A Small Win
You can plan a trip. You can do all the research. You can make all the right choices. You can read maps and plot your course. You can do all the exact things you should and once you land on the other side of the country, all alone, later than you expected, exhausted, a ball of nerves, none of the planning matters. You just have to figure it out. Or retreat. But who retreats? Certainly not me. Here is my story of how most of my plans fell through, and it was ok. Well, after some coffee and a pep talk, it was ok.
I leave Morgantown at 3 a.m. and drive straight into an ice and snow storm. My desert playlist churns as the ice clinks off my windshield and the snow stacks itself on the empty highway in front of my useless headlights. I pop chocolate-covered espresso beans and let my studded tires carry me to the airport, sleepy cars slide all over the place around me; all the travelers navigating the covered lanes leading to long term parking.
Pulling my suitcase across the snow I see the shuttle coming around the parking lot and sprint to the little plastic station. I stand there, out of breath, the wet snow melting into my hair and tickling my scalp as it drips. The shuttle driver throws my suitcase onto the stack and I ride to the airport with all the other wired drivers, crazy-eyed and caffeine-riddled. We’re in it together at this point.
Check-in. Security. Breakfast. Boarding. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Flight delayed for de-icing. I have a connection in Charlotte. If we leave in the next 20 minutes, I can make it. Missed it. Fuck. The plane takes us to Charlotte. I sprint to the gate of my next flight. It’s gone. Fuck. I am sweating and out of breath from running in hiking boots when I ask the woman at the vacant gate what I need to do. They already have me booked for a later flight. I have an hour to wait. Another connection in Phoenix. Another hour and a half. Baggage Claim. I arrive in San Diego 7 hours later than anticipated. My car rental reservation expired after 2. I have to get a bigger car. More money.
I take a deep breath and drive straight into 7 p.m. San Diego rush hour traffic. I fight my way north. Accidents litter my google map screen. I stop at a Walmart, they don’t have the camp stove fuel I need. Shit. I call Sam, tired and frustrated and disoriented. He finds me a Walmart Super Center in my way. I plug in the address and go. I drive through suburb after suburb. Developments and strip malls and things with names ending in Heights. I drive over a ridge and see the neon lights like a beacon casting triangular rays across the big, dark pavement. I am so tired I think of sleeping there.
I go in and scan the camp stove fuel options with glassy eyes. I don’t see it, I scan again and there it is, “CANISTER FUEL,” says the tin. A small win. All I need.
I clumsily plug in my campground address in Joshua Tree. Last stop for the night. I drive past big bushels of prickly pear along the road side, head-high at least. I release a little of my tension at this first teensy sign of the desert. Pulling into my only reserved campsite of the trip at 12:49 a.m. eastern time; nearly 22 hours on the road, I lack any amount of the energy it would take to set up my tent. I crawl into the backseat of the car and wrap my sleeping bag around me. I re-read my list of must-do hikes with my headlamp and fall asleep dreaming of tomorrow’s adventures.
In the morning my first mission is to reserve a campsite at a lower elevation for the rest of my stay. When planning the trip, the website had specified that there were only two campgrounds that could be reserved, both at higher elevation, colder spots, and both farther from the good hikes and other things I want to see. Knowing that, I reserved a spot for my first night there and figured I could go find one for the weekend in one of the non-reservation campgrounds.
Sticking to the plan, I drive to Jumbo Rocks and circle the loop. There is a lovely little spot tucked on a side spur that catches my eye. I grab a yellow ticket from the front, write the number down, throw a $50 bill in the envelope, and put my tag on the site marker in a hurry; I have lots of exploring to do now that I know where I am sleeping.
I head south to Cottonwood Springs, stopping to check out the Cholla (pronounced choy-yah) Cactus Garden, known as the Teddy Bear Cactus, and the Ocotillo patch, weird plants sticking way up out of the sand. I drive down the valley and see signs for abandoned mines and the names of rock formations as I pass them. When I see an informational sign, I stop and read it; soaking in the knowledge as fervently as I soak in the desert morning sun.
