One of the great things about being a single mom in Los Angeles is the abundance of nearby ways to thoroughly engage the attention of your pre-teen son.
One of the more gratifying aspects of single motherhood in the Los Angeles area is the abundance of great weekend getaway opportunities to thoroughly engage your A.D.D.-addled pre-teenager. I mean, just try to find a worthy outing when your kid gets bored downloading a 30-second YouTube video.
Sure, there’s always Disneyland for the non-claustrophobic. But if you really want to blow your kid away, take him camping. Not the safe, RV-centric experience that exchanges your comfy Barcalounger for a 36-foot-long Wanderer Wagon. Real camping. Sleeping on the ground.
OK, nearly on the ground. At my age, I figure I rate an air mattress. But a modest investment can snare you one of those, a couple of sleeping bags and a tent. With Southern California’s munificent natural habitat to explore, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
If you’d like to see what the Southern California looked like before the cattlemen and the miners descended in the 19th century, one of the wilder weekend adventures is Joshua Tree National Park.
Located about 140 miles east of L.A., Joshua Tree is so named for that peculiar, gnarly tree that warns you to avoid contact with its spiny branches. North of Palm Springs, Joshua Tree is the gateway to the high desert where there’s pretty much nothing else between you and the Nevada border. A 12-year-old boy’s imagination, fueled by 57 viewings of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” can soar.
About 30 miles of climbing highway took us through the strip mall haven of Yucca Valley before turning off onto Joshua Lane and Black Rock Campground.
Joshua Tree National Park has campgrounds titled like John Ford westerns — Cottonwood Springs, Indian Cove — and all have their specific appeal. But Black Rock also has running water with real flushing commodes — amenities the novice camper daren’t take for granted.
Fifteen bucks a night bought us a campsite with access to communal bathrooms (no showers), a rough-hewn picnic table and a fire pit. The best campsite at Black Rock is #30, the last site before the trailheads takes you up into the hills.
After a quick camp set-up and donning of appropriate gear, we were ready to explore. A former Girl Scout, I knew about items essential for hiking anywhere: a hat, sunscreen, water, a bandana and a compass.
Out under the big sky
I’ll bet you can’t think of the last time you were outside and completely, utterly alone. We found that in spades in Joshua Tree which seduces adherents to the dry, desert lifestyle. We were lucky enough to visit after spring rains, when the term “desert” is quite the oxymoron. Those rolling hills and jagged canyon edges dotted with prickly Joshua Trees and creamy blossoming yucca hide spectacular explosions of color.
Cacti growing out of rock are festooned with radiant fuchsia flowers; psychedelic green lizards scurry along boulders; beetles like emerald Egyptian scarabs crawl through dust. We knew they were guarding buried pirate treasure.
There were many trails to wander and lots of time to catch up on those conversations lost in trips to the orthodontist and AYSO practice. All enjoyed in uninterrupted silence under azure skies.
That is, until the wind started to pick up toward sunset and the yipping of coyotes was suddenly and disconcertingly all around us. I noticed banks of fulsome grey clouds rumbling up from the horizon.
A few raindrops
“Better get back to camp, kiddo, if we want to cook anything before the rain arrives,” I said as the first big splotches hit my visor. By the time we returned, it was more than a drizzle. I grabbed a box of crackers, some cheese and a bottle of wine before heading into the tent. Good thing I had left the firewood in the car. It would be dry for later.
“It’s OK, Mom,” Dutch offered flexibly. “We’ll just read in the tent and wait for the rain to pass.”
By the light of the Coleman lantern, we made it through three chapters of The Golden Compass and a Uno tournament before I finally had to admit that this was not a passing sprinkle. It was a gully washer of epic proportions, replete with jarring cracks of thunder, lashing rain and freezing wind that blew the tent practically horizontal.
“Well, we can run for the car and sleep there, but we’ll get wet and there are no other blankets,” I suggested.
“Nah, we’ll just stay here,” my son replied sleepily. Easy for him to say.
Surprisingly, the tent didn’t spring any leaks and, about two a.m., I fell into a restless sleep.
After the storm
The morning dawned crystal-clear, with the sound of desert birds calling. Stiff and shivering, I crawled out of the tent and saw that during the night, everybody had quit the campground. Ours was the only tent or camp vehicle left in sight. Dutch thought that was very cool.
With icy fingers refusing to work, building a fire to start coffee wasn’t in the cards.
