SOCAL DESERTSCAPES: Austere Wilderness Beauty / Palm Oases Enrapture the Boys at Indian Springs, Deep Creek Hot Springs and Joshua Tree National Park
- Henry David Thoreau
Over the extended Valentine Day’s weekend, the accustomed cast of pseudonymous characters – the Perfesser, Brock Stoker, and Gambolin’ Man – once again found themselves in the throes of yet another mythic road trip, this time joined in their homeboy healing / bonding escapade by long-time Acapulco amigo, El Indio Prieto. (You might recall him from the early 2008 Valley of Fire post.) Here they are, pictured in all their exuberant joie de vivre. I had warned the boys that adding a new element to the equation – no matter how easy-going and laid-back the Indio is – would prove to be akin to tying four birds together: even though they now have eight wings, they cannot fly.
What did fly was our time together. For the boys, the holiday bromance get-away (from the wives and girlfriends) amounted to yet another notch on our belts of soft-core Walter Mitty-style tepid bravado and seize-the-day elan vital. Despite not a few pratfalls, untold debilitations, zany contretemps, hair-pulling ADD / OCD-inflicted loops, and a myriad snafus and Murphy's Law fubars (e.g., dead car battery in the middle of nowhere, dunking camera in hot springs, lost medicinals, and a GPS navigation failure involving eighty-mile out of the way lardy burritos) - things actually went fairly smoothly and according to plan, or the best laid of such schemes as we could muster and keep our lax agenda steered toward. And isn't that how a boys’ gyro-vaguing road trip is meant to be - laid-back, sans souci, and devil-may-care. Lay out options, choose which ones are best pursued given time, resources and inclinations, and then go after ‘em with irrepressible brio wrapped in the aphoristic ambivalence of “be prepared for anything, expect nothing.” Or, as was to be mostly demonstrative of our situations, be prepared for nothing, expect anything. . . while just barely dodging the scenario of “fail to plan; plan to fail”. . .
Given this belabored background of too much information and not enough preparation and planning, it’s amazing how much we actually saw and did, how much ground we managed to cover, over four short days of interminable delays, leisurely detours, drawn-out lollygagging and bogged down by the meticulous details of day-to-day operations! What’s even more amazing is that Gambolin’ Man actually went with the flow, didn’t try to overly-control events as they unfolded, or remained folded, and resolved to just breathe deeply, and repeat the mantras of anything goes, what’s the hurry, so what, who cares (I do!) . . .if time's a-wastin’ mightily during two-hour airport miscommunications hooking up with each other, two-hour rental car snafus and boondoggles, and three hour shopping layovers looking for camping gear for the Indio, and several more stop-offs and delays food shopping, and - I had no choice but to relent - more than one Starbucks episode where we indulged our caffeine addictions and gave at least two of the boys - the trader and the barrister - an opportunity to connect with the outside world to conduct their business, whose exigencies, despite being on a get-away-from-it-all, unplug-from-it-all vacation, apparently could not be put off. Besides, it’s not as though we could actually go anywhere or do anything our first night, given that Brock was on a different itinerary altogether and wouldn’t be meeting us – where exactly? - until – when precisely? – not Wednesday night, or Thursday even, maybe not until Friday – but wait – he's changed his mind again, and now he's flying down Thursday – no, wait, he's decided to drive down Friday; hold on, again! He’ll be flying down Friday. All this as we were trying to figure out the best plan for a rental car. We finally pinned him down and he ended up driving and meeting us Thursday night in Palm Springs. Phew!