I get to Cottonwood Springs and hike to the oasis. Tall, bushy California fan palm trees spring high above me. Their old fans hang down like big beards below the new green growth. Cottonwood trees mingle with them and I hear a lot of birds yapping at each other inside all the brush. Railing segments and orange plastic fencing along the trail tells me there was flooding. Oddly shaped drift wood rests in the low places, silt pushed sturdily up against dry white grain. Purple flowers spring boldly from the bottom of the wash, taking advantage of the water but ignoring its power. How soon each one could be yanked from its sandy perch.
I pass a small family on the way out, the children, hamming it up, pretend to fall down yelling, “Oooowww!” only to be caught by their father’s arms. Ginormous smiles fill up their faces. Delighted, I grin big and slide by them on the trail.
I drive back to the middle of the park and hike to Ryan Ranch. Its adobe walls sit happily amongst the famous Joshua Tree boulders. I walk all around it. I find laid-stone paths leading to stoops without structures behind them. There is a windmill and rusty barbed wire fencing held up by weary posts. Walking out I see a coyote den, a hole in the earth just under a creosote bush. I think of them all in there snoozing. Waiting for night to fall so they can do the work of scavenging.
I eat a molten protein bar for lunch and drive down the road to my last hike of the day, Ryan Mountain. All the online folks told me I needed to save this one for sunset. I pull into the parking lot and look at the steep, looming thing in front of me. People hiking down it look like ants marching from their hill of sand. I reapply sunscreen, throw some jerky in my pack, and grab my trekking poles, time to go up.
I trudge up the side of the hill, feeling small. Around each bend, there is more up to go. My calves ache and my shoulders tighten as I go. I feel the heat building under my hat. I lift it and shake out my hair, feeling the hot air release and the sweat evaporate. I suck water out of my in-pack reservoir. I tell myself over and over, this trail is only 3 miles round-trip, that isn’t too far, you can do this. But my body is hot and worn down. I take breaks, people pass me going down the mountain looking refreshed, relaxed even. I climb and climb, the light getting low, casting shadows out from the boulders in the valley bottom.
And then, I round a bend and I see the top, this is the last push. I haul myself up and over the last step onto the summit and an enormous view opens up in front of me. I breathe a big deep breath and look out on the vastness of this place. My goodness, how good this is, I think to myself. There are other people up here with me. One girl is doing yoga poses as her partner takes her picture. A couple sits on a rock sharing a snack. Another girl is all by herself, just like me, and she looks out at the bigness, feeling its wonders. I can tell, I’m feeling them too.
I eat some jerky and walk back down the mountain. As I pass of couple looking especially discouraged, I say, “It’s worth it.” The man says back to me looking genuinely touched, “Thank you for that,” And grinds on up the hill.
I get to my car right as the sun is falling behind the ridge line and drive to my Jumbo Rocks campsite. I set up my tent and get my stove going. It makes the sound of a mini jet engine as it works to boil the water.
The sky makes pretty light against the white granite boulders where I’ve nestled my tent. Sitting at the picnic table eating dinner and drinking coffee, I’m weary from two big days. I am beat but excited to get cozy and give my body the energy it needs for the next day. I take a big bite of chicken and mashed potatoes as a park ranger walks up to the sign marking my site number.
“Oh.” She says under her breath. “This campsite is reserved starting tomorrow,” she says to me.
“That can’t be right? Everything online said that sites in this campground couldn’t be reserved.” I say, half-pleading with the woman. Tears well in my eyes just a bit and a huge lump situates itself in my throat.
She says, “There are signs everywhere stating that today, this campground switches to reservation only.”
I think back, I saw none of these signs, but I wasn’t looking for them. My thoughts are going fast. “I’m not sure what I’m going to do? I put $50 in the envelope, is there any way I can get my money back?” I say flustered.