“Hey, Dutch, how about going into town for some pancakes?”
Never had a greasy breakfast grill smelled so delectable. A bottomless cup of hot coffee superseded the thought of appearing in public looking like I had just cowered through the storm of the century — which I had.
Dutch ate his way through a jumbo stack before announcing he was ready to climb some rocks and by the time we got back to camp, damp clothing was dry. It was already hot. Perfect hiking weather.
The national park encompasses 794,000 acres of trails suitable for varying levels of fitness, unlikely cacti and teeming wildlife. The monzogranite geology provides great jumbles of huge, rectangular rock formations that tumble over each other, resembling the block collection of some over-indulged giant toddler.
The west entrance to the park, through the town of Joshua Tree will take you to trailheads like those of Skull Rock and Hidden Valley. But a word about preparation: the sun can be merciless. Dehydration is a serious thing, so you need to bring plenty of water.
Once inside the park, we almost didn’t know where to start. An easy trail at Barker’s Dam led us past eerie piles of boulders and caves with ancient petraglyphs made by indigenous peoples.
But easy isn’t for pirates; so we headed up into the boulders via trails that took us by the remnants of a reservoir exploited by early cattle barons.
More than a view
The view from the top of the rocks is worth every aching muscle the next day. It’s a dazzling, humbling vista of endless miles, empty of anything but a Mother Nature who seems to remind you you’re not such a big shot on her turf.
A picnic lunch there discourages superfluous conversation — even a 12-year-old’s.
A dozen or so hiking miles like this and we were more than ready to return to camp, where the eastern sky was melting to lilac and a quick campfire warded off an evening chill.
A local desert tortoise the size of a Frisbee visited us. Dutch inexplicably named it Bruce. Bruce ate grapes from my hand before slowly lumbering off.
A dinner of Italian sausages and roasted vegetables, lit by campfire, was accompanied by a desert symphony of howling coyotes, chirping insects and the regular hoots of owls. A fire log collapsed, sending up crackling flames. Within an hour, we counted 17 shooting stars.
“Hey, Mom, this is pretty cool, huh?”
“Can we come back?”
“Count on it, buddy.”
The Mom-Son weekend score? The desert: 100. Disneyland: 0.
Copyright © Melonie Magruder/2013 Singular Communications, LLC.
GETTING THERE AND THE BASICS
To get there, take I-10 east about 100 miles from Los Angeles. Merge onto CA-62, and go north on the Twentynine Palms Hwy about 25 miles to the town of Yucca Valley.
Turn south on Joshua Lane and follow the signs five miles to the campground. Information and campground reservations for Joshua Tree National Park may be found by visiting the website www.nps.gov/jotr/.
Campgrounds are usually fairly empty on Mondays-Wednesdays of the week, but reserve well in advance if you plan on camping on a weekend.
Other than Black Rock, most of the park’s campgrounds do not include sources of drinking or washing-up water and only have pit toilets. This is fine if you don’t mind primitive conditions and can carry in your own water. Lots of it.
Campfires are only allowed in sites with fire pits. As mentioned, there can be variances of temperature of 50 degrees in one day. Take appropriate clothing. Rain arrives abruptly and in abundance. Flash floods can occur, so watch the weather while hiking and be prepared to seek higher ground.
The most temperate times of year to camp in Joshua Tree are March through May and September/October. In the summer, it’s just too hot in the day and, in the winter it’s just too cold at night.
Amateur geologists will have a field day here, but please don’t hoard rock samples.
Did I mention you need to pack lots of water while hiking? I’m not kidding.
Unless you have a functioning GPS system or really know your stuff, stay on the marked trails. You can get lost quickly.
Shake out your shoes before you put them on in the morning. Scorpions like to scuttle into warm, dark places like your hiking boots.
Don’t leave any food out when you leave your campsite. Desert animals will find it.One cord of wood should take you through dinner and a quick breakfast.
When putting out your campfire, douse with water, cover with dirt and douse again. Before you leave the campsite, douse with water again, even if it looks like all the embers extinguished. You’d be surprised at how they can reignite.
There are snakes in the desert. Get over it. But they’ll probably not bother you if you don’t bother them.
Be a mensch and leave your boombox at home. You will hear an entirely new and natural sound system in the desert.
The cardinal rule of camping: Leave Your Campsite Cleaner Than How You Found It.