That first night, the Indio, the Perfesser and I, tired yet energized by being in Los Angeles together, decided to spring for a hotel room and get a bite to eat instead of immediately setting off for realms and destinations unknown. We shelled out a hundred and forty dollars for a decent-enough room in cool Santa Monica and stuffed our faces at a nearby, sub-par Italian restaurant. We stayed up late, talking, watching absurdist episodes of The Twilight Zone on the tube, and playing Texas Hold ‘Em. The Perfesser, fancying himself to be a poker maven, reeled us into several rounds of his small ante games, only to throw his cards in every single time at the mere hint of an unpromising hand. Lots of fun that was. Finally, I got him to play out his hands, and we engaged in some brilliant psychological dueling of bluffs, blinds and outrageous betting that ended up in raises of, first, millions, then billions, trillions, and finally, absurdly, dodecadillions of dollars if such fanastical sums exist!
The next day, Thursday, was all about getting on the road to Palm Springs in our big SUV rental - would you be surprised to know that it's not a very comfortable vehicle for four big guys? (The mini-van Brock would be arriving in is infinitely more accommodating. I was the de facto driver of all the miles, so no difference for me.) Because of some run-arounds and hassles and "applied coupons" with Budget or Avis or whoever it was, the Perfesser ended up getting the rental for ten bucks and we were able to drop it off in Palm Springs to boot, where we eventually met Brock who had finally settled on making what turned out to be an eight hour-plus drive from the Bay Area, because he ended up getting waylaid, lost and confused on the LA freeway owing to a lack of foresight to include amongst his travel possessions and necessities a – map! Um’kay!
We had some time to kill before Brock’s ETA – which was around 9 pm – so once we got to Palm Springs we were itching like caged monkeys to get out, stretch, unwind our crumpled bodies, and walk about in nature, yet it was already 3 o’clock by the time we spent about forty minutes cruising the Palm Springs strip – reminiscent of a tiny Vegas without the casinos – although there are casinos in the Palm Springs areas. Finally, because I had done some prior research, we found ourselves at Indian Canyons, a beautiful riparian / palm oasis, where centuries ago the industrious and peaceful ancestors of the Agua Caliente Cahuilla Indians settled in Palm, Murray, Andreas, Tahquitz and Chino Canyons. We were hit with an entrance fee of eight smackers apiece for the privilege of trespassing upon their sacred land. Actually, I don’t blame ‘em, and even though they locked the gates and closed up the preserve by 5 pm, our mere two hours there was so beautiful and enchanting that it was well worth the price of admission.
We sidled ever so slowly up Andreas Canyon Loop Trail – about 1 mile in length – making our way up a small gully with a gorgeous palm-fringed stream cutting through gigantic rock outcroppings, admiring the groves of stately California fan palms, intrigued with the unusual geologic formations, and entranced by the magical presence of water flowing so abundantly in a desert environment. Andreas Creek flows perennially from an occult source high up in the scraggly rock hills, and provides a lush oasis habitat for over 150 species of plants to thrive within just a half-mile radius. Unfortunately, we did not have time, or return for, the spectacular beauty, prehistoric intrigue, serene quiet, superb views, and reigning solitude of the other canyon hikes – Palm, Tahquitz, and Murray – where rock art, seasonal waterfalls, ancient irrigation systems, and Big Horn Sheep and mule deer awaited eager eyes. As with other desert Southwest locales where the magic and miracle of water figures in human historical patterns of the rise (and fall) of settled communities, civilization took hold here and the ancestral peoples of the region grew vegetables, built edifices, lived in a stratified society, and lived peaceably until - until what? Drought....invaders and warfare....something wrecked their millennial old way of life and drove them out.
We hung around Palm Springs that night until Brock finally met up with us around 9 pm. He seemed rather energized for someone who had just blown in from a long, lonely haul down big-rig hell (Interstate 5)! We decided to split town, over Brock's feeble protestations to check out some clubs, and head to our first destination - Deep Creek Hot Springs - and camp out at Bowen Ranch, where a guy named Mike has homesteaded for nearly thirty years and runs an easement operation allowing people to access Deep Creek Hot Springs, about two miles down, via a shortcut on his land to the San Bernardino National Forest trailhead.
