It seems like ages ago. But it was just six months ago, in mid-May, when we started our national park journey in the mind-boggling desert landscapes of southern Utah.  More than 23 national parks later, November marked our return to the great North American deserts in all their varied and colorful glory.

We have learned that there are three major hot deserts in North America, all in the west—the Mojave, Chihuahuan, and Sonoran.  The Mojave Desert is the smallest and hottest, and it includes the California high desert. The Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts are both shared with Mexico.  In addition, the Great Basin Desert is a large cold desert that occupies much of Nevada just north of the Mojave.  Desert ecosystems are fragile and complex, whether hot or cold, high or low, and we have enjoyed getting to know them and some of the plants and animals that call them home.

On the first of November, we left the Channel Islands and their tiny island foxes, raucous sea caves, and lush kelp forests, ushered back to Ventura Harbor by dozens—possibly hundreds—of dolphins.  After a final visit in Ventura with our fun new friends Lesley and Jim, we headed off to Joshua Tree National Park—the first of many upcoming desert destinations as we (sadly) bring our time of western national park adventures to a close.

You can make the drive from Ventura to Joshua Tree in three hours or so, passing through green farm fields, rolling hills, and small towns.  In the final hour or so, you arrive in the strange and wonderful Mojave.

The Mojave Desert is about as far from Bethesda as you can get and still be in the U.S.—geographically, culturally, and visually. (smile) So sparsely and creatively populated, people find ways to scratch out their highly individual existences in this captivating, rugged landscape.  In the Mojave, sharp thorns are one of the most essential resources plants need to survive. You can almost imagine that the people here need them too.

Joshua Tree actually sits on two very different deserts—the Mojave and the Colorado (part of the Sonoran Desert), which have very different vegetation and topography. The Mojave is higher, and gets a bit more rain, and this is the land of the Joshua Trees.

By my reckoning, Joshua Tree is one of four national parks named for its most distinguished native plant—the others being Saguaro (Arizona), and Sequoia and Redwood (California).  Joshua Trees are spiky and quirky, almost humorous.  Curiously, thought, they’re not trees at all.  They’re a type of Agave, but they could fool most of us, growing up to 40 feet high…albeit slowly—only ½” – 3” a year.  And like the almost-human Saguaro cacti, the super-tall Redwoods, and the massive Sequoias, you can amuse yourself for hours looking at them.

The other distinctive feature of Joshua Tree National Park is its boulder-strewn landscape.  If you knew nothing, you would say that the ONLY explanation for what you see around you is that someone dropped huge rounded boulders from the sky.  For long stretches, the landscape is flat or slightly rolling, carpeted sparingly with intrepid desert vegetation. Then, suddenly, you encounter outcroppings of enormous boulders, piled all over one another in weird ways, as intriguing as the crazy agaves.  These rocks are a climber’s dream; once it’s cold in Yosemite, Joshua Tree is the biggest California climbing destination, and the park campgrounds are full from October to May with buff twenty-somethings. Woot!

We pulled into the park a bit later than expected on a Thursday. Following our usual M.O., we did not have a camping reservation because we prefer the freedom and flexibility of first-come first-served camping. We were optimistic that we’d find a campsite in one of the park’s nine campgrounds, even though it was late afternoon—waltzing in a bit cocky, Masters of Campsite Strategy arriving “well before the weekend crowd.”  Ouch.  We joined an unhappy motorcade of vehicles trolling around in search of nonexistent empty campsites.  Perhaps due to short staffing, none of the campgrounds had signs stating that they were full, so we all were consigned to participate in this grim and growing parade of losers while our lucky predecessors averted their gazes, trying to ignore us and have their fun.  Except, except! (Wait for it!)  As we were leaving our fourth full campground, at the brink of despair—and dusk—a camper flagged us down and invited us to share his site.  Gary from L.A. had one of the most spacious and private sites in the whole campground, nestled among some crazy gigantic boulders. Since he was camping in a tent that mounts on top of his SUV, he was barely using his enormous real estate. And, he was leaving the next day, which meant we could keep the campsite as long as we wanted.  Whew—we really lucked out.

We shared meals, stories, and a campfire with Gary—an engaging, well-read and well-traveled person—along with his two large German Shepherds. In these times of divisiveness, the kindness and generosity we’ve encountered over and over again has been a balm to the soul.  Thanks again Gary!

Only an hour’s drive but seemingly a world away lies Palm Springs, one of the gayest cities in America and one with a wacky, flourescent, Rat Pack high style.  We spent a day there with our friends Don and Tom, who had moved there in recent years from Manhattan.  Don was a Peace Corps Volunteer with us in Paraguay in the mid-1980s, and it’s been great to keep in touch over the years.  Our visit coincided with Pride Weekend, so we were treated to the high-spirited Greater Palm Springs GLBTQ Festival and Parade, complete with floats for Alaska Airlines, Walmart, US Bank, a contingent of Joshua Tree park rangers, all the local police departments, and many high school marching bands and gay-straight alliances.  My personal favorite was the Dr. Bonner’s soap float, which featured a colorful fire engine pulling a plastic-walled room occupied by a bunch of scantily dressed people having an all-out battle with foam-soap-filled super-soakers.  (Dr. Bonner’s is the ultimate eco-friendly camping soap, which I guess is why I found this float so hilarious and ridiculous.)  Thanks Don and Tom and your terrific friends—it was a great day in every way.  We returned home to our campsite happy and exhausted by the unaccustomed throngs of rowdy, rejoicing humans.

After three days of beautiful hikes, one crazy Pride Day, and five nights under the stars, we decamped for Death Valley. It’s not nearly as scary as it sounds. We’ll tell you about it in our next installment.