Chapter 2: A Hundred Degrees in Joshua Tree, Part One


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Just loverly.

Welcome to Joshua Tree National Park!

Thoughts weave in through half-shut eyes
in stunning and bright alacrity
to fascinate and complicate
your vision of reality.

Thoughts will dance beyond control
and darken halcyon skies-
their voice is deep, but still Truth keeps
behind your mind’s third eye.

Dive into the inner storm,
your mind’s mad, shifting ballroom;
seek the answer in each dark dancer;
through awareness, your darkness exhumed!

-Thoughtwaltz, by Adam

It didn’t take long for my journey to be vindicated by the hand of Fate- an integral encounter was already manifesting just four and a half hours down my timeline, eagerly awaiting my arrival. It would define a major aspect of the rest of my journey.

Of course, I had to get to J-Tree first.

I cruised down the highway towards Joshua Tree National Park, chain-smoking American Spirits, reviewing my minimal plans while the smooth sounds of Bonobo’s Black Sands album crooned from my car’s single functional speaker. I would stay at Joshua Tree for a couple nights before heading to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, where I’d snagged a reservation at Mather Campground for three nights starting Sunday. Then, I figured I’d head north. No more reservations after that. A worming vine of anxiety twisted around my heart.

What then? I thought.

Then, Adam, you fall into the unknown. My pulse quickened as I imagined a yawning abyss opening up before me.

No, I told myself, I’m jumping into the unknown.

This is what I need to do. I need to figure out who I am, dammit. Being in nature is the only place where the Universe makes any sense to me. Self-reliance and solitude in nature is my last chance. My only chance. If this doesn’t work… if I can’t figure it out…

Rising suddenly from a hidden corner of my heart, an army of dark, familiar shadows painted a vast desert wasteland onto my mind’s eye, a single black door standing alone amid the dust and tumbleweeds, an obsidian fleur-de-lis centered atop the frame. For a moment, I found myself lost, gazing at the dark, dark door in the wastes of my heart. It was pure void, a sealed portal that seemed to devour the light around it. It was horrible, yet somehow… compelling. Terrible, and beautiful. Murderous. Seductive. It was an awful, dark promise. Part of me yearned for it.

As I stared- quivering, enamored- the door pulsed, softly, as if taking a breath.

“Adam…” the door whispered.

Its voice was a hundred thousand blades in my heart. I screamed, the sound echoing in the car around me, becoming an otherworldly, unnatural sound.

I shuddered violently and shoved the whole image back down into my subconscious, sealing it away with what willpower I could muster, and quickly lit another cigarette. Best not to dwell on that thing unless I fail in this… uh, whatever it is I’m doing. Let’s try to keep it locked up until then, shall we?

Nature imitates life.

This rock kinda looks like a butt, hahaha. Just wanted to lighten the mood for a second. ~_^

I checked my phone- still several hours before I would reach J-Tree. As the vestiges of Los Angeles County shimmered and faded like a mirage in the rearview, the road ahead stretched on into the Mojave. I let my mind wander. A long solo car ride is ideal for introspection.

In the weeks leading up to my departure, I’d assured certain family members that I’d be earnestly looking for work as I traveled, targeting the digital media distribution industry. I said I would research companies in areas I’d be visiting and call them ahead of time, trying to arrange interviews that coincided with the times I’d be there, or else change my travel plans around their availability.

Yeah right. Fuck that.

I don’t like being dishonest, but the constant questions and implied judgments were clouding my resolve. Sometimes to protect and preserve a deeper Truth, you need to cover it up a little. Pearls before swine and all that.

To several people I’d told about about the trip, quitting my job to drive around the country for an indeterminate amount of time was completely irresponsible, and they let me know subtly or overtly. Nobody in their right mind would do something like this without a career plan, some kind of financial strategy. Only a fool would leave such a huge gap in their resume– that most sacrosanct of documents that tells the world what you’re worth.

Then I’m not in my right mind, I thought, and I am a fool.

I grinned. Thank God!