Relying on the Perfesser's truly wonderful I-phone GPS app, we set coordinates and off we sailed into the blank slate night, getting to Hesperia sometime around midnight, bleary-eyed, dead-tired, and eager to get out of the car - the SUV now traded in for Brock's considerably more commodious mini-van - and get some sleep. The directions to Bowen Ranch, which I had downloaded from the web, were stashed away in my pack, so relying on the GPS ended up taking us down a criss-crossing series of dirt backroads, at first suitable for mini-van passage, but finally, with Brock admonishing, and the dirt road turning into a rutted-out track no wider than the vehicle, and Brock rightly a hair agitated about scratches from overhanging brush, I pulled to a dead stop just in time to avoid spilling into a three-foot deep washed out trench. Good one, Tommyboy! So, that about did it - we agreed to just crash right where we were for the night. It seemed perfectly pleasant enough – anywhere would have sufficed at this point - and we knew we'd get back on track in the morning. Lesson learned: forget relying on GPS when it comes to navigating back country dirt roads!
The night started off chillier than expected, but for the Indio, being as he was a hot-blooded tropical native, and despite being well-equipped, we all thought, with a brand new goose down sleeping bag recently purchased at REI, well, the Indio suffered a cold-ass night, but to his credit, he toughed it out. A little hoarfrost on his bag in the morning? Ain’t nothing, we assured him. The stars were twinkling despite the ambient lighting from scattered homes here and there in this outlying, unincorporated district near Apple Valley. But then - I'm not sure when I first noticed the commotion - but, God Almighty! Have Mercy Already! - the chickens! All night long, in between dozing on and off, awakening in half-hour fitful spurts of drowsy anguish, it was fingernails on chalkboard shrieking of hundreds of chickens in hellish despair, crammed ten-fold into a space the size of an album-cover in a nearby industrial holding pen. The insanely tormented clucking kept me (us? no one else seemed bothered when I mentioned it next morning) up all night long. It was worse than the time Brock and I, crashed road-side on a trip to Vegas once, found ourselves, delirious for want of sleep, about fifteen feet from a rail crossing where every forty minutes or so a barreling flash of screeching metal and horn blaring insanely loud flew by knocking us out of unconsciousness and nearly causing us to wet our pants. Anyway, those poor chickens. How could anyone. . .don’t get me started!
The next morning, before it was even light, I was up and pacing, making coffee, keeping warm, trying to rouse the boys from their slumber. How could they continue to sleep in this god-awful, uncomfortable, pitiful patch of earth, with those chickens barely contained, and the promise of a fresh, bright day dawning? Get up, boys, get up for Christ's sake, let's hit the road! (Silence at first, then a perturbed chorus of snores, sniffles, hoots and boos.) Finally, I'd say about an hour or so later, after they were dutifully roused, after a pinkish blurry ball of a sun rose over a nondescript sagebrush horizon, after more coffee was made, and gear was slowly put away, and the van painstakingly re-organized, after I had the real directions to Bowen Ranch at the ready, after everyone was situated and belted in, I did a nifty three-point back-up maneuver to safely turn the van around, and off we were to our eagerly anticipated destination.
About halfway down the six mile Bowen Ranch Road , a guy in a pick-up - turned out to be Mike - stopped, so I braked, and he asked us where we were going, as though there was anywhere else to go but Deep Creek. At first glance, he rolled his eyes, suspecting us to be some city boy rubes (he got that half-right) goin' someplace we shouldn't be goin' to, especially at this time of the year, when the creek's risen high and the elements of danger doubled down. We assured him we were prepared, principled, respectful, and were interested in camping on his land. Once he realized we were not yahoo scum or urbane effete types, he relaxed a bit and launched into a recital of the litany of rules and regulations - and lamented, too, his stern and jaded attitude, because of so many, as he put it, "inbred imbecilic morons" from Victorville and the valley and who come and spoil the pristine experience with their loud talk, boisterous natures, booze, drugs, boom boxes, and general disruptive personalities. Oh, shit, what are we getting into? Mike left us with a nice thought, though - on the days when no one's down there but you or a handful of quiet folks, it's an unforgettable experience in a paradise setting.
