Out of the Park

Ice inside my tent. Ice cubes inside my water bottle. Ice in my veins. Not exactly, but that’s how it feels as I stand in the sun waiting for my toes to defrost.

Today I’m leaving Joshua Tree National Park. Morale is low. The past three nights I’ve slept outdoors in sub-freezing temps with a Walmart-quality sleeping bag. I haven’t showered. I haven’t eaten hot food — or anything beyond dry cereal, peanut butter, apples, bananas and water, now with ice cubes courtesy of an overnight in nature.

I haven’t communicated with the outside world either, although I’ve socialized well with park visitors curious at who in his right mind would ride a bicycle here in late December.

Last night, however, I didn’t meet anyone. It was too cold to explore. A band of buds had a blast at the adjacent campsite judging from their raucous laughter and beer can crushing. Their big-wheeled Jeep Wrangler is pimped with firewood on the roof rack and gas canisters on the back bumper. That’s how to travel in the desert. Not a bike share bike pulling a little trailer.  

The road through Belle Campground is sandy, so I walk the bike.

“Hey there… Citi Bike! Hey, is that really a Citi Bike?” a woman calls out.

Jessica and Mason are lounging like lizards on tailgating chairs, soaking up the sun in matching hunter-orange hats and polarized sunglasses. They’re having a morning bowl (not cereal) and making coffee.

A black pitbull named Deus waits faithfully for breakfast. He sizes me up and moves in for an introduction. With the grip of a boa constrictor, he humps my leg with rigid passion. His strength is terrifying. Mason labors to pry Deusy’s muscled legs off my paralyzed thigh. I’ve never been loved quite like that.

The couple can’t believe their eyes. They lived in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I take a seat and share my story of why I left New York. Every word resonates because they felt the same way and left, too. They’re the second couple I’ve met who traded Greenpoint for greener pastures. Outside Wildorado, TX I met a young family on their way to Fort Collins, CO.

Apparently I’m a good storyteller because a woman from an adjacent campsite comes over to give me a handful of $1 bills.

Jessica and Mason moved to Venice, CA where she is a sales rep for a hard cider startup while he works remotely. They love the California lifestyle, but Venice is getting too pricey and populated.

They are drawn to the beauty of the high desert and want to construct an earthen home called bini shell. (Update: They are now living near Joshua Tree making me jealous with their sunset pics and renovating a vintage Spartan Carousel trailer for desert adaptation. Home is where you park it!)

For now, their 1981 VW bus is parked at the campsite. It includes a mini fridge, closet, collapsable bed and little kitchen stove. Mason sympathizes with how I’ve been struggling on a bike in J-Tree because the bus’ engine wheezes and shakes climbing these infinity hills.

They pass around a bowl, but I politely decline or else I’ll be wheezing, too. I have four more miles uphill before I can go down. That’s if I leave. The vibes are so good that I could chill here the whole day if I don’t cut myself off after an hour to get moving again.

“You’re such an inspiration, see you in Venice!” Jessica calls out as I roll away.

True to her word, she and Mason will be there to watch me ride onto Santa Monica Pier. Meeting people like them makes the cold nights and hard miles worth it, and one year later we remain in constant contact.

Leaving Belle Campground, I fly a mile downhill to a stop sign at the first intersection of paved roads since the visitor center at the south end of the park. I can continue downhill towards Twentynine Palms or struggle four miles uphill to Jumbo Rocks Campground at 4,400 feet.

In the valley below lies Twentynine Palms. That’s an actual city, best known for its Marine Corps base. So what happened to the 30th palm? Drought? Fire? Disease? Who plants an odd number like 29? Alone in my tent I spent considerable time pondering the meaning of Twentynine Palms.

I’ll see more of the park on the high road to Jumbo Rocks towards the town of Joshua Tree where I plan to spend the night. I’ll also avoid the notorious Twentynine Palms Highway by riding through the relative safety of the park.

I walk most of the way to Jumbo Rocks where the terrain flattens out. Tons of vehicles parked along both sides of the road don’t make me want to stop and investigate.  

I prefer the alone-in-nature feeling that makes Joshua Tree so special. Here in the northern part of the park, Joshua trees are in abundance. They dot the plains like green cello frill toothpicks dropped from the sky. These gnarled, spindly trees have it worse than I do. I’m sleeping indoors tonight!

I would love to come back in a car with the energy to take hikes away from the road; however, when you’re on a bike crossing the desert, the last thing you want to do is add mileage, even on foot.

I make one exception for the giant boulder enclosure at Hidden Valley where stolen cattle once grazed and got rebranded. The mile loop is crowded, but walking is a nice change of pace.