I’ve seen people who base their entire lives on plans, rules, schedules: taking comfort in the imaginary fate-shield of a respectable routine until Mistress Happenstance or Archduke Change appears. The routine is suddenly spoiled, triggering an avalanche of anger and frustration, transforming adults into screaming children as they become possessed by suppressed pain and insecurities. A lot of folk are at least dimly aware of some nebulous pain in their heart, I can see it in their eyes- but so long as they are following at least one of their society’s prescribed modus operandi, they convince themselves they have no right to be unhappy, that they are living a good and proper life. Meanwhile, they drink and smoke the cries of their heart into silence every night. So many people trying to scrub the truth away, like Lady Macbeth and that damned bloody spot. Poor souls. I recognize it, because I’ve known it myself, believe me.

I see it all around me and I refuse to live that way anymore, I thought as I accelerated down the highway, the sparse desert vegetation becoming a blur. My lips became a thin, straight line. It’s completely fucking backwards. My thoughts took off into a passionate rant:

We should figure out who we really are first, and- armed with that knowledge- create a fulfilling life according to our own personal Truth; yet instead we plan out our lives while we’re still emotionally-reactive infants. I sighed, shaking my head. We start families and careers long before we ever take a single honest look at the shape of our own hearts and end up making massive commitments based on fears which we’ve transformed into principles of life.

The truth of the original emotional experiences that shaped our perspectives in the first place become completely invisible, I thought. We think we know why we do what we do, but the truth is we’re blissfully ignorant slaves to thoughts and ideas borne of repressed emotional and psychological events.

We are never properly taught how to really look within in the first place or how to let go of these events, or we’re afraid of what we’ll find in there and what it might imply about who we’ve been, or we are egged on by parents or mentors or media or who-the-fuck-ever to just Hurry Up And Pick Something Profitable Or Else You’re A Drain On Society. I groaned. Gotta make ‘dem dollah bills. No time to look within- that would be anathema.

Yet how common are those deathbed-regret stories in our culture, I thought, the scared, dying woman who never went backpacking through Europe at the urging of a homely and slightly abusive boyfriend, or the wealthy, sick man who weeps over the decades he spent pursuing political status while his children languished, starved for his affection?

The thought of those ailing people struggling under impending death and the weight of a life unlived, of years forever gone and no time to make amends, settled around me and onto me and within me, until I was there on those deathbeds myself.

I became that elderly woman, my dreams of adventure and travel and the promise of personal growth now nothing but dust. Who could I have been if I had gone on that trip, instead of this scared, nervous wreck? I thought, weakly raising my withered hands to my face, shivering as the warmth from the hospital blankets began to fade. Why did I compromise my heart’s desire for that asshole? I remembered how I clang to him through the anger and the violence, only now understanding I did so because of my abusive childhood and my perceived failure at keeping my father happy. I thought if I just stuck with this guy, that someday he’d get better and it would redeem me for my inability to save Dad. Too late now, too late. I let my entire life be ruled by a childhood trauma without ever realizing it. I lived in fear, and now that I finally see the truth, I’m dying.

Her thoughts and her pain were mine, and it cut into me as a knife with a long, sinuous blade.

Then, I was that dying man, suddenly realizing it was my fault that my children were now broken, scared, depressed. What have I done? I watched years flash by, my two boys and my daughter becoming ever more distant. I remembered screaming at them over so many things… things that seem so small now. The violence, the pain and anger I see behind their eyes when they look at me, when they look at the world- it’s my fault, it’s all my fault. I saw my eldest son’s body sprawled out on the floor of a dingy motel room, a needle still stuck in his arm. I saw my daughter dating a long string of men who cared nothing for her bright mind or her shining heart. I saw my youngest just barely scraping by, miserable and withdrawn, having sacrificed his artistic talents to punch a time clock at my own angry urging. I’ve ruined them, I’ve failed them- oh God, oh God! I’ve failed my children!

The knife twisted in my gut, and I choked on an upwelling of bitter tears.