“We don’t do refunds of deposits. There are two campgrounds in the park that don’t require reservations. Your best bet is to check on those early in the morning.” She says to me, not with any real pity but with a lilt of hospitality.
“Ok, which campgrounds are the one’s that don’t require reservations?” I ask, in full panic at this point.
She tells me and leaves with a few parting words, “Sorry about that. It was well-signed.”
As soon as she is out of my sight, I go to my tent and lay down and cry, utterly defeated. I say all the wrong things to myself. I’m in one of the most popular national parks in the country. Peak season. On a Thursday night. With no where to stay. Shit.
20 minutes or so goes by and I hear a voice say, “Hello?” into my site. I wipe away my tears and step awkwardly out of my tent to find the park ranger back again. She looks at me and sees my red face and says, “Take your ticket with you when you look for a campsite tomorrow morning. If you find a spot, put it on the site marker and write that you moved from Jumbo Rocks, that way you don’t have to spend more money.”
“Thank you,” I say, really meaning every letter of those words. “Good night,” she says as she wanders away. I breathe deeply and grab my dirty dishes off the picnic table. A small win. All I need.
For the second day in a row, I wake up searching for a campsite. It is 5 a.m. local time, I drive through the park as the sun comes up. I stop alongside the road and take pictures of the pretty glow on the horizon silhouetting the Joshua trees and the rocks. I go to one campground, nothing. I drive to another, nada. I find some cell service and start looking up hotels and motels in Twenty-nine Palms and the town of Joshua Tree. “No rooms are available for the days you requested.” I drive to some BLM land, my sad rental car won’t clear the entrance roads. Fuck.
I pull into the visitor’s center parking lot, discouraged and lonely. It is about 7:30 a.m. now. I pick up my phone and feel defeated as I dial Sam’s number. “Hey baby, how you doin?” he says on the other end. I cry before I can finish explaining the situation. He says to me without any hesitation, “Come on, baby, it can’t be that bad. You are good at this! Get out the atlas and make a plan! You know how this works!” My tears start to dry up a bit. “You’re in the desert, that is a good start,” he says with a half-giggle. I let out a stubborn smile and loosen my grip on my own defeat.
“Yeah, I guess I could drive East a bit, there are some wilderness areas on the Colorado,” I say back to him, releasing the last determined bit of me that wants to give up. “Alright baby, well keep me posted. You go make a plan you like the looks of.” I hang up, the drawl in Sam’s voice bringing me comfort and strength. I drive to a breakfast joint I passed in my futile search for a room. The waiter hurries over to me, he is sweating as I order a ginormous omelet. The coffee flows while I study the map. I look at roads and names and topography lines, not knowing what they will look like or what interesting things will be in my way.
Full-bellied and caffeinated, I strut out of the diner to my rental car. The windows silently lower into the doors and I turn the volume knob up. Into the desert I go. I drive long stretches, stopping at weird intersections and pretty, unmarked roadside vistas. I take deep breaths of the dry air and sing out loud with my songs as I drive. Pretty, spiraling melodies echo from my windows into the wide-open landscape. I see almost no other cars. The only proof of civilization is the road and the power lines swooping along their poles into the horizon.
I come to one intersection and see a tall sign with the names of towns and states on arrows pointing in all different directions. Next to each name is the mileage to the town from this one lonely spot in the middle of the desert. There is nothing here except for two roads stretching off into the sky and except for myself and for these signs. I search my car for anything I can spare to make my own. I think of what town in West Virginia I would claim at this point, Morgantown, WV. 2,229 Miles.
There is nothing I can sacrifice, and I drive away from the intersection that points to so many places. I go through Vidal Junction and Blythe and I follow the canals that lead away from the Colorado. The fields that the canals feed smell like mud as I cut between them. I drive washes that seem never-ending, one big plane of ditches, a mass of shrubby plants covering them.