We continued on to Mike's ramshackle ranch, picked up a copy of his - what he called indispensable - hand drawn (pretty useless) map, self-registered by putting $40 in a small packet, and drove a few hundred yards to the trailhead and our campsite, situated high above the creek canyon at the edge of the San Bernardino National Forest. In a surprisingly efficient manner, the boys all had disengaged from their e-toys and loaded up their daypacks with food and - yeah, baby! - off we marched into the wild rugged beyond. The trail, it had been forewarned, was an "extremely difficult" descent, to the point where lots of people park over yonder and hike in six miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. Others, equipped with high clearance vehicles, are able to drive in to a point below and hike in the remaining mile. So far, the trail was just fine - nothing out of the ordinary, even though it alleges to drop nearly 1000 ft. over a couple of miles. Turns out, despite one kick-ass section called Cardiac Arrest Hill, it really is nothing. Bits of loose debris and uneven terrain might keep some wimps away, but most anyone in quarterway decent shape can make it. What might – but didn’t, as it turned out - keep people at bay, at this time of year, is the chest high, ice-cold river you have to cross to get to the soaking pools.
The desert scenery was breathtaking! Fresh, crisp air filled our chest cavities and percolated to our brains, infusing us with the giddiness of camaraderie and unbridled promise of a day of limitless adventure (and, all right, bromance!). Finally, after more than thirty-six hours, not counting our ever-so-brief foray in Indian Springs, we were out hiking and enjoying the great outdoors! It was a fabulous, flawless day, destined for near seventy degree temperatures, blue skies and no LA pollutants on the horizon, so we were all excited to be living this adventure together. The boys! Bestias! Condenados! Desgraciados! Pendejos! Companeros de mi vida! Once more with feeling! Ve por ello!
The well-graded trail snaked along a ridge with long distance views of glittery snow-blanketed peaks - perhaps the Santa Rosa Mountains? - and nearer panoramic sweeps of big desert hill country, laden with chunky broken up rock outcrops, and dotted with islands of sparse vegetation - creosote and chamise - typical of this desert environment. Along the way, we saw scrub jays, red-tailed hawks, and Le Conte's Thrasher - a plump brown bird bigger than a robin with a long curved beak - and I heard the sweet-pitched lilting melody, but did not espy, the canyon wren. Once, the Indio grabbed my arm in alarm, pointing into a brushy wash, excitedly reporting having sighted a wild cat! Huh!? What!? You’re kidding! I went looking, and my noisy motions soon flushed out a - big ol' jackrabbit. Some cat, Indio ! We also came upon scat (and scant) evidence of coyotes and bobcats. We were hoping to see, but didn't, bald eagles, condors, mountain lions, and....no people!
About halfway to the bottom of the canyon, the view opened up and we could see the sinuous ribbon of hard-churning turbid water cutting its anfractuous course through the big barren hills. Designated a Wild Trout Stream, Deep Creek and its rugged drainage is an ecological treasure holding in its secluded bosum the greatest diversity of wildlife and vegetation habitat in the San Bernardino National Forest, and is home to at least one endangered species, the Southwestern Arroyo Toad, a warty little amphibian who burrows into the creek's sandy shores during the day. We were approaching a gigantic sandstone upswell of earth - kind of like a Brontosaurus' back - that plunged gradually, but steeply, down to the creek, forcing it to cut a horseshoe bend. This is where the springs were situated. At the top of the hump, we could have gone right, but chose, unwisely, to keep to our left and de-summit five-hundred slippery, unstable feet down a severely rutted course rather than - as we later learned - the easier way around the Bronto back. We all made it, inching our way down carefully, at times on our butts, and, once down, looking back (up), it didn't seem like such a big deal. And here we were! With the exception of two guys already soaking their bones, we pretty much had the place to ourselves!
