top of page

Return to Joshua Tree Part 2 (of 2): Crazy Bones

The father next door was snoring, it was loud.

It was 3:30 a.m.

I had an alarm for 4:30 but accepted my fate. Anxious about the sunrise, I slithered out of my sleeping bag, threw on hiking boots and a beanie, and left.

There was some cold, black coffee in my YETI and I drank it.

The drive was spooky and marvelous. Darkness all around, stars above. Total silence besides my tires on the road. Not another human.

Rabbits and field mice darted across my beams every minute. Strange they’d cross the only machine in sight. Maybe it was a thrill, maybe they liked the light. Or maybe they were running around everywhere.

I pulled over to check out the universe. There was already a faint, blue glow behind the hills to the east, the western sky was still covered in stars. I saw a stretch of the Milky Way falling from the heavens, perpendicular to the horizon.

I popped the hatch and found the Walmart tripod and my little mirrorless camera, which assists with manual focus—perfect for astrophotography.

I’ve tried shooting the night sky a few times since my first visit to Joshua Tree. I’ve never been thrilled with the results, but it always causes me to think critically and be patient. Too fast, not enough light. Too slow, the stars trail.

I could barely see the brush in front of me. Here’s the shot, processed to look how I remember it:

If you can't snore 'em, shoot 'em. Or something like that.

Cholla Sunrise

The Cholla Cactus Garden faces east, a great place to catch the sunrise.

There’s a small parking lot and I was the first one there.

It was still dark, the moon was visible to the south. The open expanse was surrounded by hills and felt like another planet.

I set up, composed a few shots, and was reminded I’m not very creative on fumes.

The cold coffee had worn off. I was now just a filthy, exhausted camper, robotically working a camera and remote.

I had to hang in there. Research told me the rising sun would make the cacti glow.

What research didn’t tell me was loose cactus spines latch onto anything passing by—they're nicknamed “jumping cactus.”

The tufts look cute at first, like fuzzy, green balls in a static electricity lesson. But they’re not. The pricks really get in there and are almost impossible to remove on location. I tried to kick one off my boot, it jumped to the other foot. Stepping back in amazement, I watched another jump on.

At one point there were seven or eight of these suckers stuck to my boots and pants.

I swiped carefully with a knife and cut right through one, but the tips remained lodged in my boot. I could feel them through my socks.

Culprits. (iPhone)

I looked up and let out a massive sigh. Dammit. I had a grungy headache, dry eyes, and smelled like a campfire.

That father, man.

Sunlight spilled over the hills, the garden was indeed glowing. I took a deep breath and decided to rally. With crankiness as fuel, I swapped in my 45mm lens, which balances well and feels good to walk around with.

I ditched the tripod, used the Force to tread carefully, and worked a bunch of shots, finding my flow.

This is the winner:

Soon, a few tourists caught my ear. I decided that was my cue.

One more for the road.

Skull Rock

The sun was up, but the park was still pretty dead. I passed one pickup truck and was almost back to the campgrounds.

The day before, I drove slowly past Skull Rock and saw kids crawling all over it, Instagrammers taking selfies, and cars overflowing from the lot.

It was totally vacant at the moment, so I pulled over to check it out.

Skull Rock.

Some of the best moments I experience in always-bustling Southern California are before 9:00 a.m., when I've got the place to myself.

Back at Jumbo Rocks

The father and daughter were packing, loading their car. “Remember how we folded this up before?” One night in Joshua Tree, they arrived after me.

He was sweet as he guided her, but I wondered if she slept a wink. He might as well have played trombone in their tent for seven hours.

I guzzled water from a gallon jug. I still had a long day ahead, and Utah. When they left I crawled into my tent.

Naps in the desert. (iPhone)

Late morning, I set up the propane grill and made corned beef hash, beans, and black coffee with a French press, and started to come around.

Flies buzzed about. It had to be 85 degrees already. I quickly devised a garbage system with a lid.

I didn't see anyone that could've been the John Denver girls.

I ate the entire meal in the blazing sun, the first meal since L.A.

When I camp I don’t eat much. Everything’s canned or zipped--beef jerky, almonds, apples, that kind of thing. After a day or two, I realize thoughts about food have been ruling my daily life. Not that I'm always hungry, but seem to be vaguely concerned about the next meal, the best time to beat the crowd at Trader Joe's, and so on.

Camping is about coming back to center. I had my big meal, so I’d close my eyes and take a few breaths in front of a dead fire ring.

I heard cardboard scraping around. I opened my eyes to find a giant crow destroying my state-of-the-art garbage system.

“Uh—hey dude.” What a mess. “Seriously, man?”

He half spread his wings as a courtesy but couldn’t pull himself away. So entitled.

“Oh yeah, coffee grounds. Get in there, you little shit.”

Centered, like I said.

Deep breath.

“Alright, you don't want that. Come on, dude.” As I walked over, his wings snapped like beach blankets and off he went, to a rock ten yards away.

I found the dumpster, then left to find a gas station.