5:40am, Joshua Tree National Park

 

It was 97 degrees when the plane touched down in Palm Springs; the forecast was for the temperatures to crest 100F over the course of the next three days. The day I’d planned to go out to Joshua Tree National Park was one of the hottest — that’s why I hauled myself out of bed at 4am to make the drive.

There was the tiniest sliver of moon pasted in the left corner of my windshield and as I turned towards the east, it disappeared. I was already too late, the sky was turning that magical blue that happens when the sun is just below the horizon, the blue of a summer night in Seattle or an hour before dawn in the desert. There was the palest wash of yellow just along the horizon. I worried I would not make it, that the sky would bleach into this heat wave before I was in the park. I should have left the hotel half an hour, an hour earlier, then I’d have seen the stars, too.  Whenever you set out to do something adventurous, you’re already too late; you might as well get to it as soon as you possibly can.

When we were very small, my parents would load us into the back of a massive Buick station wagon while it was still dark and we would barrel down California’s Central Valley to visit with another family; they were not cousins but they could have been. As I watched the light come up behind the leggy metal towers that bring electricity into the Coachella Valley, I remembered the same morning sky whizzing past the back windows, the cables drawing loose black lines across a flat morning sky, the dry hills, the sound of the road.

Sunrise was at 5:40, I entered the park around 5:00. The ranger station was closed and I did not have a map. There was no signal on my phone, either, but there was only one sign: Cottonwood Springs Road. I would not get lost. There was one other car a few hundred yards ahead of me; I could see their red taillights. We leapfrogged up the road; I could hear the warning bing bing bing of the keys in the ignition when they stopped to take photos, their doors wide open to the empty road.

 

On the south side of the park there are no Joshua trees. This part is the Colorado desert, the landscape is different, the plant life is somewhat different too. Not only had I got up too late, I had chosen the wrong route for what I’d hoped to bring home — photos of the Joshua trees, their spiky hands raised and silhouetted against an orange sunrise sky. It was a full hour, more, before I saw the first one. I chose not to race through the Colorado desert to the Mojave side, though, because what I wasn’t looking for was beautiful too.

There was a ridge of stone to the northeast and a turnout just below. I joined two other cars. The motor home housed a couple from South Carolina; he drank coffee from a huge plastic mug and she kept an eye on the dogs. The black SUV spilled out four young guys laden with camera gear; they looked like rock stars, their wrists wrapped in leather bracelets, all four of them with cool hair and attitude. One of them let me see the photo he’d shot of the sky while it was still dark and when I looked through the viewfinder, I gasped at the lace of the Milky Way, traces of burgundy and purple behind bright knots of white. I was too late, and in the wrong end of the park, and I’d brought the wrong camera, too, I should have brought the “serious” one, what was I thinking?

 

But then the light shifted and I stopped worrying. In that moment when the sky turns from night into day, coyotes began to sing. They were across the road and to the north, perhaps behind the ridgeline, perhaps on top of it. The sound was strange, I wrapped a scarf around my neck to take off the chill. We stood in silence for a moment to listen, and then, when it was absolutely daytime, no question, the howling stopped.

“You get out in the world and see stuff, and you just want to keep going,” the man from South Carolina told me. “It gets in your blood.” He remarked on the lack of Joshua trees on this side of the park, but was all anticipation. “Gonna stop as soon as I see one!” The motor home and the SUV full of rock stars left — I stood alone for a while and listened to the silence, watched the sky turn pink and then yellow, and then continued north.

 

When I reached the first Joshua tree, the best light was gone and the heat was taking hold. But I had let go of what ambition had driven me out of bed at 4am. The trees did not disappoint, nor did the great piles of boulders. I saw a desert tortoise and a tiny lizard and I ate an ice cold apple while standing in the shadow of a hulking pyramid of sandstone.

It was 103F when I exited the park on the north side at about 10:30. I stopped to buy an ice coffee to fuel the drive back to the hotel.

I felt like I’d done everything right.

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