Nightmare at Joshua Tree: Where Two Deserts Become One

General Patton is celebrated for bold, successful strategies as a field commander. Some of that must have rubbed off on me camping next to his tanks. Rather than plod west towards Indio on the interstate, I’ll surprise the desert and cut north through Joshua Tree National Park.

Primary motivation is to get off I-10 where I’ve flirted with disaster. Instead I’ll explore a Dr. Seuss landscape of smooth boulders and spindly Joshua trees where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts collide into one inhospitable hellhole with an altitude problem that surpasses 5,000 feet above sea level. My opinion has merit if you remember that I’m pedaling a 45-pound, three-geared Citi Bike.

By any measure, J-Tree is an imposing place. At 1,250 square miles, it’s larger than Rhode Island’s landmass and four times that of New York City — without a single Duane Reade to stock up on overpriced snacks.

Joshua Tree is home to cryptobiotic crusts, hundreds of fault lines, alluvial fans, fierce winds, tarantulas, five-inch scorpions, honeypot ants, kangaroo rats and 25 varieties of snakes — all of which sound terrifying to a city mouse like myself, especially the Desert Night Snake.

More accurate sign: Entering at Own Risk

More accurate sign: Entering at Own Risk

I enter the park from the south with only seven miles to Cottonwood Campground. Doesn’t sound like a big deal until you consider that it’s all uphill. The road twists and turns, but never once chips in a little relief. Even when I’m sure I cannot possibly go higher, around the bend the incline continues.

Shiny SUVs with California and Nevada plates zoom up and down the two-lane road, which has no shoulder. This is a National Park, not I-10, so I’m hoping drivers will be in a forgiving, eco-friendly mood upon seeing a helpless bicycle inching against gravity.

Kind people stopped to offer food, like bananas from this New Jersey family

Kind people stopped to offer food, like bananas from this New Jersey family

Two hours later I reach Cottonwood Visitor Center, southern gateway to the park. I purchase a multi-day pass for $10 and get ready to bike the last mile to the campground, which is blessed with potable cold water and flush toilets. Those are five-star amenities around here. This will be the last chance for water until I exit the park in two days.

A silver sedan pulls me over. Out pops my former fraternity brother Chris a.k.a. Hoser. I haven’t seen him or his now wife Jenn in at least 10 years. They met playing beer pong in our dilapidated fraternity basement in New Hampshire and are now living more soberly in San Diego.

Jenn is an eighth year associate at a national law firm. Chris is an English and literature teacher at a private school, quite a turnaround from how I last remember him — incoherently drunk at 4 PM or passed out on the chapter room couch that he’ll repeatedly soil (hence his nickname).

They had planned to camp in the park over Christmas, but with temps in the 20s and winds in the 50s, they retreated to a motel (during this time I was living la vida sola in Bob’s Marriott). They offer me bananas, oranges and leftover shortbread Christmas cookies. Hungry for a little company in the wild, I ask about their two funny-faced Shih Tzus in the front seat, but neither are available to-go.

Amazingly, I’m not the only biker at the campsite. Cynthia, an adventure guide, and Bob, a forest firefighter, live in Alaska and flew with their bikes down to San Diego. Joshua Tree has been a shock to the outdoorsy couple, who probably pal around with moose on reality TV in their spare time.

At Jumbo Rocks, where more than 100 campsites are packed together, they said it was hard to find peace.

“I’ve never shared a wilderness experience with that many people,” Bob says. “In the morning, three women in fuzzy slippers walked through my tent site. I mean, I hadn’t even had coffee and they’re already violating my space… in fuzzy slippers!”

Our bikes draw the attention of Peter, who is cycling alone and came in from the north. He’s an electrician at LAX and rides his bike 16 miles to work to save on gas money. By leaving his equipment truck parked at the airport, he saves $140 a week. The only problem is cabs crashing into him on the departures level.

“The drivers yell at me, ‘What the hell are you doing riding a bike here? This road is for taxi drivers working here!’” to which he shouts back, “I work here, too!” before going inside the terminal to his job site near the ticketing agents.

Peter says you don’t know how filthy airports really are. Not the places the flying public sees, but the back hallways littered with wrappers, screws, and dust bunnies the size of real bunnies. Jet engines suck all that stuff up, he says.  

Cottonwood Campground

Cottonwood Campground

We disperse to set up camp before dark. I’m at a picnic table knifing peanut butter out of the jar into my eager mouth when Peter interrupts with an exciting discovery: leftover firewood. When sleeping outside in December, finding an unexpected source of warmth is like winning Powerball of the desert.

Dinner in the desert

Dinner in the desert

After the sun goes down, Peter sparks a flame without a match. Team Alaska comes over for more conversation. The fire binds a temporary friendship even as granules of snow pelt our clothing. A desert mouse with elongated tail scurries by Cynthia’s foot hoping to sneak in our warming party. By 7:15 we call it a night. It feels like 11:30.

Icy wind raps against my tent. I wake up with neck pain and frozen toes at five o’clock, thrilled how “late” it is. Only 1.5 more hours of misery until I feel the sun.