Initially, I was hesitant to make the crossing - should I leave my belongings behind and swim across? No, that was out of the question - I needed my camera and food. So, sucking it up, I hoisted my pack above my head and cautiously began treading across the creek, instantly feeling shriveled up and pickled by the 38 degree water, which, thankfully, or not, depending on your point of view, was not flowing all that swiftly - had it been, about nine-tenths of the visitors would have been left stranded high and dry on the opposite bank. Navigating the current, though, turned out to be manageable; keeping your balance was a bit more tricky. Being barefoot, I was concerned about tripping on submerged rocks, but found a sandy bottomed course and in a matter of seconds, was safely across. Now, the moment of supreme anticipation - dunking myself in the hot, healing waters of Deep Creek's mineral springs.
I released an audible and prolonged aaaaaah! as I eased my cold-prickly body into the "womb" pool - so called for its human body regulated temperature of 98.6 degrees. Eager to sample more of the thermal delights, I climbed up a stepped ledge and negotiated a slippery track to a higher pool that was closer to 104 degrees, more to my liking. And, what was best, I had it completely to myself, so I could sprawl my naked (and sadly pudgifying) frame its full length, and repose in silence to hear only the droning roar of the creek, the passing song of a bird, and the gentle splish splashing of the steamy cascade running down an algae slick channel to constantly replenish the pool with its eternal cargo of thermally heated not too sulphuric smelling water. Soon, of course, I was joined (or my reverie was interrupted) by one other fellow, a local dude who filled me in (without my asking) on the history, lore and social register of Deep Creek. From what I could judge, it seems like too much of a good thing gone sour by hordes of demented sybarites. By now, though, I was wondering where on earth my buddies could be. . .lagging behind and lollygagging, is where. I spotted them on the opposite shore, where they were plopped down on the sand enjoying a leisurely bite to eat - when aren't the boys hungry? - and doubtlessly engaged in some loopy conversation. I gesticulated emphatically for them to get their asses over HERE! I was at a loss to understand why they wouldn't want to maximize their time in the hot springs, especially since now is when we had it to ourselves. I gave up, and returned to my tranquil reverie, lost in a steamy miasma of dreamy visions. An interminable chunk of time elapsed before the boys mustered up the courage and will to brave the creek's frigid fury and join me in soaking regally in the mineral waters, finally immersed fully in the prime attraction!
The thermal springs, geologically, are a function of Mother Nature's miraculous knack for producing natural features for human usage and enjoyment. In all their many guises, they are a marvel to behold and, and for many, to revel in. No doubt, the granite boulders sheltering the secretive healing pools of water was a sacred gathering place, where spiritual renewal and healing rituals were common for thousands of years, for the Serrano and other tribes who roamed the badlands of what is now southern California's desertscapes. Modern people try to reclaim the spiritual heritage, but far too often the ambience is destroyed by overcrowding and irreverent partying. Formed by processes invisible to time, in subterranean wellsprings, rain has percolated to bottomless depths, where it is then heated up by primal geothermal activity deep in the earth's core; this treated water is then rerouted to the surface through a series of natural pipelines to emerge via cracks in the rock face or out of a bubbling hole in the ground. Spring fed pools are not generally natural in occurrence, they must be built up by humans to corral the water, as caretakers have artificially done at Deep Creek to create two lovely pools, and a few other seasonal ones now submerged by the high flow of the creek. Another little pool - the so-called Crab Cooker - is a narrow trench like reliquary niche carved in the bedrock, perfect for a solitary human to lie down in, but be forewarned - the temperature is about 113 degrees! For me, it was the best - in two minutes, out one, in two minutes, out, then back in again, then a quick, take your breath away dip in the creek, followed by another delicious soak in the cooker where transcendence was nearly achieved as the body experienced the hot/cold duality and pinprickly sensations of extreme temperature variation, while the mind proceeded to melt in puddles of rhapsodic delight.