“Why do we wait until the end of life to wonder if we ever consciously lived!?” I asked my dashboard, pounding it with a quivering fist.

“80 miles per hour,” it asserted silently. I sighed, gently releasing the empathic maelstrom from my heart. Well, it was a rhetorical question anyways.

I gripped the wheel tightly, determined. I won’t fall into that same trap. I’ll explore the outside and elucidate the inside with the immutable light of awareness. I will learn the shape of my inner self. Every joyful pocket, every dark corner, will become known to me.

I will follow the true song of my heart. There will be no regret on this path. Self-knowledge- the Truth I’ve been hungering for my entire life and the cornerstone of a consciously fulfilled existence- will be mine.

It’s this, or the dark, dark door.

I LOVE THIS GAME

“This is MY story. It’ll go the way I want it, or I’ll end it here!” -Tidus, Final Fantasy X.

A sign passing on the road snapped me out of my mental wanderings. Joshua Tree was just ahead- I’d been driving for four hours, though it felt like it had only taken a quarter of that time.

Wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey, I thought with a smile.

I pulled up to the visitor center in the community of Joshua Tree, just outside the Park itself. My first step when arriving at a National Park is always to grab the park map and newspaper, then ask a ranger about the current haps. I walked up to the door and pulled on the handle, but it didn’t budge.

I checked my phone. It was 5:07, and the listed hours had the visitor center closing at five. I peered through the glass doors. It was dark, and there wasn’t the slightest hint of movement inside. Shit, I thought, government employees really don’t waste time getting out. Can’t blame ’em, I was the same way during my retail years. I sighed, and grabbed a park map and newspaper from a handy after-hours box hanging next to the door. It was the off-season for Joshua Tree- not many people head to the blistering desert in the summer- but I was still a little worried about finding a spot and having a place to sleep.

I turned and nearly collided with a late-twenties-lookin’ dude in a blue shirt.

“Hey man, looks like they closed up already.” I said apologetically. “Uh… you can still grab a map though.”

“Bummer man. So, what are you doing here?” asked Blue Shirt.

Social interaction! Oh no!

“EXTERMINATE. EXTERMINAAAAATE!” -Socially awkward Dalek

I smiled to myself. Oh shut up, anxiety.

“I was just gonna drive around until I found a campsite, I guess,” I replied. “Preferably in the middle of the park.”

He nodded. He had a friendly face. “Cool, me too.” He grabbed a map and walked to his car. “Well, my name’s David, maybe I’ll see you around! Hope you find a good spot!”

He drove off into the park while I sat and inspected the map in my car. There were several campgrounds in the center of Joshua Tree. I decided to check out Hidden Valley first.

Driving into the park, I was immediately dumbstruck by the scenery. I was expecting… well, a flat lifeless desert with a couple Joshua trees scattered about. Instead I was passing through a boulder-strewn wilderness, collections of gigantic stones piled atop one another in a hundred unique and mystifying formations. The rock-climber within me shivered in excitement.

It looks like those rocks were stacked on porpoise.

I hearby dub this formation “Dolphin Rock.” No, no, forget that. “Ichthyosaur Rock.” Because dinosaurs are awesome.

I reached the Hidden Valley campground in the middle of the park and found a spot which had late-afternoon shade from a nearby boulder pile. While struggling to set up my tent in the high winds, I heard a voice ask “Hey, need some help with that?”

I turned and saw David from the visitor center. Completely unplanned, we had chosen campsites right next to each other. Holy crap.

From somewhere beyond my ken, Fate smiled. Step One.

I gladly accepted his help with setting up the tent, then he went off wandering through the boulders. A little later he reappeared, telling me he had bumped into some dude who had invited him to his campfire that night. David had mentioned me, and I was invited as well.

“For sure, I’ll drop by soon!” I said, surprised that my “solo” road trip had immediately begun thrusting new people into my life. I sighed, ignoring the small bubble of anxiety bumbling around in my stomach.

