, we have a set pattern of things to do to prepare for a good desert visit, though I will say that after so long with barely leaving the house at all, at first it felt a bit surreal to be venturing out on the open road.

My typical trek across Southern California to the Mojave Desert, with one exception. The ramp to the 605N was closed, so we scurried up the 710 to the 60 instead. No biggie.

I say "open road", which is not at all a good description of our drive out. We hit a couple of serious traffic jams, and it took a good long while to reach our destination. However, being practically delirious with glee just by being away from home, and armed with a great playlist of music that I'd cultivated specifically for this trip, the entire ride out there was stress free.

The owners of the property we'd rented, a management company called Hi-Desert Dwellings, seemed to be super organized. The day before our departure, we received a little digital guidebook that told us everything we'd need to know about the cabin and much more. The place was exactly as described... off a series of dirt roads in a secluded area surrounded by rock outcroppings. It also had the really unique desert aspect of having a pond in the backyard, fed by a trickling waterfall.

The little pond in the backyard at the Joshua Tree Gardens cabin was a neat addition to our typical desert experience.

We arrived at about 4PM, unloaded the Jeep, and after resting for a short while and admiring the cabin, we did our usual run back down into Yucca Valley to get our food supplies for the trip. By the time we got back, the sun was starting to set, and we relaxed on the deck, watching the small fish swimming around and letting the stress dissipate.

It was the epitome of rest and relaxation at our newest home away from home in JTree.

After the sun began to dip below the horizon, we began to hear a sound. We're very familiar with the sounds of the desert, and... this wasn't one that we could identify. It started as a low whistle but then, as darkness descended, ramped up to high-decibel screams coming from multiple directions. We are not personally familiar with cicadas -- they aren't part of our typical West Coast ecosystem -- but it would seem that the insanely loud whistle/screeching we heard were indeed those nefarious bugs. The good news: once inside, with the doors and windows all double-paned and tightly sealed, they were barely audible, and we slept soundly after a long day of travel and adventure.

Friday June 4
We got up reasonably early as far as vacation days go. Something I should note: Joshua Tree, along with much of the rest of the country, was in the midst of a heat wave during our visit. While we've gone to the area several times in June, it was definitely the hottest overall trip we'd taken there. However, the AC in the cabin was very sufficient, to the point where it actually felt a bit cold inside compared to the blistering 100-degree heat outside. It was extremely comfortable there.

Not gonna lie; it was hot on this trip. Hot even for the desert this time of year. But honestly, it was never a real problem. We stayed inside the cool cabin during the worst of it, and it was quite bearable in the mornings and evenings.

We had no plans at all, other than a general vague list of things we do when we're in the area. Keep in mind that after 10+ trips over past decade, we've visited nearly every hiking and sightseeing area of Joshua Tree National Park. We've done the hikes. We've seen the sights. We were in no hurry to run into the Park, especially in that heat. Also, the cabin itself was comfortable and relaxing, and we both needed some time to seriously unwind.

Happy me in desert mode.

After cooking a delicious egg scramble for breakfast and enjoying the parade of nature from the cabin's backyard, we went into our respective extreme chill modes. Christina relaxed and read while I set up my minimal but effective music recording setup. I'd brought my Takamine P5DC and a rather new iPad which was running GarageBand so I could do multitrack recording and access virtual instruments, along with a new toy... a Zoom iQ6 stereo condenser mic that has a Lightning output and plugs right into my iPhone or iPad. It worked great for capturing my guitar at a much higher level of audio quality than the built-in mic, I should add. I got a couple of musical ideas, though nothing developed into a full-fledged song.

My little mobile recording rig. It's absolutely mind-blowing how easy it is with modern technology to have a little multitrack recording studio with instruments and effects that you can easily pick up and carry around with you.

This was all I needed to write and record some new musical ideas while on our vacation.