By early afternoon, the place had become overrun with an assortment of humanity, including old friend and hot springs / desert rat / database guru, Andy Oppel, accompanied by two of his Burning Man buddies, Richard the artist from San Francisco and manic Jack the yoga instructor and card magician from Brooklyn who regaled us with David Blaine style card tricks and endless Burning Man tales of debauchery and excess. They had originally planned to go to Saline Springs, near Death Valley, but roads were washed out, so Andy decided to come here - his tenth – or maybe twelfth - trip to Deep Creek. Must be something about the place he loves! Soon, things were hoppin' with all manner of naked (and some clothed) bodies slip-slidin' about - beautiful and ugly bodies running the gamut of the human physical form: tall, lanky, sinewy, ripped, fat, pudgy, shriveled up, dangling in all its glory, and everything in between. Most of the visitors were of the masculine variety, but Goddess' baths were also graced by the presence of several comely (or not) and buxom (or not) young women - to be noted, there was absolutely zero sexual overtones, even though, in such an au natural setting, it was to be expected people were checking people out left and right. Gone was the splendiferous serenity, the sumptuous solitude of owning a place; instead, arisen like a foul plume of smoke, replaced by a near mob scene of dozens - I counted seventy people in and around the springs over a three hour period - of humans assembled in tiny confines all endeavoring to enjoy their moment in the springs. A regular later confided "this was nothing." You really had to be a social animal to enjoy it, the type of person who comes to such a place not seeking the spiritual rewards and raptures of sacred solitude in nature, but a party scene, a big happy human reveling family. Well, not much to do but observe: a group of four Korean young men (replete with white headbands) who finally mustered it up to strip off their army camo shorts; a couple of weather-beaten old hippie dudes, one a dead ringer for Charlie Manson; a young soldier dude claiming he was a reincarnated bushido warrior itchin' (dyin'?) to get to Afghanistan to fight and kill for his country; some drunken yahoo compatriots of his who ended up breaking a whiskey bottle in the springs, for shit's sakes; some little children, one whose fat father was ensconced in a small dug-out pool in the sand smoking a cigar; a parade of regulars and old-timers; four utter punk reprobate kids, seventeen and eighteen, smoking some rank ditchweed dope in our faces, one of them relating a story of how he and his buds stole a car and outfoxed the pigs (The Perfesser, interrupting him at this point, chided, "Listen up, what's your name? I have a nine-year old daughter, and I wouldn't let her get within two hundred miles of you." The reprobate: "Oh, I'm reformed, man - here, have a toke."); on and on, an endless procession of people making their way across the creek to - ostensibly - enjoy a soak. Some show-stopper, that creek. By day's end, Saturday, we had had our fill of the party / zoo scene at Deep Creek. Having it all to ourselves .. ..yes, it certainly is possible, but your timing has to be right. Best try to get here on a Tuesday morning, maybe in shitty weather. Ah, then you will find paradise! Thank the spirits we got here early enough on both Friday and Saturday mornings to appreciate it in relative solitude and enjoy the ephemeral splendor of that taste of spiritual paradise Mike alluded to.
At one point, to escape the hubbub, the Perfesser and I laced up our boots and headed up a steep wash - more like a defile - in the side of the mountain above the springs. Up, up we climbed, along a soft sandy bed, attaining heights where only billy-goats dared tread, and veered off on a six-inch animal path dropping precipitously off far below, perhaps 300 ft., where through my binoculars I spotted a sun burned, naked Andy clambering around the rocks. We gave a yell, once, twice, and finally he oriented the shouts to our location high above, and snapped a shot or two with his high-powered telephoto. The Perfesser and I just sat in silence for a while in our outdoor sanctuary, heavenly removed above the fray, taking in the vast desert surroundings, the lay of the land, the snow on distant mountain ranges - and felt the "cupped hand of God" gently cradle us in our remote silence and solitude.