I’ve been driving for hours when I look out across the big valley in front of me and see what I think are hazy mounds of sand off in the distance. Dunes. There can’t be dunes. I looked for dunes near Joshua Tree on the internet before I came and I didn’t find anything. But, I’m not near Joshua Tree anymore. I get out my atlas and I see all the little upside v’s on the map. Algodones Dunes. A small town is marked on the map near the dunes. Glamis, CA. I feel giddy and point my car at the glistening white peaks.
The dunes get bigger and bigger the closer I get. Oddly, the smell of gasoline starts to fill the air. Billboards with graphic colors show up beside the road telling me about Polaris and RZR and I start to understand, these dunes are off-road vehicle dunes. Driving into Glamis, dune buggies drive across the road and out into the dunes. They climb over the peaks as far as I can see. Serpentine tracks wind through the sand.
I pull into the gas station parking lot, people look at my sad rental car with disappointment as I walk into the dingy place. A middle-aged blonde woman is working the cash register, she is surrounded by an altar of t-shirts, cigarette cartons, and trucker hats.
“Hey there!” I say to her way too chipper. “So, there are signs everywhere saying I can’t walk on the dunes, is there a spot where I can, and will my crappy rental car make it there?” I ask, knowing how ridiculous I must be.
In classic locals speak, “Well, you’re gonna go about 10 miles out this road just across the way here. It’s hard pack so you should be ok. You are gonna go about 10 miles out and there should be a sign and a map and a place to pull off the road.”
“Oh, thank you so much! This road right here?” I ask to be certain. She assures me, and I buy a 6-pack for her trouble.
I pull out of the gas station parking lot and turn onto the road. In front of my sad smooth tires I see deep ruts in the soft sand. Choosing the high places, I feel the car start to sink a bit but give it throttle and get across to a gravelly compact surface. The road parallels the railroad tracks in a long straight line on the edge of the dunes. Sand drifts cover the width of the road in places and I plow through them. I dig into one and I can feel the car bottoming out underneath me. I give it steady gas and pull through, my nerve surprising me. I check my phone, I still have cell service by some miracle, so I push on. I continue this, plow through a drift, check my service, soldier on. When I get to the 10-mile mark there is no sign, no parking lot. I check my phone. There is still service, I keep going.
The odometer tells me I’ve gone 12 miles when I come to a lonely sign on the left and a small pull off on the right. I look out at the dunes and see a sketchy looking camper about 100 yards away from me, perfectly perched below the sandy peaks. I have driven too far out this road to turn back now. I put on my floppy hat and some sun screen, grab my pack, and follow a jeep trail toward the pretty white mounds.
Climbing up the sand, it breaks and slides under the weight of my body. I see scamper prints from lizards running across the grains. Orange wildflowers preside over the hills, their thin petals letting sunlight shine through them. There are bullet casings and empty soda bottles and random pieces of metal and other garbage left by humans. Grass lines the bottoms of the bowls between peaks. I think of the grass and the critters that live in there. I wonder if they think this one bowl of sand is everything, that all of existence stops where the bright grains meet the big blue sky.
I go back to the car, I think of camping there, but the RV and my lack of backup make me worry. I turn the car around and go back out the damn road, plunging through the sand drifts all the way. I find an overlook off the main road and pull over to take it in. I watch dune buggies fly over the crests. This is the sound they make, waaaahnnnnhhh, wwwaahhnnn.
Sitting in the car, I start googling this spot and find a ranger station and some possible campgrounds at the other end of the dune field. I walk into and repeat the I have a rental car spiel. She is unimpressed and says, “There should be plenty of open spaces. But you have to buy the permit to camp here.” She doesn’t give up her information easily so I ask, “How much is the permit?” And she replies, “$50.” It is getting late in the day and I have no good other plan. I go for it. I drive out the road towards the listed campgrounds and come upon these things called Pads. Pad 2, Pad 3, and on the pads there are new, shiny RVs, trailers, and wild looking dune buggies all sitting pretty on a big open flattened portion of the sand. I drive all the way out the road and find a lot more of these but they are all packed full, the sand on the edges of the flat area falls off quickly, looking loose and treacherous.
