After another quiet night out on the desert flats beyond of the village of Joshua Tree, I headed into Joshua Tree Coffee Company to try their signature nitro cold brew. Normally, I keep it simple with a medium or dark roast drip coffee, but how could I pass up an opportunity to try something new. This was my first experience with nitro-brewed coffee and it knocked my socks off. It felt like I had upgraded from a PBR to Guinness. The smoky flavors and thick, frothy consistency blew me away! Positioning myself near the singular outlet on the patio, I sat next to a young man sporting a weathered Arc’teryx jacket and a patterned hat. After a brief silence, we introduced ourselves. His name was Peter and he was a climber living out of his Astro van. He had been living on the road for a few months, climbing his way across America. Although I would not self-describe as climber by any means, I peppered him with questions about Joshua Tree, hoping to get a different set of suggestions than the ranger had offered. He mentioned something called the “Chasm of Doom” that piqued my interest. Eventually we parted ways, I returned to my computer and he headed back into the park.
After I had finished my work for the day, I followed Peter’s lead and headed back into Joshua Tree. This time, I bypassed the visitor’s center and headed straight for the Hidden Valley parking lot. Wedged in between Intersection Rock and the Old Woman Rock, the Hidden Valley campground and parking lot are the true epicenter of Joshua Tree. The night before, I had swung through the parking lot hoping to find some shade and find an elevated spot to catch the sunset. Before I could get going, however, a longhaired man with a grizzled beard approached me asking how I liked dirtbagging out of the Element. I gave him the grand tour and he showed me his set up in his Town & Country. After brief introductions, I learned that his name was Hobo Greg. He welcomed me to Joshua Tree, asking what my plans were and could hardly contain his excitement when I mentioned my trip. He had been living in Joshua Tree for the past four months, sleeping in a cave for the past three months. He had recently upgraded to a van, but was a little hesitant about the transition.
As our conversation progressed, more climbers congregated around us, sharing stories from their days and giving me the rundown on life at Joshua Tree. It seemed like they had all been living there for weeks! An older man soon joined us, unloading his gear into his car as he spiritedly shared tales of his exploits throughout the year. Although he was only visiting Joshua Tree, this seventy year old man had climbed with the likes of Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard in Yosemite. Oddly enough, he lived in Lacrosse, WI! Once he could tell we were interested in his stories, he incessantly chattered on and on about old school climbing, gear choices, and living the simple life. Hardly able to get a word in, I sat back and listened, realizing that I had officially become a part of the community.
When I rolled into Hidden Valley for the second time, I found Hobo Greg lounging around once more. He had just finished free soloing Right Ski Trail on Intersection Rock and was grabbing a snack before heading out for some more climbing. Once again, random climbers began to materialize and join the conversation. Then, all of the sudden, Peter walked across the parking lot. I waved him over and he mentioned that he hadn’t been able to find his friends, offering to show me the Chasm of Doom instead. Ecstatic, I chugged a liter of water and grabbed my headlamp. The two of us then set off for the chasm. Peter had only visited the chasm during the night, so it took a little searching for us to find the entrance. Once we did, however, we entered into a labyrinthine slot cave with shafts of light sneaking in through gaps in the high walls. Even in the mid-day sun, the effect was captivatingly beautiful. The rocks burned a deep orange and warm yellow, making it easy for us to navigate the tricky handholds that led us higher into the rock. After following Peter’s lead through many a tight squeeze, he motioned me forward, saying that I had to go through this section first. We had arrived at the birthing canal, a ten-inch high horizontal slot that we had to wriggle through. Unsure I would fit, I gingerly squirmed my way into the crack, worming my body forwards for five feet until the ceiling rose away from me. I didn’t necessarily feel like I had been reborn, but I was sure glad that I had made it. Above me, a short climb led to a balcony of flat rocks in the warm sun.
Admiring the crowds below from our secluded and well-earned perch, Peter and I rested for a few minutes before heading back into the shadows. We followed a different route out of the cave, down a lofty, but steep slot canyon full of blind footholds. After losing a few layers of skin during a few tight squeezes, we emerged once more into the sun. Walking back to Hidden Valley, I understood why the park service didn’t recommend the Chasm of Doom. The tight slots and blind corners could easily trap unknowing visitors. Luckily, I had a local guide to show me the way. Back in Hidden Valley, we joined a new congregation of climbers and dirtbaggers in the parking lot. As you might imagine, Hobo Greg was there, chatting with a young woman from Ithaca and Cassie (a native of Madison, WI who had just arrived back in Joshua Tree that day). The Hidden Valley parking lot felt like a revolving door with awesome people walking in and out of it all day!
Unfortunately, the lack of cell reception in the park was making it exceedingly difficult for Peter to meet up with his friends. Instead of waiting around all day, he suggested we head out and check out the cholla cacti on the other side of the park. Rumor had it they were blooming, so it was hard to pass up such a timely opportunity. We cut across the park on a dirt road, passing by many of the sites I had visited the day before. Cholla cacti grow in the Sonoran Desert, while Joshua trees grow in the higher and cooler Mojave Desert. Joshua Tree National Park spans the boundary between the two, making it an ideal place for watching the interaction between two different desert ecosystems. We arrived at the cholla cactus garden as the sun was sinking, illuminating each cactus with an ethereal glow. These sturdy cacti grow small, but stout arms that bristle with spines. Yet in the light, they looked more fuzzy than prickly.