Our first night of camping up top, in below freezing weather, turned out to be a nightmare for the poor Indio, who froze his tu-tu off. The next morning, angry, laconic, motionless, and still shivering, he insisted I take him into town so he could just get on a bus and get to Vegas. He was one boy who'd had enough. I tried to encourage him and assure him that if he'd just move about, hike with me down to the springs, get moving, buy (meaning ox, a term of endearment amongst male buddies), his blood would flow and he'd warm up, but he wanted no part of it. The previous night had been torture, and he didn't want to experience another like it. We promised tonight there'd be a huge bonfire, and he could sleep in the tent, or in the van. Finally, in a hurry to get to the thermal baths before anyone else, I left him and Brock and the Perfesser hanging around the camp (the equivalent of hanging out in the hotel room, I told them), and eventually, as the day warmed up, the Indio's attitude changed, he returned to his normally cheerful self, and come nightfall, sure enough, we had gathered enough downed and dead juniper trees to make for a tremendously comforting bonfire blaze where we were able to eat comfortably, sip wine, tell funny stories, and bask in the well-earned drowsiness precipitating a good night's sleep in the van or tent.
Come morning, it was adios to Jack, Andy and Richard, because, having had our fill of the hot springs scene, we were off and runnin' to Joshua Tree. It was our final day, so we wanted to make the most of it by getting an early jump - did not - and navigating efficiently to our destination - did not. The Perfesser had set the GPS coordinates - but we trusted technology too much and did not verify our suspicions enough - that it was accurate (or not) until too late - about 40 miles too late (80 round trip) when, half fucking way to LA, I pulled off at the Bloomington exit (little Mexico) and said, this can't be, boys! Sure enough, the Perfesser recalibrated the inexplicable GPS glitch and we were about two hours delayed from our destination of Joshua Tree. The boys, when aren't they hungry, suggested burritos at a traditional Mexican establishment (viz., a pinche dive), and I refused to partake of what was certain to be lard-soaked beans, asbestos polished non-organic white rice, and preservative-laden tortillas. The habanero sauce, though, tore everyone a new one. After this brief detour, this eighty mile GPS burrito debacle, we were off and runnin' once again, back on course, making good time, having an even better time.
To make up for lost time, I gunned it as hard as I could back up the I-10 to our real exit - toward Indio, naturally - and we managed to roll into Joshua Tree about three o'clock which didn't leave us a whole heck of a lot time for doing what we came to do - hiking. Still, what are ya gonna do but make the most of a crummy situation, and how horrible could it be anyway, being in one of California's great desert environments, with the three amigos, pulling into Hidden Valley parking area with plenty of daylight left. Sensing the brevity of our exploratory juggernaut, we wasted no time in setting off on an ambling course across the great expanse of desert among massive jumbles of sculpted granite boulders, the giant yucca forests of Joshua Trees, gardens of Parry nolina blossoming their impossibly big draping blooms, the drab but soon to be transformed into painterly shrublands of creosote bush, brittlebush, and teddy bear cholla, and those somehow lugubrious vistas of far-off basin and range. Piles of rocks, mounds of boulders, jutting towers of granitic castle formations heaped upon one another in fantastic sculptures and incongruous configurations of geological conundrums provided endless visual stimuli and thoughtful provocation - but no time, lamentably, to really explore, climb them, or get magically lost or harmlessly disoriented for a day's spell in the higher, cooler desert of the Mojave or lower hotter Colorado transition zone. No time to hike, mountain bike, climb peaks, search for old mines, stumble on the desert tortoise, see a roadrunner, tarantula or iguana. Only dream about seeing a desert abloom with dozens of species of wildflowers lighting up the landscape in purple shades of Mojave aster and calico cactus, desert star, mound cactus, yellow throat phacelia, dandelion, and sacred datura, known to the Indio as toloache, inducer of hallucinatory visions of dreamy madness.