I spent the next twenty minutes filling my 4-person tent, making it into a cozy little home. Air mattress and sleeping bag against the back wall, corners claimed by a briefcase full of clothing, a small box full of electronics, and a large box full of miscellaneous camping gear. It was more than I needed in the tent, but the weight would ensure it kept still in the high winds that Joshua Tree would intermittently send through the campground.

I only sat here long enough to take this photo.

My new home! <3

After eating a simple dinner of bagels and peanut butter, I headed over to this new guy’s site. David was sitting on a rock nearby, and the new guy was perched on a bench. His hair was curly, poofing up behind a cloth headband, and a large grin spread across his face when he saw me approaching.

“Hey man!” he said energetically, “Do you…” he hesitated for a moment, his grin widening, “…partake?” A small pipe materialized in his hands, packed with a familiar green flower.

Oh hell yes, I thought. Then:

“Oh hell yes!” I said.

We smoked a bowl together and instantly connected over topics like the shape of the Universe, faith in the unknown, the miracles awaiting those with open hearts, and memories from the online role-playing game World of Warcraft. I’d met barely a handful of people in my life who I could connect with so well over my 29 years of life, yet here on the first night of my journey, I’d immediately found a soul-brother. His name was Jon, and he was fucking rad. I cannot overstate this.

Step Two, Fate said with a knowing grin.

Me, David, and Jon sat around the campfire as the sun set and the immaculate night sky of Joshua Tree slowly revealed itself to us- a million stars and the milky way shining brightly down upon us. Together we marveled at the vastness and the beauty, pointing at shooting stars every 30 seconds, lying on our backs on a perfectly angled boulder rising from the desert sand. I was so caught up in the moment that I was only dimly aware of my spirit weeping with incomprehensible joy.

As we stargazed, the headlights of a car swept around the bend and destroyed our night vision. As the car passed by the site, I was surprised to see Jon jump up and wave them over.

“Hey, you guys looking for a campsite?” he called to them. Summer is the off-season for Joshua Tree visitation, but I suddenly noticed a quiet weekend crowd had filled up Hidden Valley throughout the evening. “I’ve got all this extra space if you wanna set up here!” Jon said, gesturing to a nearby expanse of sand.

The mystery car’s inhabitants replied in the affirmative, and I loaned them my headlamp to help them set up their tent in the deep, blissful darkness surrounding us. It was a dude named Nick from New Hampshire and a guy named Hanzo from Prague. It struck me as a particularly weird combination- Hanzo didn’t speak much English. They had apparently met through a website to connect travelers with one another, or something- I couldn’t quite parse it out, still a bit shaken from being suddenly pulled out of my starlit reverie. Once they set up their tent, they proffered beers from their car, which we accepted gladly. Bud, beers, new pals, and a perfect night sky in the desert- what more could you ask for?

Our crew of three became five, and we all watched the sky together, chatting idly, until David and the newcomers eventually wandered off to their respective tents. Around 1:30am I followed suit, after bumping a bro-fist with my new homeslice Jon.

I returned to my site and pulled out my trip journal, the first of many which I’d fill with thoughts and memories throughout my journey. This one had a beautiful lightly textured jade-green hardcover, and was perfectly sized to fit in my back pocket while being sturdy enough to weather the rigors of my ass crushing it when I rested along the trails. Paperblanks brand pocket-journals are awesome. I will gladly endorse these things without any kind of payment. Like so:

The perfect vessels in which to enscribble my adventures.

Look at these beautiful, sturdy things! LOOK AT THEM!!! O_O

I quickly transcribed the events of the day, finishing the entry with the words “So cool. Now, tired. 2am-8/21.”

When I had first set out that morning, I’d been terrified that I might be making a huge mistake.

A dozen hours later, as I drifted into a deep and blissful sleep in my new home, a soft desert breeze gently rustling my tent, I knew in my heart that leaving my old job and my old life behind was no mistake, no.

Not even a full day had passed, yet I now knew with absolute certainty: leaving was the best decision I’d ever made.


Read next: Ch. 2: A Hundred Degrees in Joshua Tree, Part Two


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