The Mojave Desert is a symbol of some kind of “Middle of Nowhere-ness” to the romantics that are smart/dumb/excited/suicidal enough to visit each year. It’s hot, dry, and to some untrained eyes, boring when compared to the Yosemite and Yellowstones of the world. But what keeps most people out of the United States’ smallest of four deserts is the exact reason we’re here. We love the hot glow of the sun against the red and brown rocks and the blood on our legs from passing too close to an angry cholla. Sure, the roar of I-40 might linger for the first few hours of walking, but the sound is drowned out by the sight of a lonely old barrel cactus and the smell of juniper sticking to the canyon walls. There are two cars of us that have met at the entrance to the Mojave National Preserve on Kelbaker Road. We’re from Los Angeles, Ventura, Oakland, Marin and New York, all eager to spend the next few days climbing over a pass we know little about with a punishing amount of water strapped to our backs. To most, this is not recreation, not a way to spend to vacation time, but to this idiot team of foul-mouthed friends and strangers, it’s another weekend in California.
This is not my first time hiking and camping with Hall and Obi. In fact, at this point in my 31 years on Earth, it would be hard for me to count how many days I’ve spent in the backcountry or sitting at the local water hole with them. Even with a late start, strolling easily along the Mojave floor as our eyes adjusted to the desert dusk, we all got back to where we left off, listening to punk rock ukulele echo in the wind as inappropriate jokes and stories were shouted from one hiker to the next. By the time we reached our first camp, we were hot and tired, hungry and excited. We cooked and laughed, avoiding the “So how many miles and elevation do we actually have tomorrow?” conversation that looms over a perfect first evening of a trip into the wilderness.
The following day was hot. It was steep. It was as long as our packs were heavy. There were false summits. There might have been a few tears. There were “FUCK!’s” and there were “DO YOU SEE THEM?’s.” There were sunburns and cuts, large rocks and little shade. It might have easily been the hardest day of hiking that these seasoned hikers have had since they started their long descent into backcountry obsession. But it was a full day of bliss, a day of endless views and constant camaraderie, peanut butter sandwiches and sweaty hugs. It was a day that ended on a ridge high over the Mojave (a ridge we obviously called Juniper Ridge), with views of a bright orange sunset that hung heavy over the Kelso Dunes. We drank a little whiskey and ate dinner before retiring into our bags around 8pm. It’s the kind of day you live for when you set out on adventure. A day you can only describe to someone who wasn’t there as a “vivid blur.”
Our third day was spent descending into Bull Canyon, through long stretches of Cat’s Claw and mesquite. At times, the wash was unappeasable, so we’d climb back up onto the canyon walls and slowly make our way to our rendezvous point at Kelso Dunes. It was another day of hell and heaven, and had it not been for a Hall-imposed hour long break to smell the dirt, we might have ended up a little cranky by nightfall. Sometimes you (see: I) forget that the maddening desert landscape you’re tromping through is as intricate and complex as any other. Just because it’s not as green or wet as the Oregon coast doesn’t mean it lacks any personality or aromatics. It’s imperative to take time each day to remind yourself of that and that’s why we love them Juniper Ridgers. After another extremely long day – even longer than the first – we turned our problem-solving brains off and made camp. The second our packs left our backs, we instantly began recounting all the wonderful parts of a long day, excited for the sun to fully set so we could watch the stars and cook the world’s tastiest dirtbag dinners. Another round of sexually-themed jokes and a few bars of hidden chocolate later, early hiker’s midnight came and we all said goodnight. We had to wake up early in the morning to hike the remaining five miles to the van that would pick us up and bring us back to our cars.
Backcountry desert backpacking isn’t for everyone. And we’d all be the first to admit it. There’s no real reason why any person should strap on a pack and walk into a landscape like that FOR FUN. And maybe it’s not fun. Maybe it’s miserable. Maybe we’re psychotic for thinking it’s a good idea. But at the end of the day, at that first sip of beer after twenty or thirty miles in the hottest place on Earth, I think we all agree that we love being stupid.