Hungry - when aren't the boys? - and short on food, we decided to head the ten miles back into town and check out the tiny strip of Joshua Tree for a decent place to eat. What about the Indian place - serving pizza? No thanks. There was a hippie cafe kind of place, which Brock vetoed, for no good reason, he admitted, other than perhaps his hankering for some spicy Thai food, which we agreed was the place. We ordered up a tasty assortment of extra-spicy all-vegetarian dishes, embarrassed the young girl serving us with our disheveled appearances and smart-alecky wisecracks, stuffed ourselves into a near immobile state of satiation, and then climbed back in the van to seek out a place to camp for the night. I intuited with a quick out of the blue left turn that Geology Tour Road was where we would spend the night, and a mile in, I pulled off along a suitable (and legal) shoulder for car camping. Despite the surreal glow of metropolitan lights from the LA area (we suspected), the night sky was dark enough to see the Milky Way and millions of pinpricks of unfathomably distant suns dotting the inky firmament. The names of stars and constellations I had learned in tenth grade astronomy class came flooding back to me - Bootes, Aldebaran, "follow the arc to Arcturus", Betelguese and Rigel in the belt of Orion - many, many more which the Indio and the Perfesser, astronomy buffs that they were, pointed out to us sleepy but wide-eyed wonder boys. We spent hours in muddled loopy discourse ranging from the mysteries of the universe, quantum physics, relativity theory, mythology, game and probability theory, finances and the stock market, to the purpose of our flawed - or perfect - existence. Then, in a musical twist, the Indio taught us a classic south of the border ballad - "El Rey" - that delved into the pathos and psychology of the existential Mexican. En fin, despite the impending specter of death, no matter the hardships, trials and tribulations of a lovelorn life, forget about compromise, money and success - as the refrain, or "coro" goes, all that matters is "sigo siendo el rey!" (I remain the king). Good words to live and fall asleep by.
Final day dawns bright and early, a scintillating crisp sunrise over a muted purplish landscape dotted with cactus gardens, erratic outcroppings of red jumbles of rock and expansive forests of Dr. Suessian looking Joshua Trees. Today, it would be imperative to get the Perfesser and the Indio to two different airports in LA for their early flights out (noon). Oh, sure, leave by eight and we'll have them there by ten, ten thirty at the latest. It wasn't until the GPS was set that we realized we weren't going to get them there in time. Oh, well, chalk it up to just another in a long succession of miscalculations and tomfoolery. But after some morning business and pleasantries, including a game of nerf ball and a reprisal of El Rey, we loaded things up and hit the road. I really had to step on the pedal with a heavy foot, and barely managed to get the Perfesser to LAX on time, and the Indio, poor fellow, did miss his flight to Vegas, but luckily managed to get a standby just a few hours later. All was good, the adioses were short and sweet, and Brock and I were suddenly left to our own (de)vices, which turned out to be about five hours of boozin' and schmoozin' checking out the Venice Beach scene, watching the procession of loonie tunes, star wannabes, tatted out punkers, pretty boys and girls, parading up and down the strip like in some bizarro everyday Mardi Gras of twisted perverted humanity in peacock strut display mode. Then, still without a map, we blew town, headed in an easterly direction I hoped would intersect with I-5 somewhere in the maddening purlieus of outer LA improper, but my internal GPS unit sensing disaster, I insisted Brock call his wife for directions, and at the last possible second, at a confounding maze of interchanges, us needing the one diverting off to Pasadena, I swerved across three lanes of wild traffic and made the exit - the ramp, of course, was backed up like a sewer full of alligators - and we were, to our great relief, set on course for the maddening bumper-to-bumper seven hour drive back to the Bay Area up big rig hell. At least the Indio was living it up in Sin City for a while. The Perfesser - back to the lab and his beautiful nine year old daughter, Lily, in Memphis. But for Brock and me, it was all she wrote, time to return to our normal and regular existences, our thoroughly predictable lives and workaday worlds, and had I not been the skilled competent driver I am, and having judiciously imbibed only one beer several hours ago, we might easily have never made it back safe and sound from the Odyssean perils of another memorable and indelible boys' road trip through the heartland of the big, bad Mojave and Colorado deserts of the great U.S. of A.