Eight years out of high school and I was still trying to finish college and attain the much vaunted bachelors degree in Religious Studies. It had been an on-again, off-again ordeal interrupted by backpacking trips and general vagabonding, mostly up and down the west coast. And here I was again, embarking on an off-again session of wandering — just a semester this time — due to a duo of factors: my girlfriend dumping me for my good friend and the sudden appearance of a HARD-CORE cult of wandering Christians right out of the Old Testament: Long beards, prophetic pronouncements and vows of poverty and dumpster-diving asceticism as they waited around for The Apocalypse, which, to a stoned hippy who listened to way too much Bob Marley, seemed very imminent indeed.
Not to mention the fact that this was the era of my life when everything held some kind of “deeper meaning,” be it the muttering of drunk bums on the street (who surely grasped some sacred knowledge the rest of us couldn’t understand) or a tune on the radio (another Grateful Dead song? I’m obviously supposed to quit school again and travel!). So when the Christians literally showed up on my doorstep mere minutes after I had aced a final exam on the New Testament and a couple days after getting dumped, suffice to say that it seemed as if some higher power had willed it to be so, and that RIGHT NOW was the time to drop everything and follow these seemingly wise apostles before they climbed the ladder to New Jerusalem.
In the end, despite weeks of proselytizing by the earnest patriarchs and hours of long-winded circular spiritual discussions, some shred of common sense kept me from trading my wicked path of sin for a new life of prayer and homelessness, but the eager holy rollers still ended up disrupting my life, albeit not in the way they’d hoped: One afternoon toward the end of my six-week winter break, one of the Christian gang showed up at our house in need of sanctuary. Seems he had just left the “The Brethren” (the “REPENT” patch was missing from his baseball cap) because he had decided that he “still wanted to live like a pagan” and needed a place to stay while he figured it all out. Which was perfect, as a broken heart, a dangerously close brush with a creepy cult and the stresses of extended academia were wearing me down, and living like a pagan sounded like the perfect way to recharge. I boxed up my stuff — records, books and sentimentalisms, mostly — and stored them with my somewhat more responsible sister, explained the situation to my roommates, and the apostate and I hitchhiked north to Seattle to fetch his didgeridoo (right where he had left it when he ran away with the cult: wrapped in plastic and buried in a park) and loiter/explore our way to some kind of exciting experience in the great north woods, but the rain soon chased us back south, all the way down to Joshua Tree National Park.
For Southern Californians who occasionally get claustrophobic within the gargantuan Tijuana-to-Santa-Barbara megalopolis of 20 million people, the Mojave Desert offers a rather large expanse of space and sanity, and Joshua Tree — barely an hour outside of Los Angeles — is a convenient destination for urbanites looking for a change. Being a San Diegan, I had heard much about the place but had never been there, so when two young Canadian ladies en route to Mexico picked us up on the side of the road somewhere in soggy southern Oregon, I suggested on a whim that we shoot for Joshua Tree for the night. Many hours and a few hundred miles later, we gleefully dodged the shuttered entrance station and its fees, and rolled into Hidden Valley Campground. We nabbed an empty spot, set up tents, and headed over to the actual “Hidden Valley,” a football-stadium-sized ring of granite rubble, where we basked in the relative warmth and welcome dryness of the desert in February — a desert illuminated by a full moon. The Canadian girls uncorked a big jug of wine and passed it around as we marveled at a fine ending to a memorable day of travel.
The Canadian vixens stayed with us for a couple of days before turning their Thelma-and-Louise-style station wagon toward the Mexican border, but we stayed on, moving camp a few times before settling in on a good one nestled snuggly in the big rocks. Three days later, my traveling companion embarked on a quick journey to San Francisco, where he planned on scoring a few sheets of acid, which we could then sell to some of the other campers in order to fund our current round of travels. It sounded like a great plan, so I’d dug deep into my sock and invested all but 35 dollars of my leftover student loan money and let him borrow my better backpack for swifter travels. He figured he’d be back in 10 days or so, but if he didn’t show up by mid-March, then we’d rendezvous at a regional Rainbow Gathering near Yuma during the next full moon.
