Scene Along the Road 4: Winds and Tracks of Time

Zephyros
Ah, Joshua Tree! We find ourselves again at a favorite boondocking site, just adjacent to the National Park border, with the I-10 corridor’s blistering fast cell and data connection. Every iteration is a learning experience, and this time we come armed with a simple elegant phone app that locates east and west to align our solar directly south for energy maximization. We are now positioned with our awning north-facing, and winter sun creates a solar reflector off the aluminum skin at all times of the day. Thanks to Vinnie Lamica’s polish job, we can be seen from miles away, easy to signal the cavalry if attacked by rampaging zombies or wind-blown jumping chollas—probably the most deadly cactus on the planet!

Days One and Two passed in serene bliss: warm days and a night sky lit like millions of shotgun shell blasts through a black, back-lit canopy. We lit our propane fire pit, sipped evening libations, and read to each other, pausing to tell stories and anecdotes.

But an onslaught soon blindsided us. Weather reports are notoriously fickle and inaccurate, as everyone knows. Early the following day, I sat outside basking in the silence of the desert, scanning the northern mountain ranges. Layering rock and strata patterns revealed shades of varying browns filled by meager earth footholds, patches of green vegetation in their grasp below folded peaks sharply contrasting a cerulean sky. While mentally free-floating, a subtle ghostly apparition began to cloud the clear view with a growing smoky haze, though no telltale olfactory signs emerged. The distant ranges disappeared into an unseen dimension, replaced by a cold wind seeping across the landscape, like a darkly magical Etch a Sketch-erasing moment. Mean winds obscured the prospect of all that once sat in stillness, knocking chairs over and disheveling all that could not stand in its insistence. The temperature dropped by twenty degrees, and it blew and blew….

The French experience Le Mistral meaning “master wind.” This dry cold northerly wind blows in squalls toward the Mediterranean coast of southern France, tormenting people for weeks on end, and has driven people mad. They say even murder is forgiven after a week of Le Mistral! “If the Mistral blows for nine days, then a murder on the ninth day was treated as a crime of passion, not as a cold-blooded murder,” states Professor Marion Diamond, University of Queensland. There is also the Sirocco which blows from north Africa across the Mediterranean to southern Europe. Web search reveals at least 75 different world culture names for winds to include: Bayamo, from Cuba; Chubasco, Central America; Haboob, Sudan; Nor’easter, from guess where?; Santa Ana, southern California; Williwaw, Aleutian Islands; and lastly, Zephyros, from the ancient Greeks, to name just a few.

Returning back to the “driving people mad” statement, we scurried into the Silver Submarine in haste against the onslaught, and sat while the Airstream shook violently despite being firmly anchored by stabilizers and weight of body and contents. There was no let-up from wind blasts growing in intensity at times close to around 50+ miles per hour. Orienting our rig east-west opened our long sides to the full force of the northerly wind; opening the door against this took every bit of strength to the critical balance point where the wind chose whether to pull it open for you, or slam it closed and induce ear trauma. If you’ve ever experienced an earthquake magnitude about 4–5 on the Richter scale, you can appreciate our growing apprehension. The only barrier from madness was the arrival of our friend John, who was passing through to explore the East Coast and graced us with hours of debauchery and insightful storytelling. His plans to tent in our camp quickly became laughable.

Two days—and many libations—later, the relentless wind carried him away east, leaving us to ride it out to acceptable levels after four days of Zephyros’s torture.

Being on a rocking boat for days on end and stepping on shore brings reality to the term “sea legs,” and post-wind we walked around camp like drunken sailors…or was that still the effects of our two-day liquid libertinism?

Tracks of Time
One of the secrets to successful boondocking is minimizing water use and discharge, in the form of grey water wash and black water human waste. We were luckily located far enough in the “boonies” to trek a short distance into the remote desert expanse with shovel, and explore flora, fauna, and geographics as we kept our trailer black tank light. It is interesting to note how rare rain water flows in the desert, moving through the pathways of least resistance. It was on one of these duty jaunts that I came across a section of hardpack mud, where the water had pooled until it found release. Post-rain squalls, water disappears instantly here, and it left behind, in this case, a smooth surface suitable for recording tracks of movement before quickly drying into hard pan.

On the island of Crete, encased in mud, researchers discovered the nearly six-million-year-old tracks of what appear to be human, or close to human, footprints.

Ape foot prints present themselves remarkably different, so these newly discovered impressions are serious contenders for human origin, or at least a branch off ape-like ancestors closer to our own. The closest confirmed human footprints discovered so far are in Laetoli, Tanzania, and are dated at 3.65 million years.

Studying tracks and traces is a fascinating detective pastime, opening up the wonders of creatures that passed previously invisible. Animal scat is another intriguing study along this theme and I was about to carefully bury mine forever, but a side glance to a hardpack section of easy walking revealed numerous human and animal tracks and traces. The hoof prints of deer registered clearly.