Like most of these kinds of Vrbo and Airbnb residences, this place was stocked with little activities for guests. We normally don't use many of them on our trips, but while we were kicking back late Friday afternoon, I noted that there was a Scrabble board in the living room area. I mentioned it to Christina, and... game on. She won handily, but I will say that I was getting some particularly shitty letters. At one point I had four U's. I'm just saying.

Our original plan for dinner that day was to trek up to Pioneertown and hit Pappy & Harriet's, which is inarguably the greatest dining and entertainment spot in the entire area (and possibly in the world). However, since they are still in the process of ramping up to their normal operations after a year of being basically closed due to COVID-19, they were not accepting reservations yet. It meant we'd have to head up there and wait however long it took for us to get in and get a table with very limited dining capacity. In 100 degree heat, that sounded really shitty. We changed our plans to go to the much more accessible (and still very good) Joshua Tree Saloon, and figured that Saturday night would be better for this. That having been decided, it was time to get cooking.

Christina took over the salad preparation, while I started on the pasta, sauce, and bread. Everything was going okay until I preheated the oven and put in the bread. About two minutes later, Christina asked if something was on fire, and two seconds after that, the shrieking fire alarm confirmed her suspicions. It turned out to be nothing... just some kind of schmutz that had been in the oven, which probably hadn't been used in some time.

Dinner came out alright despite my attempt at burning down the cabin.

After dinner came more relaxing times out on the back deck. Our cicadas were back, and as dusk gave way to night, we were joined by some other desert friends... namely, the bats who were diving around in search of the bugs and other foodstuffs they require. Neither of us are paranoid about things like bats; they're not there to bother us in any way, though I must admit that I have a reflexive tendency to duck when I see them swooping around in my general direction.

Lovely twilight time in the desert. Watch out for bats.

Saturday June 5
There are few better feelings than waking up in the middle of a vacation, knowing that there's basically nothing that you have to do, nowhere you have to be, and not even a semblance of a schedule to keep. We knew that we'd want to spend some time inside the Park after having spent Friday in full sloth mode, but we were in no hurry.

An accidental candid pic of myself, waking up and smoking on the back deck on Saturday morning.

We had indeed planned some meals, which is good when you don't want to be making multiple 20-mile roundtrip runs into town to get groceries. For Saturday morning, we decided one one of our favorite breakfasts, eggs Benedict. Most of you have heard me brag about being a reasonably good cook, but it's true; cooking is one of the few things in life that I'm truly good at, and for the most part, I enjoy it. Plus, let's be real... patching some legs, toasting some muffins, and whipping up a Hollandaise isn't exactly the height of gourmet technique. But the food was great and we lounged around for a short while before heading into JTNP.

Hello delicious breakfast.

I'm not sure what I can say about Joshua Tree National Park that hasn't been said many times by me, and by people who know it much better than me. I'll mention one thing: you don't need to be some super hardcore hiker or climber or other outdoors person to enjoy the Park a lot. Merely driving through, with its surreal landscape of plants and rock formations, is an incredible pleasure.

Despite how much we love our regular stops in JTNP, from Hemingway Buttress to Hidden Valley to Barker Dam to Hall of Horrors to Cholla Catcus Gardens and many more, we weren't about to commit to any major hikes when it was over 100 degrees. We took a nice cruise through the park, stopping for awhile at Quail Springs and romping around the rocks, and then going up the way to Cap Rock where we did actually walk the short nature trail despite the heat. Then we made a trip up to Keyes View, the most elevated point of JTNP with a height of about one mile and a wide vista of Coachella and other low desert areas. After that, we meandered back to our cabin home, listening to the playlist that I'd put together for this specific purpose.

Me, among the Joshua trees.

At Keyes View, where on a clear day you can look down at the Salton Sea and sometimes see all the way to Mexico.

Enjoying the desert with Christina.

Even just a few hours in the Park leaves you with a feeling of exhilaration, a natural high that makes you feel more at one with the planet and life all around you. No matter how many times I go back, I am always blown away, and leave feeling happy and wanting to get back again ASAP.