Of course, I never saw him again, which meant I was almost flat broke and stuck with an ancient external frame pack that was way too big for me, but I had a good tent, youthful vigor and plenty of time on my hands. Plus, I was ensconced in the midst of an amazingly beautiful national park with nowhere to go and nothing to do but explore it. Days were spent hiking in all directions, while nights were spent in the tent reading by candlelight or writing bad poetry about the desert and the meaning of life, or even worse poetry about my ex-girlfriend. Occasionally, I’d hitchhike the 20 miles into town for a supply run, which usually consisted of four tasks: spending a few precious dollars at a huge dent-and-scratch grocery outlet; filling up my water jugs from a tap behind the Chevron; diving into a handful of Safeway-style mega-dumpsters for big jars of Ragu, blocks of perfectly good cheese and plenty of fruits and veggies; and a final, ritual stop for a rigorous washing of the hands and the reluctant-but-joyous purchase of a single 59-cent bean burrito from Taco Bell. Thus was I able to make my 35 dollars last for most of a month.
In addition to my willingness to explore the less sanitary side of our food chain, another thing that allowed me to stretch my meager funds as far as possible was the fact that camping was FREE. Yes, free camping at an “improved” campground in a national park, something that had been phased out everywhere else decades before, and no longer exists at Joshua Tree, at least partially due to freeloaders like myself. Rumor was that the Park Service couldn’t charge for a dry campsite, which meant that, while the site was free, you had to supply your own life-giving water — a fine trade-off for a vagabond on a shoestring budget. It was high season, and the campground had a perpetual “CAMPGROUND FULL” sign posted at its entrance, but, late each afternoon, folks would cruise slowly through hoping to score a site, and since I was carless and had just a single tent set up, I’d offer up my site to anyone in need.
That was the other thing that made my adventure possible: the kindness of my fellow campers. Indeed, there was much in the way of solitude — after all, that’s what the desert is all about, at least to idealistic Religious Studies students who think they want to grow old and die alone while meditating in a cave — but, in reality, most of my time was spent in the presence of other people, all of them interesting and generous. As the weeks unfolded, my campsite played host to a parade of folks, and every few days, I would find myself bound up in an entirely new chapter of random interactions with followers of the Golden Rule. Here’s a sampler:
″ A family of four fleeing the cold and dark of Alaska via a long, slow loop through the southwestern desert parks. They took me along for a driving tour of the entire park, topped off my camp stove fuel canister and loaded me up with a bag of fresh dates and a half dozen military-grade “ready-to-eat” meals.
″ A Korean artist who sculpted images of the Goddess. I used my single practical set of skills to tune up his rusted Volkswagen van for him and in return received all the beer I could drink, all the coffee I wanted and generous and repeated samplings from the big-as-a-human-head bag of non-culinary mushrooms he had brought along for inspiration.
″A pair of newlywed Mormons from Michigan on a very non-traditional Mormon honeymoon. They praised my brush with Jesus, explained that the “Joshua” that the trees were named after was actually a guy in the Bible, and gave me my very first (but certainly not my last) copy of the “Book of Mormon,” along with plenty of soda pop and hot dogs.
″Two carloads of Earth-First!ers, with names like Orca, Lichen and Ann R. Key, fresh out of an “activist conference” in the nearby San Bernardino Mountains. They drank cheap beer from cans, shared their own dumpster-dived goodies and instantly brought my humble little campsite to life with rollicking protest songs both serious and funny, including this one (to the tune of America’s “Horse With no Name”):
“I’ve been through the desert in van that was lame
It felt good to be out of … Texas.