In the study of animal tracking we learn there are hoppers, draggers, and walkers, both four foot and single track, which category deer fall into. Directly adjacent to the deer tracks and close in time were the markings of human habitation: a fire ring, bike tire tracks, and graffiti scratchings. Humans never reflect much order or efficiency, and usually exhibit a non-discerning scream of existence. In my daily desert duty hikes, I found medicine pill bottles filled with marijuana, various alcohol bottles, cans, plastic containers, bags, and—richest of all, scratched into the dried mud to await the layering of perhaps millions of years, and eventual discovery by some distant civilization, if such exists—this graffito:

Human graffito inscription above deer paw print presentation

 

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Joshua Tree evacuation

Don’t be concerned. No story of danger awaits you, dear reader! Just a play on words…

Ten glorious days boondocking—or sometimes known as dry camping—here has gifted us with extreme solitude amidst the sharp borders of the hot sun in cold air and nightly star-studded canopies. The waxing and waning of the moon morphs brilliantly lit rocky pathways of nightly strolls into dark stumblings of muscle memory, avoiding hidden cactus homesteads. The weather has quickly changed here and elsewhere across the southwest from a residual autumn warmth to a transitional night rain and cold unsettling winds that buffet our trailer as the failing light of the year reaches its nadir. We soon find ourselves the uninvited guests to the doppelganger of the infamous French Le Mistral, winds that blow intensely for days and weeks, and are often said to drive animals mad and people to suffer from headaches and restlessness. Our trailer rocks all night as if on an earthquake shaking table…shake, shake, shake-shake-shake, and vibrate. My thoughts turn, after a quick self-reassurance that we won’t tip over, to the works of Hollywood foley artists who recreate the necessary sounds for movie soundtracks. Lying awake now at 3am, I see in my mind’s eye several men high up on 10-foot ladders holding a large sheet of 8×8 aluminum, and shaking it to create the sound of wind blasts. If only…a quick jump out of the warmth of our multi-weight comforter, and a glance out the window, reveals cactus fronds frantically chasing angry eddies in the chaotic tempest.

Our “silver submarine” has three tanks to sustain our lifestyle and all must be managed in balance. Fresh water: 39 gallons; grey water (that is, wash water from sinks and shower): 37 gallons; and black water (toilet): 39 gallons. The challenge resides in how much of each can be balanced with no hook-ups. We are seven miles from the ranger station and the park’s only dump station and fresh water supply. It’s not too far to navigate just to replenish our water by truck, with four five-gallon military grade water cans, but too much hassle to hook up and pull our 28-foot trailer up and back through a slight mountain pass.  Technically the grey tank can be hose-dumped into the terrain here, as it contains only bio-degradable materials. Instead, we wash our dishes in a handled dishpan in the sink allowing us to walk it outside to surprise the succulents. This slows down the rapid filling of the grey tank to showers, which should make those of you permanent foundation dwellers smile in satisfaction and comfort.

Boondocking showers are taken military style: wet down, turn off water, soap up, and rinse off, while standing in a restaurant bus tub that we later empty. Most folks never ponder the amount of water wasted each day in normal household use. The average person uses approximately 80-100 gallons of water per day! Flushing the toilet is number one in the consumption scale, followed by showers. These two are our challenges. Our total fresh water availability for two is ant-sipping in comparison, yet we don’t live like street gypsies. Living in an energy efficient home for so many years has taught us some valuable lessons in conservation. If there ever was a time when I have considered cutting my hair (don’t worry, I’m not really), it is during these speed showers. 60% of our water supply of 39 gallons, a little over 24 gallons, lasts us about 3-4 days.

Now let’s get to the compelling and interesting part you all have been waiting for: toilet administration…this could be a new government agency? I have, in chivalry, given up my usage of our porcelain throne to Ruth completely, for the more primitive but powerfully pleasant, environmental mise en scene of ambling off into the desert to dig a “cat hole.” There is nothing more relaxing than having the world in your prospect as you squat over your creative hole. At this level of view, the desert comes to life. Ants make a living, birds dance about the bushes, stones of various sizes and colors emerge to capture your attention, the air carries from the distant mountains a wonderful scent of the primordial earth, tiny lichen and succulents color the limitless gravel tailings of millions of years of geological change. But, there is work to be done yet in this moment in time to satisfy my end (there is a pun here, yes). The winds still to a whisper, then great gusts arise from 30 to 50 mph. I am learning the skill that bomber pilots achieved to strike their targets with accuracy involving gravity and air drag. Things can get a little complicated as I am not a moving plane. It is all about timing with the wind gusts and moving placement to compensate for the aforementioned vectors, to hit the target. It does take practice, which luckily I have in spades…somewhat a play on words here, sorry! Finally, after the hole is filled and returned to earthly harmony, I find hidden artistic patterns emerge as outlines of previous holes could be blended into an earthly moire finish, establishing an aesthetic of completion.

