(If you haven’t checked out part 1 yet, you can check it out here)
I woke up in my small motel room to the sound of rain pushing against the window. Slightly hungover I dragged myself out of bed and peered outside. Rain slung sideways as the fog covered the California landscape. My rental car in the parking lot was barely visible.
This is supposed to be my camp day. The whole reason I came to Cali in the first place.
I rubbed the temples of my dehydrated head for a minute and mumbled, “damn you, Camarillo, you really put it on me last night.” I chugged a bottle a water and loaded my bags into the car. I was off to Joshua Tree to do some camping and photography, hopefully.
I hit the wet highway with a coffee in hand to fuel my 4-hour drive into the California desert. It took forever. I drove the whole way under the speed limit due to the horrific weather and traffic. The damn rain and fog didn’t let up the whole drive. The temperature now lingered in the 40’s.
I finally arrived in the small desert town of Joshua Tree which didn’t offer much at all.
A few shops, a restaurant and a library. There was a bar directly outside the park which I was grateful for. I pulled into the Welcome Center across the street from the bar and went inside. I asked the young man working the counter what I had to do to camp.
He said, “you’re camping in this weather?”
Umm, yeah man, unfortunately. He then slyly told me how rare this current weather was, “shit, it hasn’t rained like this in Joshua Tree for years.”
Of course it hasn’t.
He finally tells me that inside the park there are a few campgrounds. It works on an honor system. Pick your site, pay the box, put a tag in front of your site. He gave me a map and circled the designated campgrounds.
Cool, I said, easy as that.
I left and headed into the park. Even though the fog hung low and the weather was as shitty as it was, my first view of Joshua Tree was utterly breathtaking. It resembled the landscape of a different planet with the orange rock formations thrown all over the desert sand. Joshua Tree had a beauty I’ve never seen before which is why I pulled the car over every few minutes or so just to peer out over the landscape in complete awe.
I drove down the lonesome road that carved through the rock and desert and arrived at the first campsite called Hidden Valley Campground. It’s one of the park’s more popular places to camp. It was booked up.
At least I wasn’t the only buffoon tent camping in this shit.
So I drove further in and found the place where I would throw a tent up.
Jumbo Rocks Campground.
It was a beautiful, cozy place.
I scoped out a site toward the back of the campgrounds where I found huge boulders that would block the wind. There was a small fire pit and a picnic table. I got out of my car with the rain attacking my face. I grabbed the tent out of my bag and headed over to a pretty good size rock. I decided I was going to wedge my tent as close as I could to it, hoping that it would protect me from the elements. I laid out my tent and attempted to drive the stakes in the ground. The saturated dirt wasn’t having it. My stakes spit right back up. I finally was able to hold the stakes in by using rocks to weigh them down.
Hell yeah, I thought. Screw you El Nino.
After struggling for awhile with the wetness and the ornery winds, I got the tent up and threw my sleeping bag inside.
I was so looking forward to sitting by the fire, reading a little Bukowski and drinking a beer. I came to California to camp. I wanted to see the stars. But it wasn’t happening. The fog was still lingering just above the ground, the rain continued and the wind picked up dropping the temp into the 30’s. I was cold and miserable.
That’s when I remembered the bar outside the park.
I changed into dry clothes in my car and headed 20 miles out of the park to get a good meal and a strong drink.
The bar was called Joshua Tree Saloon. I walked in the old-school looking joint and pulled up a seat at the bar. Double Crown and sprite, please. “You got it, hun,” says the pretty little bartender who was tatted up and wore her hat cocked to the side.
The band was setting up on stage and I sat sipping my Whiskey admiring the old saloon. It had a big picture of Bob Dylan behind the stage, which made me fall more in love with the place. I ordered a burger, tasty as hell, when a guy pulled up a seat beside me.
He told his name was kevin. He was a taller guy, free-spirited lookin’ fellow, skinny with glasses. Tells me “I live in the park, man. Right there in Joshua Tree.”