On the way back to Hidden Valley, I showed Peter the arch rock at White Tank, ecstatic to be able to show him something new in the park he was living in! Afterwards, he headed into town and I found a new spot to watch the sun set. Bringing some homework with me, I busted out my Crazy Creek and settled in for the show. As always, it did not disappoint.
The next day, I completed my morning ritual at the coffee shop and spent an hour chatting with the knowledgeable and gracious staff at Nomad Ventures. Although the gear was definitely skewed to supply those with more vertical pursuits than I, it still ranks as one of the best small town gear shops I have visited thus far. They came very close to convincing me that I needed to buy some approach shoes, only a small issue in sizing saved me from the purchase. Afterwards, I headed back into the park, checking in with the folks at Hidden Valley before heading off on my own adventure.
Having spent the last few days baking in the desert sun, I needed to do some quick exploring and then find a shady cave to get some work done. I worked through a couple of simple bouldering problems before I began hunting for shade. I ended up a slim canyon between two jutting ridges of boulders. Setting my Crazy Creek up on a flat boulder, I spent the next three hours reading about classroom dynamics and leadership styles. It was all homework that had to be done at some point, so I figured I might as well do it somewhere beautiful. My canyon, only a quarter mile from the road, was utterly deserted. I didn’t see or hear anyone during my tenure there.
With my brain sufficiently stuffed, I headed out to do some more scrambling. The Cyclops rock looms large just beyond the scattered rocks of Hidden Valley. Although its face is a 5.4 ascent, the backside is scramble worthy. I felt a little guilty though, when I stood on top after only a few minutes of rock hopping. As I looked down, I saw a young woman roped up, climbing towards the Eye, the hole that runs clean through the Cyclops, giving it its name. She had earned the view more than I had. I enjoyed it all the same, congratulating her on her ascent when she reached the Eye.
On my way back towards the car, I ran into Peter and his friends heading towards Pig Pen, a bouldering problem just beyond the Cyclops. They would be around for awhile, so I trotted back to the car to grab my shoes. Little did I know that they were going to be working on one of the more advanced bouldering problems in the park. By the time I got there, I realized there was no need for me to bring my shoes. Instead, I pulled out my camera and watched Peter and Sander gracefully dance, inverted, from the underside of the rock out onto one of its exposed faces. Balancing their weight on their fingertips and their toes, they calculated each move carefully before they flowed on to the next position. It was a truly impressive sight. In the end, no one conquered Pig Pen, but they poured sweat (and blood) into the enterprise.
That night marked the last time I would see Peter, Sander, Hobo Greg, and many others. I spent most of the next day wandering the far reaches of the park, out of range of the Hidden Valley community. I met other dirtbaggers and climbers along the way, but I felt like I had left something behind. Joshua Tree is a truly special place. It is one of the most interactive parks I have visited thus far. The geological history and biodiversity that sets this region apart from the surrounding desert is precisely what makes it so enjoyable. For me, however, it was the people that made Joshua Tree such a gem. Of all the parks I have visited so far, it is the only one that had a thriving community.
That community sets Joshua Tree apart from the rest of the National Parks. But why does Joshua Tree attract such a cohesive group of people? One of the most obvious reasons is that it is a mecca for rock climbing. Climbers are a very passionate and particular group of people. When they are engaged with their sport, each movement takes 100% of their concentration. Their pursuit is singular and distraction can have dire consequences. It takes a certain kind of mind to be attracted to that level of dedication. Climbers, more so than any other type of athlete, are also more likely to forsake the comforts of urban or domesticated life to hit the road, live out a van, and climb day in and day out. Although I am making that generalization entirely based on anecdotal evidence, every person I met in Joshua Tree supported my position.
Sure, there are some ski bums out there living out of their vans, just like there are undoubtedly some mountain bikers who have dedicated themselves to a life on the road. That said, rock climbing is a relatively low cost sport (once you have made the principal investment). Living as a ski bum can get expensive when season passes or lift tickets start to pile up. There are some fees associated with rock climbing in certain areas, but they pale in comparison to the cost of ski towns like Aspen or Vale. Rock climbers can enact their passion for the sport at a relatively low cost, which makes the dirtbagging lifestyle that much more realistic.
That devotion to climbing can sometimes make it difficult for a layperson to communicate or connect with climbers. This, however, was not my experience at Joshua Tree at all. From the get go, Hobo Greg introduced himself and sucked me into a conversation about my travels, sharing his own tales of hitch hiking and cave life along the way. I questioned Peter about climbing and the associated lifestyle, but he never delved on the topic unless he could sense I had a lingering interest. I was definitely privy to conversations that I didn’t feel I could contribute much to, but the majority focused on adventures and experiences of any kind. Most importantly, I felt like the regulars at Hidden Valley spoke about what they were passionate about. It was inspiring to be around so many people who had made a similar decision as I had. For our own reasons, we had left behind the normalcy and stability of sedentary life to live our dreams, to explore our passions. That, above all else, united the group at Hidden Valley and I will forever be grateful to have been able to tap into that energy.