So you see, boondocking challenges can be transformed into artistic accomplishments and enjoyable learning experiences to break free from daily monotony…whatever that is?…

Joshua Tree National Park

You pull through Twentynine Palms, California, just before your entry into Joshua Tree National Park, where the Mojave and Colorado Deserts join in approximately 800,000 acres of stunning landscape. This region is one of earthly power and tension, as the famous San Andreas Fault separates the Pacific and North American plates on the southern border of the park. The North American plate slides down toward Mexico and the Pacific plate crushes into it moving north, sumo wrestlers creating a compression zone of movement about two inches per year…except for those times when it jumps radically, as is due at any moment!

As you drive up to the park’s northern boundary, you curiously check Google for the origin of its name. Mormon settlers passing through this region in the mid-nineteenth century saw strange trees with uplifted branches and it reminded them of the biblical story of Joshua reaching his arms up to the sky in prayer and leading them to the Promised Land.

Joshua Trees
Joshua Trees

Driving up to the ranger park kiosk, you’re greeted cordially and informed that there will be a $20 per day fee to pass through the park. “No problem”, you whisper half audibly, reaching into your wallet to pull out your Lifetime Senior Pass. This pass is the bargain of bargains, as a mere $10 added to reaching the age of 62 gets you and all in your vehicle into all national parks and federal lands free forever. There are some returns on investments of years.

Now the adventure begins at 35-45 mph across 45-50 miles of winding roads constructed, you presume, to either force you to drive slowly, or most probably to change your viewing perspective and wonder with each bend in the road. An hour later you arrive at the southern border of the park and following the recommendations of previous park boondocking pioneers, immediately turn off onto a dirt washboard road to pass a scattering of RVers. A mile passes and soon there is no one around you but the awesome vista of the San Andreas Fault valley below and, several miles away, the artery of I-10 carrying silent tiny corpuscles of moving vehicles. You pause for a moment to wonder how the life force in each vehicle could compare to this moment and place.

Camp is prepared, your Airstream is positioned due east/west to maximize the solar tracking across the solar panels that are arranged into position.

East-west solar orientation
East-west solar orientation

Dusk falls slowly and the sky changes from a blue so intense it creates an after-image of golden yellow on your closed eyelids. A hummingbird darts from cactus flower to flower, safely circumventing skewering thorns. Sunlight reflects veins of multicolored layers of geologic history in the surrounding mountains. Mt. San Jacinto, far off in the southwest, provides a midway curtain between Los Angeles and San Diego, layered in shades of bluish grey in the haze escaping that megalopolis. Coming suddenly from behind, you hear a “thump thump!” in the air, and passing above your head a jet-black crow with wings so dark they appear as liquid reflected in the sunlight, alights on a rock 20 feet in front of you. It gurgles and greets you in its indecipherable language, then lifts off to drift in the thermals ahead.

The panorama around is lush with desert vegetation, smoke tree, brittle bush, dune primrose, barrel cactus (which people like to dig up and replant in their gardens, unfortunately),

Barrel cactus becoming endangered
Barrel cactus becoming endangered

 

 

cholla cactus,

cholla-cactus
Cholla cactus

and jutting into the sky around you, the pencil-thin, flowery and thorny arms of the ocotillo.

Baby and mama ocotillo
Baby and mama ocotillo

 

Ocotillo at sunset
Ocotillo at sunset

 

 

This particular bush looks like spindly ocean coral that, having millions of years of seas erased around it, chose to adapt to living in marshlands, and in ultimate stubbornness stoically stuck to the eventual barren desert landscape.

You become keenly aware of a silence so deep and profound you can hear the blood rushing through your head. In the increasing crepuscular light, small white cotton ball clouds form and close in on each other like herds of sheep gathering into an enclosure, and form into a central lenticular cloud shape

 

Lenticular cloud formation
Lenticular cloud formation

like a huge UFO in the sky. Colors begin to emerge, painting the billowy clouds with orange and eventual fire red as if you were looking into the glowing embers of an upside-down fire pit.

Sunset at Joshua Tree
Sunset at Joshua Tree

Colors slowly grey away, darkness settles in, an occasional star emerges, and the moon, now full, illuminates the landscape, returning the clouds to an earlier glow. The moon’s new backlight halos rapidly moving bats searching out a meal in those buzzing creatures seeking one around you, their nearly indiscernible radar squeaks guiding them to their prey. You sit meditating in silence, your mind clear and free in the cool air, the weight of sensual overload now weighing heavy in the night. Sleep comes on the gentle breezes.