It didn’t take but two weeks of being in home in Santa Cruz before I was ready to leave again. Not because I was tired of the place, but because a gnawing energy was pressing on me from the inside out. Waking up in the middle of the night with legs twitching was the first message. My body continued to send me more. No matter how much I was running around and playing I couldn’t stop this vibration of movement that made my palms sweat. I had spent a summer without climbing and I desperately missed the physicality and mental focus it requires. I wanted to feel the deep exhaustion that comes from days of total body and mind concentration.
Where else could I go in November but Joshua Tree National Park? This park is a both a mecca and historical landmark for climbers. Thousands of routes have been established by climbers over the decades. There are endless options for all levels. But it’s not just about the climbing. Deserts carry a potential energy themselves. History of past ages locked up in a silent landscape. Views expanded by lack of vegetation and vantage points atop huge piles of granite boulders. Life experienced on a subtle, slower scale. Deserts give us pause. They are unfamiliar ground to most of us and offer a magical passage into another realm.
My first trip to J Tree (as climbers affectionately refer to it) was in spring 1998. My friend Spencer and I both failed to get assigned to lead spring break trips for the UCSC recreation department where we worked and in compensation our supervisor gave us his rack of climbing gear and said, “Here, at least you could take this and go have fun somewhere!” On that trip we began to discover the mysteries of J Tree. The options for climbing overwhelmed us. We were introduced to the tortuous winds that relentlessly whip through the desert with nothing to slow them. We were enlightened by frost kissed yucca flowers in the mornings. The possibility of comfort was shown to us by neighboring campers who offered us baked brie and warmth at their fire.
On the drive home, Spencer opened up to me and told me he was gay. I felt honored to hear him come out. I don’t know what it was that made him decide to tell me then, but being in the desert and climbing together felt like it had given us the space to forge a friendship that would last a lifetime.
By 2001 I was freshly out of graduate school where I had been climbing my weekends away at Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin. This place was nothing to scoff at; though routes were rarely taller than 50 feet the quartzite rock was high quality, smooth and edgy. Bolts didn’t exist and there was a stalwart crew of ‘lakers’ who would always offer up their rope if you arrived solo. I cut my teeth here listening to old timer Pete Cleveland telling me to, “Cwimb, Haven, cwimb like there’s no tomowwow.” In the winters I practiced aid climbing when freezing temperatures kept bare fingers from stone.
Upon returning to Santa Cruz I made my first solo trip to Joshua Tree and quickly made more lifelong friends and uncovered more of Joshua Tree’s secrets. Returning there every winter began to feel like a homecoming party; there was almost always someone I knew there while I continued to meet new friends.
Last week was the first time I had returned to J Tree solo, and I admit I was a little nervous about finding friends and climbing partners. It was Thanksgiving and I knew many people would be involved with their own families. But as I drove into the park at dusk, I knew I had no reason to worry. When you spend enough time in the desert it strips away the superfluous until your emotions, like the granite, are so exposed the only choice you have is to take ownership of them and keep on.
On this trip, the tenth anniversary of my first solo trip to J Tree, I was never lonely. I shared my campsite with different people every night, took long walks under the stars, was welcomed to many fires to warm myself and found fabulous partners to climb with. In the words of Tom Davis, a well seasoned top notch climber, “climbing is something you can do your whole life and still be just figuring it out.” I will forever be figuring it out, and the desert of Joshua Tree will continue to share its secrets with me.