Overnight precipitation leaves a dusting of snow and splattering of ice on the tent. I bid Peter good luck on his way south to the Salton Sea. It’s all downhill for him. I’m going north on the most challenging segment of the entire trip: No source of food, water or shelter. No cell service or electricity. No easy way out, only up.

In particular, I dread the elevation gain of 1,700 feet over nine miles from Cholla Cactus Garden to Belle Campground. But first, some relief.

“Yeah man, you won’t need to pedal for a while until here,” Peter says, pointing to Turkey Flats on the map. “It’s pretty flat to Ocotillo Patch, but by Cholla Garden you start climbing and then you’ll give it all back and then some up to Belle.” He’s referring to the dreamy downhill into Turkey Flats at the base of Pinto Mountain.

Out of Cottonwood Campground I start the day climbing, but every curve gets me closer to that big downhill. Thereafter I’ll hit flat washes before an incline the rest of the way to Belle.

When the flats come into view, they’re more arid and vast than I could have imagined. My eyes uneasily scan the horizon for something familiar, but find nothing. No sign of human development in this wilderness other than Pinto Basin Road. I’m overwhelmed by the simplicity and size of the planet we inhabit.

At peak downhill speed, I sense a sedan creeping alongside me. It’s getting too close. What the fu%k is this, I wonder, flashing back to that RV on the interstate. I put on the brakes so it will pass.

The window rolls down and an Asian woman asks, “Do you work for park?”

I’m wearing a green hoodie under a yellow reflective vest, but otherwise look like a hobo on wheels. I’m irate. She interrupted the best part of my descent for the dumbest tourist question ever. Joshua Tree is a big place, but there’s only one main road and this is it. North is still north and south is still south, what else do you need to know, lady?

Another complaint is that I’ve yet to see any telltale Joshua trees for which the park is named, which means I’m not getting my $10’s worth. Instead, I wildly obsess over the teddy bear cholla, an impossibly prickly thing that leaves you writhing in agony if you dare cuddle it.

Look but don't touch this teddy bear

Look but don't touch this teddy bear

Hoser, ever the idiot, put his palm on one, “just to see,” and had these words of wisdom: “Stay the fu%k away from the cholla!” The name is cute and the cactus looks fuzzy, but I decide to admire it with my eyes.

To pass time, I wink when I see one. Left eye if the cholla is on the left side and right if on the right. Go ahead and see what your mind comes up with when riding a bicycle across a double desert.

I make great time to Turkey Flats, decent time to Ocotillo Patch, but am falling behind by Cholla Cactus Gardens where I stop the winking game because my eyelids are in constant flutter. A car pulls into the lot of the cactus garden. The driver and passenger look at me with mouths wide open.

Reed and Lucy live on the Upper East Side. They cannot believe a Citi Bike is in Joshua Tree, but did read about me in the NY Post. We chat for a bit and Reed promises to buy me beers when I get back to New York. I will remember, Reed!

Reed later unfollows me on Instagram and I never get that beer ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Reed later unfollows me on Instagram and I never get that beer ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Cholla Gardens to Belle Campground is nine miles, all uphill. Curves wind out of sight. Although I’m going higher, the sun isn’t. The climb is too much even in lowest gear. I end up pushing the bike and taking frequent breaks, especially at informational signage.

A family from New Jersey stops to take pictures with me, but what I really want is to throw the bike on a pickup truck and call it a day. No such bailout happens. Exhaustion melts into desperation as morale slips away. A steady stream of cars heads for the northern exit. I make no effort to cling to the shoulder, which at times narrows into oblivion. Let them go around me. They have a gas pedal.

Almost three hours after meeting Reed and Lucy, I reach Belle Campground beautifully ensconced among giant boulders and Joshua trees whose stunted limbs twist skyward for salvation.

All 18 sites are taken by visitors with vehicles who made better time than my three miles per hour. I don’t have any choice but to crash. With a bicycle and small tent, I can fit anywhere, and the Mojave Desert isn’t lacking room. I strategically select a spot that’s too small for anyone else to park a car and pitch a tent. Boulders on two sides will shelter me from the wind.

Inside the tent, clouds of condensation pour out of my mouth like I’m smoking a pack of cigarettes all at once. My middle toes are already frozen and the sun hasn’t even set.

The night is calm and the stars shine bright free of light pollution. I spot Mercury and the Orion constellation from the tent’s plastic lunette window. I’m not going stargazing outside in this bone-shattering cold. Remember, I packed for this trip in August.

Laughter and the smell of roasted marshmallows waft my way. I’m alone and hungry and have no cell signal to connect with anybody.

The temperature keeps dropping. I’m wearing everything I own, including (clean) underwear on my head. Inside my inadequate sleeping bag, I contort my body as if doing half-conscious yoga.

The warmest position is kneeling with my chest against my thighs and head tucked into my knees. Arms hug my sides and hands clasp the toes, my most vulnerable extremity. This might already have a name, but I’m calling it Desert Survival Pose.

A full moon in the sky awakens me at 2 AM. I’m heartbroken the sun won’t take its place for almost five hours, yet thankful I still have a pulse, just not in my feet.

By eight o’clock it’s finally warm enough to emerge, a solid 15 hours since I crawled into that tent with nothing to do but listen to my teeth chatter and wait for sunrise. My water bottle, which I kept inside next to me, rattles with ice cubes.