At the conference you won’t remember your name
So get under this blanket and huddle up by the flames
blah blah, blah, blahblahblahblah blah … ”
But most of the time it was climbers — rock climbers — here for some big-rock adventures. Indeed, it only took a few days to figure out that the majority of campers, at least at Hidden Valley Campground, were of the climbing persuasion. Which made sense, as a quick glance in any direction revealed gigantic stacks of slightly orange-ish granite boulders, some of them hundreds of feet high, a fact which makes Joshua Tree a Mecca for climbers around the world, especially during the winter months.
They were everywhere, and despite the fact that I was a lowly hiker (a “groveler,” they called me), they took me under their wing and made me part of their shindigs, which, following each stellar day of vertical action, usually involved campfires, booze and rollicking “spud sessions” wherein anything that could be wrapped in foil was tossed onto the coals and baked. Every moment around these fires was chock full of swell conversation peppered with colloquialisms and jargon that made me wish there was a climber-specific dictionary I might consult. Eventually, I learned that “crimpers” were difficult, “scumming” was sometimes necessary, “cheese graters” were bad and “spraying” was inevitable when dozens of climbers gathered round a fire and started swapping stories about climbing, climbing and climbing. Sea cliffs in Acadia National Park. Sandstone in West Virginia. Limestone walls in western Utah. Lone Pine. City of Rocks. Notch Peak. Lost Creek. Cirque of the Towers. Names of exotic locales and challenging routes flowed from their tongues as if they were rattling off the names of family members.
There were climbers there from all over the U.S., as well as a few from South America and Europe, slumming it up in Joshua Tree for awhile before checking out Hueco Tanks in Texas, or the Organ Range in New Mexico or some other exotic and relatively warm desert rock oasis, and all of them seemed to have mastered the fine art of dirt-bagging. They had a connection at The North Face who could get you new tent poles, or knew somebody in town who provided showers, or a guy in Palm Springs who could hook you up with some work — indeed, for a few days, a large contingent of climbers disappeared into that nearby enclave of golf and wealth to sell concessions or park cars during a high-end tennis tournament. They knew where the firewood was, and occasionally they’d pile into an ancient Toyota Van with Maine plates and 300,000 on the odometer and cruise into town to gather some, which meant surreptitiously cruising behind grocery stores in search of shipping pallets — surreptitiously because it was illegal, and just a few weeks earlier, two unfortunate souls had been caught stealing and were hauled off to the county jail, which, in this sprawling county (largest in the lower 48) meant 60 miles and a world away to San Bernardino.
As I mentioned, the camping was free, but there was a 14-day limit — not a problem for your average family on vacation, most of whom would stay only a few days at the most, but a real hurdle for someone hoping to spend a couple of months living out of the back of a pickup truck. Since there was no fee, there was no registration that I recall, so the ranger would cruise through now and then and write down license plate numbers or make/model of vehicles. Due to the fact that I had no car, the rangers never caught onto my extended presence, but they were well aware of the climbing set, which led to a cat-and-mouse situation that forced the climbers to get creative. They swapped license plates and campsites, or covered their vehicles in tarps in hopes that the ranger wouldn’t bother getting out of his truck to investigate further. If necessary, they’d disappear for a few days and try again, maybe backing the rig in this time or spending a few nights parked at my site before being shooed away by the rangers.
As the weeks unfolded, I continued to explore, hitting the high points: south for a huge view of the Colorado Desert; east for a nice view of Queen Valley; west for a big glimpse of the snow-covered San Jacinto and San Gorgornio Peaks — 12,000-foot jewels separating the desert from the sea; and north at for a glimpse of the earthquakey Lucerne Valley and hundreds upon hundreds of miles of Mojave Desert. Often, I’d start my forays by following a gang of climbers out of the campground as they trekked out to a nearby climb. They’d set up and I’d sit and watch for awhile, curious about the life I was hearing about around the campfires. One such climb was called “Gunsmoke” — a low and horizontal traverse in and out of a big bend in a rock face. It was technical rather than vertical, just a few feet off the ground, actually, and, being close to the campground, it got a lot of traffic. But one fellow stood out, for he was always there cruising gracefully back on forth along the route like a monkey in the treetops. He was alone, never saying a word to anyone, and always had a faint smile on his face like he was in another world — rumor had it he was autistic or perhaps just majorly OCD, but he was amazing to watch.
