Joshua Tree National Park, California

The desert hates me, but I don’t take it personally because it hates everybody, and like the best disfunctional relationships the more times it tries to kill me the more I love it. I’ve been in desert land for the last few days, since San Francisco when I first saw palm trees and heard loud flocks of chirping birds that sounded like Florida. The desert hills have been beautiful, golden and shimmering, sometimes even a soft buttery yellow, but when I lay out my sleeping pad on the soft-looking grasses the stalks shatter and skewer the foam like knives.

On the edge of the Mojave, the Joshua trees are powerful evidence of Martian biological influence on Earth. Each one rises out of the ground like a twisted and broken hand, knuckles warped and bent back on themselves, each fingertip tufted with green spears. Within the park there are long flat plains of Joshua tree forest that are as strange to my idea of a forest as the redwood forest was, but in the opposite direction. The Joshua tree forest is mostly open space, the trees only 10 or 20 feet high but usually 50 or 100 feet apart. Viewed from the ground it looks more like an army of aliens camped on the plain than a forest, and viewed from above the forest disappears and looks like nothing more than a scattering of broken branches.

Up close the trees seem to be constructed entirely of spines, green spines for leaves and dry brown spines plastered against the branches and trunk, each one hard and sharp enough to run though someone’s heart. It’s as if the Joshua trees were made of papier-mache, except with spines substituted for the papier.

But everything is like that here — all the arms and armor discarded by the rest of the world has been assembled here in the desert, every last tiny barb and plate, and life breathed into it for eternal battle. I carry with me only one tool with blades of metal and although all I do is walk among plants I feel like I’m naked on a battlefield.

To my amazement, I saw three coyotes trotting along the side of the road within a few miles of each other. I’d never seen one so closely before and was surprised at how small they were, so short-legged and bushy that I thought they might be foxes. All of my amazement faded when the ranger explained that they lurk by the road so they can beg from cars because people feed them. Sure enough I came up behind a stopped car with a coyote trotting casually from window to window, peering upward hopefully. My motorcycle had not elicited this reaction. Later I came over a small rise and almost hit one sitting in the middle of my lane begging from a car going the other way; from that point on I honked at them when I saw them.

It’s not the coyotes’ fault, and it’s not even such a terrible thing. It does give people a chance to see coyotes, and it’s only natural that the world around us adapts to our presence. But we are such an environmental juggernaut, such a vast and thoughtless force at loose on the face of the Earth that I do hunger to see things at least somewhat free of our influence, to glimpse what the world might look like freed from our heavy thumb. Seeing plants and animals that have not just been influenced by us but have been transformed into hangers-on that exist at our whim like cats and dogs is to me more like looking into a mirror than going outside.

I also saw a wild tarantula crossing the road, four giant inches of brown hairy spider which presumably had less luck mooching off the park visitors (“C’mon, dear, let him bite your hand, it’ll make a great picture!”). This exciting sighting inspired me to spend the night sleeping high up on a rock.

The rocks around the Jumbo Rocks campground were both jumbo and jumbled, huge smooth pieces of something called monzogranite that looked like granite in peachy-tan fleshtones. It provided the landscape with the soft biological curves that the plants did not, the sprawling boulders and outcroppings resembling half-buried body parts, giant hips and knees and skulls. Because the gravel between the rocks was crumbled from the rocks themselves the color was identical and sometimes I couldn’t tell what was a soft mound of gravel and what was a hard arc of solid monzogranite, so seemlessly did they blend together. The rocks were as smoothly sculpted as sandstone, but unlike river-worn sandstone their shapes were mostly formed while still underground. Apparently groundwater seeping through cracks dissolved the stone while still buried so that as the soil washed away, the gently curved towers and piles emerged almost fully formed as though liveborn from a dirt womb.

At dawn I woke up to a bunch of coyotes yelling right in the campground, then came down from my rock to find rabbits hopping across the parking lot and around the picnic tables.

As I rode south out of the park I descended a thousand feet and left the Joshua trees behind. I passed through bands of other bizzarre desert plants, first the cholla cacti that were fuzzy and golden with needles, then the strange ocotillo that looked like giant patches of seaweed waving on the ocean floor. The ocotillo were 10 and 15 feet high and grew in spindly, leafless tufts, just thin barbed strands rising into the air seemingly far too high to support their own weight.

Just outside the park I spent most of the last dollar of the 751 on a cup of coffee (the Other Fuel). It’s been a good run, just over 10,000 miles. Discounting the single night in Quebec that I paid for lodging, the money was split evenly between gas and food over the course of 77 days, but a lot of that longevity owes to motionless days (when there was no gas expense) and more importantly to the people I stayed with along the way who fed me.

I made enough money drawing houses in Portland to continue for a little longer, though, and maybe even enough to make it home.