I start to feel swindled driving back out the road when I see one small pad, Pad #1, down in the bottom of a large dip. A gravel road leads me down to it and I see lots of orange traffic cones and more RVs and trailers. Bad music is blaring from somewhere as I pull my car into the middle of a big open area surrounded by cones.
I step out of my car and see some folks sitting in the shade of an RV. “Hey there,” I say walking towards them. It is a group of both men and women, but a man stands up and walks to meet me. “I’ve never been here before and I’m not sure how this works. I am just trying to set up a tent. I don’t need a whole lot of space. What do the cones mean?”
“Oh, a tent, uh, yeah, the cones mean that area is reserved for later. So if you just pull to the other side of them, you should be fine.” He says to me, not overly friendly but still helpful.
“Alright, super cool! Thank you!” I say.
“No problem, you meeting friends here?” he asks.
Before I have time to think about my answer I say, “Nope, just me.” And immediately regret it. “What’s your name?” I ask, staring him in the eye and sticking out my right hand for a shake.
“Robert,” he says.
“Well Robert, my name is Carmen. Thank you so much.” I assuredly say to him while shaking his hand. He walks back to his camp chair in the shade.
I move my car and pitch my tent just behind it, trying to take up as little space as possible. I dig in my suitcase and find my beach towel and throw it out on the sand in the shade created by my tent. Laying on the towel, I read Patti Smith’s Just Kids and drink one of the cheap beers I bought from the gas station hours before.
Just as I am settling in, I look up from my book and see a woman coming down the gravel road. She is sauntering and holds a tall boy of Michelob Ultra in one hand. She sees me at the same time I see her. She sticks out her free hand at me and points yelling, “You, you look like I should be friends with you! Can I come talk to you?”
I giggle and shout back, “Sure! Come on over!” She takes off her flip flops and walks through the soft sand to me.
“Hi, I’m Natilla, Natti for short.” She says to me. I introduce myself too and she begins asking me all sorts of questions. Where are you from? What are you doing here? How did you find this place? Are you here all by yourself?
I say back to her, “Well, I closed my mom’s estate on Monday of this week and decided I needed to take a trip to re-center myself, get my groove back.”
Tears well up in this stranger’s eyes and she looks at me and says, “I just had to do that too. I lost my mom too. How old are you, honey?”
“I’m 27,” I say.
“Oh no, how young you are?” she says with so much empathy I can hardly receive it all. “You have to come meet my friends, do you want to come over, we’re gonna have a fire here in a bit?” She says, so excited.
“Yeah, yeah, I would love to!” I say back.
“Awesome! Come on, girl!” I follow her with my beer in hand. I meet a lot of people all at once, some of whom I still can’t remember their names but a few others who stuck. Randy, another dune buggy enthusiast, and Natti’s husband Joe. They ask me as many questions as Natti, maybe more. We talk about off-roading and travels and guns and food and music. Natti feeds me tacos and we sit around the fire. My day starts to catch up with me around 8:30 p.m. local time and I start to say goodnight. Natti says, “You have to go for a ride with us tomorrow! You have to!”
“Yes, I do!” I say back to her, full of stoke. “What time do I need to be ready to go?”
“10 a.m., we roll at 10,” Randy says.
“I’ll be here! If for no other reason to make every one of my car friends back home jealous!” They all laugh big at that. “Good night! Thank you guys!” I say headed back to my tent. Laying in my tent I think of the man who asked me if I was meeting any friends here. I think of my answer to him. A twinge of terror sits in my belly. My trekking poles and pocket knife lay next to me on the tent floor, ready to protect me if I need them.
I fall asleep for a while. Tossing and turning a bit. Loud music plays from some place. I fall asleep again. At some point a firework cracks and I sit straight up out of a dead sleep, my heart thumping. I lay back down, laughing at myself and this place and the big party that surrounds this poor, sleepy being.