Beyond Gunsmoke was the aptly named “MAGIC KINGDOM” — 20-or-so square miles of towering granite monoliths, cliffs and mounds of boulders that made you feel like an ant in a gravel pit. The Earth First! crew had shown me this area first during one of the most-punishing and amazing hikes of my life, a dawn-to-dusk trailless scramble right through the heart of the moonscape. This was ground zero for epic solo jaunts, and I spent day after day just wandering around back there. There were hidden amphitheaters, bighorn sheep, a single spring and a few grassy meadows, and, just when I’d find myself deeper than ever before, exhausted and bleeding at the knees and elbows, I’d glance up at a sun-exposed cliff face and see climbers halfway up a three-or-four-pitch ascent, effortlessly (or so it appeared from my vantage point) on their way to the top of any one of ten thousand possible climbs.
Indeed, during that month, I sat and watched climbers for hours. I marveled at the slow-but-sure effort, the teamwork, the gradual snail-like movement up a tiny crack in the granite. I was intrigued, but not enough to wish to partake in it all. To be sure, I loved clawing my way to the top of random rock piles, and I admired the climbers’ abilities, but felt no desire to join their ranks — I loved the simplicity of hiking, just me and a pair of boots, with endless possibilities in all directions. But, slowly, my curiosity grew and, eventually, I accepted an invitation and gear loan and tried it out: warm desert sun on my back; toes jammed securely into the toes of the nimble shoes; fingertips clinging to rock. This was not at all like the random rambling I had been experiencing on my travels and hikes; indeed, it was the exact opposite: extremely focused and deliberate. Adrenaline at a strangely slow pace. Time warping and sticking you right in the moment (with a big view at the top), which was the whole point of the traveling, the psychedelics and the haphazard study of religion.
Toward the end of my month in Joshua Tree, an opportunity came my way in the form of a van load of climbers headed south and east to Apache Fortress, a lesser-known but first-rate climbing destination a couple hours outside of Tucson. One of the van’s crew had just headed back to Israel for a mandatory stint in the army and had donated his gear — harness, chalk bag, rope and a pair of shoes — to his fellow climbing nomads. Everything was in place — extra gear (including shoes that seemed to fit me), a gang of climbers willing to show me the ropes and a ride to what would surely be another astonishingly beautiful place.
It was a charitable offer, but after giving it much thought, I said no thanks. The full moon was just a few days away, and, since my traveling partner had not returned, I felt obligated to stick to our plan and head down to the Rainbow shindig to make sure he was alright (and to retrieve my backpack and recoup my black market investment). Besides, the hippy fest involved drums and girls and a lunar eclipse/full moon smack dab on the night of the Spring Equinox, a combination that, at the time, seemed to hold more symbolic meaning than the fact that I was sitting in a rock climbers’ paradise and was being handed everything I needed to join their ranks.
I caught a ride out with them and got dropped off just outside of Blythe. They got back on the freeway and headed east toward their next big climbing escapade, and I started thumbing my way south. For the second time in as many months, I’d crossed paths with folks who offered to change the trajectory of my life, and for the second time, I’d gone against my “it must be happening for a reason” philosophy, and stayed the course, whatever that was. It was the closest I ever got to becoming a Jesus freak or a true dirt-bag climber.
Senior correspondent Charles Clayton’s last piece for the Gazette was “New River, Arizona: Three Glimpses,” which appeared in #181. His blog, “Pagan Parenting,” can be found at mountaingazette.com. Clayton lives in Taos with his wife and daughter.