I overhear a guy say that he lives in Brooklyn and speculates to a friend that the park must have bike share.

“Otherwise, there’s no way that thing could get here. I mean, it can’t leave New York.”

I hold my tongue; I don’t have time to tell them the truth. After my happy walk around Hidden Valley, I feel pressure to get out of the park. Late afternoon sunlight is enlarging shadows. Back on the bike, I round a curve and have that in-flight moment when you notice a slight drop before the pilot announces the obvious.

Sadness sweeps over me. I’ll soon reenter civilization. The entire journey is almost over. No more me in the middle of nowhere. No more wilderness, no more camping, no more starry nights. No more feeling a lost peace in a lunar landscape that blew my mind and froze my toes. It’s been a hard day’s night, but I have no regrets.

Wheels are moving without pedaling. My phone buzzes back to life. I have a grand total of one text message, and it’s 20% off one item from Bed Bath & Beyond. Being plugged in is so overrated.

I queue behind a line of cars at the exit, resisting temptation to buck etiquette on a bicycle. The ranger waves me through without uncrumpling my park pass. Descent into town is steep. Seeing Joshua trees behind chain link fences makes them look like famished prisoners rather than heroes of the open desert.

I declare victory in the parking lot of the Safari Motor Inn. The drought is over. Hot shower and flush toilet here I come. I’m exhausted and dying for real food, but hygiene first.

A handwritten No Vacancy sign on door stops me cold. The motel owner, monitoring me on CCTV, comes outside with news that all motel rooms in town are booked for New Year’s Eve, which is tomorrow night.

“You go to Motel 6 in Twentynine Palms. They have rooms there,” he says.

Twentynine Palms is 13 miles and 3,000 palms in the wrong direction. Daylight is fading fast. I feel the cold creeping in with the shadows. I have no place to stay indoors or even outdoors.

I’m shaking when I ring the doorbell of San Bernardino County Fire Station 36 on Park Boulevard.

A skinny guy in his 30s answers the door. I explain the situation. I ask about camping in their gated lot, where a grand total of one car is parked. Of course that’s not what I’m after. I’m fishing for an invitation to sleep on the floor next to the big trucks. I’ll join the guys for bottomless bowls of firehouse chili and cans of watery beer. We’ll fart and burp the night away. I’ll hear their crazy stories and they’ll hear mine. The next morning I’ll roll out with a t-shirt and great stories to share.

“No, we can’t let you,” the fireman says flatly, citing liability. That legal buzzword you can’t argue with. I’m only asking to sleep outside, but he’ll have none of it. He suggests hotels in Yucca Valley six miles west. I plead that I can’t make it with the sun setting now. He’s sure that I can “if I hustle.” Thanks, big guy.

I push the bike uphill nine blocks to a road marked as a future bike route on Google Maps. It’s a backdoor between Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley that avoids Twentynine Palms Highway, one of California’s deadliest roads.

This two-laner doesn’t seem much safer with speeding rush hour traffic. When the narrow shoulder turns to sand, I’m forced to take the lane. Cars must pass me from the on-coming lane, which is getting difficult as traffic increases. If I weren’t so exhausted I’d be scared for my life.

A curtain of darkness is closing out the day. Up ahead, the road widens and two cars are pulled over with hazard lights flashing. The driver gets out and flags me down. He lives in Brooklyn and heard about a Citi Bike loose in California. The group is staying in Indio for the holiday and taking day trips into Joshua Tree. Another guy comes over to give me a high five.

“Dude, I can’t believe you’re on a Citi Bike in California. What the what! That’s wild!”

I begin an expletive-laced rant. Almost froze at night. Endless hills. No hot food for days. Need to feel warm. Need to shower. Need to get off this road. Need to get away from you. These last miles at sunset have snapped me.

“Sorry dude, well, I don’t want to hold you up any more, just wanted to stop and say ‘hi,’” he says. “I never do this, but can we take a selfie?”

A selfie. Now? When I’m bundled in neon fabrics, haven’t shaved in days and tears clear a line down my dirt-smeared cheeks? Why yes, this is a great moment to smile.

I check into a motel and stay two nights, the second of which is New Year’s Eve when I fall asleep in bed before midnight with a bag of grapes and the TV on. I wake up at three o’clock wondering if it’s too late to have the Stone smoked porter I bought for my party of one.

New Year’s is an over-hyped holiday, but I promise myself never to be in such a pathetic situation again. I put the bottle in my trailer bag and begin packing for Palm Springs on what will be the most terrifying stretch of roadway I’ll encounter in America.