What? I said. How do get away with that?
“Hell, the rangers don’t care too much as long as you move around the park a little, you know, shuffle up the campsites every couple of weeks. Shiiit, I’ve been livin’ in this place in a small camper for years now.”
“I’m the freest son-of-a-bitch you’ll ever meet, and I don’t stink. Smell me.”
I’m good man, I believe you.
He goes on, “I was in the Navy for many years, got out and now I’m livin’ on my disability check. Hell, you don’t need much when you have the beauty of Joshua Tree to wake up to every morning. I cook my food by campfire, drink beer, climb rocks and shower right outside the park. Shit man, I’m free. No bills, no obligations, no nothing. Just me, living in nature doing what the hell I wanna do.”
This guy interested the hell out me. I grab another drink and listen to more of his philosophical musings.
“I just got divorced too. She didn’t dig my lifestyle too much, even though I tried to warn her. Man, she was a fine little thing. Literature teacher, she loved to read. And she’s a yoga instructor. Fine as hell, with an ass you wouldn’t believe.”
He gave me a little fist pound with that revelation.
Then he reaches over and shows me a picture of her on his phone. I was pretty impressed.
“I think the bitch is seeing another dude. She’s a wild one.”
I told him I was sorry to hear that.
He looks over his glasses right at me and says, “bat-shit crazy, man. She’s insane.” He takes a pull from his beer and mutters, “the smart ones usually are.”
I laugh a bit to myself because I knew he was right.
After a few minutes of silence, out of nowhere he leans over and says “I’m the dirtbag of Joshua Tree, I’m a local celebrity.” A little confused I say, Ok…cool.
“Naw man, check it out” reaching his phone over he says “read it man, they wrote an article about me. The dirtbag of Joshua Tree is a nickname they give folks like me who live in the park and climb rocks. Shiiiiit, that’s all I do man, climb rocks and live.”
Yup, he wasn’t bullshittin’. There he was right there in the article.
Two blonds pull up a stool right next to us. He dips his glasses down and gives them a pretty intense look, looks back at me and says “DAMN, I gonna pull me one them fine things right there.” I told him to go for it.
He leans over to the gals and says “Hey ladies, my name is Kevin and I’m the dirtbag of Joshua Tree. That’s my nickname, I’m not really a dirtbag, though. I promise. That’s just what they call skilled rock climbers like myself.” They gave him a “whatever” look and turned away.
“I think they want me,” he tells me.
I told him I agree.
I took the last pull of my beer and left Kevin with the indifferent ladies. I was tired so I headed back into the park and finally got to my campsite.
Where the hell is my tent?
The wind was crazy now, the rain drizzled and the night was very dark.
I flip on my flashlight and start searching around. I find the damn tent about 200ft away from where I put it up. It was upside down, drenched inside. Damn man.
After yelling out to the sky, cursing El Nino and punching the air a few times, I take out my knife and cut my sleeping bag out and went back to the car. Freezing and wet I laid in the back seat with a wet sleeping bag and a bottle of whiskey I pulled from my backpack.
It was going to be a long night.
I only slept about 30 minutes at a time that night. It got to be so cold I couldn’t take it. I had to start the car every hour or so to heat up the inside. Around 3am, the sky opened up and the stars bled into my vision. The sky was utterly amazing, the brightest I’ve ever seen it.
Lying in the backseat of a small car, half-drunk, freezing my ass off, with my head propped on the door as a pillow, that right there was the most magical part of the trip. The sky reminded me why I had come to the desert, alone.
The morning arrived with the sun shooting it’s rays right through the desert, bouncing it’s illumination off the colorful rocks into eternity. I shoot up out of the car and look up at the sun with my arms spread, “God, I missed you.”
I grab my camera and hiking shoes and was off. I only had a few hours that morning to do a little hiking and photography before El Nino sent his ugly storms my way again. Instead of sleeping in the cold desert another night without a tent, I decided “eff” it, it was time hit the road.
Los Angeles, here I come.