I wake up before the sun the next day and drive my car back to the overlook I’d found the day before. I boil water and make coffee and watch the sun rise, powerful over the dunes. The pretty pink light washes over everything and the wind whips around.
Full and happy, I drive back to Pad #1 and get my car organized and ready for the day. Randy comes around the corner and says I will be riding with him. “Awesome! What do I need? Can I bring my big camera?” He gives me instruction and I pack all my stuff into a back pack and spray myself with sunscreen. Sand rails, the name of the dune buggies I’ve been seeing, start their engines all around me. They rumble and rev. People are gassing up and checking the air in their tires.
Ours is blue and pretty. I climb in the window and Randy teaches me how to clip into the 5-point harness. I put on some borrowed goggles and the head set. Music plays in my ears and Randy speaks into the mouth piece and I hear the music stop and his voice come in, “When we are on the dunes you have to speak loudly to overpower the sound of the engine and the wind.”
I shake my head that I understand, and we drive away from the RVs and into the big ocean of sand. We wrap around the edges of the bowls and ride the ridges and then plunge down into the deep wells. I laugh loud enough that my voice cuts the music for a moment. This is wee-haw, child-like, gut-busting fun. I grin bigger than my face can hold as the centrifugal force pushes us against the side of a bowl. We go around and around, I see the tops other buggies across the bowl. We crest out the side of the thing and come to a stop.
We take a break, everyone jumps out of the rails, and a few of the passengers grab beers. The others drink Gatorade and tell me that we are going to a spot called the swing set. “It is an actual swing set!” Natti says, her eyes bright.
Randy explains to me, “When someone passes away in the community, a lot of people will get together and put something out in the dunes in memorial. There is one that is a flagpole. Another group put a stand-up grill out there, so you can take hot dogs and cook. But the swing set, it is really cool.” Excited, we get back in and go fast, the sand kicking up from our paddle tires.
I look out across the dunes, we roll over them and I start to see a large gathering of buggies in the distance under the lovely sky. The big metal swing set sits between them. We drop in on the bowl and I see the people playing and chatting with each other. We pull to a stop and I unhook my harness and try not to be too excited about getting to the swing. I walk over, but I want to run. I sit on the swing and kick off, feeling the sun beat down and the wind blow around me.
We hang around for a while and then it is time to go. We take a more direct route back. Hauling ass, we go over small humps and I feel the suspension working under us. It is squishy, I can feel it absorbing the energy. We get back and I hand out hugs and gratitude. “Thank you so much Randy, this is the highlight of my trip so far,” I say earnestly.
I trade information with a few folks and walk to my car, ready for a bit of solitude and some new territory to see. I drive to Salvation Mountain and to the Salton Sea and into Anza Borrego State Park. I see more big valleys and pretty mountains. I climb up a big pass to Pinyon Ridge and ride the high country for a long way. The air quality suffers the closer I get to San Diego. Haze sits heavy on the hills in front of me.
I drive the Montezuma Valley Highway and find an odd road-side outdoor gallery. Miniature houses sit along the fence line, old artifacts are perched on rocks and nestled in the grass. A plywood sign stands tall above them, it is covered in crusty blue paint and has a mishmash of items nailed to its front. ST Maurice Art Gallery is painted in black. The wind whips hard against me and I get back in my car, puzzled by this odd place but also inspired.
I let the road take me back to the city, to a hotel room and a shower and a bed. I sleep hard and wake up early enough to get to the beach for breakfast and the sunrise. The sand is cold and so is the breeze. My down jacket keeps me warm, but my bare feet are resting on the damp earth. Surfers ride around on the waves out there. Runners pass by on the hard, wet sand. I drink my coffee and think of all of my people back home, I think of this trip and of how hard I fought for it, I think of my plane ride later in the day, and I think of how thankful I am to be opening this next door, and how happy I am that I’ve begun to close the other.