After getting back to the cabin, we came to a realization: Joshua Tree Saloon was reopening for live music for the first time on that very night, and was going to be absolutely packed. That didn't sound super fun to us, especially considering that our visit there would be the very first time we'd been in a restaurant of any kind since the pandemic began. So, instead of making lunch, we got back in the Jeep and drove the short distance down the hill and hit up the Saloon in mid-day instead.

We weren't sure what to expect, but it was great. Seating was outdoors in back. Menus were accessible via a QR code on the tables. Christina nabbed a spot in the shade, near a large fan that kept things reasonably comfortable despite the heat. We each got rib eye steaks and a cold Stella Artois, and it felt about perfect enjoying our meal in this casual environment.

Cheers! Out for a late lunch on Saturday at Joshua Tree Saloon. It was our first restaurant meal after more than a year of pandemic, and it was just perfect.

Oh hell yes.

We scurried back to the cabin after eating; it was a rather toasty 101 degrees, and we spent the rest of the day enjoying our comfortably cool home in the desert. I should mention that the air conditioning at the cabin is so functional that we had to turn it off at night, lest we felt like being genuinely cold (an odd sensation in the desert in June).

Sunday June 6
As I've mentioned many times in various writings, Christina and I have the same birthday (the same date, one year apart). When we first became acquainted around 2003 or so, it was one of the first things that drew us together. We awoke on Sunday morning and wished each other happy birthday. I was definitely happy; just being out of town and away from my view of the same interior of my home that I'd started at since February 2020 was enough to keep me in a near-permanent good mood the entire trip.

It was Christina's turn to make breakfast -- just some simple bagels sounded great after the rich meals we'd been consuming -- but while she did, something happened. I came out of the back of the house after getting showered and dressed, and she had a look of utter depression on her face. She could only point toward the back, and when I looked, I saw a small pile of yellow feathers in the shape of what seemed to be a very dead little bird, legs sticking up in the air. She'd heard a loud thump when it had flown into the sliding glass door, and it just seemed tremendously sad to have our trip end on a note like that.

I could barely eat. Look, I know it seems like such a small thing. Shit happens. Birds die. But the fact is, both of us are sensitive people, and that type of empathy comes with a price. For some reason, I decided to take another look at the bird's pitiful corpse, and... it was standing up, looking around a bit dazed, but very much alive. A couple of minutes later, it flew off, seemingly fine, and this made us both very happy.

Like any place of hospitality, our cabin had a check-in time and a check-out time. Especially being our first visit there, we wanted to be sure that we didn't overstay our welcome. After packing our stuff, we thoroughly cleaned up, making sure to leave the place in the same immaculate condition it was in when we arrived, and precisely at 11am were rolling down the gravel driveway and the dirt roads of the vicinity. Made a quick stop for gas, and then pointed the Jeep to the west and rolled toward home.  

Just about ready to go... time to close the case and hit the road back to reality.

There's a rule in the desert and other places of natural beauty: take nothing but pictures, and leave nothing but footprints. We are always careful to abide by that plan. It's always a little sad leaving Joshua Tree, but it also means we can start planning our next trip back... a conversation we've already begun.

The drive back was mostly uneventful. We did run into some more unexpected traffic; I think with society opening up again and people anxious to get out of town, there was just a good amount of people on the road that weekend... and more than a few who just sort of forgot how to drive after being at home for more than a year.

Last note: after about an hour on the road, we realized we were pretty hungry, and I had to pee, so we stopped at a commercial area in Moreno Valley and hit up a Taco Bell. As our second post-pandemic dining experience, it wasn't nearly as cool or memorable as the Joshua Tree Saloon, but I'll be damned if it wasn't the most spotlessly clean Taco Bell I've ever visited in my life. Maybe there's an upside to all of this craziness after all.

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